DHURRUMTOLLAH STREET: WAY TO BENGAL RENAISSANCE

A triple portrait of the East India Company ship Royal Charlotte – Indiaman (1758-1770. Oil on canvas by Robert Dodd. Couresy: National Maritime Museum,

 

 

নবজাগরণের যাত্রাপথে ঐতিহাসিক ধর্মতলা স্ট্রিট

LEAD UP
As early as in May 1772 when Dean Mohamet (1784–1851) arrived, Calcutta was already a major center of commerce for the English East India Company, prosperous and entrepreneurial. [Dean Mahomet] Calcutta was then just a township desperately in need to grow into a city to fulfill the common ambition of the Company Bahadur and the British colonialism under the administration of Lord Clive and his immediate followers. It is interesting to note that the Industrial Revolution, the critical turning point in modern history, had its origin in village Sutanuti cotton market that allured the British traders to settle and exploit. The wave of Industrial Revolution, which had started a decade ago in Britain with manufacturing of textiles, reached the shore of river Hughly by then, and let its impact felt in the planning for Town Calcutta expansion beyond the up-coming Fort William at Govindpore. Its chronicle gradually discloses a co-relation between industrialization and urbanization.

It all started with the initiation of the new Fort that set off huge mobilization of the Europeans southward and of the natives of Govindpore to Kumartooly, Sobhabazar, and Burrabazar at north and to Taltola at east. Both the parties had to spend lengthy time experimenting with new realities before they settled themselves in changed environment. That was the time since when new occupations being introduced as the unheard-of opportunities coming up as a result of scientific inventions and industrial diversification. Calcutta in the process of urbanization started experiencing effect of industrialization. The external economic orientation of Calcutta to England emerged in18th and 19th centuries, provided the young city with an industrial prospect. It took however pretty long time to develop some minimum indigenous technological systems of production, transportation, construction, and the logistics required for large concentrations of people in urban areas. [Ghose] The progress slowed down because of the typical political apathy and cultural lethargy of colonial Calcutta.

THE CLIMATE

Until 1813 the commercial relations between India and England was free from industrial capitalist exploitation. Trade with India had been relatively small. Its huge potential, however, was foreseen by the industrial capitalist who wasted no time to frame policies for maximizing capital gain to feed British machine industry. They defined their policy with the objective, set out by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, to make India an agricultural colony of British capitalism, supplying raw materials and buying manufactured goods. British rule brought the destruction of traditional handicrafts as well as their technical proficiency, carried off plunder, and revenue extraction. [Sarkar] By 1814 the Company servants themselves had begun to invest their capital in Agency Houses born out of an alliance between the private trading interests of the Company’s servants and the Free Merchants. This unseemly alliance had been continuing since early days of East India Company. We understand from a scholarly note on the Company’s ship Royal Charlotte – Indiaman (1758-1770) featured at the top, that the Company placed bulk orders for official goods with the ships’ captains and supercargoes encouraging the flourishing network of private trade that supported the regular inflow of luxury commodities into Europe. This form of ‘regulated corruption’ was sanctioned through indulgences in Company policy. [Davies]

Despite all the mighty negative forces driven by the political machinery, industrialization happened in Bengal as well as other provinces in India at uneven pace mostly on European initiatives, excepting few instances of Indian entrepreneurship. Calcutta and its neighborhood were on the threshold of a small scale industrial revolution. The local business community embarked upon a broad range of steam-powered industries. Calcutta became ‘a seat of numerous extensive manufactories, vying with many British cities.’ [Stocqueler] The scenario changed in the second half of the 19th century. Faster transportation, and a uniform legal framework, in particular, expanded possibilities of capital and labour movements. ‘The Empire encouraged factor-market integration, increased the scope of public-private partnership and the separation of banking from trading and of trading from manufacturing. This diversification of risk was a key impetus to the industrialization drive.’ [Ray] It was the English who exploited the opportunities most. The natives of Calcutta missed it almost because of their so called entrepreneurial backwardness – a deeply-seated socio-cultural attitude. ‘Power over land, not mercantile or industrial enterprise, was the economic hallmark of social statuses.’ Trade was associated with low ranking castes, Brahmins and Kayasthas considered only the intellectual and administrative professions as proper occupations. Thus the indigenous Bengali elite turned its back on business and left modern industry and international commerce in Calcutta to Europeans. [Sarkar] Neither the shrewdness of colonial policy nor the apathy of general Bengalese toward business could stop Industrialization Revolution that brought forth radical and innovative changes in manufacturing and transportation from manual to mechanical mode. We may note in this context that it all had started with the bonanza of British textile industry at the cost the death of Indian cotton hand mill tradition. The first textile industry in India, Bowreah Cotton Mills, was established in 1818 by British at Fort Gloster near Calcutta; the first jute mill at Rishra started spinning in 1855 when they brought its machinery from Dundee. Industrialization produced a new market economy, and most importantly, a new society desirous of using innovative products and transports to set the revolution go.

 

Dhurrumtollah Bazar – a section of the coloured lithograph depicting Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart created before 1838 (pub. 1848) by Sir Charles D’Oyly. Courtesy Heidelberg U Univ.

