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East Bengal

177 – My father, the first antiquarian of Calcutta

My father Nirmal Chandra Kumar.  Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India. Circa 1950

Image and text contributed by Professor. Aloke Kumar, University of Calcutta/ IIM/ ISRO

My father, Nirmal Chandra Kumar, born in Calcutta, Bengal in 1917, and was the eldest of seven children. After graduating from school at Mitra Institute, he went on to study at Bangabasi College. My grandfather was a trader and the family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar Crossing and a home at 52, Mohan Bagan Lane. My father grew up to be an avid reader, hungry for knowledge and to make a living, he worked several odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words he said he failed miserably at.

In the early 1940s, after my father got his own place in Calcutta, he met an illiterate Muslim bookseller by the name of Yakub and began helping him read and organize his books. Yakub encouraged my father to trade in books; a venture that was not going to particularly help in making a living, yet in 1945, my inspired father opened a book-shop in his house, called Kumars and began collecting rare books and documents. He combined his pursuit with a broader interest to serve the society around him. In 1950, my grandparents also arranged for my father to be married to my mother Karuna, a school teacher from Adra, (Bengal and Bihar border) and my father continued working on his collection.

Kumars, my father’s book-shop, if it could be called so, spread over several rooms in his residence, around divans and reading chairs, and looked more like a personal library in a living room. In the 1940s, rare book collections were in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book-shop Cambray was already fading, Thacker & Spink, another well known bookshop was alive, but there were hardly any rare books. With a growing collection of rarities at my father’s book shop, it soon became was a hub for book lovers and a meeting point for people from all walks of life, ranging from iconoclastic artists to conservative writers.

With books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mountaineering, religion and Indology as its strengths, Kumars soon became the place to go. At the shop, my father could be found wearing a white collared half sleeved shirt, and a Lungi, (stitched or unstitched cloth worn around the waist) or a Dhoti and Kurta with pump shoes. We can’t even imagine somebody wearing an attire like that and smoking a pipe or a Davidus Cigar sitting in a library surrounded by books now.

My father had several agents buying books for him at auctions and establishments abroad such as Foyles, Bernard Quaritch and Sotheby’s. One of his many enthusiastic collections included the then unheralded works of British Painters, uncle and nephew, Thomas Daniell and William Daniell. He bought an elephantine Folio of 144 Views of their works from Sotheby’s, and had it sent to Calcutta. On the way it got damaged that resulted in a bitter battle with the shipping company, MacKinnon McKenzie records of which can be found in Calcutta High Court. Much of the folio is now entrusted in care of the museum The Victoria Memorial.

When Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker, began his research on the Indian Rebellion of 1857 for his film Shatranj ki Khilari (The Chess Player), he depended on my father for information on the subject. Kumar not only provided him with all the relevant books, but also went out of his way to bid for a rare scrap book on the 1857 Mutiny, at a London Auction that contained paper clippings and notes on the event, and later he also provided him with many antique props for his sets. Ray it seems did not forget this gesture and paid my father his biggest personal tribute. He based one of his characters in his well known Feluda series on Kumar – the character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle), a man with vast encyclopedic knowledge on several subjects.

Kumars became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries such as – Radha Prasad Gupta, the Anglophile & PR Head of Tata Steel, writer Mulk Raj AnandNirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer, Santi.P.Chowdhury, documentary film maker, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census, Subho Tagore, the founder of Cubism in India, Jean Riboud, the French billionaire industrialist and writer Peter Fleming. Ella Maillart, the traveller and photographer wrote, ‘to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage. You spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories….all seamlessly interwoven.’

If rare works and books of painter William Hogarth, writers Colonel SleemanGeorge V HigginsJames Hamilton, the unknown Bishop Heber, Scottish writer O’Malley, African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it was in no small part due to my father, Kumar’s efforts. My father also convinced several people including Satyajit Ray to bid for rare works and if Lahari, the then Superintendent of Calcutta Zoo has been able to leave behind the rare collection of Himalayan Birds, books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is again because of my father. Kumar introduced several artist works to Calcutta; mainly the Flemish artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, whose works constitutes the first ‘ethnographic survey’ of India or more precisely of Bengal.

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, Kumars was a resource for international researchers, but my father was not able to cope as much of its collection had now begun to fade away. His health had deteriorated and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement (Revolutionary Communist Party). With a pipe smoking habit, conversations in mono-syllables and interrogative questions, he began to resemble the eccentric film director Alfred Hitchcock. Soon he became a recluse and his once dazzling library dimmed.

For 30 years, he had presided over a vast rarest of rare collections in his own bookshop, Kumars, a pre-eminent institution. He was the first in the subcontinent to publish a catalogue of books in his collection. He even formalized the literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, an innovation at the time. By the end of the 1975, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books began to be torn for their prints and sold separately. My father did not want to be a part of this and lost out.

