Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Fact-Checking Ashutosh Gowarikar's Panipat

Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Panipat: The Great Betrayal was released on the 6th of December. The film presents itself as a fictionalized version of the historic battle. In India this is generally code for “we couldn’t bother to do enough research and decided to play fast and loose with history”. I watched the film at the historic Star Theatre in Kolkata today, and here are some odd things about the film that I noticed

Monday, 27 May 2019

The Mosque that Was: Siraj-ud-Daula's Alinagar Masjid

With a population of a million Muslims, Calcutta or Kolkata has well over 500 mosques. While most of these mosques are from the 19th century, there are a few which are older. But what could have been one of the grandest and most historic mosques of the city, does not exist anymore. The mosque, established by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, would have existed in Dalhousie Square, the city’s central business district, and would have been a marker of the biggest armed conflict in the history of the city – the 1756 Siege of Calcutta.

Alinagar Masjid as imagined by Rounak Patra

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Hunt for Evergreen Lodge

A French filmmaker in Kolkata a few years ago, approached me about a documentary on the works of noted Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He wanted to highlight a side of Ray that remained unknown to French audiences. “We know Ray because of his films like The Goddess (Devi, 1960). But most French people do not know that he also made popular cinema, that he made films for children, and that he was a popular author”. To Bengalis such as me, Ray is of course as much an author as filmmaker. He is the creator of the detective character Pradosh Chandra Mitra aka Feluda, of the science fiction stories featuring Professor Shonku, and of numerous short stories. These short stories more often than not, feature single, unattached men, who live alone and are involved in bizarre, spooky or horrifying incidents. The short stories have been published in collections of 12, with witty names playing on the Bengali for “dozen”. I had finished reading almost all of them by the time I was in my mid-teens. One of the most fascinating stories is one called “Brown Saheb-er Bari”, Brown Sahib’s House.

Monday, 29 April 2019

A Maratha Temple in Murshidabad

In a country as poorly documented as India, and where apart from the handful of major monuments, no historic site receives the attention, funding or promotion that it deserves, one would not be surprised to find mysterious, undocumented remains and curiosities even at a major tourist attraction. Murshidabad is a case in point. The city served as the capital of the Nawabs, the regional governors of Bengal under the Mughal Empire, from the time Murshid Quli Khan moved the regional capital here from Dhaka in 1702, until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 robbed the Nawabs of their authority and Calcutta rose in prominence. A Ministry of Tourism report from 2015 says that while Murshidabad does not attract nearly as many visitors as the city of Kolkata, the hill station of Darjeeling or the beaches of Purba Medinipur, it does attract a sizeable chunk of domestic tourists every year. As a result of this, hotels have been mushrooming all over the city at an alarming rate and the former capital now has the all the signs of an unregulated, unkempt tourist spot, where the government does little and locals do whatever they can to make a fast buck. Apart from the half a dozen or so monuments that are on the tourist itinerary, nothing else receives any attention, and interesting corners of the city that would give us a more complete picture of what the city was like, continue to wither away. Among them, is a curious little temple on the western bank of the Bhagirathi river.

The Shiva Temple at Roshnibagh

Monday, 25 March 2019

Orange and Blue: Terracotta Temples and Indigo Factory of Supur

With the possible exception of districts which are an extension of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, West Bengal is mostly lacking in stone. It is because of this that builders in the region have favoured brick, and also why terracotta has become the dominant style of the region. The English word “terracotta” comes from the Italian words terra, meaning earth, and cotta meaning cooking. Terracotta, thus, means cooked or baked earth. In Bengal, terracotta was always a folk art form, before being elevated to a fine art through the patronage of the Sultans of Gaur and Pandua, who used terracotta on their mosques. 200 years after them, an explosion of terracotta temples happened across Bengal, and most of the surviving terracotta temples that we can see today, are from the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, lop-sided promotions on the part of the government and private tourism bodies have meant that most people identify only Bishnupur with terracotta temples, when in reality, terracotta temples are spread across multiple districts in West Bengal, especially in southern West Bengal. Located approximately 9km south of Shantiniketan, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal lies the village of Supur, home to no less than 6 terracotta temples, only one of which has been chosen by the state for preservation.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Forgotten History: The Port Canning Disaster

Blogger Soham Chandra first drew my attention to a crumbling building near the Sunderbans in South Bengal that he called “Lord Canning’s Bungalow”. The British Governor General, he said, had once had this house constructed, which is why the city in the South 24 Parganas District of West Bengal is also called Canning. But this struck me as rather odd. Lord Canning had died in 1862 and back then, this part of Bengal was malarial, tiger-infested jungle. Why would the Governor General of India ever want to live here? And if it wasn’t him, then whose was the once-magnificent colonial building? My research led me to one of the biggest commercial debacles of British India – the Port Canning disaster.