Month: January 2016
Chandernagore’s Prabartak Sangha
Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team
Chandernagore boasts the work of several great men, one of which was Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. Though he had no connection with Chandernagore but fate brought him there and thus began the history of this place – Prabartak Sangha.
As Sister Nibedita wrote, the night of 19th February 1919 “was a stormy night” when she visited Ghosh to reveal the news of warrant being issued in his name, advising him to leave. Sri aurobindo quite perplexed wrote “ i was wondering what to do” when he finally decided to leave for Chandernagore. Thus on 20th February he ferried from the Ahiritola ghat along with two of his men reaching Chandernagore on 21st of February. At Chandernagore his arrangement of staying at Charu Chandra’s place failed and destiny pulled him to Motilal Roy’s house, who on the request of Sirish Chandra an ardent follower of Rash Bihari Bose decided to shelter Ghosh for some time. It is the 42 days stay at Motilal Roy’s place that made Moti lal not only bond with Ghosh and but also became his fervent adherent thus began the idea of Prabortak Sangha and its social works.
Our visit at the Prabartak Sangha unveiled the history of the sacred place. Men like Rabindra Nath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Subhas Chandra Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy visited to pay homage to the place and its founder. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi , not only pay a visit but spend a night there. Prabartak Sagha was founded by Motilal Roy with one of its Akshay tritiya mela being chaired by Bipin Chandra pal in the year 1930. The temple may have been created by Motilal Roy but as Aurobindo wrote “all of Moti’s work are mine” He was further quoted saying “if you want to know my ideology , my philosophy, go to Prabartak sangha”. The ‘Prabartak Patrika’, which celebrated its centenary on 15th August, 2015 bore his words. Further the Sangha continued with its social work forming ashrams and schools, serving people and presently completed seventy five years in this process. We were fortunate enough to visit such a place and now we salute the immense work of the great man and his followers.
Introductory Video: Heritage & People of Chandernagore
Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team
Its 7 days to the launch. Presenting a snippet of our project.
Chandernagore’s Das Bakery
Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team
The South Eastern corner of the Kanailal Vidyamadir looked quite gloomy. It is in this gloomy corner of the earth, just near the junction where once stood the two hundred years old Das bakery. Just as it is said “in the midst of the gloom, it’s the crimson that blooms” so was the das bakery. In this shady, gloomy place delicacies were created that had enough strength to attract people from different parts of chandernagore. The place was mundane to people who were unaware of its magic but for the ones who knew, it was a Pandora’s Box filled with wonder like “boat shaped bun” and “crocodile shaped bun”.
Being featured in a number of documentaries and in other media fields das bakery remained one of the many specialities of chandernagore that presently lost its glory. The new trend of urbanisation and development had its effect on the loaves as well. The scene completely changed with the end of 2o13 .As the modern day concept the land was given to promoters therefore shifting the factory with its 30 feet brick chimney to Lalbagan at the Das’s residence. The houses in the locality of the dim corner that cherished the delicious smell from the chimney of the bakery now satisfy themselves looking at the sales counter. The bakery that once topped the list in Harihar sett’s ‘Sankhipta Chandernagore Porichoy’ lost all its glory being reduced to a mere sales counter. The magic was lost and loaves started being imported from outside.
In its initial years, Mannath Das one of the owners brought in other French objects along with loaves to be sold in the shop. Evidences show French wine, books, and even French mineral water constituted “the other” in the das bakery. Das bakery enjoyed the monopoly of these objects. In the year 1947 India won its independence but chandernagore did not. Being a home to revolutionaries and witnessing the Swadeshi movement, Das bakery had to give away all its foreign objects. The French wines and books were now replaced by biscuits.
It is interesting to note that Nandalal, tantubae by birth took up baking as a profession which was further carried on by his eldest son Manmohan Das latter being passed on to his sons, Tarini Charan and Karali Charan Das. It is said that Karali Charan started Das Co. Which only lasted for 10 years . All these members of the Das family reside at Lalbagan in ‘Nandoloy’, named after their ancestor. It is here that the factory later came up. Being near to Padri Para the Das bakery attracted a lot of foreigners. The star cast of the bakery was the, boat bun and the crocodile bun. There were a number of workers throughout its 200 years of journey one of them is Tarun Dutta who can give his first hand experiences in the factory. It is said the ladle used while baking the bread was made of a special kind of wood that was brought from Calcutta.
