Saturday, January 16, 2016

BIDHAN SABHA BHAWAN - W.B. LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY HOUSE ... Witness to the Debates & Power Shifts !!

Which iconic structure is situated to the east of Calcutta High Court, west of Raj Bhawan, south of Town Hall and north of Eden Gardens? ... The question would surely baffle any Calcuttan for a moment. I am not generalising but here are some replies from the people I know -
  • 'আরে, আমি বুঝেছি ... ওই সাদা বাড়িটা ... নামটা মাথায় আসছে না ...' ('I got it ... that white building ... I just can't remember the name ...')
  • 'ওই যেখানে সব নেতারা বসে ... পার্লামেন্ট এর মতই ... কি বলে মনে পড়ছেনা ...' ('The seat of the ministers ... like Parliament ... can't get the name ...')

Now, why this unexpected ignorance? Multiple reasons could be there but the most prominent one is certainly its location. Isolated by high railings and mature trees, it stands well away from public scrutiny, unlike Raj Bhawan. Among the three most important government buildings of the City, Assembly House comes third when public awareness is concerned (other two are Writers' Building & Raj Bhawan). It is actually this unawareness that has prompted me to write an article on the edifice.


While expanding its commercial trading operations in Indian Subcontinent, the British East India Company had a strong presence in India with the three main stations of Fort St. George in Madras (now Chennai), Bombay Castle in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Fort William in Calcutta (now Kolkata). These stations were independent presidencies governed by a president and a council, appointed by the Court of Directors of England. Post Battle of Plassey in 1757, British East India Company became the paramount power in India, instating different puppet governments in various states of the country. But the journey was not smooth. It seemed that the Company was incapable of governing the vast expanse of the captured territories. Bengal Famine of 1770 resulted a drop in labour productivity which in turn pushed up the administrative costs. At the same time, commercial stagnation and trade depression hit the entire Europe. Primarily due to these reasons, East India Company was in dire financial crisis and British Parliament decided to intervene. Regulating Act, 1773 passed, making Warren Hastings the Governor General of Bengal and establishing five member Supreme Council of Bengal, subsuming the presidencies of Madras and Bombay under Bengal's control.

The second round of modification to Company's power and management was made in 1833. Government of India Act, 1833 (also referred as Saint Helena Act, 1833) re-designated the Gov. General of Bengal as Governor General of India, appointing Lord William Bentinck as the first in the office. It deprived the Governors of Bombay and Madras of their legislative powers and India Council was given the exclusive power to pronounce legislation in India.

The next development was made through Indian Councils Act, 1861. The Governor General of India's 'India Council' was transformed into Imperial Legislative Council, a cabinet run on the portfolio system (i.e. area of individual responsibility namely Home, Revenue, Military, Law, Finance and later Public Works). Under this very act, the first Legislative Council for Bengal was established on 18th January, 1862 with the Lt. Governor of Bengal and some nominated members, maximum of which was only 12. The first meeting of the Council was held on 1st February, 1862 under the presidency of Sir John Peter Grant, the Lt. Governor of Bengal. By passing the subsequent versions of Indian Councils Act in 1892 and 1909, the member strengths were increased and power and functions of the council were gradually enlarged.

Government of India Act was passed in 1919, giving the provincial legislature the greater constitutional power and it became effective from 1st February, 1921. Later under the Government of India Act, 1935, the legislative council was divided to form a separate Legislative Assembly. Soon after, India was partitioned in 1947. As per the decision of the assembly, made on 20th June, 1947, the province was divided into West Bengal and East Pakistan.

After the General Elections in 1952, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly was constituted on 5th June, 1952. The first meeting held on 18th June, 1952.  

From then on, with each assembly election different political parties/allies came to the power. The state of West Bengal, in its current form, was formed on 1st May, 1960 and with effect from 1st March, 1969, the erstwhile West Bengal Legislative Council stood abolished.

As on the date of this article, the 15th Legislative Assembly is in force and another Assembly Election is awaited in less than 6 months time.


"It is a decent piece of architecture in which considerable taste has been exhibited ... there is virtually nothing which could be called 'Calcuttan' or 'Bengali' in its makeup, but it is undoubtedly an impressive pile." - Brian Paul Bach states in his Calcutta's Edifice.

The Bengali word 'Bidhan' corresponds to the English word 'Legislation'. So 'Bidhan Sabha Bhawan' literally means the house in which the legislation are pronounced, contrary to the wrong notion of some people that the building is named after the famous CM of West Bengal, Shri Bidhan Chandra Roy. 

From the inception of Legislative Council for Bengal in 1862, the sittings were used to be held at Belvedere, Calcutta, the palace of Lt. Governor of Bengal. The practice was so till 1920. But with the enactment of Government of India Act, 1919, the venue was shifted to Town Hall from 1st February, 1921 and the meetings were continued to be held there till 8th February, 1931, the completion of construction of Legislative Assembly building. The foundation stone of the structure was laid on 9th July, 1928 by Sir Francis Stanley Jackson, the then Governor of Bengal. The construction was started on a plot of land measuring approximately 33 bighas. The chief architect was J Greaves and the construction work was entrusted on Martin & Co. The construction completed in a rather short period of two years and seven months at a cost of Rs.21,34,000 which is a hefty price compared to some of the other larger building of the City from same era. The building was inaugurated on 9th February, 1931 by Sir Francis Stanley Jackson, the Governor of Bengal.