DHARRUMTOLLAH IN CONTEXT

Walking around the Dhurrumtollah Street we may still find few footprints of Industrial Revolution that modernized the ‘process of manufacturing consumer goods and capital goods and of building infrastructure in order to provide goods and services to both individuals and businesses.’ The industrial orientation was discernable more markedly in the new township around the Fort covering the entire southern expansion up to Surman’s Park including villages of Govindpore, Birji, Chowringhee and sections of Colinga – the area commonly understood today in terms of east and west Dhurrumtollah. That time Taltola, or Talpooker, with its segment Jaunbazar was an undeveloped swampy land of Colinga mouza nearest to ‘Bazar of Govindpore on the site of Fort’ (also referred to as ‘Dhurrumtollah Bazar). The only landmark it had was a shrine of Dharmathakur, or the Dharmatala. A road to Dharamtala that known to exist in 1762 as a causeway immediate north of Dingabhanga or Jala Colinga was reinforced with Birbhum gravel in 1796 just after the new Dhurrumtollah Bazar established. [Setton-Kerr]

 

As we have already noticed, during the time of expansion of the Town Calcutta and construction of the new Fort, there had been massive mobilization from all directions. The Europeans moved toward south, the Govindpore villagers toward north and east where the later had to take up new occupation for living. In addition, there had been a steady inflow of people from outside India of varied cultural background and expertise for doing business or working as professionals or employees in government and private institutions. The uprooted Govindpore folks gained prospect of living in civil areas and availing new job opportunities in exchange of homes they lost. The opportunities were not limited to serving the European and the Native aristocracy as domestics, but also in public places and at the Fort site as coolies, road-labourers, or palanquin-bearers who in those early days were customarily natives of Bengal. So far we understand, the Hindu settlers from Govindpore had no serious involvement in the process of developing Dhurrumtollah into a neighborhood of historical importance. In our collective mind, the area of ‘Dhurrumtollah’ today no more includes the eastern part of Jaunbazar, which found its own identity after Pritaram Das had built his palatial house in 1810s – the hallowed site where Rani Rashmoni, his daughter-in-law, lived her distinguished life of spiritual, social and political significance. As we conceive, Dhurrumtollah of recent time comprises the entire area between the Lindsay Street and the Dhurrumtollah Street. The road was widened up in 1836 allowing the adjacent land to develop fast into a modern colony next to Chowringhee, but unlike Chowringhee, it was for people of all shades, not white alone. So to speak, such liberal inclusion was a striking exception to the administrative directions pronounced for removing ‘native inhabitants from the black town and to build houses for themselves on another spot, at a greater distance from the fort’. We gather from the English traveler, Edward Ives that this was ‘owing to the governor and council’s resolution in consequence of Colonel Clive’s advice, to enlarge and well secure Fort William, which could not be done, whilst the Indian town was standing. [Ives]

The White Town concentrated around the Tank Square. The region centering on the Govindpore Fort, including Chowringhee, Park Street, Dharmatala, Esplanade, formed the European part of the town. [Wallace] Dharmatala, though commonly designated as a European district, can hardly justify so by its mixed populace and liberal lifestyle, which has been encouraged to diversify further culturally and economically, keeping pace with the changes taken place in global societies through ever increasing Calcutta connections.

GreatMarket_Solvyns,

Of the Nations Most Known in Hindoostan. Solvyns, Les Hindous, Vol. III. 1811

The crowd of Dhurrumtollah Street is always different from anywhere else in Calcutta – “full of the People of India, walking in family parties and groups and confidential couples. And the people of India are neither Hindu nor Mussulman — Jew, Ethiop, Gueber, or expatriated British” (like James Augustus Hickey, Justice Le Maitre, or a David Drummond). “They are the Eurasians, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them in Dhurrumtollah now.” [Kipling] Because of the presence of British insiders, Dhurrumtollah milieu is essentially more inclusive than the grey town Murgihatta, and may be justly called a global town. On this road, Rev. C Cesry found in 1881 many faiths, many occupations, and many institutions existing next to each other. [Cesry] The road becomes congested with swelling population and their multifarious activities – commercial, professional, humanitarian, devotional, and recreational.

Calcutta may aptly be called ‘a city of shop-keepers’ if ‘getting and spending’ proves to be the essence of its economic life. This was what Sambhoo Churn wrote in Mookherji’s Magazine in 1861. The most respectable of its inhabitants were merchants, and the next might be the judiciary and law practitioners in Calcutta. Those days their profession found highly profitable. So were the medical practitioners. Englishmen in those days carried on other professionals as well. They were jurymen. Besides, they were engaged in different trades as coach-making, watch-making, tavern-keeping, tailoring, wine-dealing, shoe-making, hair-dressing, tanning and the like. [Biswas]

NEW PHENOMENA
A glance through the street directories of late 18th century or early 19th century Calcutta should show the changing pattern of occupations in Dhurrumtollah Street with “addresses of Engineers, Under¬takers, Chemists, Doctors, Midwifes, Photographers, Professors of Music, Horse Doctors, Auctioneers, Jewelers, Book-sellers, Publicans, Barbarians, Scythians, Bond and Free. [Cesry] There were more, most importantly the teachers who contributed singularly to awakening of a new Bengal. The role of Dhurrumtollah Academy of David Drummond and certain other extraordinary institutions carried out gently their grand missions on this rowdy street of ‘shops and bazars’. To Rudyard Kipling the street was like Hammersmith High¬way – the main shopping street in Hammersmith, London.

