Connecting Dots: A mission, A project and A message

CHITRA CHANDRASHEKHAR

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.