Nirmal Chandra Kumar died in 1976 of a cerebral stroke, aged 60 and this year, in 2017, is his centenary. He was a genuine antiquarian and possibly the greatest influence on a generation of artists, filmmaker, writers, musicians, activists, teachers and travellers – perhaps more than any art critic or editor of his time. With his death, the literary world lost an extremely generous and unselfish man who gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he had influenced so profoundly.


169 – Hiding out in the forests of Assam-Burma-East Bengal border

My grandfather with his brothers. Assam Burma Border. c

My grandfather Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. Assam-Burma-East Bengal Border. Circa 1943

Image & Text contributed by Shravani Dang, New Delhi

This photograph taken in 1943 or 44 is of my maternal grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. It was taken in a forest hideout at the Assam-Burma-East Bengal border.

My grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee whom we fondly called Dadu, was born in 1895. 
Our family originally came from a small town in undivided Bengal and India called Khulna (now in Bangladesh) but they worked across the states of Bengal and Assam. Dadu’s hobbies included fishing and photography. He married my grandmother, Bimala Bala in 1909 when she was only 9 years old, he was 23 and already a doctor.

Dadu was a renowned gynecologist & an obstetrician, and also specialized in tropical medicine. He worked with the George Williamson & Co., a Tea Company in Assam ( now Williamson Magor & Co.).  In this photograph, my grandfather wears a British army uniform as he had been recruited into British Army to serve during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Burma and parts of the North-East Frontier.

During the war, and due to fears of Japanese attacks and bombings, the entire family of six brothers, their wives and children moved to a relative’s place and hid in the forest. The second person on the left is his younger brother Dinesh Chandra Mukherjee who later worked in the Foreign Service. The other brothers’ names I don’t’ know but one was a school headmaster. Not in the photograph is the fifth brother, Dr. Debesh Chandra Mukherjee who was also a doctor and was one of the five physicians dispatched to China by Netaji Subas Chandra Bose to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis was the other well-known Doctor in the group, on whom the film Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is based, and my granduncle is mentioned in it. My grandfather was the only one who served in war.

Life during the war was difficult. Most importantly, food was rationed. No cattle or milkmen were available as lived in far away towns and villages. Each time my grandfather visited the family, he would bring milk and a prized tin of English biscuits – Jacob’s Biscuits. Sometimes, but not often, he would manage to bring in eggs and Anchor Butter (from New Zealand). Without refrigeration, and in the dense tropical forest, the milk would get spoilt. In army rations, milk was only available in army rations in form of powder, that the family would then hoard. Sugar was in very short supply and often not available- so they had to manage with Gur (Jaggery) to satisfy the Bengali sweet tooth. And the most difficult thing, especially for Bengalis- was that rice was rationed, and if it was available, it was very poor quality and hardly edible. So the family learnt to eat fish curry with chapatis (flat Indian bread). 
The family had to maintain a very low profile and keep their oil lamps, candles, and fires to a bare minimum in the forest, lest they attracted the enemy.

My grandfather served on the Manipur-Burma border and they were successful in stemming the Japanese entry. He had a team of informants to keep the British army abreast of the activities of the Japanese. He helped and supervise the construction of roads and bridges in the region for the British army to travel to strategic places to quell the enemy. Eventually, in 1945 the Japanese were defeated and my grandfather was decorated and personally thanked by Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief of India Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck otherwise known as “The Auk”, who also served as the British Army commander during World War II. The Auk also wrote my grandfather a personal note on his efforts, that still lies in our family archives.

Dadu continued to serve the tea company after the end of Japanese occupation. Later he moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and established a private practice. He retired at the age of 75 and passed away of old age at 85, in 1980.


156 – The force behind my grandfather’s success

My grandparents, Bani and Radhika Karmakar . Bombay (now Mumbai). Maharashtra. 1972

My grandparents, Bani and Radhu Karmakar. Bombay. Maharashtra. December 1979

Image & Text contributed by Anuradha Karmakar, Mumbai

My Dida (grandmother in Bengali) Bani Karmakar (née Roy) was born on October 5, 1926 in Shologhor, Dacca District in erstwhile East Bengal. She had a rather impoverished childhood as the eldest child of a large family with three sisters, two brothers and a host of extended family members. She witnessed, at close quarters, the horrors of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, where three million people perished.

Dida did not have much of a formal education as she was married off in 1944, at the age of 17 to Radhika Jiban Karmakar, a soft-spoken 28-year-old man from Gramwari, Dacca (now Dhaka). Radhika Jiban left home at the age of 16, worked in the Calcutta Film Industry as a lab technician and also learnt photography from Jatin Das, a well-known photographer in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He then migrated with Das to Bombay in 1940, leaving behind a young wife in East Bengal with his family, where their first daughter, Sudevi was born in October 1947. The horrors of the communal massacres during 1946-1947 were witnessed by Bani, as also during one harsh monsoon, the swollen river Padma, changed course and devoured houses and paddy fields, the only source of sustenance for many. These two unfortunate events forced the mass exodus of many Bengalis seeking refuge and the Karmakars were among the millions who were forced to leave everything behind in 1948, many of whom migrated to West Bengal.

