Citizen’s Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project
I belong to an old Calcutta family and am currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Ancient History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. While on summer vacation at Calcutta, I happened to come across a post for the signing up of Citizens Historians for the Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project on facebook. Chandernagore was special to me as Rakshit Bhavan located in Lalbagan, which is the residence of one of the most renowned families of Chandernagore, is my father’s maternal home and birthplace.It is very close to my heart as it has played an important role through the twenty-one Durga Pujas of my life.
Incidentally I had never realized before this that Rakshit ( Roquitte ) originally had French origins. Neline Mondal of Chandernagore who mentioned that her friend Sophie Villian Onraet who was from a French family Roquitte had come searching for her roots here. In fact the signature of Debi Charone Roquitte on paper stunned me, the spelling of Roquitte from Dourga Charone Roquitte have been a marque of sobriety for his progenies as they assert their French past. The decision of staying with India at the 1948 plebiscite did not stop the people from vaunting their French bygones as they retrospect their struggle against the British. For instance Sett spoke a lot how his ancestors were a part of the French struggle against British. The library is a vast assemblage of French literature.
A slice of French loaf from the bakeries of Chandernagore was enough to smell the French in the atmosphere. Down the years from 1673 to 1948 plebiscite to the present day, though the French left, the people could not wipe out the French nostalgia. A strong French smell tickled my nostrils as I went around the town interrogating some descendants and some witnesses, of the French history at Chandernagore.
Being a citizen historian under the Heritage Chandernagore project I gathered the place retains a French dash. From Goutam Sett,(grandson of the legendary Harihar Sett) pointing out the French and Indian flag tinted on the ceilings of Sett mansion, to Mrs. Neeta ray’s referring to the ‘ liberte´ égalité fraternité ’ engraved gate of the Chandernagore, each speck retains the aroma of France. French language is an integral part of the education curriculum even today. Several streets preserve its French title and until recently the French carnivals were also included into the festivities of Chandernagore.
The Sacred Heart Church to the French cemetery echo the work of French architects. The schools with French name ‘Ekole Dourga’ started by Dourga Charone to the French magazines retell the past. Walking through the hallways of ‘Rakshit Bhavan’ following Mr. Partha Charone Rakshit, (great grandson of Dourga Charone), I observed, French dolls, statues, flower vase received as souvenirs, cheques and transaction records between Rakshits and French company to the several pictures of French visitors adorned the walls on both the sides. Gramophone records of French songs, once quite prevalent now contributes to the traditional family discards. Walking through the strand road I stopped at the promenade facing the Ganges erected by Shyama Charone Rakshit in the memory of Dourga Charone, the stone still contains engravings in French. Nothing in the town denied the existence of the French instead, it seemed beneath the very Bengali name of Chandernagore derived either from its crescent shape or from the goddess Chandi, the ‘Frenchness’ of Farasdanga rules supreme.