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Nuptial nostalgia
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Family albums bring family history to life. If the family happens to be in the public domain the album becomes part of local history, and a forgotten era comes alive through the photographs. The album containing the photographs of the marriage of Prabirendra Mohan Tagore of Pathuriaghat with the celebrated beauty, Surity Pakrashi of Sthalbastantapur, formerly in north Bengal, in December 1929 at Emerald Bower on BT Road, and the subsequent banquet in the mansion, Prasad, opposite Tagore Castle, gives a clear picture of the lavish lifestyle once enjoyed by the Calcutta’s Bengali gentry.

I had first seen a copy of this album at Prasad, which was built by Jatindra Mohan Tagore, and where his great grandson, Srijit, lives with his family. The album contains photographs of the marriage of his adoptive parents. Surity, whose pet name was Durga, was a remarkable woman, and Dayanita Singh, who had photographed her before her death in 2001, says: “She was beautiful and elegant and a great conversationalist. She is still very present in her room.”

The photographs by Johnston & Hoffman, 22 Chowringhee, have captions which provide clues to the festivities. The first photograph is that of the cast iron gate of Emerald Bower, where the campuses of Rabindra Bharati University and another technical institute are located side-by-side now. A pole was put up near a roundabout with a fountain from which hang Chinese lanterns and pennants. This is followed by the procession of maids and servants entering Emerald Bower with wedding gifts down a neat pathway flanked by hedges and shrubs. Thereafter, they display the gifts under a shamiana. Emerald Bower was designated the bride’s father’s house, which in actuality was far, far away.

The building decorated with hundreds of pennants is reflected in the pond in front. At night, the building glows like a giant firefly. The drawing room, corridor and pink drawing room of Emerald Bower are sumptuously appointed with chandeliers, silk drapes, statuary and elegant furniture. The bride was nine and the groom 19, and both wait in a Rolls Royce to be driven out on the Emerald Bower drive. The Rolls is covered with flowers and foliage.

From there, they drove to Prasad, where the child wife and her husband pose with the principal male members of the family, and thereafter with the female members in the darbar hall. The sit-down wedding dinner at Prasad on December 23, 1929, was attended by Justice Suhravardy, Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad, Maharaja of Jodhpur and Nawabzada Latifar Rahman.

On January 6, 1930, a reception was held at Emerald Bower in honour of the wife of the governor of Bengal, Lady Jackson. The fireworks display with fountains and zigzags of light was spectacular.

Recently, I came upon the same album with larger, clearer photographs at the Park Circus home of Nirodhiprakash Gangoli, 78, whose great grandfather, Dhanesh Prokash Gangoli, had married Jatindra Mohan Tagore’s daughter.

Kalyanaksha Bandyopadhyay, 73, who lives in Prasad and is considered a living encyclopaedia of the Tagore family, says he had heard from elders that the plays, jatras, magic lantern shows, bioscope and musical soirees were part of the month-long wedding ceremony.

Tripta Haldar, who is two years younger than Surity Tagore and was very close to her, says a European governess had groomed Surity to perfection. She was trained in Hindustani classical music, could play the piano, and had a taste for literature. Although technically she lived in purdah she drove her car herself.

Tripta and Surity’s husbands were close friends and cousins, who lived and breathed PG Wodehouse and Sukumar Ray. But that is another story.

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