An Architect's Dhaka
Dr. Mahbubur Rahman
Dhaka shortly basked in the regained glory of a capital during 1905-11. As the British set up the administrative center of a newly created province in Dhaka in June that year, they required more land for buildings to accommodate various functions, such as administrative, civic and housing. And they took up Ramna beyond the Bagicha and the race course (started by the British, but flourished mostly through the patronization of the Nawabs); they had started gradually cleaning that part of the forest and filling the marshy land long ago in the 1820s to expand the city. However, in doing so, both the British and the Nawabs had either destroyed or modified some mansions, dargahs, temples, etc. that existed in what were two Mughal mahallas- Chistia (around the High Court Premise) and Sujatpur (around Bangla Academy premise).
Thus in the tradition of typical colonial cities that segregated the European and indigenous settlements all over the world, the so called new Dhaka had its birth at the beginning of the twentieth century on behest of the British, and a great building spree started. Some of the most magnificent buildings and large mansions in mixed Indo-Saracen style can be found in and around these areas, basically built as required by the capital city, but used for various public activities as partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911.
The incidents of 1905 served as an impetus to the development of modern Dhaka, the capital of East Bengal and Assam, carved out of the greater Bengal, which was a ground for anxiety to the rulers. However, this could not stand long despite every effort by Lord Curzon and huge local support amassed by Nawab Salimullah that eventually saw the formation of the Muslim League. The partition was short-lived as the decision to split Bengal was reversed in face of resistance by mainly Kolkata based Hindu intelligentsia, and leaders who had their economic base in East Bengal, resulting into dissatisfaction among particularly the Bengali Muslims. Nevertheless, many construction activities followed for housing both government offices and the officers of the new administration, which were in the colonial enclaves of either Ramna or Tejgaon. These instigated the urban planning aspirations, including the first modern planning exercise.
Several steps were taken to appease the heart-broken and disillusioned East Bengalis, including the setting up of the first university in the region. Nawab Salimullah, a proponent of East Bengal for the Muslims, and later for their self-realization, played an important role in establishing the Dhaka University often dubbed as the 'Oxford of the East'. I used to think that it was compared with Oxford because of excellence in knowledge persuasion. But while participating in an urban design competition in Seville in 1987 when I was to design a campus, I found that it was the residential collegiate system that prompted the comparison. Like now, there were great professors then who were brought in from various parts of India and Commonwealth. However, the large bungalows in huge compounds on Mintoo Road and Bailey Road given to them were taken away for to be used by the ministers and secretaries of the new province of East Bengal in 1947.
Bradely-Birt wrote about Ramna, "A modern city was emerging with the newness of excellent red bricks among the dilapidated age-old dusty buildings. A temporary Governors house could also be seen; the permanent one would be built later. This will be a dazzling mansion befitting the new capital city, overlooking the race course and close to the old mosque and mausoleum of Khwaja Shahbaz…" Another of his contemporary, Harold Bridges wrote, "There is a new and beautiful suburb gradually coming up in Ramna area of Dhaka.
It is growing as an important garden city accommodating government offices and residences". These 'bungalows' for high class government officials was quite big and lofty compared to those built elsewhere. Prof. R.C. Majumder of History, later to become the Dhaka University VC, wrote, "A new town was being established. Big government offices and beautiful houses for their employees were built on the fields of Ramna. Every house was on a big compound, spacious planned avenues…"
I first had a chance to visit few of these in the late-1970s as I came to befriend in my university days children of people who were residing there. I also had a school friend who was posted in the IG's Office in early-1990s; he is now one of the top police officers. Existence of that building is now threatened by another highrise building erected close by. And then the last one recently to meet a very powerful minister of the fallen government, leading a small delegate of architects seeking to convince those who mattered about the need of a proper 'Architects Act'. The compounds are unnecessarily huge, and I wonder why ministers and secretaries should be entitled to such bungalows in a land hungry metropolis!
