Monday, 25 January 2016

Garia Rajbari, South 24 Parganas

I have been staring at the Garia Rajbari of South Garia for years without knowing what it was. You see, every year, before the Kali Puja festival, a bunch of my friends and I travel to the firecracker market of Champahati and we pass a crossing known as China More or Cheenar More (more being Bengali for crossing or crossroads), and right there, next to a pond, stands this palatial building. Last winter, I carried my camera with me and managed to take a shot. When I asked around in the local market, a shopkeeper told me that this was the house of someone called Durgadas Banerjee. A google search threw up the following information…

Durgadas Bannerjee (1893-1943)

Major Bengali actor in Calcutta Theatres. Born in Kalikapur, 24 Parganas District. Introduced to film by Sisir Bhaduri (Taj Mahal Film) in 1922. From his first major film, Maanbhanjan, until the late 30s, he was the definitive Bengali screen hero.

I get it, actors are rich people, and they can have large houses, but why here? Surely it would make more sense for someone who worked in the studios in Tollygunge, to have a house in Calcutta (Kolkata)? And the house certainly does not look like it was built in Durgadas’s lifetime. So I returned, armed with a camera, and with my friend Ranajit, determined to get to the bottom of this. What I found was completely new to me. As it turns out, Garia Rajbari is the ancestral home of actor Durgadas Banerjee, politician Bijoy Banerjee (who served as speaker of the Bengal Legislative Assembly) and musician Sudipto “Buti” Banerjee of Bengali rock band, Cactus!

 

THE BANERJEE ZAMINDARS OF SOUTH GARIA

Banerjee is the anglicized version of the Bengali surname Bandyopadhyay. The earliest known ancestor of the Banerjees of South Garia is the Brahmin Benayok (Vinayak) Banerjee. From Benayok to Ram Ram Banerjee, there are no records of the family. Ram Ram (and no that is not a typo) lived in Barasat in present day North 24 Parganas district. His son, Babu Ramdeb Banerjee was the first to move to South Garia. His son was Babu Kishore Banerjee and his son was Babu Gouri Kant Banerjee. It was thanks to Gouri Kant’s younger son, Ram Ratan that the family’s fortunes changed. Ram Ratan was an energetic and enterprising man, who made a large fortune in business. He was a public-spirited gentleman and donated generously to the poor. He also started the family tradition of building roads for public use. His contribution was the 5-mile road that connected Garia with Rajpur. Ram Ratan’s two sons, Radhanath and Lall Mohan were, even more, successful financially than their father and it was during their time that the Banerjees of South Garia started their Durga Puja; a tradition that continues to this day.

The Durga Dalan at Kanak Banerjee's residence

Garia Rajbari photographed in 1909
Lall Mohan was one of the principal Zamindars of what was then the undivided 24 Parganas district. For the uninitiated, a Zamindar was a superior landlord under the old feudal system in India. A sort of revenue collector and justice-of-the-peace rolled into one, Zamindars were known to be fabulously rich, often at the expense of the farmers they ruled over. There were many Zamindars, however, who were public spirited, generous with their money, and concerned about the plight of their subjects. The Banerjees of South Garia have contributed considerably over the years, to the area and the lives of the common people. Zamindars were colloquially referred to as “Raja”, although they weren’t kings in the conventional sense. The palaces that these Zamindars built for themselves, often imitating European architectural styles, are known as Rajbari or King’s House to this day.

Lall Mohan had three sons, Tarak Nath, Jadu Nath and Dijendra Nath. While his brother Radhanath was older, and it was his heir to whom the property should have passed, he had only one child; a daughter. Radhanath made ample provisions for her and adopted Jadu Nath, who would then go on to head the family. Taraknath fathered ten children, and one of them was the actor, Durgadas Banerjee. The Garia Rajbari is still known among locals as Durgadas Banerjee’s house. The Banerjees would go on to build a new station road which is still in use, expand the local school and make considerable contributions to Bengali literature. Jadu Nath was even a member of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad and Sahitya Sabha. Their reign as landlords ended with the abolition of the Zamindari system in India, in the 1950’s. If you are astonished by the number of children Taraknath had, remember that this was the norm for the time. My maternal grandfather, for example, had seven siblings! This was a time when a family could go from 3 to 36 in one generation. The trouble with this is that a few generations down, if you don’t have a family tree written down, the various branches of the family can prove supremely troublesome to keep track of. The Banerjees of Garia Rajbari are now scattered all over Calcutta and indeed, the world and it seems the Garia Raj family have a few more famous descendants, other than Durgadas Banerjee.

Kanak Banerjee (right) and his grandson, Paramjit Banerjee

In the course of a conversation with the present head of the family trust, Kanak Banerjee, I happened to mention that I live in the Hazra area of Calcutta. Kanak Babu smiled and said they had a branch of the family living there as well, and his name was Bijoy Kumar Banerjee. Bijoy Kumar Banerjee was a politician who became speaker of the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1967. He is still remembered for his showdown with the then Governor of Bengal, Dharm Vira. When the Governor, dismissed Ajay Mukherjee’s state government (probably under pressure from the central government) and appointed P.C. Ghosh in his place, Bijoy Banerjee ruled the dismissal unconstitutional, adjourned the house sine die and walked out, becoming the first speaker in the history of independent India to take such a bold step. If you are ever travelling West on Hazra Road, keep a lookout to your right after you cross the Lansdowne Road (now Sarat Bose Road) crossing. You will notice a number of well-maintained colonial-style mansions. These are owned by the descendants and relatives of Bijoy Banerjee. One of them is my friend, well-known Calcutta-based musician, Sudipto “Buti” Banerjee, who plays keyboards with Bengali rock band, Cactus.

