Sunday, 4 November 2018

Kaliprasadi Hungama: The Scandal That Shook Calcutta

Noun; Persian
tumult, riot, uproar, confusion, disorder

Bengalis in general, at least the educated upper and upper middle classes of the capital city of Calcutta (Kolkata) pride themselves on being liberal and permissive. Inter-caste, and even interreligious marriages, that can cause uproar in the rest of India, especially in what is referred to as India’s cow-belt, are fairly common in Calcutta. To a large extent, this liberal outlook is the result of the Bengali renaissance, led by such stalwarts as Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. 30 years of atheist, communist rule in the post-independence period, have also ensured that caste plays no part in politics. But of course, it wasn’t always this way. In the early 19th century, Hindu society, even in Calcutta, exposed constantly to Western influence, was notoriously conservative and it is during this period that one of the city’s biggest scandals happened. Known as the Kaliprasadi Hungama, the scandal connects several of Calcutta’s biggest families, and places of worship belonging to multiple faiths, including Calcutta’s most famous Hindu temple – Kalighat.


In the 10th century Purushottam Dutta of Kannauj moved to Bally in Bengal, at the invitation of Adisur, the King of Bengal. 12 generations and 400 years later, his descendant Tekari Dutta moved from Bally to Andul in Howrah. Tekari received the title Chaudhury, probably from Ghiasuddin Azam Shah, the 3rd Sultan of Bengal from the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty, and thus they became the Dutta Chaudhury family of Andul. One of the descendants of this family, Gobinda Sharan Dutta Chaudhury, moved to a place called Badar Rasa in Kolkata, which apparently came to be known as Gobindapur after him. From there, a descendant by the name of Jagat Ram Dutta moved to an area called Hatkhola, near modern day Jorabagan, and thus the Hatkhola Dutta family was established. In the late 18th century, until his death in 1787, the head of the family was Madan Mohan Dutta.

Approximately 1 mile northeast of Hatkhola stands the Shobhabazar Rajbari, established by Raja Nabakrishna Deb. Beginning as a humble “munshi” to Warren Hastings in 1750, Nabakrishna had risen to become the East India Company’s most trusted local agent, manipulating and negotiating them to a position of power and assisting them in their toppling of Bengal’s Nawab, the young and impetuous Siraj-ud-Daulah. Naturally, his efforts were suitably rewarded and the fabulously rich Nabakrishna, began a tradition of ostentatious Durga Pujas in his palatial home, which has since expanded into a city-wide cultural extravaganza. His grandson, Radhakanta Deb was one of leading members of Calcutta’s Hindu community in the 19th century. His family’s power and wealth allowed him to exert huge influence among the city’s Hindus and he controlled “a powerful constellation of conservative members” among the city’s elite, that was a force to be reckoned with.

Approximately 9 ½ miles southwest of Shovabazar Rajbari was the residence of the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family in modern day Behala. In 16th century India, a certain Panchanan Gangopadhyay served in the cavalry of Mughal Emperor Humayun. He constructed for himself a massive palace in a place called Halisahar in present day North 24 Parganas district. From here the family spread all over southern Bengal. Among the descendants of his family was Lakshmikanta Gangopadhyay, who obtained a vast “jagirdari” from Raja Man Singh, trusted general of Mughal Emperor Akbar, in 1608. Along with the jagirdari, came the title of Roy Choudhury which his descendants use as their surname to this day. In 1717, it was this family that signed over the villages of Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kalikata to the East India Company, thus establishing the modern day city of Calcutta or Kolkata.

Shobhabazar Rajbari during Durga Puja in 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Indrajit Das


The trouble with writing about the Kaliprasadi Hungama is that there are almost no primary sources available, no eyewitness accounts. Copies of newspapers in which accounts of the scandal appeared, such as Ishwar Chandra Gupta’s Sambad Prabhakar, have not been preserved. Neither are there any texts from the period. As such we must depend on Calcutta’s chroniclers, such as Prankrishna Dutta and Radharaman Mitra, who can both be notoriously unreliable and do not follow standard practices such as quoting sources. Prankrishna himself is responsible for a mistake that has been replicated by many others writing about the incident. He writes about Churamani Dutta, with whom Nabakrishna had a viciously competitive relationship, and how, even when he was on his deathbed, he chose to spite Nabakrishna by going out in a big procession singing a song that pointed to how Churamoni’s death was a more auspicious one, since he was going to the banks of the Ganges to die, while Nabakrishna had died at home. Prankrishna mistakenly identifies Churamoni as Kaliprasad’s father – a mistake he acknowledges in later editions. But the incident, though unrelated, serves to illustrate two things - first, the spiteful and competitive nature of the relationship between the elite of Calcutta in those days, and second, the date of Nabakrishna’s death, 22nd November, 1797. The date is an important marker, because while there are no records of exactly when the Kaliprasadi Hungama began, it was sometime between 22nd November 1797 and 1801, the year construction of the Kalighat temple started.

