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Bengali mercantile icon in wood

Kalakar Street looks like it could be in the heart of a Rajasthani town. Colourful processions of elephants, horses, warriors and bedizened goddesses greet people as they pass by or enter a house. Ornamental arches span gateways. These arches create waves on the verandahs, too.

Generations of Marwaris have lived in these apartment blocks. But street names still hark back to times when Bengalis ruled the roost here. Shobharam Basak Street, off Kalakar Street, is Bengali only in name. The only means of making oneself understood is in Hindi.

The most amazing moustachioed sentries in crazy mosaic stand guard at the opening of a courtyard. Shobharam Basak was one of the five men from Murshidabad who turned Calcutta into the bustling port and business hub that it was once, and his kutcheri, or office, was situated in Burrabazar. Raja Rammohun Roy was his contemporary.

Basak’s descendants represent, metaphorically speaking, a drop of Bengal in this ocean of Hindi. The Basaks, who have lived here for 10 generations, trace their line to Radhakrishna, great-grandson of Shobharam. The ground floor of their house was built in 1757. The upper storeys decades later. And in their private shrine or thakurghar, stands the beautiful wooden sculpture of a lithe man of middle height with folded hands that is a rare artefact in all of Bengal. The man has an aquiline nose and an open face. The sculpture is flesh-tinted and has the somewhat stiff posture of an icon on a rath.

It is a likeness of Radhakrishna carved out of neem wood, and the story goes that their ancestor himself was its live model. Shobharam was a merchant prince and Radhakrishna (1251-1182 Bangabda) was no less. He was the East India Company’s treasury diwan and had introduced a 12-day Durga puja holiday, later cut down to four.

He had also fought the famous case of Pratap Chand of Burdwan, who had disappeared from his fiefdom and returned after 12 years to reclaim it. When Pratap was accused of being an imposter, Radhakrishna took up his case.

Like all traditional images, Radhakrishna’s is unclothed. He wears a dhoti. The statue is bathed once a year with Ganga water before Durga puja. About 35 years ago, Dwarikanath Basak, now 82, an Art College graduate, had painted it. That was the first and last time it was restored in its 200 years of existence. Its torso shows signs of age. It urgently needs professional help.

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