The boy stood by the east window, waiting patiently. He had missed his chance earlier. When he had seen the black Landmaster going past his school and towards his house, he had paid it no heed. It was only when he came back home that he was told who the Landmaster was ferrying. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He had been waiting at that window ever since the family Jeep had left for the station to fetch their famous visitor. It was mid-February in the dusty little Bengal village. The once grand mansion was now in ruins and stood perilously close to the river that separated India from East Pakistan. It was 1956. It would be another 15 years before Bangladesh would be born in a bloodbath.
He didn’t have to wait long. The jeep appeared in a cloud of dust, its horn announcing its arrival long before it could be seen. The boy ran down the stairs to get a closer look at the man he idolised. He was the son of famous poet. He made movies, but to the boy he was no less than a film star himself. Tall, dark, curly-haired, wearing brown corduroy trousers and a biscuit colour jacket, he immediately rushed up to the terrace. His entourage followed him. The boy followed them. In the golden afternoon light, he stood transfixed, staring at this man who seemed to be in another world, lost in thought, perhaps seeing something that he couldn’t. The western clothes would be discarded that evening, in favour of Indian style kurta-pyjama as he sat back and listened to one of his entourage play the sitar. But that look in his eyes never changed. Perhaps this is what true artists look like, the boy thought.
The next morning the boy ran up to the balcony as soon as he was awake. He peered down at the movie camera that was whirring away in the morning sunlight. It was pointed at a man about 7 feet away, in front of the house. The boy heard the visitor softly say “cut”. So this was Satyajit Ray, the boy thought. He was so much more than what he had imagined. But the boy didn’t know that the man who was playing the sitar the previous evening was acclaimed cinematographer Subrata Mitra. He did not know that the man in front of the camera was assistant director Sailen Dutta, who was merely a stand-in for the legendary Chhabi Biswas. And he did not know that his house would now forever be known as “the Jalsaghar house”. But then, Ray himself didn’t know that the house had a secret.
THE SECRET OF THE MUSIC ROOM
In an interview with Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray talks about how Jalsaghar was made to compensate for the losses incurred by Aparajito, the 2nd film in the Apu Trilogy. “I decided to make a film about music and dancing, the conventional sort of formula that the Bengali public was used to. Although in developing it, it became a completely different kind of film”. A nasty fall in Benares (Varanasi) had put one of Ray’s legs in a cast. Unable to move around, the bedridden Ray began reading voraciously, “all the Bengali books I could lay my hands on”. He chose Jalsaghar with some very clear aims in mind. The film could legitimately have music and dancing, without the awkward segue that commercial Hindi films often have to make, which would make producers and distributors more likely to invest in it. But at the same time, it could have mood, atmosphere and a chance to explore human psychology. Right from the start, Ray knew who he would cast in the lead – Chhabi Biswas, “our greatest actor”.
Written by noted Bengali author Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Jalsaghar was the story of a Zamindar, one of Bengal’s superior landlords, Bishwambar Roy, who refuses to recognise that times have changed. As the river swallows up his estate, Bishwambar refuses to cut down his expenses to better match his reduced income. His passion for Hindustani classical music, for classical dance, for his “jalsaghar” or music room and his addiction to the aristocratic lifestyle ultimately kill him. But to make a convincing film, Ray would need to find a decaying palace. He worked with the best art director in the business, Bansi Chandragupta, and he could easily have created it in the studio, but the budget for that simply could not be secured. After visiting and rejecting multiple locations, on the verge of cancelling the project altogether, an old man in a teashop in the village of Lalgola, suggested that Ray visit Nimtita. “Nimtita turned out to be everything the old man had claimed – and more”, writes Ray in ‘Our Films Their Films’, “No one could have described in words the feeling of utter desolation that surrounded the palace”. On returning from the trip, Ray called Tarashankar, who had also been anxious about the location. Their conversation I reproduce verbatim from ‘Our Films Their Films’ -
“We’ve found our palace at last, Mr. Banerji,” I said.
“Have you? And where is it?”
“At a little known place called Nimtita.”
“Nimtita?” There was a note of recognition in his voice. “You don’t mean the palace of the Chaudhuris, do you ?”
“That’s the one.”
“But that’s extraordinary! I haven’t been to Nimtita myself, but I’ve read about the Chaudhuris in a history of Bengal zamindars, and it was the music-loving Upendra Narayan Chaudhuri who served as the model for my rajah.”
Call it coincidence or call it fate, the Narayan Chaudhuri family would now be connected not just to the story but also to the film made from it.
