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Tribute

Celebrating Freedom

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

The right to exist with freedom to choose is threatened when dictatorial regimes try to erase a culture or linguistic group as we can see in the current conflict that rages between Russia and Ukraine. In 1971, Bangladesh came into existence over a similar issue. The colonials had divided the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion — not culture. Before this division, Bengal was a whole. In 1905, Tagore had marched against the British directive to divide Bengal and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. In 1911, Bengal was reunited to be slashed again in 1947 and made a part of Pakistan with Urdu as its national language. Bangladesh fought a war to find the right to exist as an entity outside of Pakistan — adopting their favoured language Bangla. Throwing off the yoke of Urdu, Bangladesh came to its own. On 16th December, the battle against cultural hegemony was won with warplanes drawing to a halt.

Celebrating freedom from oppression, we have an article by Fakrul Alam giving the historical background of the struggle. A musing from across the border about the 1971 refugee exodus into India has been written by Ratnottama Sengupta. Asad Latif muses on the need to identify with a culture. We have translations of poetry by Nazrul to add a dash of seasoning.

Poetry

Translations of Nazrul Islam, the rebel poet of Bangladesh… Click here to read.

Prose

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka: Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971: Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture. Click here to read.

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind: Asad Latif explores the need of a person to exist as belonging to a particular cultural group, in this case Bengal. Click here to read. 

Categories
Review

The Shaping of Modern Calcutta through Lottery Sales

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830

Author: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury

Publisher: Niyogi Books

If you ask any layman about the city of Calcutta (now rechristened as Kolkata) you will get three major pieces of information — namely, it was founded by Job Charnock in 1690; it was the seat of East India Company and capital of British India till 1911; and that it was divided roughly into two sections — the white English town at the centre and towards the south and the native town in the north. Beyond that, very few people have the idea of how the city developed spatially and how several major arterial roads, tanks and squares were built systematically during the beginning of the nineteenth century and this is where The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury gives us plenty of information about the gradual development of Calcutta. This was undertaken by raising money through sale of lottery tickets and implemented by the creation of a Lottery Committee which functioned specifically for thirteen years from October 1817 to 1830.

Under the system then prevalent, the surplus lottery funds remained with the Bank of Bengal which would continue to be involved in the sale of tickets and the payment of prizes but would have nothing to do with other payments. The three senior members of the committee were John Eliot, Charles Trower and Henry Wood who had already looked after the construction of the square and tank at Baparitala (Wellington Square) and the new road being built from Dharamtala Road to Bowbazar. Later officials like Henry Shakespear and Barwell, G. Gordon and A. Colvin were inducted, and featuring in various sub-committees, they were also deeply engaged in the city’s development work.  

In 1830, for all practical purposes, the functions of the committee relating to the improvement of the city ceased effectively. Though the beneficial impact of the committee’s work affected everyone, native and European alike, and there was nothing remotely furtive about it, yet the Directors of the East India Company in London were not happy with what was happening in distant Calcutta on the city-development front, choosing to view the evolving picture in a different light. Keeping in mind the virtues of economy in expenditure, the Company wrote to its Government of Bengal that whenever there was any activity relating to general and public utility, some part of the charges ought to be borne by the inhabitants. Further, the Lottery Committee was handling large sums of money and perhaps there was the Company’s deep-seated skepticism about the sensibility of such expenditure in general and a tendency to conclude that the money was not being spent efficiently. The work done by the committee was phenomenal because the projects conceived and implemented by it still cast a long shadow on life in modern Calcutta. 

It becomes very clear that the city of Calcutta gained immensely from the development work carried out by the Lottery Committee since October 1817. The Strand Road had spruced up the eastern bank of the River Hooghly beyond recognition; the western side of Tank Square (today’s BBD Bagh) down to the Maidan till the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, had been given its modern shape with its grid of streets; pucka drains had been built and upgraded all over the city; the major north-south arterial road extending from Park Street in the south to Shyambazar in the north with four squares along it had been constructed; Free School Street had been made; the entire area south of Park Street up to Circular Road had been transformed into ‘virgin’ land ready to be settled in by the genteel (for the most part, sahib) population of Calcutta; and the modernisation of the Garden Reach area, reaching up to Khidirpur in the north, had been begun.

Among other things, the Lottery Committee built the major arterial roads in the northern and central parts of the city, which in time determined the layout of the contiguous residential areas. Dalhousie Square and the entire ground between Park Street and Circular Road were developed by the committee. Previously, a large part of the ground south of Park Street was low-lying and marshy, generating pestilence all around. Bustee clusters were located here probably because of the availability of Gangajal from Tolly’s Nullah (the Adi Ganga) through the existing network of drains, the river being some way off to the west.