It is said that the Das bakery of chandernagore has reached its 200 years of creating master pieces and therefore stood by a number of changes but it never changed itself, the boat kept sailing and the crocodiles kept swimming without water on the shelves of das bakery .
Shared Roots, shared histories: The Rauly Chronicles
In 2014 I was intrigued to discover the quite detailed story of French/Indian ancestors who lived in Chandernagore in the 1700’s – my immediate family previously had no idea of their existence. My wife and I visited the town all too briefly in 2015 and were enchanted by it (I live in Australia) however I do wish this web page had been available then to better inform our visit.
By combining Indian, French and Portuguese influences, the ‘idea’ of Chandernagore and the fact that my ancestors lived through that ‘idea’ excited my imagination.
The reality was less to get excited about. From 1757, my ancestor’s strata of society in Chandernagore was framed by racism, religious prejudice, the devastation of war, bitter military occupations, deprivation and long separations – and they may have been the lucky ones! The fate of those with no European ancestor are relatively poorly recorded, especially the non-Catholic indigenous population and the slaves. Perhaps your project will redress this balance by revealing as much about Chandernagore’s ‘Ville Noire’, as it does about its architecturally romantic ‘Ville Blanche’.
Two years ago one of my 2ndcousins in England (I am in Australia) recalled a legend told to him by one of his aunts – no one had previously taken this very seriously. The legend was that a French sea captain had eloped with an Indian princess. As usual the legend was a distortion, but on researching it he discovered a significant grain of truth.
He managed to trace back as far as a Monsieur Rauly, from Castres, France.
We suspect this is a Louis Rauly whose family we have identified in Castres (France) but his Christian name needs to be confirmed. Castres was known for its trade in dyes especially that used before indigo. Once in India he married a lady named Feliciana whom we know was at least part Indian (my maternal DNA was tested and is rare outside India).
Their lives were full of crisis due to international events. The details follow:
Around 1750, Louis Rauly who we think was 24, set up a warehouse in Chandernagore. He soon became rich – in theory – from his trading warehouse which dealt principally in Indigo.
Unlike Pondicherry,where the French practiced quite rigid racial segregation, Chandernagore was more relaxed. Louis could therefore meet and marry Feliciana. Their daughter was later described as a Creole, suggesting that she was identifiably of Indian extraction, so Feliciana must have been too. The Rauly’s were Catholic.
Feliciana’s daughter Perrette, who was also my ancestor, was the eldest of what we think wereat least 5 children.She was born in 1754. At age 3 she saw the bombardment and major destruction of her city, its capture by Robert Clive (1757) and its British occupation of 6 years.
Sometime after the City was returned to France in 1763, the children undertook a precarious journey to Paris for their education (arriving around 1767), leaving their parents behind in Chandernagore. The girls went to an exclusive convent school outside Paris and the boys were educated in Paris itself.The boys resided with a priest who arranged their education. There is confusion about their arrival as the children seem to have been largely abandoned by their trustee in Paris after being placed in education – their French family actually had trouble locating them to check on their welfare.There is a veiled suggestion in the correspondence that the trustee may have absconded with at least part of this money. Obviously this was all compounded by the immense difficulties of travel and communication at that time.
Louis died in 1769 (around 43 years of age) but the children probably did not know this until well into the 1770’s.
1769 was also the year of a terrible Bengal famine, killing 10 million and leaving much of Bengal contolled by bandits. Though protected from the famine by her position, the massive hunger, disease and death caused by the famine must have surrounded Feliciana during her mourning. The famine was partly caused by the growing of Indigo and opium, sadly creating a link between the Rauly’sand its cause.
Louis’ assets seem to have been frozen and confused and Felicianawas later said to be almost destitute in this period. She was certainly under enormous debt pressure. However she was fortunate enough to have a British lady friend who housed and supported her for some years.
French officials in Pondicherry acted on her behalf with the monarchy to try to unravel the chaos. From the outcome it appears that enough of the Rauly assets were freed up by 1776 for a normal, but restrained, debt free life. The huge cost of the children’s education was also eventually met – but perhaps not until the 1780’s(in the interim Parisian family members seem to have provided much of this).
