Hotel with a history

The Great Eastern Hotel in Kolkata enters another phase in its history with the Left Front government in West Bengal clearing the process of its sale to private owners.

Published : Aug 26, 2005 00:00 IST

THE Great Eastern Hotel of Kolkata, one of the oldest hotels in the country, appears all set to change hands as a result of the West Bengal Left Front government's larger effort to restructure loss-making public sector undertakings (PSUs). There is little existing record of its ups and downs through the passage of time. If the walls of this landmark site on the map of Kolkata could talk, the tale would indeed be a fascinating one. In its 165 years it has seen many changes - from a time when bullock carts and horse-drawn carriages rolled along the wide half-empty streets outside its premises, to the present-day congestion and pollution that darkens its white faade; from the days of opulence bordering on vulgar ostentation to its present condition that turns away respectable people. It has been a part of Kolkata's history for nearly half the city's life. In this period it has changed hands many a time. Now, once again, it is entering a new phase, with the State government clearing the process of its sale to private owners.

It all started when David Wilson, an Englishman who owned a confectionery shop in Cossitola, now Bentinck Street, decided to enter the hotel business. In 1840, Dainty Davie, as he was popularly known, set up the Auckland Hotel on the premises in the corner of the road running parallel to the British India Street and the Old Court House Street. According to Major Harry Hobbs, author of John Barleycorn Bahadur (1943), the hotel was set up in 1841. But an advertisement published in The Englishman and Military Chronicle in November 1840 says otherwise:

"The Auckland Hotel For Families and Single Gentlemen Opposite to Government House The above hotel is now open Pleasant, airy and well-furnished with A Table d' Hote for Gentlemen 19th November, 1840, D. Wilson & Co."

The hotel was named not after its proprietor, but the Governor General at that time, Lord Auckland (1784-1849). But locally, the hotel was known as Wilson's Hotel. Until 1850, the business was carried on in the name of D. Wilson and Co., a partnership firm with A. Clader, Gregory, C.H.B. Wilson, J.C. Mandy and G. Mandy. After 1850, a project to expand the hotel began. A report published on June 16, 1862 in the Calcutta Monthly Magazine said: "David Wilson purchased land on the Old Court House Street in 1851 with existing shops and carried on the business of a hotel keeper under the name of Auckland Hotel and Hall of All Nations."

After nearly 15 years since its inception, on September 10, 1865, the hotel was floated as a company called the Great Eastern Hotel Wine and General Purveying Co. and was registered with limited liability under Act XIX of 1857 of the Legislative Council of India. Two years later, the management of the hotel took a landmark decision and inducted Peary Chand Mitter, more popularly known by his pen name Teck Chand Thakur (1814-1883), an eminent author and member of the British India Association's board of directors. Even W.C. Bonerjee, the first Indian president of the Indian National Congress, held shares worth Rs.5,000 in the company during 1890-1896.

The hotel continued to grow in popularity and all through maintained its social exclusiveness. Its exterior style and ornamentation matched its interior elegance, and it became the favourite haunt of the city's elite. Newspapers of those days reported in detail the lavish parties inside, as Great Eastern became the nucleus of high society activities. By 1883, the entire premises of the hotel were electrified. It was probably the first hotel in the country to be illuminated by electric lights. So exalted was its reputation, that for a while, the hotel was even referred to as the `Jewel of the East'.

A glimpse of what the hotel must have been like during this period can be found in Rudyard Kipling's short story "City of Dreadful Night" from the book The City of Dreadful Night and Other Places (1891): "... The Great Eastern hums with life through all its hundred rooms. Doors slam merrily, and all the nations of the earth run up and down the staircases. This alone is refreshing, because the passers bump you and ask you to stand aside. Fancy finding any place outside the Levee-room where Englishmen are crowded together to this extent! Fancy sitting down seventy strong to table d'hote and with a deafening clatter of knives and forks! Fancy finding a real bar whence drinks may be obtained! And joy of joys, fancy stepping out of the hotel into the arms of a live, white, helmeted, buttoned, truncheoned Bobby!" It is interesting to note that while Indian policemen patrolled most of the other areas of that part of Kolkata, British policemen were stationed outside the Great Eastern - an indication of the kind of people who would frequent it. A letter to the editor published in The Statesman in January 1887 further substantiates this: "... a European policeman is paid to stand opposite the Great Eastern Hotel, to turn bullock carts into by-lanes, out of the way of the Burra Sahibs."

The name Great Eastern Hotel Wine and General Purveying Co. continued till 1915, after which it was re-christened Great Eastern Hotel Co. Ltd. By the middle of the 1930s, the management of the company was entirely controlled by directors from Bengal. The hotel continued to flourish. In fact, during the Second World War, many soldiers of the allied forces passing through Kolkata were accommodated here. Ho Chi Minh is believed to have stayed in the hotel during a short visit in 1948.