As we have elsewhere discussed at length about the old bazars of Dhurrumtollah, including the Chandney Market that still exists. [puronokolkata] The old Chandney was altogether a different class of market. It was set to cater raw materials like cloth lengths, threads and needles, or tools like scissors, knives, hammers or a fishing rod, but barely any ready-made consumer goods like garment to wear or fishes to eat. It was also a good shopping centre for household wares. I believe it still continues with the tradition to a large extent.  This apart, I like to draw your attention to the variety of specialty shops in Dhurrumtollah locality that sale, repair and offering services and products of modern technology.

Madan Theatre by Night” by Gaganendranath Tagore. Held at National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Image Courtesy: NGMA

There was no dearth of photographic studios, camera shops, professional cameramen, gramophone players, and music records, projectors and films, and above all there was the pioneering Indian cinema production company, the Madan Theatres to show how very receptive the ambience of Dhurrumtollah has been to innovative merchandise. Even today one goes there for a treasure hunt for rare music records, and some finds the master mechanic for gramophones and cameras in its lanes and bi-lanes. Such experience veritably takes us back to the old days of Dhurrumtollah.

CamelCarriage_Atkinson_1860

Camel Carriage. Coloured lithograph by F. Jones after Captain G.F. Atkinson. 1860

The scenario Kipling described did not grow overnight but an outcome of a slowly built tradition since 1762 – the time when Dhurrumtollah Street was a muddy road frequented now and then by animal-drawn carts pulled by bullocks, horses, and possibly elephants and camels.
The road became wider in 1867; building plots were numbered in 1843 and revised in 1869. Along with the continuous improvement of the Street and its surroundings, changes take place not only in mode of transportation, or form of vehicle, but in people’s lifestyle and the design of the institutions within the orbit of Dhurrumtollah Street.

OBSERVATIONS
Dhurrumtollah Street is, as we see, one of the few roads of the 18th century Calcutta that may claim to be a distinctive reserve for augmenting the history of making Calcutta a modern City out of the colonial ‘Town Calcutta’. The Street carries the traces of the socio-cultural progress on the route to urbanization basking in the glow of Industrial Revolution. It turned up in Dhurrumtollah rather than in any other part, because of two reasons, I believe. First, it was a free society and a learning society, continuously adjusting itself with new ideas and technological inventions. Second, the resolute role of institutions and few little-known, liberal forward-looking people that made it all happened.

CHAPIN PUMPING ENGINE.Dwarkanath imported this technology from England for his business ventures

Contrary to this view, there is a general notion that ‘the early and prolonged exposure to British administration resulted in the expansion of Western education, culminating in development of science, institutional education, and social reforms in the region, including what became known as the Bengali renaissance.’ [Bengal Chamber] When there is no denying that India owes to the British for the revival of its heritage, the British had little to contribute to the formation of the liberal spirit of Bengal Renaissance simply because they never had such values in their national character founded on the rock of convention.

Neither the contemporary business world had much to effect a change in Bengali mind-set. We know many illustrious names of the 19th century business and industrial leaders, British and Indian, from Andrew Yule to Octavius, from Dwarkanath to P C Ray. Among the Indian entrepreneurs there were many great public figures but hardly any persuasive leader capable of being an agent of social change. When Dwarkanath launched his firm, Young Bengal found a hero, and expected the Bengalis to ‘compete with the nations of Europe and America, not only in English literature, but in fine arts, sciences and commerce’. [Sarkar]

There had been however many renowned adorable renaissance men, including foreigners like a David Hare, and many more unacknowledged people who readied the Calcutta society at large with their open and inquisitive mind imbibed with liberal values. The society was shaped by those extraordinary minds behind the scene that produced leaders to instill new values in public mind, and influence politics of the land. While the industry, the political power, the social elites all had their respective roles to back the new society to flourish, essentially it was the work of the unaccounted activists – the mind-makers.

ENDNOTE
To illustrate my views I shall present few cases, starting with Chandney Bazar, an obscured offshoot of the industrial age. It will be followed by profiles of some magnificent men who left their invisible signatures on some very important chapters of Calcutta history leading to Bengal Renaissance. They came from dissimilar walks of life at different points of time – two horsemen, one Caribbean the the other French by birth, a atheist teacher of Scottish birth, and one Brahmoite  American Unitarian activist. Hopefully, you would enjoy their stories so far unheeded, when come out on puronokolkata pages before long.

