The Fading Charms of Chandannagar


The drive from Kolkata along the Grand Trunk Road is not for the faint-hearted. Swerving to avoid heavily laden trucks my Calcutta driver isn’t exactly sure where Chandannagar is but as the mid-morning sun slants over the gates of the town, we drive triumphantly through. In the brick work picked out by the light are three words: Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité. 

Like an ancient temple in the jungle, Chandannagar has been largely forgotten but this was where the European adventure in India really began. Eclipsed in recent years by Pondicherry, its younger, Tamil cousin, the town was first established as a French colony in 1673 when the Nawab of Bengal gave permission to establish a trading mission. By 1730 when Joseph François Dupleix was appointed governor, Chandannagar as it became known had more than two thousand brick built houses and was the main European entry to the subcontinent. The British East India Company inconveniently flattened a good deal of it during its capture in 1756 but returned it to French rule in 1816. It was governed as part of France until 1950 when the inhabitants voted to join with the newly independent India. As British Calcutta grew, Chandannagar once more became a sleepy hollow comfortably nestled in a curve of the great Hooghly River and there it slumbers still.

Shortly after dawn, a cavalcade of bicycles tinkle down the Strand, Chandannagar’s main street, a handsome promenade next to the river. Wrought iron street lamps and yellow stucco buildings awake to a French inspired pastel morning that Monet would recognise. The schoolchildren pedalling to class wear French uniforms: plaits in the hair of the girls sway in the breeze. Only the couple performing their yogic exercises on the riverbank reveal this as India, the water’s lapping accompanying their graceful movements.

Gravel on the path of the former governor’s house - known locally as Dupleix’s Palace - crunches underfoot and a statue of a bare-breasted Marianne stands guard beneath an Indian flag fluttering in the wind. The residence is now a museum (foreigners entry Rs25) but there are regular French classes. Inside a cornucopia of Imperial delights. Rooms with high, whitewashed ceilings feature chandeliers that are mostly intact, many eighteenth century portraits, china dinner services and scientific instruments all laid out for inspection. In another dusty room a harpsichord gently decays, its keys like broken teeth, watched over by a small bust of a stern Napoleon. In a case, the last French flag, dirty and a little tattered. Dupleix’s own bed is enormous but deeply uncomfortable looking. Time has stopped here and moulders in the sticky wet heat. Perhaps saddest of all, the shattered spectacles of Dr J N Sen MB MRCS Private West Yorkshire Regiment and a son of Chandannagar, killed in action on the night of 22/23rd of May 1916 in France. His, the dubious honour of being the first Bengali to do so. Why he was fighting for a British regiment is a mystery but how sad to die so far from the verdant splendour of the steamy jungle and the smell of jasmine oil in a woman’s hair.

“The French were good people and, unlike the British, they left easily. That’s why they are still respected”. Dilip Kumar Chaterjee, 77, carefully folds his morning newspaper and leans back on a blue plastic chair incongruous on his grand porch. A slight man in a sparkling white vest and dhoti, he invites me inside. The mansion, on one of Chandannagar’s quiet streets, is huge. Plaster that has long seen paint is flecked with mildew and damp. Around a central courtyard the floor is cool, smooth with generations of steps. This has been the Chaterjee’s home for “three generations” but its original history is lost to him. He thinks that the builder was French and the mansion was for a wealthy trader made rich by the French East India Company (La Compagnie Française des Indes Orientales). He is excited that the French government has recently been talking about part funding (with the Archaeological Survey of India) a restoration project for much of the built heritage that varies from these regal but decaying homes period houses to forts and military installations. “Tell them to come” he says with an imploring smile.

The heat of the day rises but this of no concern to the half a dozen men sweating in front of the cauldrons of boiling milk and sugar in a lean-to at the back of Surya Kumar Modak Grandsons Sweetmakers. Sweets have long been an important part of the Bengali identity and social ceremonies and Chandannagar is famous for it’s sweetmakers. There are dozens in town but Modak’s are the most famous. Saradindu, the owner, a thick-set middle-aged man, finishes serving a customer and sits down. “My grandfather’s grandfather started this shop in 1810… we still make the same kind of sweets but you know, the cheese, the milk all were better in the old days”. The past is never far away here. Modak’s make something like 70-80 different types of confectionary, the most famous being the ‘Jalbhara Sandesh’. Invented by one of Saradindu’s predecessors for the wedding of a local landowner, it looks like a tiny chef’s hat and contains rosewater - only discovered in the mouth. A small tray of delights beckons with Moti-chur, a sugary, cottage cheese ball and, with a nod to modernity, (and the owner’s favourite) rather good tiny, butterscotch sundaes. 

As the sleepy afternoon creeps by, music wafts by from an afternoon raag. From inside the Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, another grand, decaying old man of a structure, comes the sound of a sarangi being tuned. Umesh Mishra, 26, sits atop his curled leg on a rickety wooden chair. Behind him, acres of wooden panelling reveal a concert hall largely untouched by a century of performance. Like a Victorian music hall it seems to gently dance and creak to the notes of Mishra’s bow pulled across his instrument’s strings. Tonight he will perform a selection of Bengali classical music for the great and the good of the town. Bengalis have long enjoyed the reputation as India’s cultural guardians. According to the much-quoted line of Indian nationalist, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." A statue of Bengali writer and Laureate Rabindranath Tagore stares across the overgrown garden of the ancient library. Tagore, long associated with Chandannagar, wrote in the Patal Bari House on the River (sadly closed to visitors) whilst gazing out over the river. 

As evening spreads lazily against the sky, wimpled nuns scurry to service in the Eglise du Sacré Cœur. The sun kisses the powder blue of the church’s dome as it burns and sinks. In an adjacent field, the stillness is punctuated by the ‘thwack’ of leather cricket balls on bats as boys practice their drives in cricket nets. No French Pétanque here. Old men nod approvingly as a teenager delivers a fast spin on a dust-dry wicket. Couples promenade on the Strand as their Colonial ancestors might have done and birds sing in the soft light as the night creeps in. The Strand is dominated by a pavilion that looks out over the Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat. It is a patissier’s dream of an architectural cake. Built in the 1920s, pink neo-classical columns decorated with plaster laurel wreaths and elephant’s heads provide shade for ladies in multi-coloured saris gossiping about their day. By the river, shaded by the mighty trees, teenagers shyly glance in turn at each other and at the ferries crossing the drowsy Hooghly. It might be the Riviera but for the Langur monkey and her baby eagerly eyeing a child with an ice cream skipping into the warm night.

©Stuart Freedman