People flocked from all parts of the city which had at one time been seen as the strongest opponent of the British Raj on a broad boulevard called Chowringhee, jostling for a vantage point to see the daughter of the King Emperor they had fought – Queen Elizabeth II. Prof Aloke Kumar of IIM Calcutta, remembered the visit of the young Queen of Great Britain to Kolkata, then Calcutta, on a winter morning 61 years ago, when he was a five-year-old child as a “fairy Book Pop-up”, where cheering onlookers look up to “find this beautiful lady in her tiara and white gloves waving and smiling at you. And then she was gone.”
The Queen, who died on September 8 at the age of 96 having reigned the United Kingdom for 70 years, came to the city during her visit to the Indian subcontinent in February 1961. Calcutta had been the epicentre of the revolutionary fever that swept India in the first half of the century where the Congress, Forward Bloc, Communists and armed revolutionaries from groups such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar had their strongholds. The streets which had a decade-and-a-half back reverberated with the slogans `Vande Mataram’ and `Jai Hind’ and the sound of bombs, saw cheering for a Queen.
Among other places, she visited Victoria Memorial Hall, a marble edifice erected in memory of her great-great-grandmother in 1921, and the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, set up in 1847 by British enthusiasts. The queen was accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. And it was during their journey to RCTC that Kumar as a nursery class student had a glimpse of the royal visitors, which was etched in his memory.
Kumar’s mother brought him and his siblings to a relative’s house on Chowringhee Road in central Kolkata as the Queen’s cavalcade was supposed to pass in front of it.
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“It seemed that the whole of Calcutta had landed at their home. But they were not grudging. What an occasion! As we settled a bit, we found the sweepers cleaning the road. The Bhistis with their leather bag douching water to prevent dust from flying,” Kumar told PTI.
The police were trying their best to push people from the road to the pavement which was also crammed with souls curious to witness a grand event.
“A gentleman who was reading the morning newspaper suddenly jumped up. Eureka! He had found the route of the Queen’s journey. We were relieved to get it confirmed that she will cross our building.
“After much patience, the convertible was in sight. The cheers grew deafening as the Queen waved with a smile. Prince Philip was by her side. It was like a Fairy Tale Book Pop-up. Suddenly you find this beautiful lady in her tiara and white gloves waving and smiling at you. And then she was gone. I was a bit disappointed. I do not know what I was expecting. But that was it,” he narrated.
A commemorative porcelain plate released during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 occupies a pride of place in Kumar’s family collection.
In old videos available in public domain, a large number of people were seen gathered on both sides of the road as the queen entered the premises of the Victoria Memorial Hall, which along with the angel carrying a trumpet atop its central dome has emerged as an icon of the city.
“Unfortunately, we do not have any record, photo or document about that visit. So far as we know, none of those who were present at that time is around now,” Curator of Victoria Memorial Hall Jayanta Sengupta said.
Some pictures apparently taken during the Queen’s visit to the Memorial surfaced on social media “but they did not originate from our end. If we source something in future, we will preserve them in our archive”, Sengupta said.
During that trip, the Queen also visited the Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP), located around 170 kilometres from Kolkata. The unit started production with an initial crude steel capacity of one million tons per annum in 1959.
“The Queen came to the giant plant built by a consortium of 13 British companies. She inaugurated the steel melting shop on February 16, 1961. On this occasion, a building then termed Rani House was built for her stay. This is now known as Durgapur House and used as a guest house,” a DSP official said. The DSP has shared photographs of the royal visit on its Facebook page.
The Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC) has a trophy named after the Queen. Devdutta Basu, a merchant banker and long-time member of the club told PTI “The queen visited the club and we organised a special race in her honour, the longest race till then. The tradition is continued with a race where the winner gets the `Queen Elizabeth II Cup’.” The RCTC on its website states this “magnificent edifice stands sentinel as it did in the year when Calcutta Races were honoured by the visit of Her Majesty on which occasion, she presented her own Trophy which she continues to donate every winter”.