Chandernagore's French Correction

In 1673, the French set up a trading post in Chandernagore, on the banks of the Hooghly. 1757. They lost it to the British. 1816. They won it back. Chandernagore town, 50 kilometres from today's Calcutta, remained a French territory till 1950.

By Text by Prasun Chaudhuri. Photographs by Subhendu Chaki
  • Published 31.12.17
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DOYAL MANZIL: Located behind the Sacred Heart Church, this French mansion from 1875 has an arched gateway leading to an expansive courtyard. A sweeping fairy tale staircase flanked by two concrete maidens leads to the first floor. Inscribed on the crumbling main door in Bengali lettering is the name of the current owner — Satyabaran Bandyopadhyay, Geetikar [lyricist] Akashbani, All India Radio. The building was constructed by his forefather, Satya Dayal Banerjee, who was a zamindar.

In 1673, the French set up a trading post in Chandernagore, on the banks of the Hooghly. 1757. They lost it to the British. 1816. They won it back. Chandernagore town, 50 kilometres from today's Calcutta, remained a French territory till 1950.

REGISTRY OFFICE: This building on the Strand used to be the French tribunal. Built in 1875, the dilapidated single-storey structure is embroiled in a legal wrangle. The current owner is the sub-divisional controller (food & supplies) and the family of a former employee lives here. Pic: Prasun Chaudhuri

Today, all the tangible memory of those times that remains in this Bengal small town is - 99 buildings of French heritage. Institut de Chandernagore (1812), Chandernagore Pustakagar or library (1873), Chandernagore Government College (1862)... In 2016, the French government in association with architect Aishwarya Tipnis, created an online inventory of these.

MONDOL BARI: One of the oldest existing structures from the time of the French occupation of Chandernagore, this house was built by Keshto Mondol, a merchant who worked closely with the French. The family traded primarily in swords and foodgrains and owned quite a few ships. Says Ujjwal Mondol, one of the current residents, “My ancestors also had a private army to counter pirates in the Hooghly. They would escort ships of the Portuguese and other colonial traders and earned good money in the process.” The house designed by French architects is full of artefacts and paintings from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Pic: Prasun Chaudhuri

Now, existence is one thing, and struggle for existence, quite another. Real estate sharks have cast their long shadows on these architectural gems. Tipnis says, "With every visit, I find one or two buildings missing. They need legal protection." In many cases, the families in possession of these structures, in the face of falling fortunes, are struggling with the upkeep. Recognising the death rattle, the French consul-general in Calcutta, Damien Syed, has raised alarm.

GOPAL BABUR BARI: Spread over 96 cottahs in Gondalpara, the house constructed in 1872 was meant to be the pleasure palace of the king of Ramnagar, a town close to Varanasi. The king later gifted the house to his favourite cook Gopal Babu, after whom it is named. Set in a large compound, the house comes with a pond, stables and garages.

The Telegraph set out to explore the scene of history and devastation. Starting with the residential buildings of Gondalpara, which includes Mondol Bari built in 1741, moving to the Padripara or the neighbourhood of the Sacred Heart Church and, finally, the Strand or the area adjoining the Hooghly.

"Many heritage structures have disappeared but we can save what remains with a co-ordinated effort," says Basabi Pal, who teaches French at the Chandernagore Government College and is a heritage activist. She talks about Gautam Sett, the man who has been trying to get his ancestral mansion declared a heritage monument these six years. He is also fighting lusting realtors.

GALA KUTHI: The building, which now houses the Ruplal Nandi Cancer Research Centre, used to be a gala or shellac warehouse owned by a Portuguese trader — that is how it has come to be known as gala kuthi or shellac house. It was recently restored by NPCC Limited, a government of India enterprise. Post-restoration, the building got a coat of gaudy yellow and red colours. The original pillar of the gate also seems to have gone missing.

As is expected, stories of "good-old-days" abound here. Sett brings up great-grandfather - Harihar Sett - who was bestowed the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, the highest French order of merit. Mondol Bari's Ujjwal Mondol says he has heard Robert Clive and Joseph Francois Dupleix were among the invitees at their griha pravesh or house-warming ceremony.

Beginning January, the French consulate will hold workshops in Chandernagore. College students from France and India, people of the area and architects will discuss ways to preserve the heritage structures. There is a plan to organise a hackathon to come up with a solution for the dilapidated Registry Office. Says Tipnis, "It's time we looked beyond nostalgia."