| Entrance of Serampore College. Picture by Shiharan Nandy
An exhibition of black-and-white prints is rare. Even more rare is an exhibition of monochrome photographs of buildings that remind us of the European settlements along the West bank of the Hooghly in West Bengal. An exhibition of 37 high-quality black-and-white photographs is now on at the State Archeological Museum, at the Behala tram depot.
Shiharan Nandy, an employee of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums who is also a trained photographer, had taken all these photographs on a single day — February 8, 2000 — in locales such as Serampore, Chinsurah, Rishra and Chandernagore from seven in the morning.
Of course, Nandy had to face some impediments — Hastings’ house in Rishra happens to be inside a jute mill. And it took him an hour to convince the mill staff that his harmless intention was to take photographs. The result is a surprisingly well-mounted exhibition, where almost all the captions are mistake-free. This, few would have expected of a government organisation.
From the 16th Century or even earlier, foreigners had started making inroads into Bengal. The Portuguese were the first to arrive. The Dutch, Danes, the French, and last but not least, the British followed suit. Their settlements sprung up between Satgaon and Rishra.
Though most of these are lost without trace today, their presence is still felt in a number of loan words which have become part of our vocabulary and in place names which hark back to the past. The 18th Century terracotta plaques in the temples of Antpur and Aknapur bear testimony to their arrival.
A leaflet brought out by the directorate encapsulates their story. Though Nandy had photographed the remnants of these settlements extensively, he presents the better-known buildings mostly in the public domain which are quite well-maintained.
The most dramatic of the photographs is that of the tomb of Susana Anna Maria, a Dutch woman married to an Englishman, in Chinsurah, with its large dome. The Armenian Church of Chinsurah, the second oldest church in Bengal and the third in India, the clock tower in that town, and Hooghly Mohsin College, which used to be the house of a Mr Peron, are highly visible landmarks in their respective towns.
The Chandernagore court building, the French Institute of this town, and the Strand are well-known enough. But St Olaf’s church in Serampore, the memorial tablet inside the residence of William Carey, and the tombs of Carey and others in the cemetery are not.
These photographs capture the sense of repose inherent in these old structures. They are present in all their dignity. Like the British the Europeans, too, tried to recreate architectural styles prevalent back home, if only with bricks, lime-soorki and stucco. Light, harsh and dazzling or muted, is an ever-present entity. It is a pity that the government has not woken up to the tourism potential of these wonderful relics and taken any steps to preserve them.