REFERENCE
[Anonymous]. 1816. Sketches of India; or, Observations Descriptive of the Scenary, Etc in Bengal. London: Black, Purbury and Allen. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=tEcVAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Bengal Chamber of Commerce. 2016. Discover Bengal: A Guidebook Of Business Prospects In West Bengal. Calcutta: Bengal Chamber. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwi77uKz1PnhAhUk63MBHQ8vDkYQFjAAegQIAxAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bengalchamber.com%2Feconomics%2Fdiscover-bengal.pdf&usg=AOvVaw1V8wDJ0_pSUMaxTwj7VrZ9.
Bengal Hurkaru. 1838. Bengal Directory and Annual Register 1838. Calcutta: Samuel Smith. https://archive.org/details/dli.bengal.10689.14012/page/n5.
Biswas, Oneil. 1992. Calcutta and Calcuttans From Dihi to Megalopolis. Calcutta: Firma KL. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.149376.
Cesry, Rev. C. 1881. Indian Gods Sages And Cities. Calcutta: Catholic Orphan Press. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.128152.
Chunder, Bholanauth. 1869. Travels of a Hindoo; to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India; Vol.1. London: Trubner. https://archive.org/stream/travelsahindoot00chungoog#page/n9/mode/2up.
Davies, Pauline. 2013. East India Company and the Indian Ocean Material World at Osterley, 1700-800, East India Company at Home (May 2013). https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/osterley-park-middlesex/osterley-case-study-winds-of-trade/
Dean Mahomet. 1997 The Travels of Dean Mahomet: an eighteenth-century journey through India; ed. By Michael Fischer. California: UCPress,1997 https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520207172/the-travels-of-dean-mahomet
Forbes, James. 1834. Oriental Memoirs: A Narrative of Seventeen Years Residence in India; Vol.2. 2nd ed. London: Bentley, Richard. https://archive.org/details/orientalmemoirs00montgoog/page/n10.
Ghose, Benoy. 1960. “The Colonial Beginnings of Calcutta Urbanisation without Industrialisation.” The Economic Weekly, no. August 13: 1255–60. http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/1960_12/33/the_colonial_beginnings_of_calcuttaurbanisation_without_industrialisation.pdf?0=ip_login_no_cache%3Dfc8386086015fc6e2268f71b76bece16.
Kipling, Rudyard. 1899. City of Dreadful Night. New York: Alex. https://archive.org/details/citydreadfulnig02kiplgoog/page/n7
Puronokolkata. (2018). Durrumtollah And Its Old Bazars. Retrieved from https://puronokolkata.com/2018/05/08/dhurrumtollaha-bazars/
Roy, Tirthankar. 2014. “Trading Firms in Colonial India.” Business History Review 88 (1): 9–42. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007680513001402.
Sarkar, Suvobrata. 2013. “Bengali Entrepreneurs and Western Technology in the Nineteenth Century: A Social Perspective.” Indian Journal of History of Science 48 (3): 447–75. http://www.insa.nic.in/writereaddata/UpLoadedFiles/IJHS/Vol48_3_4_SSarkar.pdf.
Sen, Amit pseud. [i.e. Susobhan Sarkar] ]. 1947. Notes on Bengal Renaissance. Bombay: People’s pub. https://archive.org/details/notesonthebengal035527mbp/page/n6.
Setton-Karr, W. S. 1865. Selections from Calcutta Gazettes; Vol.2. Calcutta: Military Orphan Press. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.44506/2015.44506.Selections-From-Calcutta-Gazettes–Vol-2#page/n3/mode/2up/search/beerbhoom.
Stocqueler, J.H. 1845. Handbook of India: A Guide to the Stranger and the Traveller, and a Companion to the Resident. 2nd ed. London: Allen. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=SelHAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA348&lpg=PA348&dq=a+seat+of+numerous+extensive+manufactories,+vying+with+many+British+cities.&source=bl&ots=O-V1sg-gc6&sig=ACfU3U1bRKpuM94feKVkwAc3A7wwaWsOPg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi8hbmhlO3hAhWKP48KHYEm.
Wallace, Robert Grenville. 1822. Fifteen Years in India; or, Sketches of a Soldier’s Life Being an Attempt to Describe Persons and Things … U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries. London: Longman. https://doi.org/10.1016/0003-6870(73)90259-7.

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Chowringhee: Against the Backdrop of Fort William II

Chowringhee Road. 1787. Artist and engraver: Daniell, Thomas

চৌরঙ্গীঃ কোলকাতার দক্ষিন দ্বার

Genesis of Chowringhee

After Plassey, the necessity of keeping the English factory at Calcutta within the Fort was at end.[6] There was no felt need any more for reviving the ravaged Fort that proved its inadequacy in defending the old town and its own bulwark. The Fort was encumbered with houses close by, and had no proper esplanade for guns. Their triumph might not have been spirited enough to free the minds of English commanders from the dread of another war. That was why the East India Company favoured Clive’s decision of erecting a second Fort William expending two millions sterling.[8] The new Fort essentially differs from the old one being exclusively a military establishment and not a fortified factory of English traders as the old Fort was styled. Its construction set off in 1758 on the riverside ground of Govindpur village about a mile away from the old Fort. Before the Battle of Laldighi, the English were cooped up in the neighbourhood of the old Fort.[17] The prospect of an aerial, liveable habitation in the neighbourhood of the New Fort, attracted the European population to gradually move from the already crowded old township around the Tank Square and the old Minta, to settle in commodious Chowringhee.[6]