Kaliprasad Dutta was a descendant of the Hatkhola Dutta family, although the family tree identifies him as living in Kalighat, not Hatkhola. He was the first cousin once removed, of Madan Mohan Dutta. According to available texts, Kaliprasad is said to have had a mistress by the name of Anar or Anaro Bibi. She is variously identified as being a “mogul”, a Muslim and a “baiji”. While Muslim she certainly was, whether or not she was what Bengalis call a “baiji” may be somewhat difficult to prove. It was common for the so-called “Babus” of Kolkata frequent the homes of baijis – singer-dancer-courtesans, who often came from North India, from places such as Lucknow, from where they had picked up both dance, music and charming courtly manners. But in this case, Kaliprasad had taken things one step further. He had brought over Anaro to his Beliaghata house and was living there with her. He had also taken to wearing Muslim-style clothes and worst of all had adopted their diet (meaning he was eating beef, forbidden for Hindus). Who was this Anaro Bibi? Her waqf deed from 1833 identifies her as “Bibi Fazlunnesa”, daughter of Khairuddin Khan and granddaughter of Mulla Hayat Khan, who were both residents of Jamnagar in the 24 Parganas district of undivided Bengal, although Radharaman says her family was from Lucknow. She is said to have had a sister by the name of Anjuman Ara Begum, but apart from that, the fact that she was extraordinarily beautiful and a Shia Muslim, no other details about her are known.

Bibi Anaro's tomb, inside her Imambara in Beniapukur

The fact that a man from a respectable Hindu family was living with a Muslim woman, and had gone so far as to forsake his religion’s customs and dietary restrictions, caused a sensation in the Calcutta Hindu society of the time. The scandal was mentioned in Bengali papers and influential Hindus called for a social boycott of Kaliprasad. A song was written about the incident as well, beginning with the lines “Gyalo gyalo gyalo Hinduani” (there goes Hinduism). Kaliprasad would probably not have been affected by the whole thing, if it hadn’t been for the death of his mother. While Kaliprasad may not have cared for religion, as a son, his deceased mother’s “Śrāddha” ceremony would have to be conducted by him. For this ceremony, the presence of large number of Brahmins was necessary. However, Radhakanta Deb, Nabakrishna’s son and successor, was now the leader of conservative Hindu clique of the city. Because Brahmins survived on grants and donations from him and others like him, he wielded enormous influence. Radhakanta issued orders that none who expected favours from him, was to attend the Śrāddha of the wayward Kaliprasad.

The gate of Kaliprasad's garden house in Belighata is all that survives. Now the Directorate of Commercial Taxes. Wikimeida Commons/Amitabha Gupta


Unless the Śrāddha ceremony is conducted, Hindus believe, the deceased person’s soul shall not ascend into heaven. Even today, many atheists who were born into Hindu families, perform the Śrāddha rituals even though they have forsaken the religion, either out of sentiment or out of peer and societal pressure. Back in the day, not conducting a Śrāddha would have been unthinkable. But where would Brahmins be found? In desperation, Kaliprasad approached business magnate Ramdulal Sarkar. Beginning life in conditions of abject poverty, Ramdulal’s luck had changed when his grandmother had been employed as a cook in the Hatkhola Dutta family. Seeing promise in the young boy, Madan Mohan gave him an education and employed him in his business. The hardworking and intelligent Ramdulal rapidly rose through the ranks, eventually starting his own business with his former master’s blessings. He would go on to become the first Bengali millionaire, competing with European traders in Calcutta’s docks.

