City with a past


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‘AS yet one knows nothing of the future except that it is going to be different from the past’: thus wrote W.B. Yeats. Calcutta, if the present political dispensation is to be believed, and if the signs and the promises are any indicator, is poised for a leap into a great future. This is perhaps a good perch in time to look into the city’s past from which its future is going to be so radically different.

Calcutta is a parvenu city. It has no distant past like Delhi nor does it have a royal lineage. It grew with the establishment and the development of British economic and political power. It was also, in Rudyard Kipling’s oft-quoted phrase, ‘chance erected’. The village of Sutanuti, one of the three villages from which Calcutta grew, the other two being Kolikata and Govindapur – was the first convenient deep water anchorage that Job Charnok, a factor of the English East India Company, located when he was evicted from Hughli in 1690 by the Mughal subahdar. Sutanuti was then a flourishing mart for cotton goods. The East India Company acquired these three villages from the local zamindar. The servants of the East India Company chose to settle in Kolikata, just south of Sutanuti.

It was here that they built the hub of their operations in eastern India by building Fort William. The original fort stood where the General Post Office stands today. Till the beginning of 1700, British documents going out of this settlement mention ‘Chuttanutte’ as their point of origin. From the middle of the 1700s, letters going out of Fort William to London carried the inscription, Fort William in Calcutta. This is the beginning of the transformation of a small and obscure village – Kolikata – into a teeming metropolis, Calcutta, which became the second city of the British Empire. The state of these villages, before the British began to develop the area, can be gauged by the fact that in 1706 they had two streets, two lanes and eight pucca houses. In 1756, by which time the British were so firmly entrenched that they were considered a threat to the Nawab of Bengal, there were 27 streets, 52 lanes and 498 pucca houses. Calcutta has only a British lineage.


The dependence of the growth of Calcutta on the British presence can be shown in many ways. One obvious example was the development of what in the late 18th and early 19th centuries came to be referred to as the White Town: the area stretching from Dalhousie Square to south of Park Street, and further afield to Alipore and then Ballygunge. Here was laid out tree-lined avenues and bungalows with gardens and manicured lawns. But the city earned for itself the lasting epithet ‘city of palaces’, not because of the bungalows the sahibs built. The mansions built by Bengalis along Chitpur Road and in other parts of north Calcutta, the Black Town, earned for the city this recommendation.

But who were these Bengalis and how did they make their fortunes? The answer to this question can be had from a list of rich Bengalis of Calcutta prepared in the 1820s. But the list mentions that most of these men made it rich in the late 18th century. The ten men in the list are: (i) Nimai Charan Mullick, trader and banian who established the Mullick family of Burrabazar; (ii) Raghu and Abhaya Charan Mitra, sons of Govindaram Mitra who in the 1720s was appointed deputy zamindar of Calcutta by the English East India Company and virtually ruled Calcutta and amassed a huge fortune; (iii) Madan Mohan Dutta, trader who established the Dutta family in Hathkola; (iv) Ramkrishna Mullick, trader and the founder of the Mullick family of Pathuriaghata; (v) Lakshmikanta (Naku) Dhar, the founder of the Posta raj family, was banker to Clive and other important Britons in Calcutta; (vi) Nabakrishna Deb, founder of the Sovabazar raj family, was the banian of both Clive and Verelst; (vii) Ramlochan Ghosh, the banian of Warren Hastings and his wife, the founder of the Ghosh family of Pathuriaghata; (viii) Gokul Ghoshal, trader and Verelst’s banian; (ix) Darpanarayan Tagore, trader and the amin of the Company; and (x) Nilmony Tagore, amin of the Company.


The list makes one thing abundantly clear: fortunes were made by Bengalis through collaboration with the British in trade. In this context, the term banian which occurs again and again in the list needs to be explained. In 18th century Bengal, a banian was an independent trader who came forward to help servants of the Company when they first arrived in Calcutta. All servants of the Company engaged in private trade and the banian became his partner and sometimes even advanced capital to start the enterprise. But apart from that he also provided various other services: acting as an interpreter, finding a house, servants and even procuring a sleeping dictionary (a wonderful euphemism for a native mistress).

The relationship between the banian and the British officer/servant of the Company began as an equal partnership. But as the century progressed and the political and economic power of the Company expanded and finally assumed forms of total control, the equality disappeared and the relationship acquired a master-servant character. But this did not stand in the way of fortune-making. The scale of the fortunes the Bengalis made is evident not only from the mansions and country houses they built for themselves but also from accounts of their conspicuous consumption.