New Fort in Backdrop

Equipped with huge defense machinery and a formidable military architecture, the new Fort William was ready by 1773, but had no occasion ever since to exchange fires with enemies. Instead its resounding  tope of canon ball routinely announced mid-day hours to regulate working life of the Calcuttans. The presence of the imposing Fort on Maidan silently reminds us of the significant role it had played in transforming the town Calcutta into a city – famously called ‘City of Palace’, the centre of British India. Following inauguration of the Fort, the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William was founded. The Governors of Bengal became the Governor Generals of India. Calcutta was reborn ushering a modern society to stay connected with rest of the world.

Fort William, Govindpore. Chowringhee Gate. Photographer: unidentified. 1880’s Source: eBay,

Beyond the European buildings lying around the Old Fort were four villages of mud and bamboo, all of which were included in the zamindary limits of the first settlement. These villages were the original three with the addition of Chowringhee. Chowringhee in 1717 was a hamlet of isolated hovels, surrounded by water-logged paddy-fields and bamboo-groves, interspersed with a few huts and small plots of grazing and arable lands. The chosen site of the Fort was on the river-bank of village Govindpore, considerably south of the old Mint. As Colonel Mark Wood’s Map of 1784 inscribes.[19] Govindpore began where the Northern boundary of Dhee Calcutta ended at Baboo Ghat, and then went up to the Govindpore Creek, or Tolly’s Nullah and that was the extreme end of the English zamindary. As Rev. Long indicated, it was ‘immediately to the South of Surman’s gardens, marked by a pyramid in Upjohn’s map.’ [17] At West, the area includes King’s Bench Walk  with a row of trees separating it from the riverbank between  Chandpaul Ghaut  and  Colvin’s Ghaut , then called  Cucha-goody Ghaut  At North, Esplanade Row, from Chandpaul Ghaut, hard by the New Court House on the riverside, runs into Dhurumtollah in a straight line past the Council House and the old Government House standing side by side.

Govindpore was a populous flourishing village when its entire population was removed to make room for the new Fort and its infrastructure. The inhabitants were compensated by providing lands in places like Toltollah, Kumartooly, Sobhabazar expending restitution-money. In Govindpore itself great improvements took place. The jungle that cut off the village of Chowringhee from the river, was cleared and. gave way to the wide grassy stretch of ‘Maidan of which Calcutta is so proud’.

Pallanquin on jungle road. Illustration in book ’India’ by Richard Mayde 1876

The jungle, presumably, had been once a part of the Great Soonderband (সুন্দর বন).  Many traces of trees were found at a considerable depth below the surface of the ground. These remains are thought to be those of the soondrie forest that covered the site of Calcutta when newly emerged from the waters of the Gangetic Delta. [6] Early 1789, Government resolved on filling up the excavations in the Esplanade and levelling its ground. The plan was prepared for the benefit of Calcutta in general, and of the houses fronting the Esplanade in particular. The plan extended to drain the marsh land, in expectation that the digging a few tanks will furnish sufficient earth and thus save the project cost and time. A new tank was made at the corner of Chowringhee and Esplanade, which existed till the dawn of the twentieth century. [20]

Road to Chowringhee

The road dividing the Maidan and Chowringhee was named, Road to Chowringhy [sic] by Colonel Mark Wood in his 1784 Plan of Calcutta, which in fact was a midsection of the oldest and longest thoroughfare of Calcutta, known as Pilgrim Way  starting from Chitpore, Chitreswari temple at extreme North and ending at Kalighat temple in South. As late as in 1843, the proclamation included in the  Special Reports of the Indian Law Commissioners has no mention of ‘Chowringhee locality’, but of a ‘Chowringhi[sic] High Road’.

The Road to Chowringhy[sic] was initially a short stretch between Dhurumtollah and Park Street that subsequently developed into an 80 feet broad and nearly two miles long roadway commencing from the  Creek  where it crossed Cossitollah (later Bentinck Street) between Waterloo Street and British India Street, and ended at Theatre Road where from Rossapagla Road took the queue. Before the modern Chowringhee came into being, Cossitollah, was thronged with a large proportion of European shops and often called ‘the Indian Elysium of plebeians’. [6]. The eastern side of the Chowringhee Road is lined by handsome houses, facing the fine grassy Maidan which lies between them and the river. Houses are generally ornamented with spacious verandahs to the south, that being the quarter from which the cool evening breeze blows in the hot weather. [12] The Bishp’s Palace was the most imposing among those.