But even at the height of his career, Ramdulal did not forget his employer’s kindness. When Kaliprasad approached him, Ramdulal assured him that as long as there was money in his coffers, Kaliprasad had nothing to worry about. Since opposition was coming from the Shobhabazar Rajbari, Ramdulal approached their biggest rivals – the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family. The head of the family at this time was the wily old Santosh Roy Choudhury, who assured Ramdulal that he would be present for the Śrāddha with Brahmins who were in his sphere of influence. The ceremony was conducted with great pomp, and in the end it was only a few members of the Dutta family themselves who objected and stayed away.

All that remains of the Aatchala Bari of Sabarna Roychowdhurys. Wikimedia Commons/Biswarup Ganguly


It is customary at the end of a religious ceremony to offer gifts to the Brahmins who attended. To this end, Kaliprasad offered the astronomical sum of 25,000 rupees, but they would not accept. The concern was that people would construe it to be a bribe. Instead Santosh Roy Choudhury suggested that the money be used for some religious purpose. The money ultimately came to be used in the construction of the Kalighat Kali Temple. Of the 30,000 rupees that was spent building the present temple structure, 25,000 came from Kaliprasad’s donation. Santosh Roy Choudhury would not live to see the temple completed, however. It was finished in 1809 and that temple structure remains standing to this day.

Kalighat Kali Temple. Although much modified, the Aatchala structure from 1809 remains intact.
A report in the Bengali newspaper Samachar Darpan of 5th April 1834 mentions a certain prominent Bengali Hindu who had converted to Islam and taken the name of Izzat Ali Khan to marry a certain Anaro Bibi. Izzat Ali Khan was, in all likelihood, Kaliprasad. In the course of writing his book, Prankrishna Dutta met a lady from the Hatkhola Basu family who remembered attending Kaliprasad’s mother’s Śrāddha. According to her, Kaliprasad spent the final years of his life in the temple complex as a sort of penance. Whether or not his penance was sincere, or he was merely doing it for re-admittance into Hindu society is difficult to say, but he certainly did not forget to provide for his former paramour.

Kaliprasad left his Beliaghata house, where he lived with Anaro, to her in his will. Anaro would outlive Kaliprasad and after his death, she would remarry. Her second husband was Munshi Amir, who owned Munshibazar, which still stands in Beliaghata to this day. It must have been one of Munshi Amir’s successors who sold the garden house in Beliaghata to the Maharaja of “Vizianagaram” (Vijaynagar). From there the property ended up in the hands of the Government of West Bengal and today, the site is home to the Directorate of Commercial Taxes, which locals refer to simply as “Beliaghata Sale Tax”. The building unfortunately has been demolished, but the magnificent gateway still remains standing.

Bibi Anaro's Imambara in Beniapukur
In 1833, Anaro Bibi established an Imambara in the Beniapukur area of Kolkata. The Imambara remains standing and is spectacularly well-maintained. In the main hall, inside an enclosure Anaro Bibi is buried. Within the premises of the Imambara is said to be a well that miraculously fills up with water on the 14th of 15th of the month of Muharram, and many people collect that water believing it to be holy. At the time he was researching for his book “Kolikata Darpan” Radharaman had seen a marble plaque on the exterior wall of the Imambara which detailed Anaro Bibi’s life story, but that plaque is long since gone, and with it one of the most fascinating stories of old Calcutta has also all but vanished from public memory.

- By Deepanjan Ghosh


For their help with this article, I thank journalist Gautam Basumallick, founder of Heritage Walk CalcuttaTathagata Neogi, blogger Amitabha Gupta, Wikipedian Bodhisattwa Mondal and Sarbajit Mitra.


Chattopadhyay, Swati - Representing Calcutta (Routledge, 2006)
Dutta Chaudhury, Dhruba - Zamindar Dutta Chaudhury Family of Andul
Mitra, Radharaman – Kolikata Darpan Vol. 1 (Subarnarekha, 1980)
Mukhopadhyay, Harisadhan – Kolikata Sekaler O Ekaler (P.M. Bagchi & Co., 1915)
Dutta, Prankrishna – Kolikatar Itibritta (Pustak Bipani, 1981)
Basu, Rajnarayan – Sekal Aar Ekal (Kalikinkar Chakraborty, 1874)
Bysack, Gaur Das - Kalighat and Calcutta (The Calcutta Review, Vol. 92, 1891)

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