While this descent from supposed wealth to poverty appearsconfusing it is important to remember that a merchant’s life was far from secure in the 18th century. Their trade goods could be in relatively unsafe transit anywhere in the world and their capital tied up wherever those trade goods were sold. There was no liquid international money market and only very slow, unsure communications of letters of credit etc. To compound this, all French trade was supposed to be carried out through the French East India Company, which started having major problems of its own in this period.
Perrette was trapped at her convent school outside Paris until about 1776 (age 22) by her mother’s financial position and the international financial and communicationchaos that prevailed at that time. Her grandmother,inCastres, who had been managing their affairs through Parisian relatives, also passed away in the early 1770’s. This was likely to have compounded difficulties.
The childrenultimately returned to Chandernagore in time for another war and a second British occupation from 1778-1783.In fact Perrette had spent much more of her life in Chandernagore under British rule than French. It is also important to remember that for most of the children’s life France and England were at war or a very hostile peace.
In 1782 Perrette, at the then surpisingly late age of 28, married a recently arrived, wealthy English Huguenot Indigo planter, John Henry Guinand (24). She moved to the British location of Pultah 3 Km away.Pultah is no longer a locality but was then (broadly speaking) the area along the river between Chandernagore and Bandel. The Guinands were also of French descent, though had a family history as very strong supporters of the Huguenot (protestant) cause. John also identified strongly as English, but almost certainly spoke French due to family connections. It seems possible that Perrette was known as Mary (possibly her middle name) in her English family.
The fact that Perette was a devout Catholic and the Guinand family strongly involved in the French protestant cause must have caused some complications as Perrette did not convert.
John Henry and Perrette had 7 children in 7 years before John Henry died in 1789 at 31 years of age. Life for Perrettewould now take another harsh twist.
John Guinand’s will provided for Perrette to take their children to England and be well educated there. Perrette had promised to do so. The will also provided for Perrette and her mother Feliciana.
Perrette sailed with all 7 children, the eldest 8, the youngest a baby, on a long precarious journey to England on an East Indiaman. The children were there re baptised (as Anglican) and given into the care of trusted high ranking trustees known to the family from India and from Huguenot circles. They were clearly to be made ‘British’.
After about 12 months Perrette returned alone to India. The reason is not written anywhere and can only be guessed at. It must have been heartbreaking. One memento of hers remains in England – a little piece of embroidery, presumably made by her, saying ‘remember me’.
Up to the early 1700’s it was socially acceptable, and relatively fashionable, for British men to marry a ‘well bred’ Indian woman. By the 1790’s, though, English women who could not find a husband were flowing to India in large numbers –this was discussed openly as the ‘fishing fleet’. This created a white English female ‘establishment’. It was very much in their interest not to provide social recognition of Indian wives. And thus to discourage inter marriage.
Being brown, or married to someone brown, became a social, and perhaps more importantly, commercial liability – to the point where English men were hiding or denying their legally married Indian wives, regardless of their affection for them.
This was most transparent in the case of Princess Diana’s Indian ancestor, Katherine, whose father had her shipped ‘urgently’ to Scotland at age 8, away from her Indian mother Eliza, on receiving advice that the Indian climate was making Katherine ‘brown’. At some point he started to refer to his Indian wife as a servant and use all sorts of arguments to confuse Katherine’s maternity. It worked, because Katherine eventually married very well into the English establishment …but at what personal cost?
Perrette did see her sons again when they returned to India. Sadly this created another wave of tragedy. Two returned as artillery lieutenants and one as a teacher. To have been commissioned as lieutenants they mightnormally have had to disguise their racial origins, otherwise they would have been commissioned only as Jemars- Indian officers allowed only to command Indians. However there is some confusion on this point because one of her sons, in his army records, confirmed that his mother was ‘a creole’.
However fate (and India) again took its toll – all three dying of illness within 8 years of arriving in India, each before age 30. Maybe this was partly genetic genetic, given their father’s early death, but around 40% of young British lieutenants sent to India at that time died of illness within 10 years.
Perrette’s will (1826) specified she be buried at the Basillica at Bandel, on the left of the steps to the front verandah. Did she perceive this as the end to a life marked by tragedy?