Changing Landscape

When Josua Conder visited Chowringhee, this city was ‘the quick growth of a century’, and ‘still half jungle’. He wrote, “at Chowringhee, where you now stand in a spacious verandah supported by Grecian pillars, only sixty short years ago, the defenseless villagers could scarcely bar out the prowling tiger.” His presumptions about the future of Chowringhee however were all wrong. Contrary to his beliefs, in sixty more years the city never depopulated but its strength intensified; and all these perishable palaces of timber, brick, and chunam did not disappear but multiplied more time than it should have. [7]

Calcutta. A French map. 1839. credited to Dufour and Benard. [Read ‘Rue’ for ‘Road’]

So far back as 1714 ‘Cherangy’[sic] is named among the township neighbourhood within the Pergunnah of Calcutta either possessed or desired by the Company.[23] Originally, Chowringhee was an ancient village named after one  Jungal Giri Cherangi, a pious worshipper of Kali. Between 1726 and 1737, Cherangi (sic) came to be treated as a part of the English settlement. It was still separated on the West from Govindapur by jungle, where now the grassy level of the Maidan extends. The creek wandering inland past the southern wall of the burying ground divided Chowringhee-Govindapur from the Old Town – the township around the Old Fort. Until then Chowringhee had been a native portion of Dhee Calcutta and Bazar Calcutta.[23] There were “only a few miserable huts thatched with straw : a jungle, abandoned to water-fowl and alligators, covered the site of the present citadel and the course, which is now daily crowded at sunset with the gayest equipages of Calcutta”. [8]

The above 9 lithographs of William Wood’s paintings included in his album, Views of Calcutta.published in 1833. The elegant forms of the buildings of European Calcutta heralded an important stage in the history of architecture of the subcontinent: the evolution of Western styles into forms which would become commonplace in the Indian context. This building depicted shows what became the conventional pattern, a two or three storeyed block, well-proportioned and set in a garden, and with columned verandahs protecting its rooms from the heat. Courtesy British Library

Colonel Mark Wood in 1784 marked Chowringhee on the South of Park Street away from the original locale of the village Cherangi. A decade later, Upjohn put back the district of Chowringhee as Dhee Birje, on the North of Park Street. The boundaries were shown with Circular Road on the East, Park Street on the South, Colingah on the North and a part of Chowringhee Road on the West. [17] After half a century, Dufour and Benard in 1839 put Chowringhee on both the sides of Park Street spreading over Dhurumtollah to Theatre Road. [3] Bit by bit its boundaries extended from the village at North of Park Street, then called the Burying Ground Road, to cover the whole South-East part of Calcutta. In 1802 Lord Valentia writes : “Chowringhee, an entire village, runs for a considerable length at right angles with it (the Esplanade) and altogether forms the finest view I ever beheld in any city.” In 1810, Miss Graham found Calcutta ‘like London a small town of itself ‘, but its suburbs swell it to a prodigious city. [14] Chowringhee in 1824, is no more a mere scattered suburb, but almost as closely built as, and a very little less extensive than Calcutta. [23] , “separated from Calcutta by an ancient John bazaar [Jaun Bazaar]”.[16] Chowringhee, to Rev W K Firminger, was the  West End  of Calcutta, socially but not geographically,  a district bounded by Park Street on the North, Lower Circular Road on the East and South, and the Maidan on the West. [13]

The modern view ignores the historicity of Chowringhee. The row of buildings on Esplanade Row at the edge of Maidan becomes its Northern skirt. Its territory is nowadays more or less compatible with old Govindpore – a place no more exists.

Chowringhee Road View from No 11 Esplanade Row , across Dhurrumtollah Tank. Col. Lithograph. Artist: Sir Charles D’Oyly

Growing Chowringhee

A year before the construction of Govindpore Fort stared, there had been only a couple of European houses in Chowringhee. One at the corner of Dhurumtollah with entrance from that street, the other was at a little distance from it, with an entrance facing the Maidan. Most likely the first house was the General Stibbert’s House in the west end of the Dhurumtollah and in the vicinity of the Esplanade, where Mr. Farrell’ New Calcutta Academy moved in from Cossitolla Street as gazetted on 31st May 1804, much before the foundation of St Paul’s School, which was sometimes referred to as one of the two first houses in Chowringhee. The second one was indisputably the manor of Lord Vansittart at number 7 Middleton Row. It was better known as Sir Elijah Impey’s house where Impey happily stayed surrounded by an expansive deer park. In those days Maidan was ‘strangely treeless’, and Impey’s manor happened to be the foremost erection stood across it’s stretch. The site is now occupied by the Loreto Convent.

The number of houses continued to grow in isolation till 1770s. Between Jaun Bazar Road (or Corporation Street as called later), and Park Street, forty European residences, mostly with large compounds, are depicted in Upjohn’s Map. An equal number may be counted in Dhee Birjee – the quarter immediately south of Park Street. Even so late as 1824, Chowringhee was regarded as a suburb. Miss Eden calls it the Regent’s Park of Calcutta. Miss Emma Roberts spoke about suburb Chowringhee of 1831-33 – the favourite residence of the European community. From the roofs of their houses, they viewed “a strange, rich, and varied scene discloses itself: the river covered with innumerable vessels,— Fort William, and Government House, standing majestically at opposite angles of the plain,— the city of Calcutta, with its innumerable towers, spires, and pinnacles in the distance,— and nearer at hand, swamps and patches of unreclaimed jungle, showing how very lately the ground in the immediate neighbourhood of the capital of Bengal was an uncultivated waste, left to the wild beasts of the forest.” [25]