After a short stay in West Bengal, Bani found herself joining her cinematographer husband in the hustle and bustle of Bombay, which was to be their new home in 1949. They stayed in modest houses in Andheri and Sion where their four younger children; Radha, Krishna Gopal, Meera and Brojo Gopal, were born. From a small village to living in Bombay, without much support and a growing family with a host of relatives, was a tough task for the young mother, which she handled to the best of her abilities.

Radhika Jiban (whose name was shortened to Radhu, on Mr. Raj Kapoor’s insistence) worked as a cameraman and subsequently as cinematographer with RK Studios (now R.K. Films). His work involved erratic work schedules and travel within and outside India and hence primarily Bani was responsible for bringing up five children. They lived a frugal life together as much of her husband’s meager salary was spent on their children and extended family. Her home was the first stop for a horde of relatives and others who would arrive to make it big in Bombay. There were times when there was no food left for her at the end of the day due to unexpected guests and she would have one roti with sugar to keep her going. The matriarch complained to no one.

She found the time to educate herself in English and pick up skills in handicrafts. She never attended the flashy movie premieres, filmy parties or social gatherings while her husband rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of Indian and International Cinema. She preferred staying at home and taking care of her family. Together, the couple witnessed many important milestones in life- graduations, heartbreaks, first jobs, marriages, promotions and the births of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My grandfather, Radhu Karmakar came to be known as one of the ’10 best Cinematographers in the World’ and much of his professional achievements and laurels can be attributed to the sage and timely advice of his wife and my grandmother. He had won many awards during his lifetime which we proudly display in our family home, but what my grandmother was able to achieve was intangible; besides being a great cook, she managed a warm home, raised self-reliant and educated children, and was a role model for all those who came in contact with her. Radhu Karmakar  passed away on October 5, 1993 at the age of 77, in a car accident while returning from shooting the movie ‘Param Vir Chakra’. He was on his way back to Bombay (now Mumbai) to be with his wife on her birthday. Bani immersed herself in religion and spirituality, household work and doting on her grandchildren, to deal with the grief of her husband’s sudden demise.

My grandmother Bani Karmakar, passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 87, due to a prolonged illness. She had suffered a stroke, was battling Dementia and was just a shadow of her former energetic self. She loved being surrounded by us even when she could not recall our names. Sometimes she would revert to her childhood days in East Bengal, calling out names of friends and family who were long gone. Yet, that isn’t how I choose to remember my Dida. To me, she will always remain my strong-willed, stubborn, strict and very loving grandmother, a little rough around the edges, but a gem of a human being. During her last days, when asked what her last wishes were, Dida said that she would love to see me get married and then she could die in peace. She won’t witness my wedding ceremony, but the day I get married, I know she will be there to bless me, watching and smiling her cheeky smile.


135 – A wedding amidst Hindu Muslim riots

My parent’s wedding ceremony. Howrah, West Bengal. January 19, 1964.

My parent’s wedding ceremony. Howrah, West Bengal. January 19, 1964.

Image & Text contributed by Moushumi Chakrabarty, Canada

This is a wedding picture of my parents, Debdas and Kumkum Banerjee. He was 25 years old at the time and she was 19. My dad at the time was a draftsman and worked for Hindustan Motors, and my mom had just finished her schooling and was admitted to the Howrah Girls College (now Bijoy Krishna Girl’s college). They were both brought up in Howrah, West Bengal.

My parents’ marriage was an arranged match, by the patriarchs – my two grandfathers. Apparently my maternal grandfather, whom we fondly called Dadu, saw my father going to office one day, and thought him to be very handsome. He immediately began making some inquiries as to who that handsome man was. Dadu thought he would make a perfect match for his eldest daughter, Kumkum. After finding out who he was he approached my paternal grandfather and thereafter, till the wedding was finalised, always made a point of looking out for my father when he went to work. Almost every evening he would come home very pleased and tell my grandmother what a perfect match he had found for his daughter.

In the cold month of January 1964, at the time the wedding was to take place, riots between Hindu and Muslims broke out in about five places in West Bengal. The clashes erupted after the disappearance of a precious relic from a mosque in Srinagar, capital of a disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Consequentially, anti-Hindu riots broke out in east Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) and 29 people were killed. In retaliation riots broke out against the Muslims in rural areas of West Bengal and it spread far.
The administration then declared a curfew. My parents can’t recall any specific incident but there was a vague sense of unease and an undercurrent of danger, nevertheless wedding preparations went on. Our locality was considered safe because of my paternal grandfather Dr G. Banerjee was a grassroots congress party worker, a social activist and a well respected doctor.

