The entrance gate to this beautiful palace is set amidst the almost filthy surroundings of Muktaram Babu Street, off Chittaranjan Avenue. The spacious grounds, artistically laid out, are glittering with bronze and marble statues of, among others, Venus, Sophocles, Psyche and Demosthenes. The sudden transition from the unbeautiful exterior to the pleasant lawns within is enchanting and awakens memories of the ancient glory of Greece and Macedonia.
In the mid-nineteenth century the philanthropist Raja Rajendralal Mallick of the Subarnabanik community pledged his wealth to the people of Kolkata. Rajendralal Mallik’s (1819-87) dedication to arts and his urge to feed the hungry has left a lasting legacy. The Trust he set up is still ably managed by his descendants. His art gallery is open to the public free of charge , and 500 poor people are fed every day. Rajendralal was the adopted son of Nilmoni Mallick of Pathuriaghata. The family of Mallick dates back to the earliest days of Kolkata when it was one of the few that chose to settle at Gobindapur, one of the three villages on the east bank of the river Hooghly, in preference to the then prosperous Portuguese settlement on Hooghly on the west. They continued to reside at Gobindapur until it was selected as the site for the present Fort William that was built in 1757. Joyram Mallick thereafter, took up his residence at Pathuriaghata. The Mallicks were an established family of bullion merchants whose wealth lay in the maritime trade in silver, gold and sugar. Nilmoni died when Rajendralal was only three. His widowed mother moved with him from Pathuriaghata to Chorbagan, where his philanthropic father had his Thakurbari or a place of worship and a permanent kitchen for feeding the poor.
A student of Hindoo College. Rajendralal had chief interests in natural history and arts, both Western and Oriental. He was also musically inclined. He continued and enlarged the paternal tradition of philanthropy. His relief efforts during the famine of 1865-66 earned him the title Rai Bahadur, and in 1878, Lord Lytton endowed him with the title of Raja, along with the ceremonial gift of a large diamond ring.
Rajendralal Mallick’s distinction lay in building a lasting edifice to embody all his interests and ideals. His palace dedicated to arts at Chorbagan was commenced when he was sixteen. It was completed in about five years, and was named the Marble Palace by the Viceroy Lord Minto when he visited it early last century. Rajendralal is said to have personally directed the 500 artesans, both Indian and foreign, who executed the plan. The architecture is a mixture of exuberant Roccoco and the three European classical styles, imposed on the oriental quadrangle pattern of introverted space. This became the model for many contemporary mansions. But Rajendralal’s mansion is the only well-maintained edifice of its kind, one of the last true palaces left in the erstwhile CITY OF PALACES.
In the centre of the garden near a fountain of murmuring, cascading water, stands a statue of the famous founder of the palace Raja Rajendralal Mallick. Part of the extensive Baroque garden was devoted to the menagerie of rare birds and animals, Kolkata’s first zoo. The Raja also sent animals and birds to various zoos in Europe: the Zoological Society of London awarded him a medal for introducing the Himalayan Pheasant to England. The tradition carries on. A black buck, spotted deer, monkeys and birds still occupy the cages. The menagerie spills over into the palace itself. From a corner of the wide verandah around the open courtyard, an aviary of cuckatoos, hyacinthine macaws, mynahs and an albino crow send sounds of life to the art galleries within, while a wayward pelican waddles in form the tank outside.
The entrance of the palace through a long colonnaded carriage-porch leads into the billiard room. This is the visitor’s introduction to a kaleidoscope of marbles on floors, walls and tabletops throughout the museum. Rajendra Mallick himself designed the floor of the reception hall, a combination of multi-colored marbles patterned to render carpeting redundant. The etched Venetian glass panes on the doors afford a view of the green lawn where sarus, cranes and white peacocks strut between marble lions and statues. On either side, the gilt-framed Belgian mirrors from floor to ceiling created a million parallaxes. The floor has been reset with green and white marble tiles, laid by the present generation of Mallicks.
The Rubens Room is the only one to present the modern concept of uncluttered exhibition. Connoisseurs, scholars and students come to see the enormous “Marriage of St. Catherine”, “Martyrdom of the St. Sebastian”, “Minerva giving the Love cup to Appollo” and “The return of Ulysses” by Rubens and Murillo respectively. The art of Sir Joshua Reynolds is also present in “Child Hercules and the Serpents” and “Venus and Cupid”.
This gallery has been renovated a few years back. The mosaic inlay on the walls has been refurbished, original frames repaired and re-touched, and the paintings cleaned and preserved according to family formulae.
The norms of modern museums do not apply to the Marble Palace. Air-conditioning would not only be out of question but, the family feels unnecessary. Ventilation and lighting in each room have been planned according to the exhibits housed there. There is a careless profusion in the display, at times almost heedless and undiscriminating bounty.
Everything in this amazing collection, hidden down a narrow street in old Kolkata, calls for awe and not flippant criticism.
Sources : a) Guide to calcutta - by Firminger.
b) Recolletions of Calcutta - by M. Massey
c) Handbook to Calcutta - Edired by Eardley Latimer (Calcutta Historical Society)
d) The Living Calcutta - by Edited by Sukanta Chowdhury.
Research -Santanu Roy.