“In this part of the town,” notes Mr. Beverley in his census report for 1876, “ the streets are laid out with perfect regularity, very different from the rest of the town” – the town rising about the old Fort. [9] The report was contrary to what Miss Emma viewed over half a century ago and said, “No particular plan appears to have been followed in their erection, and the whole, excepting the range facing the great plain, Park-street, Free-School street, and one or two others, present a sort of confused labyrinth,”. and then she added ,”however, it is very far from displeasing to the eye; the number of trees, grass- plants, and flowering shrubs, occasioning a most agreeable diversity of objects.” [25] The difference between the observations of Miss Emma of Beverley evidenced the good works done in between by the Lottery Committee. “To them Calcutta is indebted for a long catalogue of improvements: and they may justly claim to be held in grateful remembrance as her second founders. Roads and paths were run across the Maidan and the familiar balustrades set up. Numerous tanks were excavated The New Market, which was built between 1871 and 1874, is another monument to the energy of the Justices which the ordinary citizen of Calcutta probably feels better able to appreciate. The grand success of the Lottery Committee encouraged the government to undertake further developmental programs under the management of the Fever Committee [9]

Chowringhee Redefined

An illustration is from a picture drawn by Captain F. J. Bellew, illustrating his book entitled, A Griffen, on Landing at Calcutta, 1818

Chauringi [sic]) is a place of quite modern erection, originated from the rage for country houses.”, At the beginning of 19th century the people of Calcutta, as of Bombay and Madras, loved to live in garden-houses midst trees and flowers. They preferred living away from the hot, unhealthy and already crowded Town of Calcutta, to a place ‘where they could enjoy some privacy’.[17] They admired the landscape of Chowringhee. Chowringhee premises themselves were often very extensive, the principal apartments looking out upon pretty gardens, decorated with that profusion of flowers which renders every part of Calcutta so blooming. [25] The surroundings were mostly open fields among which were scattered villages, with here and there a garden house, standing in wide grounds where roamed plenty of deer, water birds, particularly the adjutant birds, or the Indian stork with a pinkish-brown neck and bill, and a military gait seen walking around. Camels and mules were not uncommon sight on Chowringhee Road. Jackals roamed at night mischievously to undermine foundations of old houses, as they did so to the Free School’s old house that fell in 1854. In spite of such small inconveniences the ‘lordly Chowringhee stood ‘equal to the finest thoroughfare anywhere; and the blessed Maidan – that enormous lung responsible for all the health and happiness of the people of Calcutta’. [20]

The name ‘Chowringhee’ denotes a new found ‘comfort zone’ in the South of Town Calcutta for the Europeans who loved a trendy hassle-free life to lead in airy environs. Whenever their comfort-zone shifted its focus the habitat moved along revising its boundaries but keeping the name unchanged. The historical maps may well justify redefining ‘Chowringhee’ in terms of habitation socially and not geographically in terms of territorial location. Chowringhee like two other old localities, John Bazaar and Taltallah, ‘came adrift from their moorings and carried away by the surging tide of population beyond Dhurumtollah toward Bhowanipore.[18] Somewhat like a Gypsy camp, the community moved on southward leaving some cohabitants behind in lesser locations.

Chowringhee Stratified

Plan of Calcutta. 1784 & 1785. Credited to Colonel Mark Wood

Chowringhee, we may notice, is a cluster of residential blocks of distinctive characters, categorized by racial, religious, economic differences. Blanchard in his memoir mentions: “A house in the “City of Palaces” is very apt to look like a palace. But the comparison applies only to that portion of the town where dwell the Europeans of the higher ranks, the Civil and Military officers, and principal merchants of the place. These congregate for the most part in the Chowringhee road and the streets running there from, which make up the only neighbourhood where it is conventionally possible for a gentleman to reside.” [5] This description of Blanchart found inapplicable to the whole of Chowringhee, but to some exclusive neighbourhood like. Hastings Place, at the southern end of Chowringhee. The group of streets which commemorate the various titles of Lord Hastings and his wife, who was Countess of Loudoun in her own right, are also the work of the Lottery Committee, and were designed to afford access to the Panchkotee (92 Elliot Rd ?), or five mansions, which will be found surrounding Rawdon Street, Moira Street, Hungerford Street and Loudoun Street (as it should be properly spelt). [9] We are informed by different authors that while barristers had their houses in the neighbourhood of Supreme Court, the officials, medical men, and merchants, have their residences in Garden Reach, and the numerous streets contained in the district rejoicing in the general name of Chowringee [sic]. [16] All these points out to the practice of social ranking among the European residents in Chowringhee. Chowringhee was built by Europeans for residing there in European way life, surpassing the standard of living prevailed in their homeland. Montgomery Massey penned an intimate and lively picture of Chowringhee of relatively recent time covering half a century from 1870s. [20]

Social & Religious Reservations

Procession of the Churruckpooja in Chowringee. Coloured lithograph by Charles D’Oyly. 1848

