The forgotten heros of Chandernagore

RUDRARAJ MALIK

Citizen Historian

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.

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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. DSCN2767This 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.

 

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We are not just an old French Town

DEBJIT CHATTERJEE

Citizen Historian

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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 !

Its 20 days to the launch

Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team

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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.

Manvi Agarwal

Citizens Historian

Here is presenting a speak preview of the website,

http://heritagechandernagore.com/

 

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http://www.heritagechandernagore.com

 

The story so far

In search of the Heritage of Chandernagore…

01This 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 heritagechandernagore@gmail.com

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The team responsible for the first inscription of heritage buildings in 2011, who bravely surveyed the streets of Chandernagore drenched in the rain wading through knee deep water. Apoorva became an urban planner and is now based in the US, Neha is an urban conservationist based in Bombay while Bornav went on to study film making at Pune and the others are architects practicing in Calcutta
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The forever enthusiastic guide Neline Mondol of Chandernagore
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We knocked on many doors
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Walked many streets
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In the rain and sun
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The once grand palaces waiting to tell their stories
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Engaging in interesting conversations
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Transcribing their memories
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Stories of the grandeur of their mansions hidden behind the peeling plaster
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Family albums and heirlooms all formed part of these stories
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Richness evident in every nook and corner
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Grandeur visible below the layers of grime and dust
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French attention to the town

 

There is still more to uncover

SOWMITRA NAG

Citizen’s Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project

I am a student of second year BA History Hons at Presidency University and was surprised when this summer I came across on post on facebook looking for Citizen’s Historians. In my junior school days I quite detested the idea of being born at a suburban town, Chandernagore, where you have to depend on the nearest metropolitan city Kolkata for every luxury of life. In those days, I boasted of being here was the extra fun and enjoyment we had during Jagadhatri Puja; the few extra days of holidays and of course our extended mood of festivity when during the five days of puja the entire town came together to organise such a spectacular show. I had heard that Chandernagore was a French colony, but was hardly anything to arouse my interest. Strand and Joraghat was only only a place for hanging out and umpteenth number of adda sessions. But my perspective changed when in eighth standard I was selected to represent my school in a quiz contest being organized to mark the 60th year of Independence of Chandernagore and all the questions in it was focused on one topic ‘Chandernagore’ or do I call it Chandannagar. Yes! That’s the first time , after being kind of forced to read about my town, I came to know that it has got different names and different legends associated with each. I stood second in that quiz contest. Our team came second in that quiz contest, losing the first in a tie breaker round, and it was only after getting a deeper view of the past of MY town Chandernagore that I finally discovered what a treasure trove it is.

So when I saw the post, I immediately jumped at the opportunity of working on the project, ‘Heritage and People of Chandernagore’. It was here as part of the team, I was able to come in direct interaction with history of Chandernagore and I came to know the cultural interaction which took place among the natives and the colonial masters. Previously my knowledge about the French colony was restricted only to ‘Ville Blanche’ or the city of the whites. But after our oral history documentation of about sixty houses of Chandernagore dating back to the French era, I came across how ‘Ville Noire’ or the city of the blacks had equally injected in it bits of French culture. The documentation of building history and family history of Chandernagore has uncovered a lot from the past. To me it was seeing Chandernagore in a new light.

The best part I liked about this project was that we were not just collecting history for ourselves to write or publish papers in journals, we were collecting, collating and now publishing on the web so more students like me can be aware of their heritage. My most interesting experience was curating the questions for the Quiz Competition on the theme of “How much do you know about Chandernagore?” held at IDC along with Udit da, Udit Sarkar, the Project Architect.

Since Udit da was in Calcutta and me here we did quite a lot of it on the phone, then at the last minute on the day of the Quiz we couldnt get the printouts since the electricity went out in the cyber cafe and I left my phone at home so Udit da was pacing up and down the verandah at IdC almost thinking I wont show up. We went to each and every school to invite them to come and participate and it was wonderful to have the best representation from Chandernagores best schools namely Sri Aurobindo Vidyamandir Chandernagore , Kanailal Vidyamandir, Kanailal Vidyamandir French, Krishna Bhabini Nari Siksha Mandir and a general team.