The Basillica dates to 1599 but was rebuilt after being sacked in 1632. It is little changed except for the addition of ceramic tiles to the walls. Within 6km, as the crow flies, you pass from Chandernagore, once French, to what was British Pultah to what was Portuguese Bandel. In the 1800s a horse and trap probably took about 2 hours.
The Basillica is unlike Portuguese churches in Kochi or Goa but like some we’ve seen in Portugal. It is a complex of shaded verandah walkways and courtyards surrounding the main chapel. It would have been cool and peaceful and I can imagine Perrette taking solice here from a life of relative tragedy.
On a quiet day, it is still an oasis within the noise, dust and hurry of Bandel town.
Perrette died in the absence of any family. Her husband and 3 sons were dead. She died before learning that the eldest of her 4 daughters, Charlotte (my ancestor), had also passed away a year earlier. The 3 surviving children (daughters) were in England.
However I like to think Perrette found some peace at Bandel. At her death she bequeathed her coterie of animals to an English friend, provided a pension to her Ayah (whom she described as a close friend), donated jewellery and a cash flow to the church (for prayers for herself and her mother) and the significant balance to her surviving children.
On a much lighter personal note I was intrigued to realise that both I and my French ancestor from the 1750’s married Indian ladies with some Portuguese heritage. I was also amused to discover (from testing) that the DNA my blonde, blue eyed sister inherited from her mother is almost unique to India! Most of all I enjoy pointing out to my Indian/Australian wife that while she cannot produce any scientific proof that she is Indian I can present a DNA Certificate verifying my ‘Indian’ DNA.
The Mondals of Chandernagore
In Conversation with Ms Neline Mondal of Gondolpara Chandernagore
Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team
Mondals , an eminent family of Chandernagore, stood by the history over a large epoch. The thousand memories, that the dilapidated walls hold, came out through Mrs. Neline Mondal , a passionate member of the family. She became the mouth of the speechless walls. Mrs. Mondal became our, as she puts it the “encyclopaedia of the French history at Chandernagore”.
Being a part of the distinguished family she reveals her memories and heard stories pouring them in our basket, filling our new attempt with her old recollections. She reveals how the palatial building of Mondal bari constructed in the year 1741 was originally known as chine bari or the Chinese house. Unfortunately a large part of the wing was swallowed by the ebbs and flows of the Ganges . The peculiarity of naming the house struck us, and Neline revealed that it was a part of the small Chinese settlement. The grandeur of the building and its members were proved through the three months long ‘ home fire’ celebration attended by Lord Clive and priests from several parts of India. The house is claimed to be one of the oldest zamindaris of Chandernagore.According to Neline, it is the second largest after the Count’s house in British India, leading the list within the French colonies it was one of the 20 richest families of colonised India. They possessed a small military of around hundred men , evidences of which have been preserved by the family, protecting the arms from theft.
The Mondals were zamindars but held a business in a number of things, especially swords and grains. Apart from this, money came from the deal of escorting Portuguese ship against the pirates in the waters of Chandernagore. Neline also asserts having very close relations with the other zamindaris of the time doing a lot of things in collaboration with them. For instance, the Mankundu railway station was built by the collaboration between the Khans and the Mondals and were maintained at their own expenses until independence made it a property of the Government.
Getting into the house Neline revealed the culturally rich background. The house, built by a French architect is studded with statues, paintings and art pieces. She proudly spoke about the paintings in her bed room being similar to the paintings of the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. Though she did mention the lack of modern facilities in this old structure but nevertheless proudly bears the historicity on herself. She told us how Anthony Firingi was a manager at one of their salt Godowns, presently owned by her cousin in laws. Their flourishing business got them several special contacts for which they had a hotel to serve these contacts, unfortunately as Neline grieved, it was first transformed into the State Bank of India and then demolished to construct the Polytechnic Institute. She recollects how her in laws narrated seeing Rabindranath Tagore in Chandernagore in his school days. She also claimed Mr. U.N.Mondal being responsible for the construction of the pavement at the strand.
Memories, Lessons and Experiences: Chandernagore through an NRI lens.
