When the Sahibs and Memsahibs joined the Durga Puja festivities

A chance discovery often leads to an illumination unforeseen. This water-colour work by William Prinsep executed in the 1830s is a recent example.

Preserved in the British Library archives in London, this painting appeared in numerous publications on life in colonial Calcutta. Often in truncated form that cropped, rather prudishly, the shadowy events unfolding in the left side of the paper. These days the keepers of this masterpiece have made this available for the netizens, that too, in large format, adding an everyday description – ‘Europeans being entertained by dancers and musicians in a splendid Indian house in Calcutta during Durga puja (1830s–1840s)’. This undated painting is a prism that reflects the veritable feast that Durga Puja was in the 1830s. No other painting of this period captures the colour and contours of Durga Puja as celebrated in colonial Calcutta. It deserves a closer look.

Who was William Prinsep? A 19th century painter for sure. Also the younger brother of James Prinsep, the Indophile who deciphered the Brahmi script and hence got immortalised in the pillars of Prinsep Ghat, the piece de résistance of post-colonial Kolkata riverside. In those days it was common for a painter trained in Royal Academy to take the next ship heading to India, primarily to earn a living and also to appreciate the richness that the land of opportunities offered. There were scores of European artists in Calcutta when William Bentinck was lording over the Government House and Thomas Macaulay was drafting his Minutes. In fact, the first fine art exhibitions in downtown Calcutta were held in the early 1830s which featured works by Chinnery, Hodges, Kettle, Zoffany, side by side with more illustrious British masters like Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, and copies of Guido Reni, Rubens and Van Dyck. Today, an avid city-explorer may find some time to visit the St. John’s Church, right behind the Raj Bhavan and beside the A G Bengal office to marvel at John Zoffany’s magnificent interpretation of ‘The Last Supper’, now displayed prominently upon the mantelpiece, looking radiant after a thorough restoration. One of the Rubens copies is looming over one of the ornate staircases of Marble Palace. I daresay that one was procured from those early fine art exhibitions held at the Calcutta Town Hall, if not directly by the Malliks of Chorbagan, then certainly by the Tagores of Jorasanko whose collection moved to Marble Palace at a later stage.

William Prinsep did not feature in that wall of fame. He never really made it. A cursory look at his works reveals his interests in street scenes and landscapes. All pen and ink studies and water-colour works. They were collected as Indian souvenirs by small-time East India Company officers when they returned home. Prinsep and his types catered to this clientele.

But this fellow Prinsep must have been a philosopher in disguise. Or a wannabe medical student who loved anatomy. For this painting offers a dissection of Durga Puja festivity in the 1830s when the Baboos, not to be confused with the lower division clerks and their ilk who refuse to abide by any norm or decorum of an efficient office in contemporary Kolkata, left no stones unturned to entertain the British guests at their stately homes during the Durga Puja days. Robert Clive started all this in the autumn of 1757. It went from strength to strength in the decades that followed.

It is impossible to identify the neo-classical mansion that Prinsep chose to depict in this work. It could be the Sovabazar house of the Debs or the Jorasanko house of the Tagores. Or someone else’s. The Debs are a possibility because the flute-playing Krishna next to the deity hints at a Vaishnab connection. But Prinsep took liberties when he finished it. The ionic pillars with ornate Corinthian capitals may have been inspired by the Elgin marbles that Prinsep might have studied during his apprenticeship days in London. They were hard to come by in Calcutta. The arched entrance thakurdalan resembles the Roy mansion of Jorasanko, still standing tall at the Ganesh Talkies crossing. The pillars that flank the Puja vista come straight from the Odisha temples that enjoyed some degree of attention from the early generation of Orientalists. The balcony overlooking the urban courtyard has a replica in the Gwalior Monument next to Outram Ghat.

Forget the architectural liberties for the time being and concentrate on the dramatic scene inside. The worship of the mother goddess, sans the family members, in the deep centrestage looks a mere formality. The worship seems to be over. The priest must have left. Plates full of offering are lying untended in front of the deity. A lonely widow in white is standing all by herself casting a curious look to the drama unfolding at the stage middle. A group of Europeans, sahibs and memsahibs in formal attire of the day, have settled on chairs laid on a Persian carpet. Their ‘native’ counterparts are sitting behind. The host looks animated in white muslin with a turban on head. Clueless, it seems. It was autumn. So the pankhawallahs were dispensed with. The darwans and chaukidars seem relaxed at the right side of the frame. A khansama, standing alert by the steps leading to the thakurdalan, is ready to serve drinks, while a few other servants are ready to follow suit. Beside them, a couple sits comfortably, the wife looking merry and the husband attending his hookah.

However, it is the dancer, the nautch girl in British parlance, is stealing all the thunder. With a flowing skirt held at the hemline and a raised arm that tempts, she looks like a kathak dancer of her time. She is assisted by musicians playing the percussions and a string instrument that looks like a violin. Musically incorrect! Prinsep should have painted a sarenghi instead. It was customary to welcome the British with food and beverage, and music and dance. The last item was the most attractive one. Even Rammohun Roy found it obligatory. So did Radhakanta Deb, the leading Indian intellectual and social leader of the day, whose thakurdalan stood right in front of the jalsaghar where the dancers with years of experience in entertaining the patrons in the courts of Nawabs of Awadh and Lucknow performed. The music room no longer stands. But anecdotes about famed dancers like Nicky, Narabux, and Misri have found copious mention in print. 19th century periodicals like Calcutta Gazette and Samachar Darpan are full such reports.

The journals of Fanny Parkes mention one such outing on 13 October 1823. She wrote:

“We went to a nach at the house of a wealthy baboo during the festival of the Doorga Pooja or Dasera, held in honour of the goddess Doorga. The house was a four-sided building, having an area in the middle; on one side of the area was the image of the goddess raised on a throne, and some Brahmins were in attendance on the steps of the platform.”

She mentioned a ‘handsome supper’ that was ‘laid out in the European style, supplied by Messrs Gunter and Hooper, where ices and French wines were in plenty for the European guests’.

Looking again the Prinsep painting, at the far left side, one will find a sacrificial goat held tightly by a man and overlooked by another as a third man is poised by strike the head off. Is this goat being sacrificed for the entertainment of the European guests? Of course. This gory picture in black and white if often chopped off in glossy magazines that feature this painting. But this opens another vista complete with hutments and country houses. Colonial Calcutta is never complete without them. The non-Bengali, non-Hindu service providers to the rulers and their accomplices did not join this merry picture. Prinsep stole a moment of immortality for those.

It is on record that the Baboos believed that the presence of European guests would elevate their social standing. The Europeans longed for such invitations in equal measure, often ranking the entertainments they experienced during the Durga Puja days. It did not last long. The signs of decline were noticed in the mid-1830s. In 1840, the Company issued a notice that prohibited all the visits to the Baboo mansions during the festival days.

One Kaliprasanna Sinha is learnt to have welcomed the move. But that is another story.

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