The Telegraph
Thursday , March 4 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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The broken clockface at the entrance of Hetampur’s Ranjan Palace serves as a constant reminder of the fact that time is out of joint in this place. Hetampur, in the Suri Sadar subdivision of Birbhum, is famous for its rajbari, which was built in 1905. In its heyday, the Hetampur estate was one of the largest in Bengal, extending up to Dumka and Deoghar in the north, Krishnagar and Khanakul in the south, and including almost the whole of Burdwan and Birbhum districts. Although the zamindars were not royalty as such, their affluence and power made it easy for them to command the obedience of the people, who addressed them as rajas. In the early years of its existence, Ranjan Palace must have presented a picture of the quintessential rajbari — bustling with the life of its numerous attendants, of the subjects who came to pay revenues, of the purebreds in its stables, and of the elephants in their shelters. It was also the only building in the vicinity to boast of a generator 100 years ago.

The grounds of the palace are bare today except for the buildings that make up the rajbari itself. A B.Ed college is run on a section of the building while the other part houses the D.A.V school. One enters the western wing through a massive gate, on which hangs the D.A.V. school motto, “Come to learn and go to earn”. As you step into the courtyard, you indeed learn quite a few things about the tastes of the original owners of the rajbari simply by staring at the rows of grand arches and columns. The rooms are huge, and the ceilings so high that they can make one used to the cubby-hole that is the modern flat quite dizzy. D.R. Mahanty, the principal of the school, voices the feelings of visitors to Ranjan Palace when he says that sitting in the enormous rooms makes him feel like a king.

He is obviously in love with the building with which his school is associated today. But he concedes that for all its beauty, the rajbari is a liability, since lakhs have to be spent each year on its maintenance. The condition of the building has deteriorated all the more because it had been lying abandoned for 10 to 15 years before the school took over in 2002. All the original doors and windows, made of Burma teak, had been stolen. The thieves must have made good profit since the rajbari had 999 doors — one short of 1,000, in deference to Murshidabad’s Hazarduari. The blanks in the wall that were once doors and windows give a good indication of the declining fortunes of the erstwhile zamindar family. On arriving at the rajbari, Mahanty had chanced upon about 200 trunks filled with costumes. They harked back to the days of one of the most celebrated members of the family — Ramranjan Chakravarti, who commanded a jatra company, Ranjan Opera, which organized shows starring famous actors from Calcutta during the three-day- long fair held to celebrate Saraswati Puja. The annual fair, started in the early 20th century, still takes place, sans, of course, the glamour and pomp.

If history has not been kind to the zamindars of Hetampur, it has been as cruel to the present generation of owners of the Surul and Raipur rajbaris, also in Birbhum. The Surul rajbari is famous for its Durga Puja, and for its 18th century temples, which have terracotta carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayan, puranas, besides sundry ladies and gentlemen dressed in Western clothes. Srinivas Sarkar, who built the Surul rajbari in its present form in the mid 18th century, made his fortune selling sails for ships woven in Birbhum’s Ilambazar, which is still known for its weaving centres. Startling as this may sound now, about 200 years ago there used to be a bustling port, Saheb Ghat, in Ilambazar, from which ships of the British and French East India Companies used to set sail. Srinivas’s family surname, Sarkar, is probably a shortened form of sarbarahakari — suppliers of sails to the East India Company.

The Durga Puja started by Srinivas continues to this day, albeit in a truncated form. The Santhals, who used to perform in the dalan in their traditional outfit on Nabami, no longer visit. The section of the verandah overlooking the dalan that once used to be cordoned off for the ladies of the house during the Pujas became a gender-neutral space ever since women got used to standing side by side with men.

Like the Sarkars of Surul, the Sinhas of Raipur, too, made money selling ships’ sails. The Sinhas were zamindars under the raja of Burdwan, and the most illustrious member of the family is Lord Sinha, who was born in Raipur. The parturition chamber where Satyendra Prasanna Sinha was delivered has been preserved, largely due to the efforts of Badal Sinha, one of the descendants of the family. Badal Sinha recounted how Debendranath Tagore used to come to Raipur in a palki from Katwa to propagate the Brahmo religion. A room high up in the zamindar bari, now in ruins, served as his meditation room. When Rabindranath Tagore decided to set up the ashram at Santiniketan, Lord Sinha helped him get the lands through the assistance of “Andrew saheb”, C.F. Andrews.

Lord Sinha’s decision to convert to Brahmo dharma in 1886 might have had a lot to do not only with his friendship with the Tagores but also with such incidents as the one narrated by Badal Sinha that must have led to his estrangement from Hinduism. When Satyendra Prasanna came back to his native village after studying law in England’s Lincoln’s Inn for five years, he was forbidden to enter the household. Having crossed the kalapani, he had become a mleccha (outcaste), and could never see his parents again. So the man, who would soon become the first Indian to be included in the British peerage, would sit on a mancha atop a cowshed to watch with binoculars his mother in the turret of their ancestral home.

Nothing remains of the Raipur zamindar bari except the skeletal walls overgrown with weeds. The turret still stands amidst the desolation. To visit the place is to feel the silence of time. Badal Sinha rues that Visva-Bharati has not remembered the contribution of the Sinhas. But perhaps that forgetting is only symptomatic of a country which is eager to let go of its past as it marches stridently into a globalized future.

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