“Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.” – Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899 to 1905)
The Victoria Memorial was the last Raj edifice to be erected in the city that for more than a century was considered to be the second city of the British Empire.
The white beauty was first proposed to be built by Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, in 1901 as a memorial for Queen Victoria, who had died in the same year.In 1906, the Prince of Wales (later Kind George V), laid the foundation stone of the Memorial. It was also built to commemorate the zenith of the British Empire in India but it is interesting to note that the Victoria Memorial was built without British government funds. The money required for the construction of the stately building, surrounded by beautiful gardens over 64 acres and costing more than 10 million was contributed by British Indian states and individuals who wanted favours with the British government. The princes and people of India also responded generously to Curzon’s appeal for funds and the total cost of construction of this monument amounting to one crore, five lakhs of rupees, which was entirely derived from their voluntary subscription. The inauguration of the beautiful structure was done in 1921.Ironically, by then the capital of British India had shifted to Delhi. So the Jewel in the Crown’s ode to the Empress is to be found in a provincial town instead of the capital city of the ‘jewel’.
The Victoria Memorial was designed in the Indo- Saracenic revivalist style by William Emerson and Vincent J. Esch- a combined effort of the designer and the engineer who were influenced by a mixture of many different cultures like the British, Mughals, Venetian, Egyptian, Deccani and Islamic architectures. The memorial was carved of white “Markana” marble and houses 25 galleries among which “The Royal Gallery” has the portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert illustrating their lives; painted by Jansen and Winterhalter. It also has interesting memorabilia of the Victorian era. One of the memoriabilia that the Royal Gallery housed was the Erard piano that King William had bought for Princess Victoria. The young Victoria took music lessons on this piano from Ms. Lucie Anderson. With the Royal Gallery remaining closed, this piano was not on public display for many decades. In 2012, on World Music Day, the piano was reinstated at the central rotunda beside the Queen’s statue.
“The Calcutta Gallery” is a time line of the City of Joy; showing its history and development from the era of Job Charnock (1630-1692) of the English East India Company to 1911, as the capital of the British Raj was shifted to New Delhi. A life-size diorama of Chitpur road in the late 1800s can also be found here. In the post-independence period a new addition was made to the Victoria Memorial. It was the addition of the National leaders’ gallery with the portraits and relics of the freedom fighters.
The famous angel of Victoria can be found atop the central dome. It is a sixteen foot tall bronze statue of victory, mounted on ball bearings. It rotates with wind and is one of the most iconic symbols of the city. There are allegorical sculptures around the dome including Art, Architecture, Justice, Charity and above the North Porch are Motherhood, Prudence and Learning.
The garden, the lakes, the huge marble statuettes and most importantly, the enormous museum inside this beauty of a structure gives us knowledge and instils in us; a unified feeling of pleasance and awe at the same time. The young lovers of the city could always be seen holding hands and whispering sweet-nothings to each other on the lush green lawns while the older people sit underneath the trees and soak in the nostalgia of their youth. The rocky pathway is a place in which people love to walk barefoot and some even occasionally pick up thestones to throw them into the lakes.It binds the young and the old; the new generation and the old generation firmly together with its evergreen magnificence. People of this city have been acquainted with this beautiful structure through their lives as they have always taken time out to visit the place. With each visit, the structure appears to be more beautiful, more pleasing and more unique. It could be the walks through the gardens and the hallways inside the museum, it could be just sitting by the lakes watching the sunset and enjoying the cool breeze, or playing with the white stones or enjoying the royal carriage rides, they have never seemed to be less exciting.
At present, the Victoria Memorial has a notable collection of weapons, sculptors, paintings, maps, coins, stamps, artefacts, textiles etc. It is now a museum which also has a collection of rare and antiquarian books. It is a tourist destination under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.
It is also a place for lecture sessions, exhibitions and any event that commemorates India’s glorious past and the heritage of the city. A photography exhibition celebratingSatyajitRay’s 95th birth anniversary through the black and white frames of the veteran photographer Sunil K Duttwas showcased in “The Portrait Gallery” through the months of May and June, 2016. Other notable exhibitions that were held in the portrait gallery were exhibitions of rare Kalighat Pats from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, an exhibition of KG Subramaniam’s work and many more.
Dr.JayantaSengupta. Curator of Victoria Memorial, proudly says that with 3.5 million visitors every year, the Victoria Memorial museum is the most visited museum in India.
In five years’ time, the Victoria Memorial will be completing its centenary. It will be a grand occasion for people of Kolkata to celebrate the iconic structure that has come to represent the city in many ways. It is located in the heart of the city and is an integral part of the Kolkata’s life.
Author: Sayantan Mukherjee, iLEAD Alumni