Hooghly town's French connection

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  • Published 20.03.03

In 1674, the French gained their first foothold in the sleepy little town by the Hooghly. By 1731, when Governor Dupleix took over the reins, it had become the jewel in the French colonial crown. And it remained with the blue-white-and-red government till it was declared a ville libre (free city) in 1950.

It’s revival time for Chandernagore’s century-old French connection, with the French Embassy and town mayor Amiya Das joining hands. “Chandernagore is extremely relevant to us, both historically and culturally. The embassy is eager to put the city on our cultural map,” says Alliance Francaise de Calcutta (AFC) director Daniel Kuhn.

The AFC has drawn up plans to integrate the suburban town in its activities. Time permitting, French acts coming to Calcutta will be taken to Chandernagore. “A medieval music troupe from France performed at the Chandernagore church in end-February. It was a huge success. We are now planning to travel there with a French theatre and an exhibition of Tagore in France which are scheduled to come here. AFC students will also be taken to the town for occasional picnics,” says Padminie Dufrene, cultural co-ordinator, AFC.

It is not just the past that the French wish to cherish, for the country lives on in the nooks and crannies of present-day Chandernagore too. The latest step in the process of integration is the AFC screening a documentary, entitled Little France on the Hooghly, on Thursday at Max Mueller Bhavan. The film shows how history is alive on the streets of the former French colony, says Payal Mohanka, who produced and directed the docu-feature.

Institutions like Hotel de France, Institute de Chandernagore and Ecole de Jeunes Filles line the river-side Strand while shops with French names dot the bylanes — Mon Ami, Dupleix Cycles, Vis A Vis, Vogue… During visits by French dignitaries, the city is decked up in French and Indian flags.

Speaking of her experience during shooting, the former journalist says: “It’s amazing how the residents have an affectionate bond with the former colonisers and the old-timers even lapse into French during conversation. I spoke to two octogenarian brothers. One of them, a former head of the French department in Chandernagore Government College, still receives his pension from Paris. His brother has been made a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Academiques for his contribution to the spread of French culture.”

The film was shown to a group of 70 French students a few weeks ago, before they were taken to Chandernagore. “The screening and the sight-seeing gave them an introduction to a place they had heard of from their grandparents who used to read of it as part of their colonial geography course,” said Dufrene, adding that such exchanges would keep the friendship-with-France flag flying.