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Since 1st March, 1999
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Nothing short of a century

Nothing short of a century

Upcountry Muslims dominate Chitpur, once a Bengali stronghold. Soumitra Das chronicles this demographic change

here are some posers ideal for a quiz contest on Calcutta in general and Chitpur in particular. In which shop in Rabindra Sarani did Yehudi Menuhin get his Joseph Guarnerius del Jesu repaired in 1952, when he came for a recital and a part of his violin came apart, thanks to the moisture and heat of the city' What is Casanova’s connection with what Bengalis call Tereti bajaar and upcountry people Tirhatta bazaar' From which music shop did Ustad Vilayat Khan buy the black sitar that brought him fame'

Before you say “Pass”, here are the answers. The musical instrument shop in question in Lower Chitpur belonged to N.N. Mondal. He went to Raj Bhavan, where Menuhin was staying, and set things right with his own clamps instead of the specially imported ones offered. The signed note of appreciation from the great violinist is still the proudest possession of Mondal’s sons but it is not on display any longer. They cannot risk the leaking roof of the shop opposite Lalbazar police headquarters.

As to the second question, the market was named after Edward Tiretta, an Italian from Treviso near Venice, who was a chum of Casanova’s. He fled his country and in Calcutta, made such a huge fortune that he acquired a market that still bears his name.

And Kanailal Brothers in Upper Chitpur was the music store where the Ustad had shopped for his sitar. The shop has disappeared.

But what used to be known as the Faujdari Balakhana at the corner of Rabindra Sarani and Colootola Street posed an even greater puzzle to me. Who was its earlier landlord' I had first noticed the name of this disintegrating colonnaded house on the label of a rosewater bottle bought from Haji Khuda Buksh Nabi Buksh (1824), whose attar shop is situated on the ground floor of the same building. The late Radha Prasad Gupta, who was a repository of knowledge of everything Calcuttan, had once said this building used to be his mamarbari (maternal grandparent's home) and that he had spent a good part of his childhood there.

The invaluable Cotton had this to relate about Faujdari Balakhana. It “serves to remind us of days when the Faujdar, or military governor of Hooghly, had his official residence in Calcutta in the ‘lofty mansion’ which once stood there.”

Lofty it still is but it easily merges with Chitpur’s greyness now. Inside, it is a congeries of chicken coops.

RP died some time ago, and there seemed to be no one around who knew its history. The ancient Mohammad Ayaz, who claimed his tobacco shop has been around in that building since 1896, confirmed that the house used to belong to B.L. Sen. My subsequent inquiries in the Baidya clans of north Calcutta were not fruitless. Indrajit Sen, 84, scion of the Jabakusum Sen family of eponymous hair oil fame, enlightened me about B.L. Sen.

He was the great kabiraj Binod Lal Sen, who produced the hair vitaliser Kuntalbrishya. Indrajit Sen’s grandfather, who later started C.K. Sen in 1878, apprenticed under B.L. and created Jabakusum hair oil, still a household brand name.

But the head of the family was killed during the 1946 communal riots and they abandoned the house. It changed hands subsequently.

Ali Akbar Khan, who along with his brother is a wholesale dealer in shoes, had similar stories to tell about the demographic change in Chitpur after the Great Calcutta Killings and the Sixities’ riot. All of 39 though he is, he seemed to be surprisingly well informed. In the business for 22 years, he had heard it all from his father. Residents of Basirhaat for eight generations they have been in this trade for 100 years.

“First the Chinese alone made and sold shoes. But there were Bengali Muslims as well, one of them Khadim Hussain of the eponymous shoe store chain of today. Many of the houses of Chitpur, however, belonged to Bengali Hindus. Later, upcountry Muslims bought them. Many of the Bengali Muslims were from Mymensingh but they went back home after the Partition, when upcountry Muslims got the upper hand. The handful of people from Mymensingh, who had stayed back, thought it wise to depart after the riots in the Sixities. The upcountry caretakers of their Calcutta property swallowed it,” says Ali Akbar.

He goes on to tell how the hakimi dawakhanas (mainly unani nostrums) of yore have turned into cheap chappal shops, and how the ‘Madraji’ (actually Keralite) lungi sellers have made way for the ubiquitous kurta and cap shops in all their shiny splendour. And thanks to the giant retailers, the Chinese shoe sellers are going away. The sellers of chamars, flywhisks for the gods, are going the same way. Signboards of guest houses dominate rooftops, and one of these establishments has grown dusty coniferous trees on the terrace.

Lower Chitpur has a huge Gujarati presence. They opened a club in 1930 that has 6,000 members. Viren J. Shah, governor of West Bengal, was born in Madan Mansion opposite the tumbledown building housing Gujarat Club.

Chitpur houses may be an object lesson on how to survive neglect and the gravitational pull, but there are some shining examples of transformation caused by whitewash. Salehjee Musafirkhana (1889) with 70-80 rooms and large halls besides, fairly gleams like a jewel. However, Mohammed Ismail Arif Musafirkhana (1924) tucked away behind a house and meant exclusively for the Surti community looks flayed. A member of the latter community had constructed both.

Of late, Golkothi Imambara has acquired a new coat of make-up. Built in 1852 and part of the estate of the Sedi Aman Ali Khan Wakf, it is a large minaret with a spiral staircase within the cylindrical structure. The wooden stairs lead to the upper floors of the ground plus two building. The prayer hall itself has been gaudily painted of late. But the residential sections and the ground floor stuffed with chappals still look seedy.

Twin lions face each other on the terrace. The Reserve Bank of India initials, a slice of Howrah Bridge and the minarets and domes of Nakhoda Masjid (1942) are arrayed around the skyline. Afternoon traffic is frozen in Chitpur. Across the snaking street is Baghwala Imambara (1886-1894) built by Hajee Mohammad Jafar Ispahani. On Muharram, a procession of Shia self-flagellants emerges from the mosque. Women in black chadors appear on the balcony of Baghwala Imambara. Rabindra Sarani is brightly lit with sodium vapour lamps now.

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