Chandannagar’s Shared Heritage is Disappearing

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By Lina Bose

I

The European settlement along the bank of the Hooghly River is regarded as ‘Mini Europe’. The Portuguese, the Danish, the Dutch, the British and the French had left an indelible mark along the banks of the River. Located on the bank of the Hooghly, Chandannagar richly manifests cultural, architectural, and natural heritage. The town evolved and developed under the French rule, the legacy of which is vividly seen in both its tangible heritage structures and intangible ways of life. However, the contemporary reality is different. Today the rich architectural structures are being destroyed, making way to real estate speculation. The rich heritage structures are getting overshadowed by the construction of multi-storied buildings facilitated by the forces of transnational capital.

Popularly known as Petit France en Inde (Little France in India), the city of Chandannagar is the finest example of the physical manifestation of the confluence of Indian and French cultures. It is neither an intact French colonial settlement defined by imposing public buildings nor a completely indigenous Indian settlement. It is representative of the shared cultural heritage, where French and Indian cultures have intermingled to form an Indo-European way of life, reflected in the houses of the native population. This is reflected not only in the tangible, built fabric of town houses, mansions, and urban design of the town but also in the development of ideas such as educational awakening, emancipation of women, co-existence of religions, and the development of democratic ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity. The intangible heritage of Chandannagar includes the integration of French language into natives’ daily lives, shops such as the Das Bakery, which still sells French bread, and art works such as the unique Chandannagar lighting in festivals like the Jagadhhatri Puja, which seamlessly blends French symbols such as the Eiffel Tower into local religious iconography.

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Glimpses of the town’s heritage structures Source: Field visit

II

Chandannagar was proclaimed a free city in 1947, despite the fact that the French administration remained in place but only held a symbolic force. The de facto transfer took place in 1949, and the last French administrator G.H Tailleur left Chandannagar completely independent of France. De jure transfer took place in 1952 and finally the administration of Chandannagar was handed to the West Bengal Government on October 2, 1954, and the Chandannagar Municipality took the charge of the town in February 1956. The town of Chandannagar thus became a municipal town within the ambit of Calcutta Metropolitan District. Because of rapid urbanization, many public and privately built structures in the city have been demolished and replaced with modern structures. The town’s old post office has been converted into a private banquet hall, and the small restaurant Shalimar is located in one of the building’s corners. Most of the old structures are being demolished and replaced with new apartment blocks. In a similar vein, the old G.T. Road is rapidly transforming into a commercial centre, with many buildings being redeveloped as commercial and residential buildings. Unplanned commercialization has led to congestion in some of the major spines like G.T Road and Strand Road. Traders from nearby places, affluent local merchants, local landlords, wealthy residents, etc. have built many large mansions and villas. Some of them are still inhabited, some stand as ruins, and some are getting demolished for redevelopment. Whatever the state is, these structures tell stories of a bygone era which deserve to be documented thoroughly before they disappear with time.[1]

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Townhouses with shops at the ground floor and residential above are common along the G.T Road. The G.T. Road is rapidly transforming into a commercial centre, with many historic buildings being redeveloped into commercial and residential buildings. Source: Field visit

The Institut de Chandernagore, considered one of the most important heritage buildings in Chandannagar, has been redeveloped over time. Parts of the Institut was demolished and replaced with a modern structure, named the Rabindra Bhawan. Similarly, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, which has been declared a heritage property in Chandannagar, faces a crisis. In recent times, one part of the building was re-developed and rented to a reputed cellular company. The building’s demise has been hastened because of lack of maintenance.

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Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir
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Registry Building
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Rabindra Bhawan Source: Field visit

The Chandannagar Registry Office, located at the intersection of the popular Strand Road, was constructed in 1875. This structure dates from the nineteenth century and is an example of French colonial architecture. The Registry Building was demolished recently and awaits restoration.

Apart from the public buildings, many private houses were built by the zamindars with close association with the French. Initially, the houses followed the traditional Indian planning around the courtyards and gradually towards the end of the nineteenth Century, European features such as drawing rooms, dining rooms, ballrooms and individual bedrooms were incorporated in the design of these houses. These historic homes are therefore a tangible expression of this confluence of thought and intermingling of cultures. The House of Seth and Rakhit Bhawan have been declared as private heritage properties in the city. The House of Seth has been scarred by issues of multiple ownership and tenancy. The tenants occupy two to three rooms and pay a measly rent of Rs.50-100 per month. Because of this conflict over tenancy, one part of the house has been restored and maintained and the other part remains in poor condition. The owners of Rakhit Bhawan have not been able to restore the building because of their poor financial condition. Part of the house has been demolished and some other parts have been constructed over without a systematic plan. Many from the present generation have felt dissatisfied because of absence of modern facilities in the house and have settled down in nearby flats. The owners of these heritage houses have started considering their properties as liabilities rather than assets because of lack of concrete plans for their conservation and preservation.

Problems of multiple ownership is considered to be one of the major issues for the old houses around the city. Consequently, some parts of a building are restored, painted, and maintained, while the remaining parts survive in a poor condition. Many a time the owners of the houses preserve these heritage buildings at their own initiative, which further damages the character of these structures because of faulty restoration and incompatible additions. Without financial aid in the form of a grant, a tax exemption, or a soft loan, these structures may disappear soon. While the public buildings are maintained to some extent, the private heritage structures suffer neglect.

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Heritage Buildings in Chandannagar are suffering from host of structural, architectural, financial and tenant issues. Source: Field visit

III

Chandannagar had its genesis during the French rule, and it contains all the features of a colonial city. The essential trait of this colonial city however does not fit well with other cities of British colonies. This city still manages to preserve some of its French cultural ethos, particularly in educational and cultural activities. It is important to protect and conserve the historic fabric of the town, thereby promoting its unique character. As the city of Chandannagar faces rapid urbanization, the owners/custodians are replaced at a rapid pace because they become less resilient to change and are not capable of preserving their own structures. The city requires participatory approach from the State and its inhabitants to preserve the rich architectural heritage of the town. The people of Chandannagar are the most important stakeholders in its preservation. Instead of throwing ideas at them, the main goal should be to communicate with them. With its architectural edifices and lively tangible and intangible facets, Chandannagar has the potential to become a heritage city.

[1]Das, R. et.al. (2020). Urban Transformations of Residential Settlements in Colonial Towns: Case Study of Chandernagore and Srerampore. In Perception Design and Ecology of the Built Environment: In Focus of the Global South, ed. Mainak Ghosh. Springer Nature, Switzerland, 2020, 23-50.

Bio:
Lina Bose, PhD Scholar, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. She worked as a Research Assistant for the AHRC and ICHR Project titled ‘The Hughli River of Cultures Project from Bandel to Barrackpore.’ Email id: linabose08@gmail.com

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