Set amidst the lush mahogany trees, Durand Institute, with its majestic tower kissing the azure skyline, was the landmark of Asansol, an important city and Divisional Headquarters of East Indian Railways (EIR) in Howrah-Delhi route.
It was a social and cultural hub, a place to unwind, a place to relax after day’s hard work, a country club away from home for Europeans. Its tower was the tallest structure in the town, taller even than the spires of the Sacred Heart Church located at the town square and would be seen even from the railway station.
The institute, one of the oldest in India, was set up in 1878 and was named as European Institute in 1915 and rechristened as “Durand Institute” in 1925 in the honour of Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of India during 1884 to 1894 an architect of Durand line – the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This institute was very popular among the high officials of EIR, right from Calcutta to Saharanpur, who would make a beeline to get an opportunity to dance in the elegant ballroom during the fortnight of the long Christmas festival, along with friends and family members of East Indian Railways’ agent.
With large teak-paneled dancing hall, swimming pool, billiards and card rooms, library, tennis and badminton courts, bar room, it was abuzz with social, cultural and sporting activities. Evenings were full of fun, kids swarming all over the place, youngsters running and skidding along the dance floor sprinkled with talcum powder, cacophony of housie (bingo) and gramophone blaring lively tunes and catchy numbers. Animated discussion amongst members quenching their thirst in bar would suddenly come to an end and people would hit the dance floor for waltz, foxtrot and other dances.
Even after 1947, for almost a decade, the Durand Institute was open for natives only on the country’s Independence Day and Republic Day for watching a free movie.
Old timers recall the commotion, the uncontrolled rush to get into the hall to grab a seat and the red stains of pan which would take a week for cleaning.
Till the 60s, when the Anglo-Indian diaspora had not migrated, the Durand Institute was the absolute centre of social and cultural life in Asansol.
It had a huge central dance hall, with a wide nave on one side for tables and seating. The dance floor was normally used for seating people during cinema being played on a cinemascope screen installed in the mid-fifties.
A different movie was shown every week. It had a lounge area, a bar, cloak rooms, a library, spacious toilets, a cycle room, tennis and badminton courts outside, and a separate two-table billiards/snooker hall.
The famous tower with the war memorial copper plate, commemorating the sacrifice of railway men in the First World War, is of 22 meters high, measured from the ground level to its zenith. Four 18.5 long spires adorn the top of the tower.
The mini hall: The beautiful oval-shaped hall is 31.33 meters long and 13.72 meters wide, inter-woven with 16 square pillars, 6.75 meter high gothic arches, 14 large windows and a small stage of 5.95m X 4.5m area. Small openings in dome allow enough sunlight to illuminate the hall.
The main hall, constructed on the site of a swimming pool adjacent to the mini hall, is of 31.5 meters in length and 20.475 meters in width. The ceiling of the dome is 11.7 meters high from the floor.
The natives of Asansol had nothing at that time which could rival with the grandeur of the Durand Institute. Even today, the building reminds of its past glory. From the large staircases to the arched and pillared interiors of the halls, from the big windows and doors to the Burma-teak flooring on the stage, from the tennis court to the billiards rooms, from the sprawling lawns to the shady trees – everywhere there is evidence of historic beauty and splendour.
The famous magician, PC Sircar (Senior), great singers like Suchitra Mitra, Hemanta Mukherjee, Ram Kumar Chattopadhyay, Arundhati Hom Chowdhury, Manjulika Bhaduri (W/O Railway Ex-DS), Mandira Dasgupta (W/O Railway Ex-Sr.DAO) and many other great luminaries in the musical world had performed in Durand Institute after Independence.
The Institute suffered a benign neglect and decline after large scale migration of Anglo-Indians post Independence and slowly it degenerated into a marriage hall or a venue for occasional official functions.
We wanted to revive its old glory, restitute its grandeur and restore it as a centre of social and cultural activities of Asansol. A comprehensive renovation plan was finalised after detailed discussion with all stakeholders and restoration work was kick-started in June’18. It is said that a concerted effort to preserve our heritage is of vital importance to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational and economic legacies – all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.
Work involved repairing extensively, treating the roof, weather coating all around the place, painting the walls with aesthetic colours, constructing sprawling garden and green lawns, air-conditioning of mini hall, refurbishing interiors, restoring the teak panelled floor, fitting modern lighting, constructing an art and heritage gallery showcasing all the heritage photographs, restoring furniture, trophies, memorabilia and rare documents of the era for a walk down the memory lane.
Garden with hedges and ornamental trees, joggers’ track and lush lawns were constructed in the open space of the campus. It created a verdant green scenic oasis in the area heavily polluted due to large-scale mining and other industrial activities.
Special diffused warm lightings were provided all over the building to bring out its alluring grandeur. During nights, the mini hall brilliantly creates the ambience of Vienna opera; domes and towers, lit in the night, appear like a painting on the canvas of blue sky.
It was heartening to see and monitor the progress almost on daily basis and finally mighty edifice could be restored back to its old grandeur on 15 August.
We were fortunate to get support from the passionate team of researchers of Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol led by Professor (Dr.) Sajal Bhattacharya, Dr. Santanu Banerjee and Sri Suvojit Chatterjee.
I am also indebted to the team of railway officials and staff, without whose tireless work, the project would not have seen the light of the day.
As a part of Institute Revival Scheme launched last year, our institutes are coming alive with cultural activities and are providing platform to railway family members and local artists to display their talent. History of Asansol is entwined with history of railways in Asansol, as the town itself was formed and developed after EIR bought large tract of forest land to construct a railway township.
(PK Mishra, the writer is a Divisional Railway Manager Eastern Railway, Asansol)