[This is a guest post by Commodore Bibhu Mohanti (retd.) of Cuttack, Odisha. Commodore Mohanti also provided the collage below.]
The Lascar War Memorial is located in the Indian Naval premises of Hastings, Kolkata. In 1920, William Ingram Keir, an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, started the construction of this historical monument. He had also designed Kidderpore Bridge, the buildings of the Bengal Engineering and Science University (erstwhile Bengal Engineering College) in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Islamia College. He’d also replaced the spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral (damaged in an earthquake in 1934), and designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras in the city. He would never talk much about his life but would always say, “I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else”. He died three months after he left India in 1967. The Lascar War Memorial earned William Ingram Keir an award of Rs.500/- for its design in an international contest in 1929 and it “remained of special value to him”.
Apart from this memorial, Kolkata has two others: the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial, erected in the memory of Bengali martyrs of the World War in 1914-1918. The Lascar memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within few yards of Prinsep Ghat, in the memory of the 896 Lascars of undivided Bengal and Assam who lost their lives at sea during World War I. It was unveiled on 6th February 1924 by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal. The memorial, a four-sided ‘oriental’ column, with the prow of an ancient galley projecting from each of its sides, is capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. The undulating lines beneath symbolize waves, with chhajjas and trellises to give it a distinctly Indian look.
On his regular visits to the city of Kolkata, James Keir, son of William Keir, living in Hongkong since 1962, was struck by the neglect of Lascar monument. In 1998 he noticed a change – the memorial was restored in 1994 under the care of Commodore Bibhu Mohanti, who was then the Naval Officer-In-Charge Kolkata.
On a winter morning in January 1994 Commodore Mohanti, on his usual morning walk from Navy House, noticed smoke billowing out of the surroundings of the memorial - someone had lit the grass around it, for warmth. The monument was in ruins and shrubs and wild plants had grown around it due to neglect. The surface was cracked and the dome was damaged due to the vagaries of the weather, over six decades. He had a closer look at the memorial and was really struck by its historical relevance. He took it as a challenge to renovate the memorial and it was adopted by the Indian Navy in February 1994.
It look almost one year to get the memorial to its present pristine state. The gardens around the memorial were aptly laid out. He approached Philips (India) to help in illuminating the memorial. Trials were conducted for a week with different combinations of lighting. The lights are visible from the Vidya Sagar Setu (second Hooghly Bridge).
The Cenotaph, at the northern end of the Maidan to the west of Ochterlony Monument, was erected by public subscription, and its inscription reads, “The Glorious Dead”. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, and it was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII. Two bronze soldiers stand guard at its approach. On Armistice Day each year, its base is covered with flowers and the Governor and his entourage, representatives of the Army the Navy, and a large gathering of people of all communities stand in reverential silence for two minutes. On 3rd September (Merchant Navy Day) in 1995 for the first time wreaths were laid at the Lascar War Memorial by personnel of the Merchant Navy and Indian Navy which is now an annual feature. The illumination was switched on by the Governor of West Bengal on Navy day in December 1994.
James Keir had not met Commodore Mohanti as he had retired from the Indian Navy in May 1997 and moved out of Kolkata to lead a retired life at Cuttack (Odisha). On 3rd November 2012, James Keir and Bibhu Mohanti met under the portals of the memorial. It was a special meeting for them. Now they are in constant touch and exchange emails regularly.
Kolkata has a lot to offer in terms of heritage. It is for the people to connect with these monuments that make the City of Joy unique says Commodore Bibhu Mohanti.