Monday, 6 April 2015

Saroj Bhavan, Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane

The article in the Times of India’s Times City, on the 24th of March, entitled “House that! Old but still shining” by Saikat Ray and Subhro Niyogi caught the eye of many members of my mother’s side of the family. That was because the article carried a photograph of a house that they once called home. What the article calls “Sen Bari”, owned by the Sens of Senco Jewellers fame, was once known as “Paul Bari”, home to the Pauls of Burdwan, and that is not the only factual error in this story either. But let’s start from the beginning.

Saroj Bhavan today

The Pauls were landlords in the village of Gotan, Thana Rayna, in the district of Burdwan in West Bengal. Harendranath Paul (1877 – 1961), the 2nd of three sons, shifted to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1899. Of his two brothers, one remained in Gotan and his family still stays there. The younger brother, Gour Chandra Paul, became an advocate. Among his classmates was India’s first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. He moved to Patna, Bihar and the family has lost touch with him since. In Calcutta (Kolkata), Harendranath initially joined the staff of Raja Subodh Mullick, doing mostly clerical work. A palmist is said to have recommended that he quit his job, and predicted that he would prosper if he started something connected with river trade. Harendranath had observed the comings and goings of vessels on the Hooghly and the Europeans engaged in the jute trade. He started by buying an old ship and selling it for scrap, making a large profit. This gave him enough capital to leave his famous employer and start his own business as a stevedore, partnering with a certain Biharilal Chakraborty under the name Paul & Chakraborty Private Limited in 1901. Within two decades he would make enough money to move his family from rented accomodations on Madan Mitra Lane (no connection to the current minister) to his own house, at the crossing of Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane and Shankar Ghosh Lane.

Stucco ornamentation on Saroj Bhavan
Paul Bari, (today’s Sen Bari), was completed in 1925, and not 1918 as the present owner Pannalal Sen claims in the Times of India article. The family probably moved in to the house in 1924, a little before the house was entirely completed. Harendranath had eight children. However, as per the norms of the time, his four daughters, Anila (Mitra after marriage), Parul Bala (Ghosh), Shudha (Basu) and Uma (Rakshit) would not receive a share of his property. That was reserved for his sons, Saroj Kumar (1915 – 1985), Subodh Kumar (unknown - 1955), my grandfather Sisir Kumar (1921 – 1994) and Rabindranath Paul (1922 – 1988). Harendranath named the house Saroj Bhavan, in honour of his eldest son. Joint families like the Pauls, needed large houses, and Saroj Bhavan was built with that requirement in mind. Through the magnificent main gate, with its faux columns and pediment, lay the rooms of Harendranath, a study, and a sitting room for entertaining outsiders. Such North Calcutta residences are built around a central courtyard. In this case, the courtyard was surrounded by rooms on only 3 sides, since the 4th was the wall of the adjacent house. On the far wall of the ground floor was the family’s common kitchen, and family members would have their meals in the ground floor dining room. Meals would be had sitting on the mats on the floor as was the old custom in Bengal. The dining table made its entrance only in 1962. Paul Bari had another two floors, with rooms accommodating the four brothers and their families. If the brothers had guests of their own, they were seated upstairs. This was the “andarmahal” or “inner house” and long established customs prohibited the entrance here for anyone except those with who the family was on intimate terms.

Harendranath Paul died in the April of 1961. Joint families held together by a strong patriarch have an uncanny habit of disintegrating after their death. But in this case it was the practical constraint of space that broke up the Pauls. The children were growing up, would get married eventually and need space for their own families. Saroj Bhavan was built to accommodate three generations; it would not accommodate a fourth. The family vacated Saroj Bhavan in the December of 1967. Saroj Kumar, and my maternal grandfather Sisir Kumar Paul, built their own houses in the posh South Calcutta (Kolkata) neighbourhood of New Alipore. Subodh Kumar had died young, and his only daughter, Krishna, married in early 1967. Subodh Kumar’s widow spent the rest of her life with her daughter in their home, also in New Alipore. She died in 2011. The youngest son Rabindranath also moved to South Calcutta (Kolkata), and his palatial mansion still stands on Bondel Road, now home to his son, my uncle, Partha Pratim Paul. Of the four daughters, Parul Bala moved to Bhagalpur, Bihar after marriage. Shudha moved to Cuttack, Odisha. Anila and Uma remained in Calcutta (Kolkata), the former in Narkeldanga and the latter in Russa Road in Tollygunge. Saroj Bhavan was sold in 1968. No member of the Paul family has ever set foot inside the house since then. The house therefore could not have been the “ancestral home” of the Sens, as the Times of India article claims, unless Pannalal Sen’s ancestors go back only three generations.

Rounded verandas, typical for the time
But how did such an oversight occur? My mother is understanding and forgiving, as she usually is. There are probably no members of the Sen family living today who were around when they bought the house, she says. The journalists Saikat Ray and Subhro Niyogi may not have verified the claims of Pannalal Sen from other sources either. Or it could be a simple case of clerical error. But as my aunt, Sukla Sarbadhikari (née Paul) stares wistfully at the photograph in the newspaper, she is grateful for the stellar maintenance the Sens have given the house. A few minor changes however, are visible. The name Saroj Bhavan and the date, 1925, have disappeared from the façade. The originally plain North Calcutta style windows now sport Islamic style arches. The North Calcutta style shuttered panes have been replaced by modern glass and steel, probably to aid the air conditioning that has also been installed. A small side entrance has been enlarged, and inside a car is parked. All verandas are covered in metal railing for security. A metal railing also fences off what was once the open front porch. Two more doors opening onto the front porch have been walled over. The mosaic flooring has been replaced by marble. And the larger garage that one contained Saroj Kumar’s Studebaker now contains a Fiat Linea. A rather unfortunate ugly wall has also been erected all around the terrace. Is Pannalal Sen planning another floor? If yes, that would be truly unfortunate, and would mar the beauty of this grand old building.

Saroj Bhavan terrace detail
Real estate greed and falling fortunes have sent many of Calcutta’s most spectacular residences into the abyss. The Pauls are happy that such an unfortunate fate has not befallen their house. Unlike many others of his generation, Harendranath had not built a garish monument to his personal vanity. Saroj Bhavan was a home. And although it may have changed its name, more than 90 years after it was built, that is what it continues to be.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


  • My thanks to all members of the Paul family who provided the information without which this post would not have been possible. 
  • Thanks also to all the neighbours of the Pauls who still remember them, so many years after they moved.
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