THE NARAYAN CHAUDHURIS OF NIMTITA
In 1793, the East India Company administration in Bengal created the “Permanent Settlement”, which fixed the rate of land revenue to be collected and created a class of landowners known as “zamindars” who would serve as tax collectors and have proprietorial rights over the land. Two cousins, Gour Sundar and Dwarikanath Choudhury purchased large tracts of land and established the Nimtita Estate around 1866-67. By all accounts, they were popular in the area, and were known for their love of music and theatre. Gour Sundar’s son, Upendra Narayan, the man Tarashankar had based his story on, was known to be somewhat unhinged. But it was Dwarikanath’s elder son, Mahendra Narayan, who put Nimtita on the cultural map.
In the early part of the 20th century, when Bengali theatre was coming into its own, Mahendra Narayan had acquired fame as an amateur stage actor. Among his friends were the theatre giants of the age, Khirode Prasad Vidyavinode and Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. Mahendra Narayan spent a small fortune to build the Hindu Theatre, a playhouse with all the bells and whistles of its Calcutta counterparts, to the east of the Rajbari. There, every year on the occasion of Dol Jatra, the Bengali answer to Holi, the festival of colour to mark the onset of spring, a play would be staged starring the biggest names of the day. In the guest-list were, the who’s who of the Calcutta (Kolkata) stage, senior officers from the railways and colonial administration as well as major local personalities. The vast grounds to the east of the house also served as the grounds for the Dwarikanath Memorial Football Shield annual soccer competition.
But all of that changed quite suddenly in 1943. The railways in Bengal had started developing since 1890. Iftekhar Iqbal writes in The Bengal Delta: Ecology, State and Social Change, 1840–1943, that the construction of a large number of railway embankments disrupted natural drainage and turned the countryside into a large number of poorly drained compartments. Added to that, was the long history of Bengal’s rivers changing course suddenly. Throughout history, a number of cities and towns have been ruined because of the whims of Bengal’s rivers – Saptagram, Tamralipta, Pandua. All my life, I have heard about the “bhangon”, literally meaning breakage that happens along a river’s banks, where chunks of land, often entire villages simply collapse into the water and disappear forever. In 1943, the Padma River veered to within mere yards of the house, swallowing up much of the village, the front lawn, the football field, the guest house, the stables and the Hindu Theatre. The house itself was miraculously spared. “We were having breakfast one morning”, Gyanendra Narayan told Ray, “When we heard a low rumble. We went out on the veranda and saw a sizeable chunk of our estate – almost a square mile of it – go under water. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Padma’s appetite is legendary”.
This was the beginning of the end for Nimtita. On the 15th of April 1955, Bengali New Year’s Day, a crowd of a thousand people gathered at the Murshidabad Durbar Hall, where Siraj-ud-Daulah had once held court, to listen to State Revenue Minister S.K. Basu announce the abolition of the Zamindari system, 162 years after it had been established by Lord Cornwallis. “The world has changed”, says the dejected zamindar played by Barun Chanda, in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera, “Yours has improved, but ours has ended. We had got so used to it, we had never thought that someday the zamindari system would end”. This meant a loss of the vast revenues that had made such large establishments possible. Without the money, it was only a matter of time, before the buildings began to wither away from a lack of necessary and expensive maintenance. But the immediate effect was the cessation of all the administrative functions of the zamindar. Without them, the vast outer house or "bahir-mahal" of the house, where the cutchery once functioned, fell silent. Gone were the small army of guards and attendants who ushered visitors in or out. Their place was taken by a single darwan, who would open the main door every morning and shut it in the evening. Life would return to the house on a few occasions after that. Once in 1957, when on the occasion of independent India’s 2nd parliamentary elections, Renuka Roy, the Congress Party candidate for the Malda constituency made the house her campaign headquarters and on 3 occasions after that when Satyajit Ray came to Nimtita to shoot Jalsaghar, Devi and Samapti, but there were little more than the final gasps of a dying man. For all intents and purposes, it was the end of an era.
RAY AT NIMTITA
Shooting for Jalsaghar began in the April of 1957. Before Ray and his team arrived, art director Bansi Chandragupta worked on the house. All electrical wiring and fittings were removed, since the palace in the story had none. The walls were painted saffron, to make them look dull white in the black and white film. A half-broken wall and a heavily damaged stable were created as well. With the help of local masons a fountain with a Roman-style statue was created as well, in front of the house. The cutchery became the place where sound and light equipment was stored. For storing film, the treasury was stolen, since it was cool and dark. Rabindra Narayan’s recollections of the shooting are vivid and endearing. His book contains a number of black and white photographs he shot, including one of the cast and crew enjoying his home-made ice cream.
