Updated: March 12, 2022 5:43:16 pm
Sometimes it seems as though so much has been written about Kolkata’s history that there is nothing new to discover anymore. But then the city and its people hand us a surprise and lead us towards discovering another little fragment of this metropolis that we’ve been so accustomed to that we didn’t pay it much attention.
In a city that has some of the oldest streets in the world, each with a mighty story trailing behind its name, it is easy to pass off Bhawanipore as insignificant, unimportant, and box it within the confines of its associations with a handful of buildings. That is where the book ‘Mosaics of a Locale: The Stories of Bhawanipur’ helps reintroduce the neighbourhood through a series of unexpected stories.
‘Mosaics of a Locale’ tells the story of Bhawanipore through the memories of the families and homes that have somehow withstood the onslaught of the destruction of the city’s architectural heritage and where the city’s neighbourhoods are being rampantly swallowed and regurgitated to an unrecognisable extent.
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It all started way back in 2019, when former bureaucrat Jawhar Sircar delivered a lecture on heritage at the Bhawanipur Education Society College in Kolkata. “He spoke about exploring our own backyard. Prof. Debjani Ganguly, vice president of the Arts department, and I started thinking about Bhawanipore because we have always been navigating through this area and many senior faculty members have lived here,” said Debika Banerjee, a faculty member in the college’s geography department who spearheaded the project.
This collection of some 19 essays didn’t even start as a book, Banerjee said. “It started organically and we didn’t think too much about it.” Under the college’s Department of Arts, the Heritage Society—a social group within the institution—undertook this two-year project as an extracurricular activity, with a 12-student team volunteering to document the history of the neighbourhood.
Over the course of seven to eight interviews that the students had originally started as a documentation of heritage sites and the architecture of the neighbourhood, it evolved into a story about the people who lived in Bhawanipore and their oral histories, that the team believed would work best in the format of a published book.
The team undertook surveys and interviews, and took photographs and other forms of documentation to compile the stories, with help from the college’s faculty, as well as Rangan Dutta, a city-based travel writer who has written considerably about Kolkata’s architectural heritage. While the book delves into the histories of some of the most well-known landmarks of the Bhawanipore neighbourhood, like the Bhowanipore Cemetery, the Jain temples, Nizam Palace, Calcutta South Club, it also introduces readers to some of its lesser-known symbols like the old single-screen theatres, a relic in themselves, and the Balaram Basu Ghat that helps mark the Adi Ganga channel that flows through the heart of the city.
When 20-year-old history student Poulomi Sinha volunteered to join the project, it became an opportunity for her to learn more about a neighbourhood and the city that she had only just been introduced to when she moved from Odisha to West Bengal for her college education. “The houses and architecture of north Calcutta, aren’t really visible here in the south,” said Sinha. In one of the first few chapters in the book, she focuses on the Mukherji family who has lived in their old house for four generations, now a heritage building, in the neighbourhood since the 1930s.
In writings about Bhawanipore’s neighbourhood, its association with the city’s community of lawyers, especially those whose families have been in the profession for generations, is often overlooked. That piece of historical information finds mention in Sinha’s writings. “Before the coming of engineers and other businessmen in the 1930s, the development was taken up by the CIT and Bhawanipur was shaped (built-up) by lawyers… Also, the Calcutta High Court was easily accessible from the area which was an advantage for all the lawyers residing here.”
Having lived all his life in Bhawanipore, the house that 22-year-old history student Anubhab Chatterjee eventually wrote about as his contribution to the book, was one that he would see every day on his route from home to college. “In November 2019, he found himself knocking on the doors of Chowdhury Park, a large mansion constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style that the Chowdhury family has still managed to hold on to and preserve in the same form that Aniruddha Chowdhury’s ancestors handed it down to him.”
In Chatterjee’s writings on the family’s history, the stories told by Chowdhury prompt the reader to ask whether it is the buildings or the people who live in them that create a neighbourhood, a locale—or perhaps a combination of both, that gives a para its unique characteristics, and an individual identity; fragments or mosaics that merge to form the lineaments of a city.
Published by Upanayan Publications, ‘Mosaics of a Locale: The Stories of Bhawanipur’ (160 pages) is available for free, for reading online at the Bhawanipur Education Society College library at the following link:
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