Team Photographer, Heritage & People of Chandernagore
Through my time on this project, I have always been teased as being the NRI born and brought up in Dubai who falls in love with Bengal. I become the ma mati manush almost instantly as I step down the train from Sealdah. This is what happened again in the August of 2015, as I became part of the team going to conduct workshops in the French town of Chandernagore, with some fellow Bengali colleagues and my senior from college Sovan Saha aka Shovan da. It was sort of a déjà-vu when I got off the train at Howrah, memories of last summer when we did the Chinsurah mapping came tricking down. In the heat of May 2015, Meghna Chatterji and I walked every street of the erstwhile Dutch waterfront settlement. From Howrah we had to board the local train to go to Chinsurah, this routine I was familiar with, once Meghna and I had boarded the Burdawan local in the opposite direction instead of going to Howrah and realized the mistake only when the TT came and checked our tickets and put us on the next train while Ma’am was waiting at Howrah for us for almost 2 hours.
Lessons learnt, this time I checked and doubled checked; when I ascended from the Burdawan local at Chinsurah, the streets, the sounds of vendors screaming out in their Bong accents started filling my ears and my heart. It was almost nostalgia hearing the snack vendors screaming “ jhaal moori jhaal moori”… Soon what caught my attention was a rickshaw wanting to go to ‘Ghorir More’, the famous clock round about right in the middle of the town built by the British.
As the rickshaw strode past the narrow lanes, my eyes continued to scan the roads which I had mapped during my last visit here, almost as if my GPS was running in my mind which had already drawn a path leading to our hotel. We were staying at “Hoteil Bulu Diemond”(thats how they pronounced Blue Diamond), although a very small place, this hotel was the best in town, I knew it from my past visits other than the manager boasting out that even the actor Mithun Chakraborty resides here on his visits. I was surprised that when I went here the staff of the hotel remembered me and asked me how I was and how was didi (meaning Meghna). Our train from Delhi had been delayed so hunger pangs were finally getting the better of me and what better way to satisfy them than head to Banerji Cabin’ a famous restaurant along Ghorir more.
The funny thing was I would go to this restaurant every day and ask the waiter to recite the whole menu and finally order the Chicken Roll, irritating the waiter to the core, well he was still there and he instantly recognized me too, but this time he smile and said “dada after a long time you came.” I have a strange sort of love affair with Chinsurah, I can spend evenings just relaxing at the Ghats, my reverie was broken by Udit my colleague who had just finished the heritage walk at Chandernagore and joined us.
The next day was an important day; we woke up early and got ready soon. Had some breakfast and met up with another crew member who had travelled from Delhi and was working on the community engagement workshop with us, Chitra along with Manvi another history student working on this project. I had always heard from the people of Chinsurah many times that if we wanted to look for heritage we should go to Chandernagore, I always wondered what was it that was so special here, until I actually reached Chandernagore, and I saw with my own eyes, the town had an amazing character and the place where the event was to be held was an amazingly old structure which reflected the beautiful French heritage. Every detail seemed to excite me and I also met an amazing photographer Mr Shanjeet Chowdhury from whom I got to learn a thing or two on roll cam photography. The walk went well which was followed by an amazing comic book workshop which was conducted by Chitra. More than attending the workshop and rather being a member of the co-ordinating side of the scene I actually learned a lot as well. We were there till late evening and then we went back. On our way back to Chinsurah, I got to play the local guide, explaining places and stories along the way about our work and the town and what I loved about it etc. I was excited to show Chitra the whole town of Chinsurah and since it was her first visit, we grabbed our walking shoes and set off for a long walk to explore the street food, life and the ghats of Chinsurah.
The next day we woke up and left but as we stepped out of the hotel we were greeted by a typical August rain shower that we had to run back and couldn’t leave soon and while the clock was ticking, the delay was imminent. I had to get some last minute printing and then finally I reached Strand for the Community Engagement workshop, there were some people stranded between their daily walks to find out what was happening. The whole team was up in action to set up the stall. There were bamboo structures and colorful umbrellas to shade the area we had selected to interact with the passer byes, seeing all that even I sprang into action. We had made up a game of our own and had stories to tell people. I could see Sovan da at a distance carrying out his general interactions with the people, while our games continued. I was busy capturing all the activity through the lens of my camera. Tiny kids were amused to play the Chandernagore memory game and the elder school kids were enjoying the game we created.