The colonizers built these houses according to their need and taste, without any regard for the regional architecture. "The British consolidated their empire in India in an age when speed of communication and transport allowed the administrative and commercial power houses to operate with a minimum of cultural and social intercourse. England remained a remote authority in politics, trade and in the imperial culture that colonial architecture helped to promote." These bungalows with spacious porticos and colonnaded veranda often completely encircled the building; the Venetian blinds or the traditional patties usually occupied the inter-columnar spaces. The desire for owning a piece of land in Dhaka emerged during then. "The rich are buying as much land as they can and constructing houses at the jungles of Ramna. However, the trend retarded slightly after the annulment of partition of Bengal", Muntasir Mamoon wrote.
Among the mention-worthy buildings of this period are the Curzon Hall (Library and Civic Hall, Intermediate College, Dhaka University Science Faculty, etc.), Engineering School (now accommodating some departments of Dhaka University), Engineering Hostel and Dhaka Hall (the present Fazlul Haq Hall), Governor's House (Old High Court, currently the Law Ministry office), the Secretariat Building (part of the present Dhaka Medical College), Press Building (old Academic Building of the Engineering University). Slightly later were built the DU VC's House, Salimullah Hall (Muslim Hall), Jagannath Hall, Chummeri House, Foreign Ministry Office, Chief Justice's House, Ganabhaban and other bungalows in Ramna, and later in Segunbagicha area. I have qualified to become a Dhaka citizen by living amidst all these beautiful buildings and thinking about their worth!
However, as Dhaka again was reduced to a divisional town status before many of these buildings could be completed, these lost the need to house their original functions. Since the demolition of monuments, temples and mazaars of saints to give way to the Ramna Green and the government buildings drew wrath of many Dhakaites, they ascribed the downgrading as a curse of those hollies. After the annulment, Kolkata again became the capital of whole Bengal, though that of the British India was shifted to New Delhi.
This is the time when the famous Scottish zoologist, town planner and social reform advocate Sir Patrick Geddes visited Dhaka and prepared a report on its planning. First invited to Madras by its DC in a similar mission, he was teaching sociology and civics at the Mumbai University and lecturing all over India. The 1915-17 report contained several well-studied socio-economically viable suggestions to revive Dhaka's lost glory and make it livable; many of these are still relevant to the current city bustling with above 12 million people as estimated and hundreds of things that are wrong.
During the Second World War, when the Japanese Army and Azad Hind Fouj were advancing towards the eastern border of Bengal, and had made several air raids near Comilla and Chittagong, the British Military started to build or strengthen several defense structures in Dhaka, the next big town in line. Among these were the barracks at Palashi and aerodromes at Tejgaon and Kurmitola, later to become regular airport. A military hospital was opened for the war casualties first at the Fazlul Haq Hall building which was later shifted to the present Medical College Hospital premise (eventually giving birth to the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital; the building also housed the museum in its infant stage).
But Ramna imprinted the straight wide boulevard morphology in Dhaka that later became the aspiration for generations of planners (and architects and administrators), which lacks a respect for traditional morphology of narrow winding streets through shop house served by small canals from the back, compact mahalla houses around courts, which is at the bottom tier of hierarchical spaces of private to public, served by footways as all amenities were within walking distances. The streets were named after various Governors, Lieutenant Governors, Commissioners like Hare, Mintoo, Lyal, Bailey, Fuller, Lancelot, Johnson, etc. However, the new morphology generated such terms like hill station, civil line, and bungalow that was in fact a form borrowed from Bengal universally recognized and suitable for tropical climate. Meanwhile the mahalla morphology remained as an exotic subject, a topic for research, to many architects seeking higher studies.
Two of the Colonial Period Heritage Buildings conserved by the Department of Architecture, Government of Bangladesh, situated in Ramna area (old Bag e Badshahi). (left) 1920 Chummery House for Bachelor English Officers, then used as a ladies Hall, currently used by CIRDAP. (right) Old High Court, originally the discarded Governor's Palace, also used by the Defense Ministry, currently housing Law Ministry Offices.
(Professor of Architecture, North South University)