|Then and now. Top - a still from Jalsaghar. Bottom - Nimtita Rajbari in 2016|
|The palki at Dhulian Rajbari today|
Ray would return to Nimtita in 1959 to shoot Debi. That same year, the Indo-Pak conference to finalise the border between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was held at the house as well. Debi was shot over a period of a week at Nimtita. Bansi Chandragupta measured the Chandimandap and recreated it in Tollygunge. So accurate was his recreation that many who knew Nimtita Rajbari well thought that it was the actual Chandimandap they were seeing on the screen. For the shooting a “palki” (litter), was needed. Since the family had got rid of theirs long ago, one had to be secured from the Kanchantala Rajbari nearby, which is now known as the Dhulian Rajbari. Ray would return to Nimtita the following year to shoot a few scenes from Samapti, which was part of his “Teen Kanya” portmanteau film. This time he was accompanied by the famous photographer Brian Brake from New Zealand who was shooting a series on “Monsoon in India” for Life magazine. One of the close-ups he shot was of a very young Aparna Sen, which ended up on the cover. The water on Sen’s face wasn’t from the rains, but from the spray-gun that Rabindra Narayan was pumping according to Brake’s instructions. But the monsoons did come, fortunately for Ray, since his film needed rain and mud on village streets and the crew did descend into waist-deep muddy water with cameras to capture it.
Ray’s final departure from Nimtita was especially sad, since it was in the middle of Durga Puja. A house which had been buzzing with activity in the lead up to the puja would become empty and quiet once again. As the team was leaving, the jeep refused to start and had to be pushed. Rabindra Narayan stood at the door with his cousin Soumendra Narayan and uncles Bholanath and Radhanath, wishing that they would come back soon. They never did.
EXPLORING NIMITITA RAJBARI
I arrived in Nimtita in the December of 2016. My first mistake was taking it easy in the morning and getting there around 10am. By then, the winter sun had already risen above and behind the house, effectively ruining my chance of getting a decent photograph of the frontage. The house faces northeast and is now only 250 metres away from the river. Right next to the house is the local BSF (Border Security Force) camp since Bangladesh is just across the river. The camp was once inside the house, with the officers living on the first floor until the structure became too decrepit, at which point that government acquired the adjacent plot of land.
|The bridge connecting the two branches of the house|
The frontage is quite typical of colonial architecture. The building is 15 bays wide, with the 9 central bays projecting forward. The 3 bays around the main entrance project forward and are capped by a pediment. The frontage is colonnaded with the columns around the 3 central bays being double height. All the bays have double columns except the corners of the projecting bays where there are triple columns. The capitals on the double height columns as well as those on the 1st floor are Corinthian while those on the ground floor are Doric. The rooms are set some distance behind the columns, as is typical of buildings of this kind. Most of the floor of the 1st-floor veranda is gone. There are massive holes in the ground floor veranda as well. The main door, wooden, with double scalloped arches is always kept closed. The two edge bays should have balconies. Currently, one does and on the other, the lines of where the balcony once stood can now be seen. Entrance is from a small door from the rear.
|The courtyard of the andar-mahal|
Through the rear door, the first thing I encountered was a small courtyard which was completely overgrown. This was the “andar-mahal” or inner house which was meant for residential use (for more about the architecture of conservative Bengali homes, check my article on Basu Bati). The kitchen once stood on the ground floor but was later moved up. Here too, the 1st floor is mostly gone, with only the columns and a few rafters remaining. Further down, a passage leads into the main “Thakurdalan”, a very large courtyard with rooms behind colonnaded verandas on 3 sides, while the 4th side is occupied by a magnificent thakurdalan, of double height. This raised and covered space was used for religious functions and festivities, such as Durga Puja. This is where the Durga Puja happens even today. The arched thakurdalan is perhaps the only spot in the entire house that is well maintained.
Towards the eastern corner of the house is the temple and “natmandir”. The main temple with intricate stucco work above the arches, once contained a touchstone idol of Govinda Jiu, but it was stolen in 2013. A smaller shrine still contains a touchstone Shiva Linga. The “natmandir” in front of the temple is roofless. The flooring, though damaged due to exposure to the elements, still looks beautiful. Slender and graceful cast iron columns still remain standing. Jalsaghar was mostly shot around the main entrance and the thakurdalan. There were also some shots of Chhabi Biswas on the rooftop. Upendra Narayan did have a music room, but it was not considered grand enough for the film. The interiors were all created by Bansi Chandragupta in Tollygunge. So great was his mastery of his craft and so smooth Ray’s editing, that there is no way to tell that Chhabi Biswas is in the passage of Nimtita Rajbari one moment and in a Tollygunge set the next. For Devi, Bansi Chandragupta had measured the thakurdalan and recreated it in Tollygunge. So exact was his copy that it left Rabindra Narayan stunned.