 
GARIA RAJBARI – THE PROPERTIES AND THEIR PRESENT CONDITION


It is impossible to say when the Garia Rajbari was built, but it seems likely this happened during Tarak Nath’s time. Given the architectural style of the building, I would guess it was built around the early to mid 1800’s. Satellite images reveal that the house has three separate sections. The northern section with its projecting porch supported by 8 columns with Composite capitals was probably the “outer house” where guests were entertained and visitors were received. Old locals tell stories of grand parties being thrown in this part of the house and of a giant grand piano that used to be inside. This part of the house is not used at this time except for storage and is in very bad shape. Beams under the porch are collapsing, the plaster has come off and trees have taken root all over the structure.  By contrast, the eastern and southern sections of the house are inhabited by members of the family and while their maintenance may not be stellar, it is adequate.




On the road leading North from the Garia Rajbari, the first thing you encounter on the right is the South Garia Jadunath Vidyamandir school. This was originally established by Lall Mohan and expanded by Jadu Nath into a high school. A little further down the road, to the left is a building that looks from the outside like a factory. This is, in fact, the Durga Dalan of the Garia Rajbari and is older than the Rajbari building itself. The Durga Puja of the Banerjee family happens to this day, but nowadays Dol Jatra seems to be a bigger festival with a massive fair happening around the Rajbari. Kanak Banerjee, the current head of the South Garia Joint Estate which manages the family properties lives in the house attached to the Durga Dalan. The Durga Dalan is in very decent shape and I found the “kathamo”, the straw and bamboo structure for a Durga idol, kept inside. A little further north is a road that leads to the right. On this road is a massive four-storeyed house that was built by Jadunath Banerjee. This was taken over by the government in 1966. Above the entrance to the house, I found a board which said “Home for Old and Infirm Political Sufferers”. This is a typical example of convoluted and deliberately difficult government English. What it means is that this is a home for ailing freedom fighters. Since photography inside this house was not possible, I had to be satisfied with a shot from the street. The building is extremely well maintained.


 
While discussing heritage with G.M. Kapur of INTACH a long time ago, he had remarked, “people with such houses in Rajasthan are minting money. I don’t know what is wrong with this part of the country”. Many of Rajasthans havelis have turned into heritage hotels and while there are some examples of this in Bengal, many of Bengal's splendid Rajbaris are now in an advanced state of decay. These giant structures were built and maintained with money from the lands that the Zamindar administered. Once the feudal system was abolished, that source of income was cut off. Unless such properties generate money now, they cannot be protected or preserved. Would you pay good money to live in a palatial mansion in the heart of rural Bengal? A quiet country retreat for a week or weekend? Traditional food, walks along village paths in the morning and evening, exploring ancient ruins, perhaps even some landscape photography. I would love it!

 
NOTES FOR VISITORS TO THE GARIA RAJBARI

Planning to visit South Garia? Remember, this isn’t really a tourist spot, so you won’t find conveniences like hotels and restaurants. South Garia is an hour’s drive away from Calcutta (Kolkata). Alternatively, you can take a local train to Champahati railway station and get an auto (or tuctuc) to Cheena-r More. The Sealdah-Canning Local is the most frequent train, with the first one departing around 5:45 am and arriving around 6:24 am. Since the properties are mostly residential, actually getting inside the buildings may be problematic, and I suggest you seek permission before doing so. There is no problem with taking photographs from the outside, however. If you arrive in the morning, you will people selling meat, fish and vegetables at Cheena-r More. There are atleast 3 shops here which sell chicken and slaughter birds in the open, and if that is a sight you wish you avoid, turn up in the afternoon, when the shops have all packed up. However, for shots of the palace, early morning is the best time.

 
For breakfast, try the two sweetshops at Cheena-r More (or China More) which sell hot “shingara” and “kachori” in the morning, apart from the usual Bengali sweets. A visit to the Garia Rajbari can be turned into a full day trip if you decide to explore Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s ancestral home and the Baruipur Rajbari, both of which are close by. The best options for lunch can be found around the Baruipur railway station. Just next to the platform, Aasma offers the most delicious beef dishes and I highly recommend their Beef Bhuna. For those who do not eat beef, other options, including vegetarian food can be found in the vicinity of the station. If you are visiting in winter, you may want to go a little further ahead to Joynagar and pick up the famous “Joynagar-er Mowa”. The best place for this is Sree Krishna Sweets, locally known as “Buchki Babu-r Dokaan” (Buchki Babu’s shop), which is opposite the entrance to the Joynagar-Majilpur station. Here is the Garia Rajbari in Google Maps.







           

-  by Deepanjan Ghosh


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • Thanks to my friend Ranajit Chatterjee who accompanied me. He shot the photograph of Kanak Banerjee, which appears in this post.
  • Thanks to author and filmmaker Brian Paul Bach for his inputs and for providing the old photograph of Garia Rajbari.
  • Thanks also to Kanak Banerjee and his grandson Paramjit Banerjee for their cooperation. This post would not have been possible without their help.


SOURCES

The Cyclopaedia of India: Biographical – Historical – Administrative – Commercial: Vol III

Singh, Chandrika - Communist and Socialist Movement in India: A Critical Account
Chattopadhyay, Sagar - Dakshin Chabbish Pargana Jela-r Purakirti
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