Genesis Of A Marble Edifice : Victoria Memorial Kolkata

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By Pronoy RoyChowdhury*

The legendary Queen Victoria, died at the age of 94. In fact the reign of Queen Victoria symbolized permanence of British power of dominating the world. Her passing away in the year 1901 came as a shock to the ‘Englishman’ community residing at Kolkata at that time.
Kolkata being the capital city of the Indian Empire until 1911 and Lord Curzon the then Viceroy of India put before the public, the question of setting up a fitting memorial in the memory of the late queen. Lord Curzon raised the issue of erecting as befitting monument as a mark of Homage to Queen Victoria. The idea was put forward through newspaper advertisements in popular English newspapers “The Englishman” and “The Statesman”.

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He also presented the proposal of erecting a monumental structure to the elite class of the city at least at two gatherings in Kolkata city, once on 6th February 1901 at the Calcutta town Hall at a public gathering convened by the Sheriff of Calcutta and again on 26th February 1901 at the Asiatic society hall. Curzon’s proposal was to construct a solemn mausoleum at the centre of a beautiful garden.

At the condolence organized after the demise of Queen Victoria at Kolkata the issue of the monument was also put for discussion. The idea was appreciated and approved by all concerned who were present at the occasion of condolence. This also included the Indians who were present at the meeting. Curzon showing a good gesture sought advice from all corners regarding the probable site for locating the monument and also the type of construction to be adopted.

Several suggestions were put forward. Some recommended that vacant plots around Sealdah station shall be a good location. This would enable visitors to have a glimpse of the monument when they stepped on the Railway platform. Others wanted that the monument should contain documents and objects from Indian Mythology while rest wanted that it should depict the history of Indian Nationalism.

Curzon a cunning politician dodged the various suggestions showing great humility but his focus was very clear as to what he had planned for the monument. He declared the monument would be a museum forcing on Indo-British History depicting the story of the Raj. The British role was continuing so the museum would not contain any exhibit of any living individual. The monument was to be raised from the funding received from princely states, mercantile elite, Industrialists and Chamber of Commerce etc.

Lord Curzon was a high priest of pomp and splendor selected England’s renounced architect Sir William Emerson for designing the proposed memorial for Queen Victoria. He was the President of the Royal Institute of British Architect from the period 1899 to 1902. Emerson in a pursuit to absorb best of Indian Architecture toured the length and breadth of the country and his eye got fixed on the Taj Mahal at Agra built by the then Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the memory of his Late Queen Mumtaz Mahal. It was realized by Emerson that a monument worthy of the Late Queen must be built in similar fashion to the Indian Taj. In fact the proposed monument was to be “Britain’s Answer to Indian Taj Mahal”.

In fact, William Emerson modeled the monument on the traditions of Italian Renaissance Architecture, but the monument had a strong resemblance to the Taj Mahal. Emerson was appointed around 1903 and his main responsibility was to plan the building and advise the trustee’s regarding contractor selection for the project. He was around 72 years of age and it was not possible for him to look to the day to day supervision of the building works. So Mr. Vincent Esch originally an Assistant Engineer at Bengal-Nagpur Railway was selected as the Superintendent Architect to directly supervise the works. Mr. Vincent Esch is the mean time has established a good practice as an Architect himself in Calcutta. Lord Curzon after lot of enquiry and been convinced by the achievements of Mr. Esch finally decided to make him the Superintending Architect of the project. Vincent Esch was responsible for actual project execution and sending photographs of the construction work of the project month wise.

Tenders were floated and at least three companies participated in the tender. The work was however awarded to Martin and company of Calcutta under the proprietorship of Sir R. N. Mookerjee. Rai Bahadur Anukul Chandra Mitra who passed licentiate in Civil engineering in the year 1900 from the then Bengal Engineering College was the Engineer-In-Charge of the construction of Victoria Memorial on behalf of Martin and Co. The work actually consisted of construction of the edifice while the marble shall be supplied.

Lord Curzon was very impressed by the quality of Italian marble and proposed that the Victoria Memorial shall be built from such quality European white marble. It was also decided to construct the grand moment in the memory of Queen Victoria at centre of a garden in Kolkata.

It is learnt that Sir Thomas Henry Holland, the then Director of Geological Survey of India (“superiority of Makrana (Rajasthan) Marble” by R.K Dube, published in Indian Journal of History of science, Volume-43, 2008) suggested Lord Curzon that the Indian Marble from Makrana area could be as beautiful as the European one, as is evident from the Taj Mahal or other such important buildings. However, it was decided to conduct experiment at the Geological Survey of India office to ascertain the quality of Indian Marble vis-à-vis the European Marble.

The task of carrying out the experiments fell on L. L. Fermor, who was then the Assistant Director of Geological Survey of India and in-charge of the Museum and Laboratory. About thirty small pieces of different European & Indian marbles were characterized by their specific gravity and porosity. The surface structure was observed under microscope. For the purpose of determination or porosity, the test pieces of marble were suspended for twenty four hours in distilled water and the weight loss was measured. It was found that the Indian Marbles which were coarse grained, lost less weight then the European Marbles, which were generally fine grained. Thus, it was established that Indian variety of Marble had very little porosity. Hence, for using the Marble for exterior use such Indian variety of relatively non-porous marble shall yield excellent result.