We Citizen’s historians curated and conducted the Quiz at IdC while Aishwarya Maam and the other judges including the then French Consul General Fabrice Etienne sat in the back benches and observed.

But I firmly believe that there’s a lot more to unveil of MY town Chandernagore and now I take pride of being a part of it, I call it my own.

The French Shades of Bengal: Faraashi Bangalee

ASMITA DEY

Citizen’s Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project

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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.

Actualising the idea, my verison of PMC

SAMRAGEE PAUL

Web Design Manager, Aishwarya Tipnis Architects

I have never been to Chandernagore, yet I feel like I know the place at the back of my hand, a place so familiar, it feels as though I have sat at the Jora Ghat and discussed the politics, khela, pujo, art, culture; that I have walked the streets and discovered the hidden gems of mansions, heard stories of Nelines family, witnessed the workshops at IdC, walked along the Strand and sat in the Church myself.

For the past year, I have been working behind the scene. Vaibhav and I worked in putting together the lego workshop together. I must admit I never ever thought Lego and heritage could be linked. Its almost being kids again, when in between making working drawings for Elements bathrooms we were playing with Lego Blocks. (Quick like a Ninja while Sir was away!)

My main job now is get the website up, and believe me its a tough job getting the colours, fonts, graphics right, coordinating with the graphic designers and web coders. The funny thing is one never realises the amount of effort that goes behind actually building a good website, and today I feel like I have become half a coder myself talking all jargon like HTML, CMS, CSS etc.

I was never into websites or even heritage for that matter, I became the website design manager almost by default. The thing is everyone thinks that all architects do is design buildings,thats what even I thought before I came to ATA about 1.5 years ago. Here my friend and colleague Meghna Chaterji and Ashim Chakraborty  were involved in a super interesting project called Dutch in Chinsurah and their job was to coordinate between the Graphic designer Payal who was sitting in London and the coder Sanjib Da in Calcutta. I had witnessed their lengthy conversations and marathon of emails with Meghna being the mediator, Payal would prescribe Meghna would force Sanjib da to inscribe.I observed their struggle every single day, Meghna realised two days before the launch the website was unresponsive, and that sent everyone into a frenzy! We were also building the ATA website with another coder Jyoti, who for the longest time my colleague Vaibhav thought was a beautiful girl, only till he turned up at our office and we realized he was actually Jyotirmoy Sinha. So Meghna was really the website person until one day she decided she needed to move on and I by default got her work portfolio.

Now Heritage & People of Chandernagore was actually Udit Sarkar’s baby, but as talented as Udit is behind the screen, communication is sort of not his forte. So it was decided that I would be the coordinator between Udit, Chitra the Graphic Designer and Hemant the Coder. And although sometimes you hope you learn from the past mistakes, one actually has to be in the water to swim. I thought it would be a cake walk since we were already two websites old, we had successfully completed Dutch in Chinsurah and ATA website. But destiny had other plans, and thus would became almost like a game of Chinese whispers, Aishwarya Maam would give Udit and me a brief such as she wanted a “contemporary feel” to the website, our job was to tell Chitra that she should design a “contemporary website”. It took 7 versions of designs over two months for us to agree on the website architecture, colours, fonts and “look and feel”. We confused each other as design is so subjective!

We went from historic to iconographic to bright colours to the final colour palette, we kept going back and forth with the designs and frustrated each other so much.

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And all this while, I kept thinking but this is so different from architecture, until it was Chitra who actually made me realize the similarities. She said that design is the same for all fields and the technical part here that is coding which we think is way above our head is actually like MEP (plumbing, electrical design) in architecture, which is kind of true in a way.

Our website has evolved a little more now, given the “technical” parameters and we’ll soon release a teaser. I am up to my neck deep in work since its less than 30 days to the launch. I aspire to be a project manager one day and this project has given me a taste of the same, as a PMC I need to coordinate between the Architect & Contractor while here I am the pipeline between the Designer and the Coder, in a broad way its the same job and so I love it!

I hope all of you will love the website we are building! Keep watching this space for more updates on the launch.