The architectural style is a mixture of oriental and occidental influence while an aerial view of the building resembles the English letter 'H'. Decorated with 18 Gothic columns on each of its East and West face, the structure is massive in size and takes a long time to circumnavigate on foot. According to Brian Paul Bach, the copper-plated dome at the center is more like the Shah Najaf Imambara in Lucknow. In his words, "...the building is closest in spirit to the Maharaja of Jaipur's town house in New Delhi, now the National Gallery of Modern Art."

The grand portico on the south is currently used as the entrance to the building, by the legislative members, when the legislature is in session.

The main chamber where the actual sitting of the house takes place, is a 19 m. high, 91 m. wide, 4300 sq.ft. round shaped hall with an accommodation of 300 members. 8 marble pillars support the roof of the vestibule and from the dome above hangs a sea-green electrolier with concealed lighting. It holds a separate enclosure for the speaker and there are galleries to accommodate officials and visitors.  All the furniture are built-in and teak-made. There is a long passage encircling the Chamber leading to the various office chambers and lobby where the member sit when the legislature is not in session. 

The lobby has a rich collection of oil-paintings and portraits of eminent national leaders, freedom fighters, former Chief Ministers and Speakers. There are separate chambers for the Speaker, Chief Minister, Ministers, Leader of the Opposition. Two committee rooms were christened after the two former speakers - Sir Azizul Haque, the first speaker and Shri Bejoy Kumar Banerjee, The erstwhile council chamber, now used for committee meetings and seminars has also been christened after Syed Nausher Ali, the second speaker of the Assembly

There are also three administrative buildings viz. North Annexe Building, South Annexe Building and Golden Jubilee Building. Legislative Library, consisting of nearly 2 lacs books covering wide array of subjects, previously situated in Legislative building, now housed in Golden Jubilee building. 

There is also an interesting custom still practiced in the assembly session that many people are not aware of. It is the system of carrying a Mace before the house starts. The practice is influenced by a similar custom prevailing in the House of Commons, UK. It was first introduced in the Bengal Legislative Council during the British regime on 31st January, 1934. The original mace, made of silver, had the British 'Crown' embossed on the top of the stand. Post-independence the crown was replaced by 'Ashoka-Stambha on Lotus'. In practice, the mace is carried by the Marshal marching ahead in a procession in front of Mr. Speaker before the House starts its business and the mace is eventually placed on a table on an ornamental pillow just before the Speaker's throne in the House. Though the constitution doesn't provide for the display or maintenance of any mace but the custom is still in vogue. 

Another historical artifact is there on the premise of Legislative Assembly. In the south portico, an old red fire alarm is on display. The system has an intriguing history. Captain Bernard Anson Westbrook, the Chief Officer of Calcutta Fire Brigade in 1910, in the process of reforming fire brigade, designed a system based on the efficient London fire service. The fire alarm pillars were a part of this plan. Westbrook installed chains of fire alarm pillars on the roads. 150 such fire alarms were commissioned and maintained by Bengal Telephone Corporation. The pillars were the hotline between the fire spot and the brigade headquarters. As soon as the handle of the pillars were turned, a corresponding light on the command board at the headquarters started glowing. The turn-out time was set at 60 seconds by Westbrook !!  

The public access is prohibited in the premise of Legislative Assembly except for three days in the year. It is 24th-26th December. During this time a flower show is organized in the ground of the Assembly. One can roam around the compound freely. There is no restriction on photography either. 

The West Bengal Legislative Assembly House is not only a piece of heritage architecture or a place to enact legislation. It is the witness of the great dramatic developments of Bengal's political history, from the debates regarding partition of Bengal before independence to the latest 'Paribartan' ending continuous 34 years of Left ruling in the state.

Special Thanks:

  • Brian Paul Bach, for sending me the copy of his article on Assembly House Building, without which the story couldn't have been done.
  • My father Shri Dilip Kr. Chandra, who accompanied me on this trip.

  • Calcutta's Edifice by Brian Paul Bach
  • West Bengal Legislative Assembly Website
  • Article on Assembly House at Kolkata on Wheels website
  • Article on Calcutta Fire Brigade on The Telegraph (26.06.2011) by Deepankar Ganguly
  • Wikipedia



  1. Very well done, Soham! You have broken new ground here. Very grateful for this rare visit, and I was happy to help. PS: When I profiled the building from afar, it was painted entirely in pink!

    Also, thanks for establishing the fact that the building is NOT named for Shri Bidhan Chandra Roy. Indeed, I had wondered if it was.

    1. Thank you Sir for your kind appreciation. I heard from my father too that the building was once Pink!

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