But like every story has a twist, our great going trip too had a bit of an adventure, we had to reach the Sealdah station to head back to Delhi but towards the end things started getting stressed up; although in DDLJ, it looked really romantic running behind a leaving train, in reality to run and catch Sovan da’s hand to get on to the train as something else, so Chitra and I were left behind fuming and frustrated while the train disappeared.
I was honestly so irritated and angry at that situation for some reason but later I felt really sad that I got to face such a situation at work and on top of that Chitra abandoned me and left by air. I was almost crying when I picked up the phone to call Ma’am and she suggested that head back to Chandernagore. On the way back I felt really sad on realizing how it was partially my fault but felt good as Ma’am said that its from mistakes that we learn , and I am sure I’ll never be repeating this again. Somehow all tired I got back to Chandernagore. Udit was waiting for me at the gate to Rabindra Bhawan. He had a smile on his face and cheering me up he went like ‘ arey you are back, great I have a nice helping hand now for the future events. He told me to keep all my stuff in the room and said lets go have dinner. I was starving and the travelling both ways made me even hungrier. We stuffed our stomachs with nice heavy food and slept off. The next day was a day for arranging things and at evening even ma’am came to Chandernagore for the closing event the very next day. Ma’am, Udit and I, we all went for dinner together before which we did some shopping.
The next day we all left on time for the event to be scheduled. We had arranged for an interschool quiz competition followed by a food competition where there was a twist as a Bengali food was to be made with a hint of France into it. I like the idea very much and was excited to get an opportunity to try out the food by the various contestants. After the event was over I rushed this time for my train which was scheduled at 6:30. I left as early as 3:30 along with Udit as he was going home. I reached really early and waited for my train to slowly pull into the platform. Got a seat and soon said goodbye to an amazing journey of my life and which is always going to be an important learning lesson for me.
I may not have been born and brought up in Bengal and heard stories about it from my grandmothers and parents but finally I too have my own stories of Bengal of Chinsurah and Chandernagore that I am surely going to pass on.I met people here whose hearts were filled with love, who helped us as much as they could sometimes even going out of the way for us. Most people opened their homes and hearts to us strangers, the one thing that bound us together was language. There was an old woman we met in Chinsurah, she was a tea vendor, but she gave us such wonderful insights into the town’s history. We called her dida and even this trip, I went searching for her. Bengal found a special place in my heart and I will always cherish it.
THE LOST PIECES OF THE JIGSAW: Chandernagore’s Social Institutions
In the summer of May-June 2015, I had just enrolled for the M.Phil program under Calcutta University in South & South Asian Studies. It was then that I first heard about the “Heritage and People of Chandernagore” and the opportunity for citizen volunteers. As a student of political science and had a passion for history of Bengal and the politics of the French generals like Lalley, Dupleix, with Shiraz-ud-Daulah and the English excited me. Naturally I promptly took this opportunity to work with like minded students and scholars.
The first day we went to Chandernagore, we were welcomed at IDc by our team leader Udit Sarkar, we learnt that being a Citizen Volunteer meant we would be interviewing people living in the heritage buildings of Chandernagore.
One such place we visited was Kalpana press which was one of the oldest publishing house of Chandernagore. This press is now a binding shop and the owner didn’t have much clue about the history. We also visited the Sacred Heart Church of Chandernagore, the Father welcomed us and not only gave us a guided tour of the church but also the cemetery and shared with us interesting stories of how the Church came up and how it was the heart of the town in the French era.
Although the scorching May sun was beating us down physically the sheer excitement of the job was propping us up as we went on this journey. I particularly remember visiting the Mankundu Mental Hospital, a beautiful building in a large compound that was probably an old palace or house of the rich elite. As we were speaking to the caretaker a man who was confined in the hospital who was standing on the first floor window tightly clutching the bars of the windows suddenly began to shout at us. We were terrified and almost ran away!
I was part of the team that went to discover the Chandernagore sports club and discovered that wrestling was a very common sport in Chandernagore which now remains only in memory. We also visited Kalidas Chotush Pathi a indigenous Indian school for Sanskrit learning which in the past had a great popularity, even the French had adored it but with time it has turned into a skeleton. The only teacher present in the institution aging close to ninety told us that there was no student now, the young has lost interest in Sanskrit as the job prospect is very low and the government lacks interest in redeveloping it.