|The Shiva Temple|
To the western side of the house, there is a bridge which connects Nimtita Rajbari to a newer building. This was an extension of the house, build during Gyanendra Narayan’s lifetime. Soumendra Narayan says that unlike other families in Bengal, theirs never had the infamous “shoriki” problems, which leads to litigation among relatives and fragmentation of properties. As far as I can tell, it was Dwarikanath’s descendants who continued to live in the house until the end. Radhanath passed away in 1991. His son Soumendra had moved to Calcutta with a job some time before that. Radhanath’s wife would be the last of the Chaudhuris to live in that house, and she did so till 2009 when her son no longer considered it safe to let her live alone. She passed away in April of 2011 and with that, the lights went off permanently. As I walked through the house I tried to imagine Chhabi Biswas walking down the passages, Ray’s famous baritone echoing in the thakurdalan, but all I saw and felt was a hollowness that swallowed everything, leaving behind only a feeling of devastating waste.
|The Jeep that once ferried Ray himself|
On the 9th of November 1958, there was a preview of Jalsaghar at the famous Purna Cinema hall in the Bhowanipore area of South Calcutta (Kolkata). Rabindranarayan writes about attending the preview with his father and uncles. It was just before Durga Puja that year and the family did their shopping before attending the show with the cast and crew. He recalls feeling a rush seeing the house on the big screen, seeing the scenes he had watched being shot now edited and set to music and he recalls being awestruck by how seamlessly the outdoor shots of the house and the indoor shots from the set had been blended. It is somewhat shocking how almost everything connected to the film has withered. Nimtita Rajbari is now a ruin, coming alive for a fortnight around Durga Puja when the family makes the trip back, unable, even after moving away, to cut the cord. While Dhulian Rajbari still stands, the principality of Dhulian itself has been almost completely lost to Padma’s appetite. Purna Cinema is now defunct and derelict. It continues to serve as a landmark and a bus stop, but little more. The jeep that ferried Ray from the station to the house and back, that was used for the tracking shots of Chhabi Biswas on horseback is now a rusty pile of junk, completely beyond repair. Nimtita continues to pop up in newspaper articles every once in a while and there is a Facebook page about the house and the village. But it is not on any tourist’s itinerary or on the government’s list of priorities. With the river closing in every year and Bengal’s weather doing the rest, I wouldn’t be surprised if in another few years the house was gone entirely and all that remained were memories and black and white film. But it is fitting. None of Tarashankar’s stories ever had a happy ending. Why should this one?
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
- The nearest railway station is Farakka. I would suggest taking the AC chair car on Satabdi Express from Howrah. It is exceptionally comfortable and affordable.
- Hotels are a problem. The only place to stay in Farakka is the Nataraj Hotel, where I stayed. It is extremely basic and is just survivable for a weekend. Don’t expect great restaurants or entertainment. Farakka is a dead town. The other option is to cross the border and stay at Pakur in Jharkhand where there are several good hotels.
- If you have an evening free, you could go for a ride around the famous Farakka Barrage.
- Nimtita Rajbari is private property and permission is needed to enter. Ask villagers to find the caretaker for you. He will let you in if you ask nicely. Worst case scenario, he can call the owner in Calcutta for permission. Be nice. It always works.
- For some interesting photos and open access, visit around Durga Puja.
- Light - Nimtita Rajbari faces northeast. The only way to get good sunlight on the frontage is to be there at the crack of dawn in the month of May. That is also the worst time of the year to travel in this part of the country.
- Lenses – I carried a 24-105 and a 100-400 for my full frame camera and found them to be more than enough. If anything, the 100-400 was overkill, but it was the only long lens I had at that time. A 70-200 or a 70-300 will do just as well. For crop sensor cameras, your basic 18-135 or a combination of 18-55 and 55-250 will do just fine. There will be some parts of the interior which will be dark. If you don’t want to push your ISO too much, carry a “nifty fifty”.
- Other Accessories – since it is 250 metres away from the river, you might encounter some fog in the morning. One way to cut through it is to use a circular polariser.
- Security – Nimtita is right on the border with Bangladesh, so be careful where you go and what you take photos of. DO NOT attempt to photograph any military or security installations, including pillboxes and watchtowers. BSF watches everyone pretty closely and they WILL apprehend you if you are found doing anything they consider suspicious.
- My sincere thanks to Soumendra Narayan Chaudhuri for granting me an interview for this story and for permitting me to photograph the palace in detail.
- My thanks to Sudip Roy for granting me an interview and permitting me to photograph Dhulian Rajbari.
- My thanks to caretaker Mr. Basheeruddin Biswas for showing me around the palace.
- Thanks also to Ranjan of Calcutta Walks for help with local transport and hotel booking.
- Chaudhuri, Rabindra Narayan – Nimtitae Satyajit (Codex, 2012)
- Ray, Satyajit – Our Films Their Films (Orient Longman, 1976)
- “Romancing the stone” – The Telegraph, 5th October, 2007
- “This Day That Age” – The Hindu, 15th April, 2005
- “Jalsaghar palace battles for life” – The Telegraph, September 27th, 2017