The story of the making of Strand Road is narrated in detail, as with increasing economic activity and population pressure, it would provide the inhabitants with easier access to the river, both for recreation and commerce. The Lottery Committee was also responsible for putting up the first brick-and-mortar decorative balustrade which still adorns the Chowringhee area and Red Road. Thus, in its 13 years of effective functioning (till 1830), the committee had been successful in providing the critical push necessary to transform Calcutta from the topographical shape it had inherited since the years immediately following the landing of Job Charnock at Sutanati in August 1690 into one which, in a manner of speaking, would make the city ready to be launched into the 20th century and beyond.

The interest in reading the book persists throughout because apart from the maps, figures, numbers, statistics, and other logistic details, we get a lot of information of the different hindrances the Lottery Committee faced while implementing their projects. Human nature has not really changed much and so we read about people at that time who flouted the rules to line their own pockets and for whom profiteering was the norm.

The basic premise here is that human nature being what it is, there are some aspects of life and behaviour which are universal in their reach, both temporally and spatially. Another very interesting area of study is how the officials encountered the problem of encroachment, the process of land acquisition and the demand for compensation by native plot holders. The committee was aware of matters affecting the native sentiment and there are instances of how they altered the alignment of a major road to suit the convenience of the natives. Even then in some instances tiffs and legal hassles with local residents in North Calcutta were also recorded. Apart from private property rights, religious considerations too played an important role in the decision-making process of the committee.


Before concluding it is worthwhile mentioning a few lines about the author of this volume. During his quarter-century with The Statesman in Calcutta (1970-94), principally as a leader writer, Ranabir Ray Choudhury became interested in the past of a great city which the East India Company had selected as the nerve centre for its operations in the Indian subcontinent and further to the east, extending to Singapore and beyond. In time, this growing interest led to three compilations – Glimpses of Old Calcutta 1835-1850 (1978), Calcutta a Hundred Years Ago 1880-1890 (1987), and Early Calcutta Advertisements 1875-1925 (1992). He next wrote The Lord Sahib’s House, Sites of Power: Government Houses of Calcutta 1690-1911 (2010). A City in the Making, Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (2016).

This volume under review is his sixth book and thematically is a sequel to the last one. That work ended with the formation of the Lottery Committee in 1817: this book takes up the story from there. From a connoisseur of the city, we get details of its development to a point that a lot of unknown facts are provided to the reader which the author garnered from documents and archival material available at the West Bengal State Archives.

Though he is not a historian, trained or otherwise, the author mentions in the ‘Introduction’ how he faced the constant struggle to avoid getting enmeshed in detail and to refocus attention on the broad current of policy and the effects of its implementation. Attention to the specific problems faced in the day-to-day execution of projects also does help to throw light on the precise nature of hurdles encountered at the grassroots level. The book is therefore highly recommended for scholars of history, architecture, town planning and every layman reader who is interested in Kolkata – a city which has been defined in multifarious ways as a city of joy, a city of palaces, a dead city, and so on.

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Somdatta Mandal, an academic, critic and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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Categories
Editorial

Towards a Brave New World

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…

While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?

Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small.  In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.

This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in.  Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’s In the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.

That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.

Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in  Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?

Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for  more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I  think ‘Trouser Hermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.

We have also travelled with our book excerpts this time. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow shuttles between US and Japan and Somdatta Mandal’s translation of  A Bengali lady in England by Krishnabhabi Das, actually has the lady relocate to nineteenth century England and assume the dress and mannerisms of the West to write an eye-opener for her compatriots about the customs of the colonials in their own country.

While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda.  Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.

In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha,  that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.

Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with  one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.

There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.

I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Travel

Of Palaces and Restorations

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee visits a restored palace in the heartland of Bengal

The Courtyard of Rajbari Bawali. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

From time immemorial, rajbaris, or the palatial homes of zamindars, have been a part of Bengal art and architecture, although many such splendid mansions have fallen into ruin owing to ownership issues or lack of conservation. Some are being converted to hotels, like the rajbari at Bawali. Located sixty kilometers from Calcutta, the palace-hotel enthralled with its restored regal rhythm, glamour and enduring legend. We were transfixed, bemused and in love with the aesthetic elegance.

“The daunting task of restoring the crumbling historic manor into a lavish hotel was a mammoth task. An exclusive 300-year-old colonial mansion transformed into a stunning luxury heritage boutique estate”, said the proud Resident Director of the property, Ms. Mrinalinee Majumdar. Once an imposing abode of the aristocratic zamindar family, The Rajbari Bawali undoubtedly, has revived an integral part of Bengal’s glorious history and culture.