Chandernagore isn’t just a suburb to Calcutta, it had its own social and intellectual life and these institutions that once defined this life are now dying their slow death.
It is time we looked beyond the French romanticism to recognise Chandernagore’s heritage and more importantly it’s people who define that heritage.
The Chronicles of the Sett Family of Chandernagore
Citizen’s Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project
One of the most famous merchant families of Chandernagore are the Setts. The family originally from Mahanad, a district in Hugli migrated to Chandernagore for purposes of trade. The originally prosperous family began from Kali Charan Sett and became famous under Shambhu Chandra Sett. Belonging to the Soma rishi clan (jati) and tili caste, they originally owned the surname of Nandy , prosperity in business brought them at par with the ‘seths’ or the ‘sreshthis’ and therefore earned them the surname of Sett. The family with a silver metalled peacock as their kula devata once owned a collection of 80 parrots and 40 peacocks along with a nursery of several rare plants.
On entering the house we noticed the ceiling painted with India and French flag which is still maintained, what further amazed us was the pond beside the palatial building. As Mr. Goutam sett revealed the place was the witness of the author Sarat Chandra Chattapadhyays creation, further the peculiar architecture that had thin bricks stuck together with gur to form a ghat left us speechless.
The intricate details of the mansion gave a clear evidence of the grandeur it holds. The healthy relation the Setts had and still retains with the people of French as well as the officials of government was also revealed by Mr. Goutam Sett as he went on to describe the magnificence of the annual Durga Puja following the age old tradition.
Moving on to the history of family he began with Sambhu Chandra Sett’s financial problem owing to his father Radhamohan Sett’s charity, who began working at cotton shop with a salary of Rs. 67. His marriage with the daughter of Kartik Prasad brought him an amount of Rs. 1000 which marked the beginning of ‘Shambhu Chandra Sett and Sons’. Lack of education could not stop him from being the first to trade iron and steel with the west.
Concentrating on Nitya Gopal Sett, the third son of Shambhu Chandra Sett. Due to untimely death of his mother and his brother forced him to discontinue his education at an early age moving to Kolkata for work. The early death of Sushila bala his first wife led him to marry Krishna bhabini.Thus began the business life of Nityagopal with his teenage brothers as his responsibility. The business flourished with Hathkhola, Kolkata as centre. The business reached its peak under Nitya Gopal Sett. Believing in simplicity, as per his desire after his death Rs.50000 was donated for educational development of Chandernagore. After his death his son, Harihar Sett, took over the responsibility of the family along with his mother Krishna bhabini, a liberal minded personality.
Harihar Sett’s brother Durga Das Sett not quite known was a dedicated revolutionist giving all his life in the work of independence. Durga Das Sett was born in the year 1895, September 20th and throughout his life of 63 years he worked immensely for his country. Born in Kolkata his schooling was at Chinsurah which further made him go against the British. In the first half of 19th century Chandernagore witnessed development of swadeshi which in the guise of social works attacked the. Durga Das himself started three groups, ‘shilpo samabae’ ,swadeshi bazaar and yuva samiti and completely worked for his country with other such groups.
Coming back to Harihar Sett ,(14th December 1874) business was his main stay. He was a student of St. Mary’s institution followed by Hugli Collegiate School later joining Surrendra Nath College of Kolkata. But his life as an academician was short lived as he focussed in business soon earning a name for him in the business of iron, textile and jute. He soon obtained the position of the president of Calcutta Iron Merchants Association, even took to buying gold and silver and started investing in share market but the initial profits did not last long. He also became politically powerful. Chandernagore was once the most traded and the richest town in India where Harihar Sett became a name to recon with.
Amidst the turmoil set in the background of struggle for freedom. Harihar sett largely contributed in the works. He became the Councillor in the year 1919 and was nominated for the post of Mayor, which affected his relation with his brother Durga Das .On August 15 th 1947 when India was celebrating its freedom and as the foreigners were leaving the land a committee was set up in Chandernagore : N.D.F. by the French of which Sett was the president. Thus the Sett family boasts beholding the first presidency of free Chandernagore . It was after a prolonged struggle that Chandernagore was freed on 2nd May 1952 and was merged with India. He played a crucial part in the Governmental Gazette that declared Chandernagore as a free city. Even after independence Harihar Sett was still closely attached with politics. He was known for his philanthrophic works such as distributing crops at cheap rate during crisis, to forming medical relief committee, to opening Shambhu Chandra Sebasram and a free dispensary.