Accounts of the conspicuous consumption indulged in by these people have become part of Calcutta’s lore. In the sraddha ceremony of Nimai Charan Mullick, Rs 15,000 was donated in addition to gold, silver, palanquin, horses and the feeding of 200,000 beggars. Each of the beggars received two rupees. The total expenditure was estimated to have been Rs 18 lakh. At his mother’s sraddha, Nabakrishna Deb was said to have spent around nine lakh rupees. The eldest son of Madan Mohan Dutta of Hathkola was Ramtanu (known in the city as Tonubabu) whose entire house was washed everyday with rosewater and attar. He banned the entry of brass or bell metal utensils in his house. Members of the house and guests ate off gold and silver plates – a hundred of these were used everyday. The dhotis he wore came specially ordered from Dacca and cost Rs 45 each. He wore a dhoti only once and would tear the border so that it did not hurt his waist. His lifestyle became the byword for luxury. People used to say babu to babu Tonubabu (which roughly translated means if you want to talk about a babu, talk about Tonubabu – the word babu being used to denote an affluent and indolent gentlemen given to a life of luxury.)

Wealth is not always the access to good taste. Fanny Parkes noted that a cup presented in the Calcutta races by Dwarakanath Tagore had carvings in extreme bad taste such as only a babu could conceive of. A description of Dwarakanath’s palace in Belgatchia in North Calcutta which he used to entertain his European and Indian guests, provides a typical example of the aesthetic sensibilities (or lack of them!) of the nouveau riche of Calcutta. ‘The house was approached on an entrance road, brilliantly illuminated at night, and entered through a marble hall. On the right of the foyer was an elegant staircase adorned with statues of Cornelia and the Gracchi, the Venus Baigneuse, and Psyche. At the top of the stairs was a central hall, of Terpischore, whose walls were hung with fine paintings and whose floor was adorned with statues of a reading Nymph, and a recumbent Venus embowered in roses.

‘On the left of the hall was a spacious verandah, decorated to resemble a Mongol tent, with leafy walls and garlands of flowers, in the centre of which was a throne of crimson velvet and gold embroidery, with pillars of solid silver chased and inlaid with gold… Outside was a spacious lawn surrounded by a meandering stream over which passed four rustic bridges. In the centre was a fountain, and beyond it a life-sized statue of the huntsman Meleager and his hound. In the distance a life-sized Venus could be seen rising from an artificial lake. On one side was a small island on which stood a Japanese temple, in the centre an Ionic temple containing copies of the celebrated group of Canova, and at the far end a Chinese pagoda covered with lights of every shape and colour and further illuminated by brilliant stars rising from the water’s edge.’


As the 19th century progressed some members of this class began to move into more serious activity that was of enormous significance for the history and development of Calcutta. The impetus of this change also came from the British who from the beginning of the 19th century began to initiate policy changes to introduce Anglophone education in Bengal. There were two aspects to this policy: one was the ideological thrust to reform Indian society through the introduction of western science and reason; the other was a more practical one of creating a body of English educated men who would be equipped to man the administrative apparatus of a growing empire.

British intentions aside, the affluent Bengalis welcomed the idea of Anglophone education. This enthusiasm was manifest among those like Rammohun Roy, who believed that Hindu society needed to be reformed and purged of obscurantist beliefs and practices, as also among those like Radhakanta Deb who campaigned for strengthening the traditions of Hindu society and were thus anti-reform. Both Rammohun Roy and Radhakanta Deb were associated with the project of establishing Hindu College in 1817. This college, renamed Presidency College in 1855, became the fount of western learning and education.


The initial response to western education and reform was extreme in its articulation. Among the first teachers of Hindu College was a young and brilliant Eurasian, Henry Vivian Derozio. He taught his pupils to doubt and question the premises and beliefs of their society. Young men, under his tutelage, began to eat beef and pork and to drink alcohol. They openly attacked Hindu customs. The story goes that one member of Young Bengal – as Derozio’s pupils came to be known – when asked to pay his homage to Kali, the family deity, raised his hat and said ‘Good morning maa’m’. Young Bengal was Calcutta’s first moment of iconoclasm. It was also the moment of a new consciousness.

The emergence of this new consciousness can be traced to an incident that took place within the hallowed portals of Hindu College in 1843. One day, that year, a meeting of the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge was being held in the College. This society had been set up in Calcutta by some former students of Hindu College, many of whom had been members of Young Bengal. The paper being read that day was, ‘The Present State of the East India Company’s Criminal Judicature and Police.’ The reading of the paper was interrupted by the intervention of a famous teacher of English in Hindu College, D.L. Richardson, who stood up and said,

‘To stand up in a hall which the Government had erected and in the heart of a city which was the focus of enlightenment, and there to denounce, as oppressors and robbers, the men who governed the country, did in his opinion amount to treason... He could not permit it, therefore, to be converted into a den of treason, and must close the doors against all such meetings.’

