2010 – present


MUKHERJEE, Srijit (director), Jaatiswar [reincarnation]: A Musical of Memories, a Bengali music drama, 148 mins, 2014.

‘Kavigaan’, the Site of Contact: Re-exploring the Ambivalence of Colonial Encounter in Jaatishwar. Srijit Mukherjee’s Bengali movie, Jaatishwar (reincarnation), is a musical memoir, concentrating on the arrival and settlement of Hensman Antony (1786-1836), a folk artist of Portuguese origin, in colonial Bengal. ‘Antony Firingee’, as he was popularly referred to, refused to be a firingee or foreigner in derogatory terms, showing impeccable strength to resist such demarcation by becoming one of the popular Kaviyaals (folk artists) of his age. The film addresses the ambivalence, dormant in settler-native discourse – while Antony becomes a Kaviyaal, he is also shown as a social outcast, castigated by a section of local Bengali rural community; his world views and actions are held in tension with the conservative outlook of those communities. In the cosmopolitan Calcutta, he had to struggle harder for acceptance; but the enlightened upper-class ambience gives him a scope to display his talent and he eventually succeeds in creating a space for himself. Anthony’s negotiation with this ambivalence of colonial process – rejected by a section of the conservative rural population and at the same time accepted as the Kaviraaj, the lord of Kavigaan, by the most established singer Bhola Moira in a Kavigaan asor (gathering arranged especially for bard’s duel) arranged in the urban atmosphere of Calcutta – is remarkably addressed in his songs. When Antony sings ‘Sosur bari baper bari eki poshak eki besh/ ei desheri chhele ami Firingeero Bangladesh‘ [There is no difference between sosur bari ( house of in laws) and baper bari (paternal home), for both are different sides of the same coin (‘poshak’ and ‘besh’ both mean dress and used here as a metaphor for dwelling – native and adventitious, the idea being how the two distant places integrate) / likewise I belong to India/Bengal, and Bengal/India belongs to me], one unmistakably notes the earnest urge of a settler to belong to the community where he is a guest. Naturally therefore he is shown to be at ease in a distant land: ‘Ei banglay bangalir beshe anondete achi’ [I am perfectly happy in Bengal wearing the Bengali attire]. Srijit Mukherjee’s film presents Anthony as a de-anglicized Westerner, who gives up his Western clothes for a typical Bengali one. Jaatishwar thus overturns the imperial assumption of the West to look down upon the East as exotic, strange and unfamiliar by indigenising the Westerner. As he decides to settle down, he also endeavours to master the local language. He has no hidden agenda to dismantle the native’s house with the native’s tool; rather he believes that a culture and its language are interminably connected, and so learning one and leaving out the other would only be a half-learning. His sincere efforts got the recognition they deserved as he eventually began composing songs in the local language. He relished the wide repertoire of the music of Bengal with diverse flavours including bhaktigiti (devotional songs), folk songs, classical Bengali music, colloquial version of music from kavigaan asor (Bard’s Duel), songs of troubadours and collected bits and scraps from everywhere, his identity emerging to be a fascinating collage of musical memories.

The main storyline in the film is well complemented by the movie’s co-plot – the love story of a Gujarati (born and brought up in Kolkata) research scholar, Rohit Mehta, whose unrequited love for a fervent Bengali nationalist and feminist RJ, Mahamaya, makes him learn and compose in the language –thus enhancing his own narrative. In fact, the film is strategically set between two shifting time-frames – 19th century and the present—as it not only helps to propel the two plots forward, one captured through the tattered memory of a fictional reincarnation of Anthony and the other through the attempts of a research scholar who chose Anthony’s life and music as his dissertation topic under some Indo-Portuguese university exchange programmes, but also essentially captures the transnational nature of Anthony and his narrative.  Interestingly enough, it is the love for Bengali song that connects the apparently disjointed plots. Anthony’s journey through the labyrinthine paths of a foreign culture following his ecstatic passion and the ultimate recognition he got coalesces with Rohit’s voyage across the emotional turbulence of his life, as if he is following the footprints of a progenitor. The two plots develop in the same pace, one clasping hand with the other, Anthony’s promenade existing as a trace for Rohit.

The addiction towards music of all forms, however, was something with which Anthony was born, something which inevitably made him an outcast in his own trading family. His unflinching dedication to melody compelled him to leave his kith and kin and come to Farashdanga (now Chandannagar). He always harboured an intense desire to be one among the natives and so during his first days, he is shown enchanting a group of native enthusiasts circling him, with his sweet tunes from the far away land of Portugal. As it crosses the binaries of colonised/coloniser politics, it is music that systematically tends to unite the warring sides in Jaatishwar . No wonder Srijit Mukherjee includes within the primary narrative the early 19th century Bengali musical tradition when Kavigan (literally the songs of poets) reached its pinnacle of popularity.

It is Kavigan which becomes the contact zone in the movie. It is significant that Kavigan is a dialogic form of performing folk songs engaging two or more groups. In Kavigan, consisting of usually two competing groups, kaviyaals or sarkars were the chief song-smiths and the accompanying singers were known as dohar whose task lied in playing instruments and repeating the catchy refrains in a duel. Kavigan became the dominant form of musical expression in Bengal in the late 18th century, patronised by the wealthy zamindars and Rajas who arranged asor or jalsa (Jalsa is a synonym for asor, both meaning a gathering where people perform recitation, songs and dance)in the domestic sacred performance space (thakurdalan) to celebrate auspicious occasions. Long before the arrival of Anthony in Bengal more specifically in Farashdanga [Chandannagar], both kavigan and kaviyals wove the narrative of voice and texts, that are fundamentally Bengali in origin and practice. Conventionally, Kavigan is composed of five stages – Bhabani Bishayak (Goddess Durga being the subject of the lyrics), Sakhi Sangbad (Stories of Radha and Krishna), Biraha (sad love songs from the lives of common people), Kheur (frivolous lyrics revolving on affairs of gods and goddesses, sometimes scurrilous) and Lahar (personal verbal attack). The final stage of Lahar is the most deciding one, a slippery zone turning the fate of the kaviyal (lead singer) upside down, while the rest of the five are just preludes.

In Jaatishwar, Anthony’s first invited visit to a concert of Kavigan is at Shobhabazar Rajbari (now in Kolkata), as a guest of Raja Gopimohan Deb, was an occasion which was to change the course of his life. In the musical exchange of the two groups of poets – Haru Thakur on one side and Nilu Thakur, Bhabani Bene on the other – Anthony found a new vista to explore his musical passion, but for a Portuguese to want not only to speak in native tongue but also to compose lyrics for songs ranging from devotional to colloquial, was a Sisyphean task. The songs of the Bengal tradition at that time were deeply rooted in Baishnab Shakto Padabali, which is a verse form containing conversational lyrics between Radha and Krishna (Hindu God and Goddess) centring on the stories of their courtship, love and languish. Anthony started learning the philosophies of the East by acquiring Sanskrit and immersing himself in religious texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Upa-puranas along with roaming from places to places in the lure of all forms of folk music – jhumur, panchali, bhaoaiya, baul and many more. At this pivotal crossroads of his life Anthony met Gorokkhonath who used to work as bandhondar (lyricist for a singer-poet), the helping mate for poets in the crisis of creativity. Together they formed an amateur group (dnarakobi used to be the Bengali term for such a group and it was essential for a Kaviyaal to form a dnarakobi) and Anthony’s voice was ready to enter the discursive grand narrative. It is to be noted that Anthony’s success in the primary stage owes much to the contribution of this Indian lyricist (Bengali language) and this explains his difference in temperament from the other dominant cultural representatives in the movie.

Beyond all the songs he composed and the melody he created, his expansive philosophy transmitted a kind of aura obliterating binaries. Anthony achieved the apex of fame and appreciation in a duel with Bhola Moyra arranged during the Durga Pujas (the most popular festival among Bengalis, the heart of Bengali culture). Bhola was one of the pioneering Kaviyals prized for his ability to spontaneously coin charismatic phrases and defeating him therefore was difficult. The musical conversation from the lahar stage of Kavigan between Bhola and Anthony, extracted from the film, is illuminating in the way how Anthony was treated as an over-ambitious marginal entity even after adopting the culture and language of Bengal wholeheartedly. Anthony’s prompt yet thoughtful reply reveals the complete transformation he underwent. Anthony’s identity was hybridized and marginalised from the perspective of the people desperately clinging to the centre which itself lost its validity when the voice of a foreigner became inseparably united with Indian ones, even in accents and intonations. To Bhola’s taunts — “Tui jaat firingee, jabarjangi/ toke parbo na to twrate/ son re bhroshto, boli spashto/ tui re nashto, mahadushto/ bhajge ja tui Jishu Khrishto/ Seeramporer girja te” [You are a foreigner, an upstart crow/ You have forsaken your religion/ You are rotten and wicked/ Why don’t you go and worship Christ at the church of Seerampore?], comes Anthony’s fitting rejoinder “Krishte ar Christe kichu tafat nai re bhai/ Sudhu namer fere manus fere…./ Amar khoda je, Hindur Hari se.…” [There is no difference between Krishna and Christ….Man is lost in the maze of names….My Allah and your Krishna are one….]. Anthony’s catholic ideas mesmerized his opponent, so much so that Bhola accepted Anthony as Kaviraaj (‘raj not as ruler but as superior proponent of song) greeting him with his own garland.  He further adds ‘Amar khoda je Hindur Hari se’ [my Allah and Hindu’s Hari are similar]. More than preaching communal harmony, Antony tries to liberate the Kavi clan from their narrow, selfish perception of a firingee. Truly, Jaatishwar offers a fresh perspective to colonial discourse where the settler tries to find a link among diverse religions through song. Aptly the lyricist, Kabir Suman, writes in one of the intense songs from the movie “Khudar Kasam Jaan” [In the name of Allah, my love]: ‘Girjar Ghontay mile jawa bhorer ajan..’ [The Church bells mingle with the morning prayer (ajan) for Allah]. Overlooking the religious divide, Anthony finally asserts the value of a common humanity above anything else.

These laurels, however, are counter-balanced by the disturbing twist in Anthony’s personal life.  His failure to create a ‘third way’ becomes evident towards the end of the movie. His appreciation and acceptance within the cultural frame cannot rescue him from the blind conservatism of the rural populace. The huge hiatus between the enlightened and the intolerant people are obvious by the time he reaches his home, at the outskirts of Farashdanga (Chandannagar). The puritan, moralist, rural society that never accepted Anthony’s voice against sati and always considered his marriage with Soudamini, the Brahmin-widow as a transgression, sets his house on fire, leaving him a deranged man, guilt-ridden and self-blaming for Soudamini’s death. The limitation of cultural interaction is stressed as Anthony Firingee, the song-poet whose devotional Agomoni songs ( songs sung to welcome Goddess Durga) are eternally valued, lost his everything to a retribution inflicted on him by the rural people for worshipping the idol of Goddess Durga in his courtyard.

The Bengali word Jatiswaar means a reincarnation, somebody who remembers his past life, a figure in transition, trapped in between a half-forgotten past and an out-of-the-place present. In the film Kushal Hazra, through the lens of whose memory the life and times of Anthony are viewed in glimpses, suffers from a split-personality disorder, he being reborn with the memory of a past where he left a commitment unfulfilled. The film is shot in many locations in Chandannagar – the Strand, in front of the Sacred Heart Church, including Central library and the crowded market place. Srijit’s narrative essentially talks about a Chandannagar (Farashdanga) from the pages of history expanding throughout the late 18th to the early 19th century during the Governor-Generalship of Lord Cornwallis and later. The film itself stands as a reincarnation of a musical past of Chandannagar, a city which was established as a French trading post in 1763, and which could not shake off the memories of a French past. It exists as a palimpsest of a European heritage in India that is never really lost.

Antara Mukherjee and Sayantani Chakraborti

সারসংক্ষেপ / SUMMARY
আন্তর্জাতিক পুরস্কার প্রাপ্ত ছবি জাতিস্ব র এর কেন্দ্রে একজন বিদেশি। উনিশ শতকের শুরুর দিকে সুদূর পতুগাল থেকে জলপথে পাড়ি দিয়ে বাংলায় এসে পৌঁছন হেন্সম্যান আন্টনি (১৭৮৬-১৮৩৬)। অল্পদিনের মধ্যেই বাংলা ভাষার সহজাত সারল্য ও ছন্দময়তা তাকে আকৃষ্ট করে। জন্মসূত্রে ব্যবসায়ী পরিবারের অংশ হলেও সুর ও ছন্দের সাথে অন্তরঞগতা আন্টনিকে করে তোলে ব্যতিক্রমি। গ্রামবাংলার সাবলীল জীবনধারায় শাস নেওয়ার অভিপ্রায় একসময় তাকে নিয়ে আসে ফরাসডাঙ্গার (যার এখন নাম চন্দননগর) উপকন্ঠে। এরই মধ্যে কোলকাতায় শোভাবাজার রাজবাড়ীতে রাজা গোপীমোহন দেবের আতিথ্যে এক কবিগানের আসরে ঊপস্থিত হন আন্টনি।
কবিগান বাংলা লোকসংস্কৃতি তথা লোকসংগীতের এক অবিচ্ছেদ্য অংগ যার জন্ম আঠারো শতকে। ইতিহাসের ভাষায় আনুমানিক আঠারো শতকের মাঝামাঝি সময় থেকে উনিশ শতকের শুরুর তিন দশককাল পরযন্ত ছিল সেই সময় যখন কবিগানের আসরের রমরমা প্রাণ সঞ্চার করত সমস্ত উতসব অনুষ্ঠানে।
রাজবাড়ীর কবিগানের আসরে গানের লড়াই আন্টনির গান শোনার নেশাকে খুঁজে দেয় এক নতুন দিশা। শুরু হয় আন্টনির বাংলা ও সংস্কৃত ভাষাশিক্ষা প্রাচ্যের দরশন-জ্ঞান লাভ এবং নানা ধরনের গান শুনে নিজেকে সমৃদ্ধ করা। এভাবেই নেটিভ ডিসকোরসে আন্টনি ফিরিঙ্গির প্রবেশ।
ক্রমাগত চড়চা এবং বাংলা ভাষায় গান রচনা করার অদম্য ইচ্ছে আন্টনির কবিয়াল হয়ে ওঠার স্বপ্নকে অল্পসময়েই সাফল্য এনে দেয়। সেসময়ের সেরা ও অপরাজিত কবিয়াল ভোলা ময়রাকে হারিয়ে আন্টনি হয়ে ওঠে সেরার সেরা। শুধু তাই নয় আন্টনির গানের মোহময় সুর উপনিষদের দরশন-প্রতিফলিত লিরিক মন জয় করে নেয় সকলের।
বাংলা গানের কবিয়াল হয়েও হিন্দু বাঙালি হয়ে ওঠা হয় না আন্টনির। তার গানের প্রতিভায় আপ্লুত মনে যে সমাজ আন্টনিকে সেরার তকমা দেয় সেই সমাজের গোঁড়া হিন্দুতবাদ তার অস্তিত্বকে বেধে রাখে মার্জিনে।
আন্টনি ফিরিঙ্গির কবিয়াল হয়ে ওঠার সফর জাতিস্মর ছবিতে (পরিচালক : সৃজিত মুখাজী) চিত্রীত হয় কুশল হাজরা (যিনি বিগত জন্মে ছিলেন আন্টনি) চরিত্রের স্মৃতিপটে। আন্টনির ঊপস্থিতি ও সান্নিধ্যে কবিগান প্রাচ্য ও পাশ্চাত্যের ডিসকার্সিভ আদানপ্রদান স্পেসে পরিবরতিত হয়।


Chandernagore, the ‘Blossoming Flower-Garden’: Colonial footprints on Native Soil.

            In Europe and the Hugli : The European Settlements on the West Bank of the River (2014) Suranjan Das and Basudeb Chattopadhyay pertinently observe that the “serene and picturesque riverfronts of Chandernagore and to a lesser extent Chinsurah provided solace to Devendranath and attracted two of his exceptionally talented children Jyotirindranath and Rabindranath”(53). Far from the maddening crowd of the busy metropolitan life in Calcutta, colonial Chandernagore, to a large extent, provided the much needed comfort to the father and the sons from the turbulence of mundane existence of the metropolis and renewed them with vigour. Beneath the fascination for the pristine natural landscape, however, lies a vital association of Tagore family with colonial Chandernagore. The Zamindar of Telenipara, Chandernagore, Annadaprasad Bandyopadhyay, was drawn towards the principles of Raja Rammohan Roy’s ‘Brahmo Samaj’ and subsequently established Brahmo society at Chandernagore in 1828. In ‘Chandannagore O Jorashankor Swornopokkhira’ (pp 23-28, 1995) [‘Chandernagore and the Golden Birds of Jorashanko’] Amol Kumar Mitra notes that  the Chandernagore branch of  ‘Brahmo Samaj’ was often visited by the practitioners from Calcutta. It is in this connection that Dwarakanath Tagore, Debendranath’s father, along with Raja Rammohan Roy, often visited Annadaprasad Bandyopadhya’s residence, ‘Lalkuthi’, at Hatkhola, Chandernagore. Mitra observes: “Dwarakanath O Annadaprasad er parosporik somporko kromosho paribarik o purushanukromik bondhuttye prosharito hoi. Maharshi Devendranath er songe bilokkhon somporko gothito hoi Annodaprasad er dui putro Satyadayal O Satyaprassanor sathe. Sei somporker sutre Maharshi Chandernagore e Gongar dhare Hatkhola semante Satyaprassono Bandyopadhayer sompotti bhukto ‘Riverview’ namok barite onekbar bhara niye rakhen. Ei tie Jorashakor nothite Barujjyeder Bagan name ullekhito”[“Gradually Dwarakanath and Annadaprasad became family friends and the friendship continued for generations. Debendranath developed a close intimate relationship with Annadaprasad’s sons, Satyadayal and Satyaprasanno. Due to this, Debendranath often rented Satyaprasanno’s house by the Ganges, ‘Riverview’, in the ‘Hatkhola’ locality of Chandernagore. This house is noted in the documents of Jorashanko as the garden-house of the Bannerjees”].  Maharshi Debendranath stayed at ‘Riverview’ thrice; firstly, for three months in 1878, a time when ‘Brahmo Samaj’ in Kolkata was passing through a crisis. The tussel between Shivnath Shastri and Keshab Chandra Sen led to a crack in the ‘Samaj’ and to discuss the matter with Devendranath, Shastri came to meet him at ‘lalkuthi’( ‘Rabindranath O Jorashankor Swornopokkhira’, p 24).; secondly, in 1879 when Maharshi stayed for two months and finally, five years later, in December 1884 till March 1885. Interestingly enough, in all three visits, Maharshi Debendranath stayed at the same house and was deeply engrossed in the activities of ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’. In contrast, his sons, Jyotirindranath and Rabindranath, shifted residences within Chandernagore. Apart from staying in Barujyeder Baganbari [The garden house of the Banerjees] at Telenipara, near the Strand Road, Jatirindranath and Rabindranath also stayed at Moran Shaheber Kuthibari [The Bungalow of Moran Sahib] at Gondolpara.  Rabindranath, in his later life, stayed in his houseboat, ‘Padma’ on the Ganges and in Patalbari [The House Underground]1 on the Strand Road.  These three houses record three different intervals of his life – Barujyeder Baganbari pictures the jubilant days of  his boyhood and initiation into foreign language, Moran Shaheber Kuthibari records the mixed emotions of adulthood and the awakening of his poetic self and Patalbari phase impresses one as a sensitive intellectual eager to grasp the socio-political condition of  a colonial town. His creative works of the time bear out the point.  Colonial Chandernagore thus appear to be Rabindranath’s blossoming flower garden where bloomed the rare flowers which occupy a relevant space in the illustrious career of the master artist. No wonder colonial Chandernagore as a temporal space, becomes the metaphorical Kunstlerroman of Rabindranath Tagore.

            Along with cultivating French language, Rabindranath continued to compose Bengali poems, prose, short stories and songs in his subsequent visits to Chandernagore. Moran Shaheber Bari [The Bungalow of Moran Sahib], where Rabindranath moved in with his brother and sister-in-law after staying at the garden house of the Bannerjees , was a hugely built structure in Gondolpara, Chandernagore: “Kichudin por bari palte moran shaheber bunglowy. Sheo gangar dhare. Kadambarir bikkhipto moner opor diye gangar batash jeno sneher sparsho diye chue jay. Rabio satarko thaken jate bouthaner mone kono megh na jome. Jyotir anupasthitite hasigolpe gane kobitay bhorie rakhen kadambarir abasar”( Sengupta, 227) [“After a little while they came to the Bungalow of Moran Sahib by the Ganges. The mild breeze from the smooth waves of the Ganges heals the wound of Kadambari’s mind with a magic touch of warmth and care. Rabi pours all his attention on bouthan and never let loneliness envelop her forlorn mind. Even when Jyoti is not around, Rabi fills the air with laughter and stories, idle conversations and thus enlivens Kadambari’s leisure with his joviality”]. Tagore started writing his first historical romance Bouthakuranir Hat (The Young Queen’s Mart, published in1883) in this house. The circular dome-shaped room on the roof of the house which opened amidst the bounty of nature  inspired the poet to compose such immortal lines: “Anonto e akasher kole/ tolomolo megher majhar/ eikhane bandhiachi ghor/ tor twore kobita amar” (Jibonsmriti / My Reminiscences,  p 489 )[“Here, wherein the lap of limitless space clouds/ lie down to sleep, / I have built my house for thee, O Poesy”]. These lines succinctly confirm Chandernagore as the pristine abode where his poetic self flowered. Moreover, Tagore also composed prose pieces during his stay here. Tagore reminisces his days spent by the Ganges in Jibonsmriti [My Reminiscences]: “Gangar dhare bosia ‘Sandhyasangeet’ chara kichu-kichu godyo o likhtam. Seo kono bandha lekha nohe—seo akrakom ja-khushi tai lekha” (Jibonsmriti / My Reminiscences, p 491) [“Coupled with ‘Sandhyasangeet’ I also composed some prose-texts living by the Ganges. Those were not structured pieces, organized and framed—those were random delightful records”]. Bibidho Prasanga [Miscellany] written during 1883, is a reserve of precise and succinct passages numerous in number and diverse in thoughts. In chronicling the short essays Pal in Rabijaboni allocates a specific course of time, “Ei sankhipto prabandhaguli srabon 1288 theke suru kore kartik o agrahayon chara proti mas e koekti kore mudrito hoe boisakh 1289-sonkhyay sesh hoy arthat moran shaheb er bagane sutropat o sadar street er bashay abosthankaler kichudin porjonto ei rachonar dhara probahito hoe choleche.[“These short prose pieces started coming out in pages from July 1288 (in the Western system 1881), appearing almost regularly, one or two each month, except for the period of late October to early December, culminating in the issue of April 1289 (English 1882), which means, it all began at Moran Shahib’s Bungalow and went on continuing for some days after they shifted to the house at Sadar Street”]. Incidentally, immediately after Chandernagore, Jyotirindranath and Kadambari went to stay at a house in Sadar Street, Kolkata. From the conversational tone of the essays and the short and pithy style, the interlocutor’s presence can be sensed and Tagore had later acknowledged the anonymous participator in the conversation is none other than his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi. Long after he had left Chandernagore, the memories of the colonial town recur in his short stories, Apod and Adhyapok , like a leit motif.  Apod (The Unwanted, Galpoguccho, pp 239-246), written in 1894, set in a garden house by the Ganges in Chandernagore, is reminiscent of a young Tagore wandering and relaxing in the garden house of the Banerjees at Telenipara, Chandernagore. Moreover, the story begins on a stormy evening with the heated conversation between a couple, Sarat and Kiran who have come to Chandernagore for a change of place – as Tagore’s family members often came for a change of air – prescribed by a doctor with a view to improve the health of Sarat’s ailing wife, Kiran. In August 1898, Rabindranath brought back the memories of the two houses he stayed at Chandernagore in his short story Adhyapok [The Professor, Golpoguccho, 322-334). Adhyapak, which records an episodic chunk of Chandernagore, includes a reference to a garden house in Farashdanga where the protagonist, Mahindrakumar, a student of Arts, comes with an ambition to write something marvellous. The vivid description of leisurely afternoons spent by the Ganges is partly autobiographical. The bagan (garden) of Adhyapok in Farashdanga is an unmistakable reference to Barujyeder Bagan [The garden of the Banerjees] where Tagore himself stayed for some days in the prime of his youth in 1881-82. The third and fourth chapters contain glimpses of Moran Shaheber Kuthibari [The Bungalow of Moran Sahib]. One sultry afternoon rejuvenating his mind in the fresh air blowing from the river Ganges, Mahindrakumar’s attention was drawn towards his neighbour, Kiranbala’s residence: “Ganga hoite ghater siri brihat barir barandar upor uthiache, barandati dhalu kather chad diya chayamoy”.[“Steps led up from the edge of the Ganges to the veranda of the large house, the veranda is shadowed with a sloping wooden roof”]. This description of Kiranbala’s house is reminiscent of Tagore’s memory of youthful days spent in the palace like residence named Moran Sahib’s Kuthi [The Bungalow of Moran Sahib]. The author’s imagination casts a cloak of unfamiliarity around the house making it strangely intimate to the readers. In the short story, Kiranbala’s dwelling palace, resembling Moran Sahib’s Bungalow, is the next-door neighbour of Mahindrakumar’s place of stay which in its description echoes The House of the Banerjees at Telenipara, though in reality they were not so near. Thus Chandernagore townscape acted as the necessary catalyst in the alchemic transformation of a young, sensitive soul into a creative artist par excellence.

            Tagore and Chandernagore shared a strong, mutual connection. In April 1927, Rabindranath was invited as a chief-guest at an inaugural programme arranged by ‘Prabartak Sangha’, a Hindu religious institution in Chandernagore founded by Motilal Ray in 1920. Tagore went to Krishna Bhabini Nari Siksha Mandir, a girls’ school, established by Harihar Sett in 1926. On that day Tagore was also invited to a cordial tea-party in the French Residency especially organized by the French administrator in the honour of the poet. A charming event was organized in the green lawn of the residency by the Ganges. Eminent French scholar Sylvain Lévy, a former Professor at Visva Bharati and a devoted appreciator of Tagore, was also present there. Harihar Sett informs us: “Je sob forashi administrator Chandannagore e ashiten, sadharonbhabe tanhara onekei robindraonuragi chilen” (Sett, 38). [“Generally speaking, most of the French administrators who came to Chandernagore were fond of Rabindranath”]. Tagore’s companionship and presence thus were as craved among the natives and regional community in Chandernagore as much as it was sought after by the French. This explains his eagerness and enthusiasm to know about the state of French education. As he matured, he was curious to know the expansion of French education at Chandernagore and so interacted with the eminent people of the place. Staying in the houseboat near Ranighat in 1926, Rabindranath, for instance, welcomed the Mayor of Chandernagore, Sri Narayan Chandra Dey and the critical Francophile philanthropist, Harihar Sett in his houseboat. Harihar Sett in Rabindranath O Chandannagore recalls the meeting: “[…]Chandannagore e forashi bhasha sikkhar dhara o maan sombondhe obogoto hoibar jonnyo tini agroher sohit Narayanbabu ke bohu prosno koren” (Sett, 26) [“In order to be aware of the standard of French education in Chandernagore, Rabindranath, keenly enough, threw volleys of questions at Narayan Chandra Dey”]. Interest for the French culture and heritage coupled with his fascination for the natural ambience brought him back to Chandernagore in 1935. Now that his favourite Moran Sahib’s Bungalow gone, Rabindranath Tagore anchored in the house boat, ‘Padma’, near the uncared-for shore of the house of Banerjees and rented Patalbari [The House Underground] for sixty rupees a month. Incidentally, Patalbari was an exclusive house : “Chandannagar er e bariti anyanyo bari hote ektu alada rakomer. Anginar akdhar ghenshe por por eksari ghar. Dotola thik pothe giye misheche, nicher tola matir tole, joyare gangar jol chole ashe sekhane…” (quoted in Kabir Abash, pp 49) [“This house in Chandannagar is a bit different from all other houses. The rooms are placed in a line, one after the other, at one side of the veranda. The upper storey has merged with the road whereas the ground floor is underground, in the time of rise the water of the river would come and fill the floor…”]. While staying in the houseboat, he composed many poems, namely, ‘Bidrohi’, ‘Gitocchobi’, ‘Chutir lekha’, ‘Nimontron’, ‘Chayachobi’, ‘Natyasesh’ (Sett, 26). Chandernagore witnessed the final visit of Tagore in 1937. In an invitation to inaugurate the Bengali Literary Festival, Tagore expressed his desire to stay for a few days at Janhabi Nibas, which however, remained unfulfilled. Years later, French administrator Monsieur Baron came to Chandannagar in 1940, long after Tagore’s last visit and in homage to Tagore Baron read his Gitanjali [Song Offerings]. Mrinal Ghosh in Rabismriti, as recounted in Sett’s Rabindranath O Chandernagore, recollects how Baron became so influenced by Tagore’s poetic style that he used to read Gitanjali every day before he joined office. True Rabindranath died in Calcutta; yet memories of Chandernagore continued to stay with him, even when he was unable to visit the place. His short story, Pragatisanghar [Progress Retracted, Rabindrarachanabali, Vol XIV, pp 67-75] written almost at the end of his life, between 11-21 June, 1941, though set in Calcutta has an episodic reference to Chandernagore. The protagonist, Niharranjan, is born and brought up at French Chandernagore. His knowledge of the French language offers him a scope to address the visiting French scholars at his University: “Niharranjaner bari Chandannagare. Pratham boyesh e forashi school e tar bidyasikkha, shekhane or bhashar dakhol niye khub khyati peyechilo, e-sob katha or kolkatar bondhumahal keu janto na…ki aschorjo, abhinandan jakhon porlo tar bhasar chhotay forashi pandit ebong tnar du-akjon anuchar aschorjo hoe gelen. Tnara bollen – erakom marjito bhasha Francer baire kakhono shoneni. Bollen, e cheletir uchit Paris e giye degree arjon koreasha”(73)[“Niharranjan lives in Chandannagore. In the early years, he got his education in a French school, there he received acclaim and praise for acquiring the language so well, he never talked about these to his friends in Calcutta…to a great surprise, when the welcome note cascaded down gently, the splendour of his expression left the French scholar and his one or two companions speechless. They remarked – they had never come across such marvellous rendition of French beyond the boundaries of France and agreed in unison that the boy must come to Paris to get a degree”]. The excerpted passage unearths the fissure, latent in the discourse of colonization, which is potentially prone to disruption. Niharranjan went to a French school at Chandernagore and learnt the language so devotedly, that his proficiency surprised a Professor from the Sorbonne. Nihar’s perfect acquisition of a foreign language and culture, subverts the authority of the colonizer over the native rather than reinforcing it, for the native, by imitation, has now created a third space of resistance and contest. Education, the colonizer’s tool for disseminating their culture and thereby manoeuvring the ideological genesis of the native, was a facile method of spreading Orientalism. But in this colonial encounter, the native intellectual surpasses the structure provided by the authority, creating a fracture in the colonial discourse, where predominance of plurality essentially erases the leverage of the ruler. Not only that, the French Professor and his acquaintances in the short story even suggests Nihar to come to Paris to get a degree. It shows the great leap the native has made. He is able to speak in the tongue of the master and how his identity becomes the sign of deference and difference. Moreover, the quoted passage is also slightly revelatory in the attitude of the French towards the native. They seem to have a catholic mind to appreciate the other: “amra bideshi, jodi ba amader bhashay kimba boktritay kono truti hoy ta forashi adhyapak nischoi hashimukhe mene neben. Onra to ar Ingrej non, Ingreja bideshider kach thekeo nijeder adobkaydar skhalan soite paren na,             emon onder ahankar. Kintu forashider ta noy, barancha Jodi kichu asampura thake seta heshe graham korbe” (72). [“The language is not our own, if there is any mistake in the way we want to convey our thoughts in the language, the French professor would surely take that with a smile. They are not like the British, the British never tolerate a single flaw in the imitation of their etiquette, even from a person who is foreign to their language and culture, such is their pride. But the French are different, even if there is a sense of incompleteness in the expression, they would accept      that ungrudgingly and wholeheartedly”.] In this speech of an anonymous Bengali girl, who is Niharranjan’s classmate, Tagore points out the difference between the linguistic tolerance of the French and the British – while the British are always rigid, the French appears to have controlled parts of India, with a lighter hand. Though the story ultimately ends up to be a saga of unrequited selfless sacrifice, Tagore’s flashback strategy to include Chandernagore, thereby juxtaposing Niharranjan’s childhood knowledge of French reaping  fruitful harvest in his post-graduate days at Calcutta University, speaks volumes of his nostalgia and deep sense of belonging to a place where he has returned time and again. Colonized Chandannagar and French education, even as a short reference, therefore, is no meagre episode; one unambiguously discerns the ambivalence inherent in the colonial discourse of early twentieth century Bengal.

            That era is gone but the aroma of a historical past hangs around the dilapidated structures of Barujyeder Baganbari and Patalbari of the today’s waterfront town. The innumerable visits of Tagore and his family to this town, the unforgettable moments they spent in delightful conversations, had left unseen memories in the dust of the streets, in the crowd of concretes. These memories map the journey of an artist, his growth from a young aimless boy, immersed in music and poetry, into a mature individual, conscious of the presence of a foreign power ruling his land. In its relation with Rabindranath, Chandernagore, therefore, seems to veil a lost milieu of a magnificent history. And through his simultaneous fondness for French and native poems, songs and prose pieces, composed during his stay at Chandernagore, Rabindranath reconstructs Chandernagore as a well wrought urn, preserving the traces of a different French colonial era, long after the end of British colonial rule.

Antara Mukherjee & Sayantani Chakraborti


  1. Patalbari literally The House Underground or The Underground House at Chandernagore strand was a place frequented by Tagore between 1930s-40s. The house has a unique architecture – its ground floor is submerged in the Ganges and the first floor is just above the ground. The famous social reformer Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar also stayed in the house. The house was owned by Jogendranath Khan who used to rent it for visitors keen on enjoying the beauty of the Ganges living by its side. Tagore’s letters and autobiographical writings record mentions of his stay in this spacious house many a times.
  2. Priyanath Sen was a bosom friend of Rabindranath Tagore. Prasanta Kumar Pal in Rabijiboni (Life of Tagore, II, pp 137) records the close friendship the duo used to share. Rabindranath used to depend on his friend for the appreciation of his literary works. He had a deep veneration for Priyanath’s expertise on different languages and literatures. In the Jibonsmriti (My Remniscences) he recollects how the scholarly erudition of Priyanath Sen and his keen perceptions, diverse range of knowledge and critical bent of mind helped Tagore compose lines of literary merit.
  3. History of English Literature was written by the French critic and historian H.A.Taine (Hippolyte Adolphe Taine) and was published in the year 1872. It was translated from French to English by Henry Van Laun.


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  • CHATTOPADHYAY, Debendranath. ‘Forashi O Bharatiya Krishti O Bangla Sahitya’[‘French and Indian Culture And Bengali Literature’], Chandernagore Govt. College Magazine, Issue – X. Chandernagore : ,1957. Pp n.p.
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  • SETT, Harihar. Rabindranath O Chandannagore [Rabindranath And Chandannagar], Chandannagar: Chandernagore Library, 1962. 328 pp
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MUKHERJEE, Antara, Bhaswati GHOSH and Avijit DUTTA. eds., চন্দননগর:বিবিধ প্রসঙ্গ [Chandernagore: Myriad Perspectives], Kolkata: Rupali Publication, 2016, 112 pp.

Written during his sojourn at Chandernagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s Bibidha Prasanga (1881-1882) is a reservoir of random, precise and succinct passages, numerous in number and diverse in thoughts. These prose works were not structured pieces, organized or framed, but delightful records of colourful, indolent days Rabindranath Tagore spent in Moran Sahib’s Bungalow at Gondolpara, Chandernagore. The present volume derives its name from Tagore’s work not merely because both were conceived at Chandernagore by the Ganges, but also for its dappled nature. As Tagore’s Bibidha Prasanga did not follow any specific structure and accommodates the variant, multihued thoughts of the poet, similarly this volume is not confined to any specific form; it is an amalgamation of scholarly articles, recollection, audio-visual play, reports and interview. To say this is not to suggest that the diversity of thought, as expressed in the variety of articles, makes the book a ‘Melting Pot’ of ideas. Rather, like a ‘Salad Bowl’, the volume retains its exclusiveness, for each article exists with its own distinctness. In other words, the present volume is an attempt to represent Chandernagore from myriad perspectives.
In an attempt to gauge the significance of Chandernagore, the volume begins with Subhendu Majumdar’s article, which focuses on understanding the uniqueness of Chandernagore. He uses a Bengali word, ‘mahatya’ which almost means something like a combination of glorification and importance in English, and claims for Chandernagore a unique position as a muffusil (subdivisional) town primarily on three grounds. Firstly, as a French colony, he opines, Chandernagore has been a favourite hub for many luminaries of Renaissance Bengal. The serene natural ambience of the place with its broad, intellectual, cultural and cosmopolitan nature facilitated exchange of views, serious dialogues and logical interactions which, in turn, attracted eminent persons to this town from across the country. Secondly, it is also unique for its throbbing night life – pubs, hotels, brothels and French wine – outside Calcutta during the nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal. Perceptively enough, he argues that this has been the cause of attraction for Europeans of all hues, army personnel, mill workers and the neo-elite ‘babus’ towards Chandernagore. Thirdly, as a non British empire, Chandernagore has always been the safest hiding place for the freedom fighters. Within its brief span, Majumdar’s article also pays tribute to the erstwhile revolutionary and Sub Director of Chandernagore College, Sri Charu Chandra Ray.
Biswanath Bandyopadhay’s article takes one back to the past, for it concentrates on the pre-colonial history of Chandernagore. His article is a valuable document which brings to light the forgotten zaminders ( feudal lords) of Chandernagore – Rameshwar, Sreeram and Ramkrishna – as well as the significance of the two rivers, the silted Saraswati and the fast flowing Bhagirathi, in understanding the socio-economic situation prevalent in those days. In an elaborate way, Bandyopadhay’s article, through facts and evidences, traces the emergence of different markets or ‘haats’, the conflict among the missionaries, history of caste mobilities, history of temples and deities and of the denizens in pre-colonial Chandernagore.
Beginning with the pre-colonial era, Avik Chattopadhay’s article sheds light on the divergent sports and games prevalent in Chandernagore. However, the article also includes the contributions of the French administrators in promoting sports at Chandernagore. He gives a detailed list of popular sports – like Kabaddi, Hockey, Cricket, Football, Badminton etc – played at Chandernagore, of the various sporting clubs and of the accolades won by them in State and National Championships. Mixing anecdotes and personal history, Avik Chattopadhay’s article also pays tribute to a number of sportsmen from Chandernagore, for instance, Satishchandra Palsai and Gour Gopal Ghosh.
Debangan Basu’s article contemplates on Sri Aurobindo and his self-concealment at Chandernagore from 21st February till 31st March, 1910. Basu briefly sketches the backdrop of Sri Aurobindo’s advent at Chandernagore and discusses the various houses he stayed during that period: the warehouse of old wooden furniture of Motilal Ray, Narendranath Banerjee’s house at Gondolpara, the garden house of the Kar’s and finally a rented room near ‘Gulir adda’( a place near the main market), Chandernagore. In describing his time at Chandernagore and the moments of his final departure from Chandernagore, Basu covers Sri Aurobinda’s interactions with Motilal Ray and the deep impact he had on Ray.
Basabi Pal (nee Ghosh) recollects her glorious childhood spent amidst luminaries in the French trading post. In her memoir, she fondly recounts tales of her family members which give one an idea of her passionate, emotional connection with Chandernagore. Particularly she gives an elaborate account of her relationship with Madame Leena Dey nee Beteille, which, in turn, becomes an evidence of camaraderie between a coloniser(French) and a colonised (Bengali) at Chandernagore.
This flavour is carried forward in Antara Mukherjee’s article which, though focuses on how architectural spaces at Chandernagore contribute to the development of artistic temperament of Rabindranath Tagore, precisely sheds light on Tagore’s passion for the coloniser’s language, French, and his awareness of the impact of colonial education at Chandernagore. Through his audio-visual play, Saumyadeb Basu recreates the era spent by the members of the Tagore household, Jyotirindranath, Kadambari and Rabindranath, amidst the picturesque landscape of Chandernagore. This artistic piece is a homage to them, for it challenges the mythical concept of the trio simply spending a sluggish time by the side of the Ganges. In Basu’s deft hands, the audio-visual play exposes the industrious time the brothers and the sister-in-law spent at Chandernagore. The audio-visual play, thus, is based on historical facts and should not be looked upon as a mere figment of an artist’s imagination.
The three contributors, Kusal Singharay, Santanu Chattopadhay and Arkapravo Banerjee, ponder on the cultural signifiers of Chandernagore: Jagadhatri Puja, Lighting Industry and Jolbhora Sandesh respectively. Kusal Singharay traces the origin of Jagadhatri Puja, the main festival of Chandernagore, in Krishnagar and its gradual observation at Chandernagore. Singharoy addresses the controversy surrounding Jagadhatri Puja’s origin at Chandernagore. Informative and impartial, the article includes the impressions that time has made on the celebration of the deity at Chandernagore. Within its brief space, Santanu Chattopadhay’s article lights up the different stages of construction of a design through the minimum units of lights, the gradual spread of workshops from Chandernagore to its adjacent towns and the mechanical changes brought about by the use of LED in place of bulbs. The ingenious and stressful process of lighting up the country and some parts of the world rightfully becomes a matter of pride for the local artisans. In a similar vein, the fame of the signature sweet of Chandernagore, Jolbhora, reaches far and wide due to its impeccable taste and the secret art of inserting an oasis of rose-syrup within an otherwise parched sandesh. Arkapravo Banerjee interviews Saibal Modak, the surviving fourth generation member of the Surjya Modaks, the representative confectioner of Chandernagore who is credited to be the inventor of Jolbhora, to gain an insightful knowledge of this sweet industry. The short interview ingeniously covers the genesis of Jolbhora, the method of importing and storing ingredients, the prestigious customers and the accolades received over the time.
The volume, thus, is a representative document of a town that has had a strong pre-colonial base which, through colonial encounter, underwent a whitewash. Yet Chandernagore has withstood the blows of the time and has managed to hold its signature placards – Jagadhatri Puja, Jolbhora Sandesh and Lighting Industry – quite high. No wonder Chandernagore has remained a favourite destination for distinguished personalities over the time. The seed of the desire to explore the rich social and cultural matrix of Chandernagore was sown in a seminar, entitled ‘Chandernagore: Socio-Cultural Reflections’, organised by the Seminar Committee of Chandernagore College in July 2016. Following the interest generated by the seminar, an extended one was jointly organised by the Departments of Economics and Sociology in September 2016. The present volume includes all the five invited lectures delivered in the two seminars. However, it would be wrong to refer to the volume simply as seminar proceedings. The uniqueness of the volume lies in its inclusion of articles by a cross-section of the society – artist, teacher, editor, journalist and an alumnus of the college – and their representations both in Bengali and in English. This merger of invited speakers, interested professionals and of two languages makes the volume varied or ‘bibidha’ in the true sense of the term.

Antara Mukherjee

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