Slice of Calcutta with Coffee
By Riaan Jacob George | Published: 03rd October 2015 10:00 PM |
Dichotomous is perhaps the best epithet to describe the city of Kolkata, especially for an outsider. A city that abounds with colonial heritage, offering some of the best architectural and design marvels in the country and, of course, is a fount of culture, is also known for its chaos, commotion and squalor. As I sit here, ensconced in the serene silence of The Corner Courtyard’s ground floor restaurant-cafe, I sip on an espresso—Illy, in case you are wondering—and admire the contemporary decor of this space. Whitewashed brick walls, baroque wall motifs, black-and-white chequered tiles, brightly coloured furniture and lots of literary and cultural bric-a-brac generously dot the space. A central atrium with a glass pyramid at the top of the structure floods the cafe with sunlight. Outside, I see crowded streets, dusty Ambassador taxis, and people furiously flitting about with their daily routine. This oasis of peace and tranquility is afforded to me at The Corner Courtyard, a seven-room boutique hotel in the Bhowanipore locality of Kolkata.
Housed inside a 108-year-old building on Sarat Bose Road, formerly known as Lansdowne Road, The Corner Courtyard is the brainchild of Kolkata resident Megha Agarwal. The story behind this heritage bungalow’s renaissance is as fascinating as its proprietor, whose dream it has always been to own a hotel and a restaurant. After working in different cities, Agarwal came back to the city, and while scouting around for properties chanced upon this zamindar’s bungalow dating back to 1904. She explains, “The space just felt right and I know that this was where I’d make my hotel. I ran this idea past some of the city’s top architects who instantly shot it down, suggesting that I opt for something more financially viable, for instance, having a brand new hotel constructed in its place. But that’s not what I wanted. My objective was to build on the character of the building, enhance it with modern comforts and even open up a restaurant with a trendy menu.”
As it turns out, the zamindar’s house was abandoned for over a century and was in ruins. It was brimming with history. That’s when the restoration started. She says, “I didn’t want an overdone portrayal of Kolkata. I wanted to build something that was forward-looking, not a contrived recreation of the past. I was very clear that I wanted Kolkata to be remembered, not recreated. For this, I took certain elements and colours, which are endemic to the city and reinterpreted them. One of the seven rooms is called ‘Vermilion’—there’s no points for guessing that this represents Durga Puja, one of the biggest street parties in the world, and the most famous festival in Kolkata’s calendar.” Rotting beams were replaced by new ones, new plumbing lines were installed for each of the seven bedrooms, and ducts were incorporated for the large kitchen. The bungalow in its new avatar is a veritable architectural marvel, and Agarwal has retailed as much of it as possible. The exterior facade, louvered windows, double-panelled doors, interior courtyard, arched doorways, have been retained.
Today, The Corner Courtyard is easily one of Kolkata’s best-kept secrets. As you enter, the intimate lobby leads you to the 50-cover restaurant, which is resolutely more modern than the rest of the space. Chef Rohan D’Souza from Mumbai serves up a variety of modern European dishes, with a strong focus on quality ingredients and impeccable presentation. A staircase leads to the first floor that has four rooms, and then to the second floor where there are three rooms around a landscaped terrace. Agarwal says, “The interiors of the rooms represent local heritage and culture, and feature lots of restored antique furniture. There are antique desks, four-poster beds, which date back to 80 or 90 years. We sourced them from random warehouses and some really nice antique dealers. And we also had people who told us about pieces that we might want to source. The shopping took almost eight months, including the restoration of each piece. We kept shopping for antiques throughout the construction and after the space was ready, we started putting in everything that we had sourced.”
Interestingly, the seven rooms have been given a theme, each representing one important aspect of the city. “Just like the Vermilion room, there is an Ivory room, which symbolises the marble facades of the Victoria Memorial and other British colonial buildings, the Cadmium room, which represents the iconic yellow Ambassador taxis, found only here, the Crimson room, which highlights the red-brick architecture of old Calcutta, and the Indigo room which is an explicit reference to the flourishing indigo trade of the East India Company.” The Charcoal room, inspired by Satyajit Ray, is bathed in a monochromatic story, with black-and-white pictures of the filmmaker and movie posters.
“The painstaking rehabilitation of this 110-year-old bungalow,” she concludes, “came with its share of challenges, such as the replacement of 52 steel beams weighing almost two tonnes each, restructuring the ground floor for stability, and the construction of a 40-foot high pyramid to allow sunlight into the central courtyard for the feel of an atrium.”
Soaking in Agarwal’s creative vision, I settle into my four-poster bed to watch some evening TV. This brings me back to the notion of Kolkata’s dichotomy, so beautifully portrayed at The Corner Courtyard. I am reminded of the photographs on the walls, vintage cameras and record players in the decor and, just like that, find myself wrapped up in a perfectly modern version of old Calcutta.