The two-kilometer-long Red Road that slices the large expanse of the Maidan in Kolkata and one part of the heart of the city, is not really red. In fact, it is more asphalt black than grey. The only patches of the colour one would find along that stretch of the city are the flaming blooms of gulmohar and palash when both start flowering within days of each other, in late spring.
Yet, the road is one of Kolkata’s more iconic thoroughfares, very much like Park Street, immediately associated with the city’s history. Like many other Kolkata roads and neighbourhoods, there are varying stories about how the road really got its name. Nearly four decades ago, the stretch was renamed Indira Gandhi Sarani, after the country’s former prime minister, but this nomenclature is rarely used, in official communication or when instructing taxi drivers in the city.
Built in 1820, the wide expanse of the road starts south of Fort William’s west gate and runs all the way up to Eden Gardens. Remnants of the forest land that existed is visible in the clusters of trees that have survived storms that threatened to uproot them, both natural and manmade, but that number too has been diminishing over the past few decades.
According to Tathagatha Neogi, historian and co-founder of Immersive Trails, Red Road was originally built to serve as a riding course and a driving course for horse-driven carriages in the Maidan and Fort William neighbourhood. In colonial India, historical documents indicate that the thoroughfare’s name was “The Course” as well as “Secretary’s Walk”, says Neogi. But the use of red gravel for surfacing when the road was first built possibly resulted in an oversimplification of its nomenclature, one that has stuck till date.
But in 1914, says Neogi, the Englishman’s Overland Mail, a newspaper published in Calcutta, carried a letter from an anonymous reader asking the British government to change the name of the Red Road since by that year, the red gravel had been replaced by tar. But the petition did not bear fruit, and the name remained. “The tarring probably happened in 1910 prior to the visit of King George V in 1911-12,” Neogi says.
Sometime post 1717, the dense forest land that existed in this neighbourhood was slowly cleared away by the British government who converted Fort William into an official base for their use of the structure as a customs house and a military station. In the process of the conversion of Fort William, several architectural elements were incorporated into the large complex of the fort, requiring more trees to be cut down for the expanding ground area. The clearing of the forest land served another purpose: it provided an unobstructed view of the surrounding environs, necessary for a 360 degree line of firing ammunition.
According to Neogi, the cutting down of trees was met with criticism from the English gentry who found themselves unable to go for open-top carriage-rides under the blistering sun in Calcutta on Red Road, compelling the government to consider replanting trees. “So attempts were made to make the municipality to plant trees along it, which were not successful,” he explains.
The length and width of Red Road made it ideal for hosting parades. Even now it is used for parades, especially on January 26. Neogi says one of the grandest parades this road witnessed was in 1911-12, when King George V and his wife Queen Mary of Teck arrived in Calcutta on their tour of India.
“Two triumphal arches were made on two ends of the road to welcome the king and his guards. The roadside was blocked with bamboo barriers so that no one can come on the road during the parade, much like today.Also, temporary pavilions were set up on both sides of the road complete with neoclassical columns made of wood. A flag mast was raised where a specially designed welcome flag was flown for the event,” says Neogi.
As is seen in Kolkata even today during public events at Red Road, for King George V’s arrival too spectator galleries were built on either side of the road. This arrangement was repeated during the visit by the Prince of Wales in 1921.
There were celebrations here following the end of the Second Boer War in May 1900, where the British army had fought against the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, securing a victory, in what came to be known as the Relief of Mafeking. Then British cyclists organised the city’s first bicycle rally, racing down the length of Red Road.
“The Red Road was also the start and ending points of paperchase races in Calcutta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Neogi.
In January 1910, the first successful flight in British India took off from Red Road, marking its use also as an effective runway for small planes. This first plane was a design of Calcutta-based electric and automobile engineer W. E. Debrunner, the owner of Continental Electric and Motor Car Company. “The biplane was 20 feet long and had a wooden body, wooden propellers and cloth covering. A motorcycle engine was repurposed to give it driving power. This was meant for a trial flight so no passengers or aviators were present in the plane,” explains Neogi.
Debrunner first attempted to fly the plane with the help of his two Sikh engineers that morning, but failed due to technical glitches. Debrunner was successful hours later, where the plane achieved considerably good height and landed safely on Casuarina Avenue nearby, he adds.
During the Second World War, it became a landing strip for Spitfires and Mohawks of the 17 and 155 Squadrons, where aircrafts were dispersed along Ochterlony Road, a smaller road that connects Red Road to Chowringhee, writes Robert H. Farquharson, in his book ‘For Your Tomorrow: Canadians and the Burma Campaign, 1941-1945’.
But the road had its drawbacks as an airstrip, Farquharson adds, largely due to the ever-present haze that hung over the metropolis of Calcutta, making it harder for pilots to locate the strip. In addition, not only was it narrower than a conventional airstrip, but it also had balustrades on either side of the road, and was like “any well-engineered road”, crowned in the middle.
“There was a high building at the north end of the strip and pilots taking off toward it could wave to the office girls as they flew past,” Farquharson writes. “Under normal circumstances Red Road was just long enough, but circumstances were not always normal.”
In the last 15 years, the balustrades running on both sides of Red Road have undergone renovation that did not appear necessary, where the older bricks were replaced with newer ones and the height of the balustrades increased by several inches. The red and cream colour combination of these structures were permanently changed to white.
On either side of Red Road, the Maidan grounds have been sectioned into smaller public parks and various sports clubs, many of which were established over the past century, and remain in operation today.
One of the most iconic sports facilities is the Mohammedan Sporting Ground, a multi-use stadium with a natural grass turf, that is mostly used for football matches and is the home stadium of Mohammedan S.C., one of Kolkata’s most popular football clubs.
When driving down Red Road, the swatches of stamp-size public parks are dotted with statues of individuals associated with India’s freedom struggle. Between 1947 and 1983, the West Bengal government replaced statues of British officials and East India Company employees with those of revolutionaries, men and women who had devoted their lives to the freedom of the nation, like Pritilata Waddedar and Matangini Hazra.
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