If a hotel is to be judged by the frequency of celebrity guests, then throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Great Eastern ruled the roost as far as the hotel industry was concerned. Purnendu Ghosh was publicity assistant to the Government of West Bengal and has been associated with the Great Eastern Hotel since 1953. When contacted, the 78-year-old Ghosh was only too happy to talk about the bygone days. "As liaison officer to the State government I have had the privilege of meeting so many great people and heads of state, and for nearly 50 years I had been escorting them either to Raj Bhavan or to the Great Eastern. So closely was I associated with the hotel that there was a permanent room reserved for me, where I would often stay."

In those days, the entire entourage of a visiting head of state would be put up at the Great Eastern. For instance when Russian leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin visited Kolkata in the late 1950s. Their party of nearly 70 stayed there.

Queen Elizabeth II's retinue also stayed here during her visit to the city in 1961. There is an interesting story relating to the Queen's visit. The hotel's chairman at that time, A.L. Bilimoria, owned a horse not known for its success at the races. That year, the Queen herself was to present the trophy at the Calcutta races. The chairman's horse surprisingly won the event. What remains unknown to most people of Kolkata is that a six-foot concrete replica of the cup that he received from the Queen stands hidden in a balcony in the back quarters of the hotel even today.

Purnendu Ghosh also has other interesting anecdotes to tell - ranging from the conduct of inebriated heads of states, to that of eccentric danseuses and publicity-hungry film stars. He recounted with a mischievous glint in his eyes, the occasion when a legendary Bengali film actress sent 12 bottles of champagne to cricketer M.L. Jaisimha after the latter had played an impressive innings in Eden Gardens. "It was my job to ensure the bottles were delivered to Jaisimha, and I couldn't resist the temptation, and quietly helped myself to two bottles of champagne," he said. With the Eden Gardens barely half-a-kilometre from the hotel, cricket teams, till the early 1970s would generally be accommodated in the Great Eastern.

It may seem a little unbelievable now, but that was the period when the Great Eastern was the venue for lavish New Year's parties hosted by the surviving members of the aristocracy, including the Rajas of Darbhanga and Coochbehar. Four of the largest and most exclusive suites - rooms 208, 209, 210 and 211 - were always booked for the occasions. From the massive Durbar Hall, decorated and brilliantly lit, music would drift out of the hotel until the wee hours of the morning.

Interestingly, this hotel in the 1950s was also referred to as the "Japani Hotel". According to Assistant Manager Surajit Das Gupta, "Japanese and Koreans really loved this hotel. Whether on business or on holiday, most of them preferred to be put up here. Perhaps it was the size of the rooms and the quality of the food here that attracted them. They loved our rice and naan." The cuisine in the hotel was famous all over the city. The speciality in the menu included Chinese food, roasted breast of chicken, baked boneless hilsa fish and of course, bread. "The bakery of Great Eastern was arguably the best on this side of the Suez. There was a time when people passing by the hotel could get a whiff of the smell of baking and vanilla," said Das Gupta. The Baruas from Chittagong (Bangladesh), famous in the region for their culinary prowess, were the cooks usually. Two of the most popular places in the hotel were the Sherry Bar and the restaurant Maxim's. These places were frequented by the rich and the famous in the city, and it was not surprising to spot matinee idols there occasionally.

THE decline started in the early 1970s, when bickering among the partners led to a financial crisis. As the hotel was tottering on the brink of closure, the Congress (I) government of West Bengal under Siddhartha Shankar Ray took over the management of the hotel through the Great Eastern Hotel (Taking over of Management) Act, 1975. The degeneration continued, until the Left Front government tried in vain to arrest it by nationalising it on July 17, 1980 under the Great Eastern Hotel (Acquisition of Undertaking) Act, 1980. The management was vested in the Great Eastern Hotel Authority, a statutory body comprising representatives of the Government of West Bengal.

After more than 30 years, the Great Eastern Hotel will once again fall in the hands of private owners. This is not the first time that it has been under the auctioneer's hammer; the idea of privatising it surfaced as early as 1994, but owing to union pressure and many other reasons, the sale was stalled. This time, however, it might well and truly be off the back of the State government.

All the employees of the hotel have accepted the early retirement scheme, and most of the demands of the eight shortlisted prospective buyers have been met. Great Eastern is all set to embark on yet another journey in its history.

But there is another aspect that has to be considered before the final sale. The hotel building has been marked as having heritage value. It remains to be seen if the Heritage Commission of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation will allow it to be demolished.

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