For a long time Indians had no place in Chowringhee, excepting very few. We find in a late 18th century map three Rustomjees on Chowringhee Lane, Jamsedjee Ruttunjee on Lindsay Street. Chowringhee allowed these rich business men of Parsee community to stay with the sahibs rightfully. It took a hundred year for the native gentlemen to share the privilege liberally with the Europeans to settle in Chowringhee. Some of those privileged ones were: Kumar Arun Chundra Singha at house 1(?) Harrington Street, Sir Rajendranath Mookherji’s house on 7 Harrington Street, Sir B. C. Mitter’s 19 Camac Street, Raja Promotho Roy Chowdhury’s 9 Hungerford Street. The presence of native houses in Chowringhee before coming of Europeans may not be improbable. Rev. Long spoke of a ‘large house’ identical to Sir Elijah Impey’s, stood on the very spot, nearly half a century before Impey. That house as referred to in the ‘Plan of Calcutta’ of 1742 ‘cannot have been an English residence’ he continued, ‘and was possibly the property of a native official’. [17]

Chowringhee in its first two centuries had been exclusively a Christian colony. The two early Bengali converts, Rev. K. M. Banerjee, and Gunendra Mohun Tagore had houses in European quarter on Bullygunge Circular Road at premises numbers 1 and 2. We are never sure if Chowringhee would have welcomed these two native Christians as residents, if so they desired. It is interesting to note, however, that there was a Hindu, of European origin, living in posh Wood Street area. Hindu Stuart was more a conservative Hindu than many native Hindus were. The European residents had tolerated Stuart’s conformity to idolatrous customs. It shows that the Europeans had no problems with native faith as such, but to them the native way of living was utterly disgraceful and unhygienic. Besides their own experience, the reactions of the overseas visitors gathered from their memoirs and letters, reinforced European antipathy toward the way of living of the Calcutta people in general, and of the lower-class in particular. One of the serious objections they had against native citizens was ‘lack of sensitivity’ and indifference toward their own surroundings. They called the native town, a black town, as it was a ‘wretched-looking place – dirty, crowded, ill-built, and abounding with beggars and bad smells’ [30]. Beyond Black Towns, even the best neighbourhoods were not completely free of such menace. “The whole appearance of Chowringhee is spoiled by the filthy huts that exist everywhere, almost touching the ‘palaces’.” These eyesores are to be seen even in the ultra-fashionable Park Street and Middleton Street, and on the Maidan in front of Chowringhee. [12] It is a repulsive scene for civilized members of any society. The problems are often thought of economy oriented and related to lower-class of the society, overlooking their cultural significance.

Living Conditions and Style

The Black Towns also includes the upper-class genteel who lived in ‘handsome houses enclosed in court-yards between the mud huts, the small dingy brick tenements, and the mean dilapidated bazaars of the middling and lower classes of natives. These Armenian merchants, Parsees, and Bengallee gentlemen of great wealth and respectability’ did never mind their environment. [25] Interestingly, the lowly tribal folks of Bengal, like the santals, keep their homes and villages clean and beautiful. The underlined social malady is an issue of critical importance for investigating the root cause of stagnation of the vernacular society. The matter is beyond the scope of present discussion. Elsewhere we discussed related issues in historical context. See: Rajendra Dutta 1818-1889

 

Chowringhee Today & Tomorrow

Since 1754 Chowringhee revealed itself variantly in maps, paintings, and texts. It is almost impossible to separate Chowringhee from boundary areas, or to imagine a Chowringhee excluding North of Park Street, a Chowringhee without the old Hogg Market, the Museum, Bible House, The Grand, and Firpo’s, and the like – attractions of old and recent past. For Chowringhee goers, riding an Esplanade-bound tram across the green of Maidan was a special pleasure. Alighted at Esplanade they felt already in Chowringhee, and perceived the two as inseparable. To them and some modern scholars, Chowringhee and Esplanade denote the same place and are generally called by any of the two names irrespectively. The comprehensive view of modern Calcutta embraces the grand view of Maidan and on its opposite, shiny lines of shops, hotels, restaurants, cinema halls and range of magnificent edifices built mostly by the Armenian architects who were responsible more than others for upgrading Calcutta to the City of Palace. Minney in his time wondered “if all these mighty edifices will be abandoned some day by those for whom they were built. Will the Britons say to the Indians, “We built all this for ourselves, and for you; but we can no longer live together?” [20] And so it happened. Calcutta has been losing her Oriental identity for good. The little collective will the society had earned to resist the lure of westernization is being siphoned off in the process of misconceived globalization.

 

NOTES
The name of the rural Cherangi (চেরাঙ্গী) changed during its transformation into urbane Chowringhee (চৌরঙ্গী). The original vernacular name [26] acquired variant renditions with some twists to suit English tongues, and spelt out fancifully by writers of last three centuries. Among the good alternatives, ‘Chowringhee’ is found most popular in the works consulted. That is the only reason why I used ‘Chowringhee’ and some other place names in certain anglicized forms as standard.

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