On the wedding day the guests arrived safely, the shehnai (oboe) played and the cooks served up a sumptuous wedding feast. The feast was a typical bengali wedding one, complete with fish, mutton, different types of vegetables, puris, and of course, ‘dorbesh‘, my grandfather’s favourite sweet.

My father remembers that a couple of his European colleagues, who attended the wedding, were served less spicy food complete with specially ordered spoons, forks and knives. At the end of the wedding, all guests returned to their homes safely, some of whom stayed in the ‘para‘ (neighbourhood locality). After their wedding, my parents  immediately launched into a normal couple’s life, with my mom now in the thick of a multi-layered and large traditional household, as the eldest ‘bou’ (wife), had several tasks to perform.

I visited India/Kolkata this year in January to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents. Things in Howrah are more or less the same. In 50 years, the locality feels unchanged, though the old houses are slowly crumbling away brick by brick. No new roads have been built. The old library and market still stand. Some of the old sweet shops are churning out their fabulous concoctions even now. On roads, cows still chew the cud unhurriedly while scooters and cars zip by. A new mall has opened recently though sweatshops where people ply their traditional trades still exist, asserting their independence and everything is still covered in dust. But during my parent’s anniversary celebration, it was a again a cold night, there was again a sumptuous feast, there were flower-bedecked guests and there were soft and beautiful strains of the shehnai. It seemed nothing much had changed. But this time and thankfully there were no riots or a curfew.

 


75 – In love till their last day, they passed away within three months of each other

My maternal grandparents, Kali Pada & Sukriti Chakrabertti with their daughters, son and several nephews & nieces. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1970

Image and Text contributed by Anupam Mukerji

This picture was photographed on March 9, 1970 on the occasion of my maternal grandparents Kali Pada and Sukriti Chakrabertti’s 25th marriage anniversary (seated middle), at their home, 63, PG Hossain Shah Road, Jadavpur, Calcutta (now Kolkata). Here, they are with their daughters Sarbari, Bansari and Kajori, their son Sovan, and several nephews and nieces.

After graduating from school with a gold medal in East Bengal‘s Dhaka Bickrampore Bhagyakul district, the young teenager, Kali Pada Chakraberti moved to Calcutta. He began working while continuing his education in an evening college. The office he worked at was also his shelter for the night. Desperate for money to pay his college examination fees, he went to a pawn-shop in Calcutta’s Bow Bazaar to sell his gold medal.

The pawn broker at the shop however was a gentle and generous elderly man. He lent my grandfather the money without mortgaging the gold medal. Years later when my grandfather went back to the shop to return the money, he found that his benefactor had passed away and his son refused to accept the money stating he couldn’t, because his father had left no records of that loan. My grandfather then established  a Trust with that money to help underprivileged students with their education.

Bhai, as all his grandchildren fondly called him, graduated from college with distinction and built a successful career in the field of Insurance. He rose to a senior position in a public sector insurance company. He also bought a plot of land in Jadavpur and built the house of his dreams where this photograph was taken. Post partition of Bengal, many of his family members moved to Calcutta and everyone found food on the table and a roof over their heads at his house. Over time, many of them moved out and made their own homes, but 63 PGHS remained the place where everyone congregated for festivals and special occasions.

Sukriti Chakrabertti, my grandmother, was fondly known as Hashu Di. She was raised in Shanti Niketan and learnt Arts & Dance under the guidance of Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore and Nandlal Bose. She was part of the first batch of students of Shanti Niketan’s Kala Bhavan and went on to make a name for herself in various classical dance forms.

In love with each other till their last day, they passed away in 2000 and 2001, within three months of each other.


9 – Bangladeshi Family portrait

My great grandmother and family. Dhaka, East Bengal ( Now Bangaladesh). Circa 1934

Image and Text Contributed by Saugato Datta, London

This photograph was taken at a photo Studio in Dhaka.

The woman in the upper-right corner (dark blouse, sari and dangling earrings) is my grandmother Smritikona Basu (nee Majumdar) (1919-1995). To her left, in the middle is her older sister, Sadhana Basu and then their cousin whose name I don’t know.

The man is Sadhana’s husband, Manindranath Bose, who was a lecturer in Dhaka University. After partition of Indian and Bangladesh, he migrated to Bihar and became a professor and later a principal of a college in Begusarai. The baby is Sadhana’s oldest son (Samir Bose, 1933 -). He is now a retired Professor of Physics at the Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana. The old lady is my great-great-grandmother, Swarnalata Majumdar. My guess is she would have been born around 1880.

They all lived at my great great Grandmother Swarnalata’s house in Tikatuli, old Dhaka.