Back to Bengal

by Susmita Sengupta

After a gap of seventeen years, a Bengali travel writer returns to the storied city of Kolkata. With her husband and their adult daughter, they set out to discover the history of their own homeland amidst the roar of the modern mega-city.

Under the cloudy skies and honking traffic, I peered out of our car window and gazed at the massive gorgeously carved terracotta gateway that had “Jorasanko Thakurbari” written across its top in Bengali script. My husband and I, both Bengalis, grew up in the northern regions of India, our memories brimming with spending school and college vacations with grandparents and relatives, not quite fitting in with the Bengali-ness of our respective extended families. Part of that meant never truly getting a chance to see the many sights that the city of Kolkata has to offer. And now here we were again, after a gap of seventeen years, accompanied by our now grown-up daughter who had last visited the city when she was five. I was eager for her to know some of the history of this storied city, the city of my birth, and so we decided to start by visiting two estate museums.

We started at Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore (Thakur in Bengali), a polymath who had an immense influence on India’s art, music and literature. After buying our entry tickets, and discovering that we could not photograph the exhibits, we entered the grounds to the lyrical notes of Rabindra Sangeet, or Tagore Songs gently whispering in the air. “Why can’t I take some pictures?” I lamented to myself. My husband and daughter, ever the peacekeepers convinced me to focus instead on the joy of being here, at last, a place they knew I had wanted to visit for years. Spread out in front of me, around the verdant gardens encompassing three sides, was a red mansion with deep green slatted windows, long balconies with glowing brick red dual columns connected by green railings with striking white geometric grillework. The effect was dazzling, more so because just a few steps outside we had left behind the cacophony and crowds that is Kolkata.

Born into an affluent landowning family that was squarely into philosophy and religious reformation, Rabindranath Tagore, Gurudev [teacher/guide] to Bengalis everywhere, grew up to be a poet, essayist, artist, philosopher, playwright, composer of songs and writer of stories and novels. The first non-European Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1913 which he won for his Bengali verse collection Gitanjali (Offering of Songs), he is also the only person ever to have written and composed the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh.

Tagore’s ancestor, Nilmoni Tagore, built the house as a family residence in the 1700s. Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, a pioneer of Indian trade and industry in early 19th century, expanded the house as we see it today. A part of the site now houses the Rabindra Bharati University and the museum is identified as Rabindra Bharati Museum. There are three galleries; the first covers the life and times of Rabindranath Tagore, who was born and brought up here, spent a part of his life and then breathed his last in this house. The second gallery flaunts the achievements of other members of the Tagore family who were all equally renowned as painters, writers and philosophers. The third gallery displays the story of Bengal Renaissance and its influence in the history of 19th century Bengal and British India.

Nearing the entrance into the house museum, we were required to take off our shoes and I was surprised to learn that the museum is conserved as a shrine. Climbing up the stairs, we entered a Japanese style dining room with a large, low table surrounded by stools. I looked at exhibits of his clothes and personal items. I walked through his writing /study room, imagining that this must be where he wrote many of his world-famous novels and poems.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free. Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. [….] Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”

The celebrated words of Tagore flowed through my thoughts as I remembered this beloved poem written by him in 1901 that is a hallmark in the school life of all Indian students.

A smile lit up our faces when we visited the birthing room where Rabindranath was born on May 7, 1861, and the air was solemn in the room where he breathed his last on August 7, 1941. There was a bed in the center of the room with his sepia-toned photo placed squarely in the center, decorated with flowers so people could pay their respect.

Walking along the corridor, with a light breeze blowing across and creating a suitably serene atmosphere, we entered the personal abode of Tagore’s wife, Mrinalini Devi who lived and died here. She was born in 1872, eleven years old and named Bhabatarini when she married Tagore who was twenty-two. He renamed her as Mrinalini Devi. We entered her tiny kitchen, furnished with clay mud ovens and looked at her utensils, made of china and marble. In her living room, there was her Nilambori sari, woven in blue and white, her cosmetic box, her exquisitely carved hand fans, beautiful china showpieces, a letter in her Bengali handwriting and walls of photos of her and Tagore with their five children.

The second gallery displayed objects, written works and paintings of and by the many other distinguished members of the Tagore household, and the third one covered the story of the Bengal Renaissance and the role played in it by members of this family and others.

The galleries on Japan, China, the US and Hungary showcased Tagore’s interactions and visits to these countries. I loved the paintings by Nandalal Bose, a preeminent painter and a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew and an eminent artist who founded the Bengal School of Art. The Japan Gallery displayed paintings by both these artists who were later influenced by the ink and brush style of Japanese paintings and seamlessly wove them into their work resulting in a unique but distinct Indian artistic style.

Finishing up inside the museum, we walked over to the expansive Thakur Dalan or inner porch of the house, an imposingly large open space surrounded on three sides by brightly whitewashed buildings with arched balconies and green slatted wood blinds. This is where the family would celebrate Durga Puja, the main Hindu festival of Bengal, until the family joined the Brahmo Samaj.