Mr. Ajay Rawla discovered the 18th century palace in a state of ruins in 2006 and tried his best to reconstruct its history. Mr. Rawla, the Chairman, spent around seven years restoring the Rajbari’s past glory. The restoration work received acclaim, award of excellence by INTACH [Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage]. The restored Rajbari Bawali has also been featured by Conde Nast UK on their hot list of “Top 50 Hidden Destinations of the World’. The Duke and the Duchess of York were guests at the Rajbari during their visit to India.

Bawali Rajbari has a remarkable history, dating back to more than four hundred years, starting with the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The name “Bawali” can be traced to its first settlers, forest dwellers from the Baul. Initially, this place was known as “Bowali” but over the years this has changed to “Bawali”. This erstwhile swampland, once part of the Sundarbans, was handed over as a reward to Shoba Ram Rai, an army officer under Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, the commander-in-chief of the Mughal Emperor. History tells us that the Mondols of Bawali were originally Roys. Their dominance in the fringes started way back in 1710. Later, the royal family prospered under Haradhan, who enjoyed the benefaction of the East India Company.

350-year-old Radha Krishna Temple built in the
traditional aat-chala style. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

It was autumn, just before Durga Puja, when we planned a day trip to explore the rajbari at Bawali. As we moved towards the entrance of the rajbari, more than three-centuries-old, Radha Krishna temple, opposite the palace, caught our attention. An arched alley made of red bricks and pillars with Victorian floral motifs. The temple steeple stands out from the rest of the architecture. It has delicate terracotta etching outside, with moss and plants growing in cracks. We were amazed at the rich intricate structural motifs. This is another heritage site that desperately needs restoration, we felt. The West meets the East in the lofty temples and the palace of Bowali. The European style columns that hold up the temples in the village are atypical in the rest of the state. Beautiful gardens dotted with fashionable statues of Italian marble and a sinuous water turret weaves a flowing reverie. It’s really sad that most of the structures are in ruins and on the verge of collapse.

Finally, we found ourselves in front of the main entrance leading to Rajbari Bawali. The welcome was grand with the beating of the dhaak, the traditional drums, and women in traditional attire, clad in red bordered white saris, welcoming guests with the traditional smear of tika on the forehead, flowers and sweets. We were overwhelmed by the antique fixtures, after stepping inside the courtyard which revived the bygone era of the zamindars, nawabs and their lifestyles steeped in grandeur. The welcome drink was refreshing and the entire property was a visual delight, a photographer’s paradise.

The Terrace café, with a part of the vestiges from the roof took us back to the primeval past. A striking segment of the palace merges the new with the ancient, keeping the antiquity alive. Apart from exploring the huge chattels we enjoyed the sumptuous traditional Bengali lunch. The royal lunch was served with utmost warmth and hospitality. The food was exceptionally delicious, was flawlessly soaked in conventional recipe and served in a stately style.  Burnt clay plates lined with banana leaves served lip-smacking kochur loti chingri, kassa mangsho, Bhetki Paturi. The dessert was mouthwatering and elaborate, I loved the misti doi.  The ongoing melodious live concert on the lush green lawn adjacent to the dining arena was definitely scintillating.

It was an astounding experience for us; something, undeniably beyond expectation, we started our journey with the thought of exploring a historical site but we were overwhelmed by the exclusiveness of the palatial structure, antique display, hypnotic charm of the ‘Zamindari Raj’ and the warmth of the employees. I was in a trance for weeks after visiting the elite ‘khazana’ of the colonial era and was keen to know more about its imperial past. My quest brought to light many hidden facts.

Unrestored Part of the Rajbari. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

The ruins of the rajbari and its surrounding relics was also the memorable shoot venue preferred by renowned film director Mrinal Sen for his Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin starred movie Khandhar. It was screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Later after restoration of the Khandhar, in 2003 Rituparno Ghosh selected the same setting, Bawali Rajbari for his National award-winning film Chokher Bali, an adaptation from Tagore’s novel of the same name. This also bagged the Chicago International Film Festival Award [2003] The rajbari is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece about 60km away from Kolkata, steeped in convention and opulence, a heritage boutique resort

It had been more than a month now, but still the spell of the Greco-Roman style Rajbari, the dungeon, jailkhana, cellar storing liquors from 1858, antique decor portico, fax machine and gramophones of archaic fashion, well-ventilated thakurdalan, spacious grand piano room, exquisite chandeliers in the dining hall and the faintly lit vestibule will take you, beyond doubt, to a baffling pensive world of romance!

Glossary:

kochur loti chingri — Prawn

 kassa mangsho – goat meat

 bhetki paturi – fish

misti doi – sweetened yoghurt a Bengali speciality.

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee has a passion for reading, writing and reciting poetry.   She is a nature enthusiast, loves to travel and has a zeal for photography.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL