Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Chandannagar's multicultural heritage

Chandannagar Strand. Photo by Author
Chandannagar Strand
Chandannagar in West Bengal offers a whiff of French culture on the banks of the mighty Ganga. Broad, clean streets and elegant French-style buildings, a picturesque riverbank promenade, lovely old Hindu temples and French churches and a museum with unusual relics from a French colonial past; Chandannagar, earlier known as Chandernagore, has all this and more.

The quaint and charming French quarter

Chandannagar was already an established French settlement before the British took over a huddle of villages further down the Ganga, laying the foundation of modern-day Kolkata. In the 17th century, when the writ of the Moghul empire ruled over our subcontinent, Europeans made tentative forays to establish trading posts. In 1673, during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the French established a trading outpost on the banks of the Hooghly river (Ganga) in West Bengal. They acquired legal ownership of the area from the Moghuls in 1688 and built Chandannagar around three villages — Borkishonpur, Khalisani and Gondalpara.

It was only later in 1690 that Job Charnock established a British presence in the village of Sutanuti, heralding a new age of British dominance in Bengal. Joseph Francois Dupleix was appointed governor of Chandernagore in 1730, and the town expanded considerably. The river offered a clear route to the sea, and trade flourished.

The French Governor's Palace

In its heyday, Chandannagar was the primary hub of European commerce in Bengal. Bengalis called it Farashdanga (Farash = French) in those days, and associated it with a classy and luxurious lifestyle. Delicately woven Farashdanga dhotis were preferred by the Bengali elite. Louis Bonnaud was one of the first Europeans to introduce indigo cultivation here.

The Bengalis of Chandannagar were highly enterprising as well. Batakrishna Ghosh was among the first natives to found a cloth mill. Dinanath Chandra was one of the earliest manufacturers of European and traditional Indian medicines. Another local merchant, Indranarayan Chowdhury, was appointed a courtier of the French East India Company in 1730. He was later honoured with a gold medal from the king of France. He was a patron of local Bengali folk culture and constructed the lovely Nandadulal Temple.

Nandadulal Temple

Chandannagar was also a centre for culture and education. Le Petit Bengali, the town’s first French newspaper, was published here from 1879. Educational institutions founded by the French continue to enlighten students to this day. The Sacred Heart Church of Chandannagar is a charming example of French architecture. The imposing French Governor’s Palace has now been converted into a museum. It showcases a rare collection of antique French furniture — cannons used in the Anglo-French wars and artefacts from local Bengali culture. The palace also houses the Institut de Chandernagor, which continues to conduct French classes.
French and Bengali influences gave Chandannagar its own unique culture. Antony Firingi was a famous example of such multicultural influences. Antony was the son of a Portuguese gentleman who had settled in Chandannagar in the 18th century. (The Portuguese had their own settlement on the banks of Ganga, in neighbouring Chinsurah) Antony fell in love with a Bengali Brahmin lady and eloped with her.

He wore a dhoti, learnt Bengali and associated with Bengali Hindus. He founded a group of kabis or poets and started composing his own songs in Bengali, to recite and sing in kobir larai contests. Antony’s poems in Bengali are appreciated to this day.

Chandannagar suffered through several wars between the French and the British. ...
...Neighbouring Calcutta prospered from uninterrupted British rule and soon eclipsed Chandannagar in importance. The French ruled without further interruptions from the beginning of the 19th century. When India became independent in 1947, the French handed over charge to the people of Chandannagar. In a referendum in1949, nearly 99 per cent of the city’s people opted for merger with India. Chandannagar officially became a part of India in 1950.

Strolling down the picturesque Chandannagar Strand, one can enjoy the gentle breeze from the Ganga and dream of glorious days gone by. Tree-lined lanes branch off from the Strand into the old European quarter of the city, offering vistas of gracious buildings and sunlit spaces. European-style old buildings dot the rest of Chandannagar, which is a typical Indian urban sprawl. The tropical climate and time are taking their toll. These once-lovely buildings are often scarred with moss and lichens and overgrown with weeds; a reminder that the old must fade away, making way for the new.

My article is published in Sunday Herald



Very interesting. Many European colonies in India, now have a unique culture though there were intense merging of culture which happened in the colonial period. For egs, Cochin, Goa, Pondicherry, Mahe etc. still have the traces of their colonists, whether it is British, French, Portuguese, Jewish or Dutch It's really amazing.

monideepa sahu said...

Very well put, Janani. Several parts of India continue to bear the influences of settlers from exotic foreign cultures. Kolkata has its own Chinatown, and areas like Burra Bazaar where Marwaris and Jains from Western India have lived and thrived for centuries. There are the Iranis of Mumbai (as distinct from the Parsees, who are also of Iranian origin). I understand there is a remote valley in Kashmir, where the locals have light hair and blue eyes. They are considered to be descendants of Alexander the Great's Greek army.