A short distance away from Jorasanko is the house-museum of another illustrious Bengali, Raja Rammohun Roy. Rabindranath Tagore said of him, “Raja Rammohan Roy inaugurated the modern age in India. He was the father of Indian Renaissance and the prophet of Indian nationalism.”

Raja Rammohun Roy Museum in Kolkota, India
The gorgeous Georgian front of Raja Rammohun Roy Museum.

Rammohan Roy was born in 1772 into a wealthy family. Although he began by working for the British East India Company, he soon transformed himself into a social, religious and education reformer. He condemned the inherent caste system, pioneered the fight for women’s rights, and denounced the barbaric custom of sati, writing and criticizing the practice that led the British government to prohibit it in 1829. He moved away from traditional Hinduism and founded a new reformist sect, “Brahmo Samaj” of which the Tagore family became members in later years.

Strangely, while there was a sizable crowd at Jorasanko, Rammohun Roy Museum was bereft of visitors. There were no restrictions on clicking photos and no guards to watch our every step. This made for a delightfully spent one hour where we walked from room to room learning more and more about the history and efforts of this one man who fought the prevailing social evils of his country and thus ushered in a renaissance.
A spectacular three-storied mansion on a sprawling estate, built in the typical colonial Georgian style architecture of the early 19th century, this building, known as “The Simla House,” was one of four residences owned by Roy in Kolkata. A large framed painting of Raja Rammohun Roy dressed in his characteristic robe and headgear greeted us at the entrance and set the tone for the visit. On the first floor, in the central hall with its eye catching black and white checkered floor, colonial columns and arches, there were paintings, sculptures, sketches and photographs related to various events of his celebrated life. Rammohan was a scholar and a master of many languages, from his native Bengali and Hindi to English, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. Thus, there were exhibits with both originals and copies, of his numerous translated works, his treatises on books related to Hinduism and a copy of his first written book, “Tuhfat–al-Muwahhidin”, a discourse on the ills of Hinduism written in Persian in 1814 with an Arabic introduction.

Although I was extremely familiar with his name, this was the first instance of seeing his immense contributions to the formation of modern India. I read that he was the founder editor of two of the earliest newspapers of India and that he established schools and colleges and conceived a Western curriculum of study incorporated with traditional Indian learning.

After walking through a room displaying period furniture and musical instruments, we entered the exhibit that I felt was the most important in the entire museum. The practice of “sati” where Hindu women self-immolated on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands was endemic in 18th and 19th century Bengal. Rammohun Roy had seen his brother’s wife become a sati and he pledged to fight this inhuman tradition. He started in 1818 by publishing writings in Bengali and English on the need to end this cruel ritual. Lord William Bentinck, Governor General of India in 1828, called Roy to hear his arguments against Sati and followed by prohibiting it in 1829. Still, there were orthodox supporters who agitated and protested to Bentinck and so Rammohun and his followers wrote a counter-petition pointing out that sati was never mentioned in the Hindu religious texts, asking Bentinck to stick by his decision. He traveled to London to appeal to the British Government for the abolishment of sati and succeeded in his endeavor.

This “Suttee Gallery” had murals and paintings of that horrific practice done by artists of that era, like Baltazard Solvyns, a Flemish artist who arrived in Calcutta in 1791, proceeded to record the lives of the people, and made 250 paintings including the etching on sati where he titled it “Shoho Gomon” meaning, “going together” in Bengali.

With some time on our hands, we decided to visit the banks of the river that once flowed near Roy’s house. Kolkata is on the banks of the Hooghly River, a branch of the iconic River Ganga. We went to Prinsep Ghat, located at Strand Road. Entering the grounds, we came across the impressive Palladian porch memorial to James Prinsep built by the British in 1843. Prinsep was a scholar who researched, sketched and designed various buildings and maps of Benares and Kolkata, the two places where he lived while working for the East India Company. But he is best known for deciphering the ancient Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts and therefore translating the rock edicts of the 3rd century B.C. Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty.

Today, the river while still magnificently wide has receded and the surrounding riverfront area has been renovated into a park with landscaped gardens and pathways with benches used by the city folks for picnics and leisurely walks. Vidyasagar Setu, or the Second Hooghly Bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India, looms behind the six sets of Greek columns of Prinsep Ghat. We walked on the promenade before deciding to go down the set of steps to reach the river for a closer view. It was after years that I was standing on the banks of the River Ganges and it was a first time experience for my daughter. As has been noted by many a visitor over eons, and as it has been picturized in songs in countless Bollywood movies, the river never fails to mesmerize. Starting in the Himalayas, the sacred River Ganges or Ganga flows east, a distance of about 1600 miles, its name altering at many places, like Hooghly in Kolkata, before it empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Suddenly, the quiet air was pierced by the whistle of a local train approaching and we watched as the train pulled into Prinsep Ghat station across from the promenade, reminding us that we would once again have the singular experience of crossing the railway tracks when we would go back to the street where our taxi was parked.

Within a span of a few hours, we got a fabulous vision of the city known as the cultural, artistic and literary capital of India.

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