The graceful Italian architecture of the Currency Building, on Old Courthouse Street, which was constructed in 1833 and was home to the currency department after 1868, hides a sorry tale of neglect. Built in the Italianate style with Venetian windows and ornate cast iron gates, porte-cochere and railings, this beautiful but derelict lady was originally the Agra Bank and then the Office of Issue and Exchange of Government Paper Currency. It later housed the Reserve Bank of India until 1937. Slated for demolition (and even partly destroyed), it has been saved from destruction and is now the subject of a long and very slow road to recovery under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India.
After its partial destruction by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), which wanted to put up a high-rise in the middle of Dalhousie Square, and thanks to sustained pressure from other government agencies, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and citizen bodies, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was officially put in charge of the 150-year-old building in the Italian Renaissance style in 2003. But ASI was given possession of it only in 2005.
First the mountains of debris behind the giant wrought iron gate facing Telephone Bhavan were cleared, and the façade was repaired up to the first floor. The top floors and the terrace of the massive building had become infested with a forest of weeds. These parasites, once visible from all the roads that encircle it, have been removed. Scaffolding was put up inside and outside the structure.
This year, rooms in the eastern (RN Mookerjee Road side) and western wings (facing Laldighi) have been repaired, and the transformation is remarkable. The gigantic arches, partially-demolished, are whole once again, and look even more dramatic in contrast with portions yet untouched.
Bimal Bandopadhyay, the Superintending Archaeologist of Calcutta circle, says Currency Building is top priority for ASI and there is a proposal to repair the damaged staircase this year. Over the next three years, the ground floor facing Laldighi, rooms and corridor will be repaired along with the upper storeys and the exterior. It has not yet been decided how Currency Building will be used after its restoration is complete.
Now the work on the side of Mango Lane is in progress.
To mark the remarkable facelift that was long overdue and to continue the crusade to save other neglected relics of the Raj, a seminar was organized by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in November 2010. The setting for the seminar was the grand but decaying Currency Building. Speakers and audience sat inside a large hall flanked by arched passages on either side; natural light was streaming in through a gaping hole where there was once a central dome.
Yet another spectacular event was organized in December 2011 right inside the precincts of the Currency Building to commemorate the progress of the renovation work. In cooperation with the Norwegian Embassy, the Norwegian Art Group “Verdensteatret” presented their Art installation / Performance / Concert where modern technology met Kolkata’s old heritage.
The performance, enigmatically called And the Question Marks Started to Sing, can be described as an art-machine played by musicians, performers and robots. The Norwegian Embassy and Verdensteatret were proud that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) opened the Currency Building for this art project.