The response to this interruption was remarkable. The chairman of the meeting, Tarachand Chakrabarti, a former student of Hindu College, reprimanded Richardson:

‘I consider your conduct as an insult to the society... if you do not retract what you have said and make due apology, we shall represent the matter to the Committee of the Hindu College, and if necessary to the Government itself. We have obtained use of this public hall, by leave applied for and received from the Committee, and not through your personal favour. You are only a visitor on this occasion, and possess no right to interrupt a member of this society in the utterance of his opinions.’


The incident marked a step in the new intelligentsia’s growing awareness. Despite the chairman’s protests, it was Richardson who prevailed and the society was not allowed to hold its meetings in Hindu College. The radicals learnt that under colonial subjugation, whatever be the protestations of liberalism, the right of free speech did not cross the boundaries of race and extend to the subject people. There would be many such instances of injury to the new English educated literati’s innocence. What is equally important is the distinction the chairman of the meeting made between the domain of the government and that of ‘this society’.


Through the course of the 19th century, the Calcutta literati set up and pursued its own autonomous agenda of modernity. This agenda became increasingly a cultural one through which the new intelligentsia attempted to negotiate with western knowledge on their own terms. In 1851, for example, a Bengali section was opened in the Calcutta Medical College to train Indian students in western medicine without requiring them first to go through a school education in English. This was a huge success: by 1864 it had overtaken the English section in terms of number of students. By 1873 it had 772 students.

A spin-off from this was the publication of nearly 700 medical books in Bengali between 1867 and 1900. In the early 20th century efforts were undertaken to modernize Ayurvedic and Yunani systems of medicine. One aspect of this consisted of adopting ‘the benefit of equipment or the methods used by other systems of medicine.’ These are instances which show that there was no outright rejection of western knowledge nor was there a blind acceptance of it. On the contrary there was an attempt to appropriate the new learning to indigenous forms of knowledge. Thus, P.C. Ray, a fellow of the Royal Society, could also write A History of Hindu Chemistry. Under the leadership of Calcutta’s literati, India’s modernity would be different, not a mere imitation of the West.

This thrust is noticeable in the 19th century in many fields of culture and education. Ranajit Guha has analyzed how through the mediation of English education Bengali intellectuals learnt to ‘rethink [their] own past according to a post-Enlightenment, rationalist view of history.’ The beginnings of Bengali prose also owe their origins to the impact of British rule. But, as Guha has argued, ‘once the sense of history and the sense of prose came together in indigenous narrative practice, the outcome was a historiography which promised at once to make for a far more sensitive reading of the Indian past than any European writing in Bangla on the same subject.’ These were the origins of a historiographical agenda for an Indian historiography of India, a historiography which would not rewrite Indian history as ‘a portion of the British history’, as James Mill had proposed, but would assert its autonomy by not only challenging the claims of British historians to appropriate India’s past but by denying to the British the right to rule India.


The richness of this corpus of writing – as indeed of the surge of creativity in the fields of drama and the novel in 19th century Calcutta – is evidence of the way educated Indians were carving out a space which owed its impetus to Anglophone education but was autonomous of it in its creativity and achievements. English education thus created for itself a paradox. It wanted to create a body of people who would be trained in English and man the lower rungs of administration. Yet the process, once started, had a fallout which was outside the control of the rulers. Anglophone education did of course breed political loyalism. But even the notion of Albion-just came to be laced, as the 19th century drew to a close, with a growing awareness of the racial inequality and economic oppression inherent in British rule. This awareness was a rude shock to an intelligentsia nurtured on the myth of British liberalism. It was this fall from innocence that would lead the Calcutta intelligentsia away from the loyalism that marked its birth to nationalism that informed its future.


Calcutta was the capital of the British Empire in India. It was also the seat of British commercial enterprise in the region. Every single British managing agency had its headquarters in Calcutta. In the eyes of the British rulers this is what made Calcutta important: the second city of the Empire it was called. For the Indians and their history, Calcutta was the first city to receive and respond to western modernity that came piggyback on British rule. It was from that modernity that the Calcutta intelligentsia took its lessons of self-governance, democracy, modern literature and self-representation. This gave to the city the role of pioneer and pace setter. It retained this role even after the capital had shifted to Delhi and the commercial interests to Bombay. Calcutta’s decline was noticeable only after independence, an ironic comment on it being a city of the Raj.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, after many twists and turns of politics and ideology, Calcutta seems to be preparing itself to receive a different kind of modernity, emanating again from the West. If the previous encounter came by way of the sword with capital in its trail, this one seems to be driven by capital alone. The future of the city depends on how it negotiates with this new challenge. The past may not have any lessons to offer.