As their variety of marble prevents entry of water, thus dis-colouration of the marble is prevented for long time. The marble test pieces were also placed on the flat roof of the then GSI office to weather through the almost three month period of Indian Monsoon season in cages and were protected. Mr. Fermor found that the Indian & Burmese variety of marble test pieces lost less weight than the European & Italian counterparts. This experimental study which was conducted under the guidance of Sir Thomas Holland suggested that Indian Marbles for Makrana (Rajasthan) was the best ones and was selected for the building of Victoria Memorial Kolkata. In fact, the marbles for Victoria Memorial was obtained from the same queries of Makrana from where Mughal Emperor Shah-Jahan obtained marble for construction of Taj Mahal.

Here it is pertinent to mention that Marble is a metamorphic rock, which is compact crystalline carbonate of lime. It is learnt (“Materials of construction used in India” by Nagendra Nath Mitra, Thacker Spink & Co., 1924) that an estimated 2,00,000 cubic feet of Makrana marble was brought by goods train for construction of the Victoria Memorial Hall. Due to heavy rains in 1917 there was a flood in Makrana region, so new queries in adjoining areas were opened for obtaining un-interrupted supply of marble for construction of the edifice.

The total weight of the Victoria Memorial with Marble cladding comes roughly around 80,300 tonnes. The structure was quiet a heavy one for low bearing capacity of Kolkata soil. The site for the monument was selected at Kolkata Maidan. William Emerson after carefully study of the site called tenders for the foundation work according to a difficult specification. One of the competing firm in the tender was Martin & Co. whose senior Proprietor was Sir Rajendra Nath Mookerjee. He worked out his firm’s tender in accordance with Emerson’s specification, and also offered two other alternative schemes, which were improvement on the official design (As learnt from K. C. Mahindra’s Book, “Sir Rajendra Nath Mookerjee- A personal Study”, published by Martin & Burn Co. 1933).

A prolonged discussion took place on the technical bid. The critical judgment put up by Rajendranath so impressed was Emerson that it was recommended to Lord Curzon that Martin & Co. should be entrusted with the work, even though the tender was higher than other firms. Thus Rajendranath’s firm was entrusted with carrying out the foundation work. The next contract was secured by the same firm for building up to the plinth level which was also successfully done.

Then there was along interim period during which architects-in-charge of the building could not make up their minds as to the best method which should be followed for further construction of the very heavy superstructure on Calcutta’s soil. The foundation stone was laid in 1906 by king George-V in a grand ceremony.

A few months after the ceremony the foundation of various walls of the building started showing signs of differential settlement of foundation and cracks started developing at many locations. This presented an awkward situation to the Architects, and immediately an expert committee of Engineers, was constituted to go into the problem exhaustively. They were asked to submit recommendations regarding the eventualities that led to the situation, that even before the building superstructure was constructed cracks developed in the plinth level.

All work was naturally suspended until the committee submitted the report. Although the committee sat on the issue for long time however the matter was not resolved unanimously. In the mean time Sir Rajendranath happened to go to London and he had an opportunity to meet Sir William Emerson and his associate architects. Sir Rajendra made a novel solution for strengthening the foundation by inserting steel joists in the building walls for uniform load distribution on the foundation to assure uniform settlement. The Joint shall perform as a tie beam at the plinth level. He also submitted a full sketch of how the work should be executed.

Sir Emerson discussed the issue with other renowned Engineers & Architects including the famous Sir Bradford Leslie, who was the Chief Engineer of ‘Jubilee Bridge’ between Bandel and Naihati and also constructed the famous ‘Pontoon Bridge’ over Hooghly and Sir Rajendranath’s suggestion was found suitable. The design of foundation submitted by Sir Rajendra was accepted with few modifications by Sir Emerson and he now recommended the Government that Martin & Co. of Sir Rajendra may be granted the tender for constructing the entire building.

The Victoria Memorial belongs to the Indo-Saracenic or Hindu-Saracenic revivalist style of architecture. This architectural style was promoted first in India but two Architects Mr. R. F. Chisholm and Mr. H. Irwin in building structures constructed in Madras presidency. Emerson also adopted the style in execution of Victoria Memorial Hall at Calcutta. Percy Brown in his book “Indian Architecture” by D. B. Taraporvala Sons & Co., 1942, Bombay, gives an elegant description of evolution of Indo-Saracenic School of Architecture.

The Indo-Saracenic Revivalist style is an Architectural style movement started by British Architects in Late 19th Century British India. The style incorporates the aesthetic sensibilities of gothic revival of continental Europe with Indian and Indo-Islamic architectural elements infused in an astute style, while incorporating elaborate construction and innovative Engineering techniques. In the colonial days generally the Public and Government buildings were often rendered on a grand scale reflecting and promoting a notion of unassailable and invincible British Empire.

The buildings were constructed in conformance to advanced British Structural Engineering Standards of 1800s. This included infrastructure of iron, steel and poured concrete. Chief proponents of this style of architecture were European Master Architects such as R.F. Chisholm, Henry Irwin, William Emerson, George Wittet and Fredrick Stevens. Structures built in the Indo-Saracenic style in India were predominantly grand public edifices. The cost involved for construction of such buildings was high. It included costly raw material, minute decoration, ornamentation, ingenious skill of artisan’s etc.

Today the Victoria Memorial stands a grandiloquent, anachronistic, white marble edifice fashioned in the ‘Italian Renaissance’ style with the essence of Mughal touch in ethereal splendor over the vast expanse of Calcutta’s maidan, surrounded by an elegant Garden, with a black bronze angle holding a bugle in her hand placed at the apex of the dome of the Memorial.

*Pronoy RoyChowdhury is a Civil Engineer, interested in Historical Buildings and heritage structures.

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