Citizen Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore
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.
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.
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.
Chandernnagore, a small town in the western bank of Ganges, a French colony with illustrious history, heritage and culture Chandernnagore earlier was also called by the name Farash Danga; in Bengali which means a place were the Farashi’s or the French lived. But the history of Chandernnagore does not only start from the French period but dates long back to the sixth century. Like Bengalis in India French in Europe are similar races both culturally and historically very rich so it was always very interesting to us to see the connect between the two. It is also fascinating that French in India had always tried to capture small pockets to carry on their trade. Like Pondicherry in south India and Chandernnagore in West Bengal. This always fascinated me. It was through a friend that I got to know about the program called by the name Heritage and people of Chandernagor. It was from this friend that I learnt that they were looking for volunteers to conduct their programs. I enquired about it and they, Udit our project head and Manvi who were already involved with the program let me know about the scheduled activities that would take place during the program and what we were expected to do. As I was available at that point of time I became interested and approached them. Promptly Udit and others up in Delhi let me know that I was a part of the volunteer team. It was an excellent experience working at site with Udit, Manvi, Mukulika, Paromita, Somwrita, Titas and others. The job was so interesting that we would not feel tiered even after travelling fifty Kilometers from Calcutta in the heat of May and June. We would go from house to house, institution to institution gathering and looking for information about the culture, heritage and the history of the place. This part was quite challenging as very little information was available and very less work has been done in this area. We here were not only looking for the colonial past but also how the locals lived and amalgamated with the French and vis-a-vis.
We were also interested about how Indian nationalist like Rishi Aurobindo, Barin Ghosh used it as a shelter and refuge. How they made Prabartak Sangha a centre of Indian nationalism. Doing this we came to know about the Basa festival which now has disappeared from the face of Chandernagore. This was quite interesting to me. We herd numerous stories from various people all very different from one another regarding one particular matter which was regarding the plebiscite when the French left, how they lost and decided to go.
Another thing which appeared fascinating to me was that while we were marking old building we went to a quite old house roughly about 300 or 350 years old which I do not exactly remember now but was a quite large house with a pond at the rear side. We were very warmly welcomed by the owners of the place. But what was important was that while talking he told us that in the past they have been traders of chilies and were cultivators of oysters in their Back yard pond. This one thing cultivation of oysters in back yard pond in rural Bengal that too three hundred years back was not very common or usual. I and Udit had a long discussion about this why oysters in rural Bengal, we could not reach a definite conclusion, neither did the owner nor other people could throw much light into the fact. It might be because of the French influence and demand both for culinary and ornamental purposes these people started cultivating oysters.There were lot of people who could tell a lot about their past and history of the place, there were particularly many who were totally blank and had no clue about what we were talking.
The community involvement programs were a great fun, the painting competition, Lego workshop were great fun too. It was especially interesting to see that the little ones at par with their older counter parts. There was this boy in the painting competition in the junior level who after getting the concept drew the entire thing in fifteen minutes and the rest of the time in painting and detailing the picture. The painting was close enough to a real photograph of the Institute de Chandernnagore which was his topic of drawing. The Lego workshop, the community mapping program, the Franco bangle cook-off, the Heritage walk, the comic book workshop, the photography workshop with Sanjit Choudhury went very well and far beyond expectation.
The photography workshop for me personally was a learning experience, where I got to learn about the nooks and crannies of heritage photography. It was overwhelming to see that the children got the message of heritage-culture-and conservation correctly.
It was really unfortunate for me that I could not be present for the final day. It was a great pleasure working with the entire team of Aishwarya Tipnis Architects, Udit, Ashim, Aishwarya maam, the volunteers Paromita, Manvi, Somwrita and all others whose names I am forgetting at the moment. This is the time when the website is going to be unleashed and the heritage, history culture of Chandernnagore will find a place in the web and all the hard work put in by the team will be Successful. I wish ATA, the team, and all its partners all the very best for this and all future endeavors.
I grew up in this beautiful city of Chandernagore and I’m proud to be an inhabitant of this ‘petite ville’. I actually fantasized the story of each and every old building, large trees, rocks and structures from my school days, finally when I came across the project by ATA on Heritage of Chandernagore I decided that I should not miss this opportunity to explore my fantasy. Its a separate issue that I could not participate in their community engagement programmes but their effort urged me to explore the History of the city. I always wondered how did the city look like before the French arrived ? I felt bad when people related Chandernagore only as a former French colony, I felt there is a vast indegenious history of the city more Indian in nature. I’m not denying the importance and significance of the French era but I wished somewhere at least the History of Chandernagore beyond the French impact were written. Finally, I discovered a few known yet forgotten places.
The 12th century Nowpara Halderbari is the oldest structure still standing in the Western extreme point of the city, the Badhaghat, Nawabi Masjid all are still standing for centuries, waiting for enthusiasts who would like to listen to their stories. The three great villages (‘Maha Grams’ as mentioned somewhere) viz. Khalisani, Gondalpara and Kishangunj have their separate yet interesting history. Being a resident of Gondalpara, I can say each and every lane and bylane has a history to narrate. Be it the existing buildings of Hazra Bati, Harisabha or Binodtala Ghat or the already extinct stories of Moran Saheber Bari or Ambika Smriti Mandir, all share a wide and interesting aspect. Even the roads like Radhanath Sikdar Road, Upendranath Banerjee Sarani, Sishu Babu Road has a story of the person associated with the city. History is not boring specially when it is of your own birthplace. Thanks to Udit Da, Manvi Di and ATA for awakening the history bug in me !
Our team spent nearly one year collecting, documenting, and archiving historical material, including photos, newspaper clippings, building histories, stories handed down through generations, in an attempt to activate heritage conservation in the area. I’ve spent countless hours on foot in this town: I know its lanes, bylanes, and eateries like the back of my hand. Colleagues became friends, and we spent lunchtimes at the Rabindra Bhaban canteen discussing and debating and counselling. We found the vantage points where the breeze from the Ganges would be the best. If the summer sultriness sucked the energy out of our bones, the winter sun warmed our backs on foggy mornings. Occasionally, we’d reward ourselves with an oily, spicy meal at Red Chilly or Shalimar.
A long journey comes to fruition.
Here is presenting a speak preview of the website,
This project began 4 monsoons ago in 2011 where we took upon the task of preparing an inventory of list of buildings of heritage value in Chandernagore. 4 years later we are back with a strong belief that heritage isnt just about the buildings, its about the people and their stories. So we set off on a new journey unearthing these little nuggets of history..pealing the layers of history as we go along in building the Story of Chandernagore and bringing it to the world and we need your help!
We are in the process of building a comprehensive website recording the heritage and memories of the people of Chandernagore. We are inviting everyone who has lived, worked or passed through Chandernagore to share their photos and memories to create a shared album of history. Please do drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org