The Downton Abbeys of Dhanyakuria
Anyone who has travelled along the Barasat-Taki road — northwards from Calcutta, towards Basirhat — would have noticed the picture-postcard castle. Visitors are not allowed inside the gated compound, but you can stop and admire the turrets, spires, the uneven roofline broken by stepped gables.
But that afternoon, when we reach the place, the gates are wide open. A truck is downloading bricks — we learn they are for the construction of a government office building. It is a 30-acre campus and we are eager to explore it. We sneak in and manage some quick clicks, when some security guards spring into action. We are chased out with a stern — “You need permission from the [social welfare] department.”
According to Monjit, the three leading families worked for the development of the area. They built hospitals, roads and schools. We cross the Sanskrit primary school-turned-private English medium prep-school founded by the Gaines. Beyond it, a little ahead of the trisection is the mansion of the Sawoos. The gate is locked, a neighbour says the caretaker has gone to the market and the owners don’t live here.
We peep through the collapsible gate and spy a thakurdalan almost as majestic as the Gaines’. Here too, there is a solitary and stark frame of an under-construction Durga idol. Later, we call Ashok Sawoo, who lives in north Calcutta. The house was built by his forefather, Patit Chandra Sawoo, 200 years ago.
The Gaines made a fortune trading in jute, jaggery and other agricultural products. They worked in partnership with two other families of Dhanyakuria — the Sawoos and the Ballavs. All of them enjoyed the patronage of the British. “Huge tracts of agricultural fields and land ownership turned them into zamindars,” says Monjit. “Family lore goes that our ancestral properties extended to Satkhira in present-day Bangladesh, and in north, central and south Calcutta,” he adds.
Gaine Mansion was built in parts, primarily by Gobinda Chandra Gaine and his son, Mahendranath Gaine, mid-19th century onwards. Mahendranath was a prominent member of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and owned quite a few jute mills too. He was the one who built Gaine Garden by the main road. Post Independence, the state government acquired the property. Says Monjit, “A few years ago we heard it had acquired the heritage tag. [Once a property gets this tag, it cannot be defaced, its basic structure cannot be changed either.]” He has no clue about the ongoing construction.
Out on the road, we ask a passerby what this grand structure is called and what it’s meant to be. “This used to be called Gaine Garden, property of the Gaines,” he informs us, and for details redirects us to the Gaine progeny living in Dhanyakuria village in North 24-Parganas.
Teacher and writer Monjit Gaine lives with his elderly father, Kanchan Gaine, and his family in a portion of yet another grand structure of long, open corridors and many wings called the Gaine Rajbari. Monjit ushers us into the majestic thakurdalan or collonaded altar for Durga worship. He says, “Every other month some tele-serial or movie is shot here. Villagers call this ‘shooting bari’.” According to him, it is the rent from film production companies that aids the upkeep and maintenance of the huge mansion.
We walk down to Ballav Mansion next. Painted in green and white, the mansion has ornate cast iron gates and fencing. The Corinthian pillars, stucco work in the verandah and the grand thakurdalan reflect the wealth of the family. There is a well-kept garden too. Says family member Uma Ballav Biswas, “The house was built by my great-grandfather, Shyamacharan Ballav, 150 years ago. He made his fortune mainly in jute trade.”
At the time of filing this piece, Uma is looking forward to the annual family reunion on the occasion of Durga Puja. It seems the same artisans make the Durga idols for the Gaines, the Sawoos and the Ballavs. The same family of priests presides over the festivities. Says Monjit, “If anyone wishes to see our houses in full grandeur, this is the time. There’s no restriction on entries at this time. Just like our ancestors, we welcome villagers and visitors.”