The Chronicles of the Sett Family of Chandernagore

ASMITA DEY

Citizen’s Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project

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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.

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Pukhur of Sett House where Bankim Chandra Chatterjee visited

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.

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An archival image of the Sett House

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.

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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.

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