When the Goddess arrived in colonial Calcutta

When this black-and-white photograph appeared on the Facebook timeline of a Kolkata resident a few days back, some of her friends from the university days expressed their wonder in varying degrees of exclamation. One found the chalchitra or the painted backdrop to the idol exquisite and went gaga about the Daker saaj that characterized such designs. What is Daker saaj? Does that ring a bell, somewhere? Another was little disheartened to spot only the male folk, and no women, among the motley crowd. On a closer look, one was startled by the seemingly dark complexion of Durga, Lakshmi and Kartik. The peculiar look of the lion also caught their fancy. It seemed to have a horse’s head. It reminded one of Makar-mukho singha or the lion with a Capricorn head. And the conversation thread grew longer.

Such curiosities are heartening.

The autumn is here. Swift nimbus clouds have slowed down considerably. The Durga Puja is scheduled in about a month from now, in mid-October. Wondering about the iconography and the origin of Durga Puja in colonial Calcutta is a welcome relief in a city now known for its fetish for blue-and-white and collapsing flyovers. And a sepia-tinted photograph like this can spawn a hundred lingering thoughts on and about Durga Puja in Calcutta of yore and its origin in particular.

It was taken by one of the ‘Tommy soldiers’ who trotted down the lanes and bylanes of Calcutta during the last days of World War II. It featured in the Smithsonian University collections about a decade and a half back and continues to be shared. As street photography was something novel in Calcutta those days, the gelatine prints that survived to the digital age reveal a side of Calcutta that is rarely available otherwise. And this particular shot taken outside a stately mansion situated in the heart of ‘black city’ of colonial Calcutta tells a hundred tales. The arched gateway to the right side of the picture, the Neo-Classical mansion to the left, are typical of many north Calcutta houses belonging to the families who allied with the East India Company to taste the early fruits of commercial boom that gained momentum in the early 19th century.

Although the family of Sarbarna Roy Chowdhury started Durga Puja much ahead of the colonial era and their seat of worship still stands, they were located in Barisha which was quite a few furlongs away from the village troika of Kolikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti that formed what was known as Calcutta till it began to spread wings in the 1960s. Thus the honour for hosting Durga Puja in Calcutta is traditionally bestowed to the Deb family of Sovabazar. Whether one should describe it as an ‘honour’ or the opposite is a question that pops up immediately. This change of point-of-view has much to do with the revision of the history of Calcutta in the post-colonial times.

For the record, the Deb family of Sovabazar began worshipping the mother goddess in 1757. But why? This question demands an answer.

Nabakrishna Deb, or Naba Munshi as the people knew him, started this. Who was he? He was a polyglot who worked as an interpreter with the East India Company. He knew Bangla, of course. He knew Persian, the official language of Bengal before the British started calling shots. But most importantly, he managed to muster certain degree of proficiency in English. This was a clincher. When the Company started interfering into the matters of trade and commerce in a territory that was controlled by the Nawab of Bengal, when they started raising an army in order to further their business interest in the most happening province of South Asia in the 18th century, Nabakrishna stood by their side. As an interpreter he was appointed by the Company for a princely sum of rupees 60. He worked in close association with Warren Hastings. But he was more than an interpreter.

It was mid-1750s. New power equations were being forged. When the Company sealed a deal with the most influential banker of those days, and hatched a conspiracy in association with the disgruntled faction in Nawab’s court and army, Nabakrishna acted as a smart negotiator. He saw it coming. And he served the interests of the people whom he served. It was easy for him to facilitate the correspondences between the conspirators like Raidurlabh and Jagat Seth and their ilk with the Company. Soon after the Nawab’s army was routed in the Battle of Plassey on 23rd June 1757, the coffers of Murshidabad fell into the hands of the Company and its accomplices. Popularly known as the ‘Plunder of Plassey’, this was the biggest loot one could imagine. Persian historians had noted that the economy of Bengal was at its flourishing high during that period. Post-colonial historians have read through the Persian documents and Company papers to estimate an amount that runs into several billion rupees. And Nabakrishna, if contemporary rumours are to be believed, got a plump share of that booty, mostly from the Motijhil property belonging to Ghaseti Bagum, the Nawab’s aunt.

According to family chronicles, Nabakrishna acquired a large tract of land in the area in Sutanuti from Sovaram Bysack, a tradesman and a moneylender. A brick and mortar mansion with a courtyard in the middle was raised in no time. He needed an occasion to flaunt his newly acquired riches before the Roys, the Bysacks and the Seths who controlled the lion’s share of Calcutta trade, and startle the Company officers whom he befriended. Durga Puja scheduled in the month of October was just perfect. So, while Nabakrishna was welcoming the British guests to his Thakur Dalan, he was also celebrating the removal of Nawab from the seat of power. Seen from the nationalist perspective, this act is no less than anti-national!

But this set the ball rolling. Soon, Nabakrishna rose to the rank of Banian of Robert Clive. More and more banians, seths, and mutsuddis joined the fray. By the time Richard Wellesley set his foot on the banks of Hooghly, dozens of Bengali families were ready to welcome him to their mansions, all styled after the Sovabazar one. Dozens of variations of the Sovabazar idol were adorning their seat of worship.

As for the iconography of the Sovabazar idol, the clay-image makers from the villages followed the scriptures, the Brihat Nandikeshwar Purana to be precise. The Jamindars in agrarian Bengal were performing the autumnal rites since the 15th century, anyway. Before Nabakrishna made a move, the Roys of Krishnanagar had already made Durga Puja quite a festive occasion. The iconography complete with an excellent composition of idols within a semi-circular space was already in place. As for the peculiar lion, it was a curious case of imitation. The Bengali potters in the mid-18th century had never seen a lion. Even the lion-capital of the Maurya times was not unearthed till then. They imagined it. It was simply and inevitably a figment of imagination. That it looks similar to the lion in the East India Company seal was perhaps necessitated by their employer’s increasing bonhomie with the British merchants. As for the complexion, Durga is represented in many hues and shades. The yellowish shade that gained prominence follows the traditional way of representing the body tone. The ones with a darker tone follow the colour of seuli flowers that blossom in autumn. The other varieties are often ascribed to the strange dreams that the patrons had had during the conception period and carried over since then. In a few cases the Mahisasura is painted green, wearing socks and shoes of a soldier, even sporting a beard! A possible Mohammedan link? Yes, may be. But cannot be established for sure and the Hindutva pedagogues do not have anything to cheer about.

But the Daker saaj came much later. The Durga idols of Sovabazar family pujas are adorned with shola or pith ornaments. They remained true to their origin. The latter day idols started experimenting with newer materials. The garish and colourful wrapping papers imported from Germany was a readymade option. The image-makers ordered them beforehand and the producers sent them by post. Thus these ornaments came to be known as Daker saaj.

Now, a final look at the photograph. The immersion procession is all set to begin. The priests seem to have performed their duties. The bearers are getting ready. The neighbours are looking at the photographer. Inside the mansion, the womenfolk are sitting in circle with tears in their eyes. The mythical bird Nilkatha must have been flown to inform lord Shiva about the arrival of his family. The rest of black town is waiting patiently. Their processions would begin only after the Sovabazar procession starts.

The picture remains the same till date. Come to Raja Nabakrishna Street this October and revisit the magic. Time stands still inside the Bagwallah mansion of the Deb family.

[Photograph courtesy: reckontalk.com]

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