He was a pioneer in women’s emancipation and established the Krishna Bhabini Nari Siksha Mandir named after his mother where his daughter-in-law was the first student he also started buses for the transport of these students. The school witnessed the arrival of Rabidranath Tagore in its premise, holding women like Indumati Bhattacharya one of the ex MPs was one of his first students. There was physical training centre for women as well. He took over the responsibility of the library and tried reopening Chandernagore College. Nityagopal free primary school for boys and Aghor Chandra free primary school for girls was his work. Unfortunately his will of medical college and donation of one lakh failed. He was the one to start naming the roads by the name of the revolutionaries.
His life as a writer shows his versatility. He dedicated a part of his life in paying a salute to his homeland and as a result of that we get a Pandora’s box filled with works on Chandernagore. Harihar Sett is popularly known as one of the protagonist of the Chandernagore’s renaissance. He contributed heavily in the literature His work that forms the guide to the town Chandernagore – ‘Sankhipta Chandannagor Parichaya’ beholds the rare information about the place its people,culture and other aspects. He was highly respected by the French and received officier d’ academie. From Nadia Biswamanad mahamondal he received two title ‘kirtinidhi’ and ‘bidyabinod’ and from Saraswat mahamandal received ‘sahitya bhusan’. And finally he received “chevalier de la legion d’honneur”. He died in the year 1972 March 10th leaving an irrevocable void in Chandernagore. After his death the Sett family lost its glamour but continued to preserve his memories and his objects , trying to keep him alive in the minds of people.
The afterlife of Harihar Sett remained blurred no focus of light could unveil it, nevertheless whatever was gained from Mr. Goutam Sett was enough to visualise the history of the family and the great works they did.
Connecting Dots: A mission, A project and A message
Visual Communication Consultant, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project
“Design education in India has always centered on needs identification and contextual learning for deriving solutions. However in India, most communication design studio practices, end up as design on the desktop rather than design on field… the former will be gradually replaced … It is the latter, where a huge chasm awaits to be bridged with a design thinking approach…Bordering on activism, planning, development, social work, entrepreneurship, ‘Design on Field’ is where one can truly effect visible change for a democratic, empowered and equitable society.”
Four years ago when I graduated to be a communication designer, I embarked on a mission to articulate a manifesto. Soon I realized empowerment and community development converged my personal and professional worlds. This led me to explore a variety of roles and skills that would become means to an end of realizing that vision. I had to begin somewhere, so I took upon the challenge of enabling education through non-conventional channels targeting young adults. Young adults have immense potential to observe, question, challenge, reason, make decisions and act as future agents of change. Any community can resolve developmental issues by nurturing and relying upon self-confident, self-reliant young adults.
Here is where Heritage and People of Chandernagore, epitomized my 3 year old manifesto. This project made me see how Aishwarya Tipnis Architects (ATA), a young and impassioned team, made it a point to enable local youth to spearhead a little heritage awareness revolution in Chandernagore, within just a few months of its launch. The ‘citizen historians’ worked brilliantly, as they remotely connected with the core team in New Delhi. They volunteered to collect valuable oral histories, assist and conduct community engagement events such as competitions and workshops. They heard and got heard in fairly significant numbers.
Thanks to ATA, I could join the Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team in the second leg of the endeavor. We were out to understand the real Heritage of Chandernagore in order to conserve that which is valued by the citizens. While heritage to most of us lies in the visible architectural symbols, a fragile, unseen, unspoken heritage, hides within the people by way of memories, stories, rituals, dreams and aspirations. Unearthing these innocuously in their authentic best was the real test. Juggling roles of a workshop facilitator, event planner, game designer, live graphic recorder, design researcher, visual, web and experience designer and a design director, I managed to accomplish my tasks owing to a co-creative and friendly work culture.
There is more that I took away from this project than what was given. Foremost, is a message that time is ripe to veer away from designing pretty objects and skins for a few elite takers. The need of the hour is to build robust platforms to empower and enable all citizens to have well-informed, democratic conversations determining their own collective future.