The co-founder of an all-women-travelling-club

My grandmother Krishna Chakraborty. Chandannagar, West Bengal. Circa 1962

IMP Research Intern : Priyanka Balwant Kale, Pune

Image and Narrative Points contributed by Ria Chakraborty, West Bengal

This photograph of my grandmother Krishna Chakraborty was taken sometime in the early 1960s on the balcony of our old house in Chandannagar, West Bengal. Situated on the western banks of River Hooghly, Chandanagar, formerly known as Chandernagor, was one of the five settlements of French colonised India.
I am told a local photographer was commissioned to take this photograph and while for many it is, my grandmother was not dressed up for the mere benefit of a photograph – she was always dressed up well because she loved to look good. My grandmother Krishna was an extremely hardworking woman and a grassroots entrepreneur – who made bold choices.

My grandmother Krishna was born on May 12, 1936 in Sylhet, colonial Assam Province (now in Bangladesh). Sylhet at the time comprised of an equal population of Hindus and Muslims and following the partition of India in 1947, it became part of East Pakistan (Bangladesh). A tense political and communal climate became personal when daily skirmishes with neighbours over how we lived to what we ate made it extremely difficult for our family to live in safety; and so one day in 1940, my great grandfather snapped, and decided to move to Dacca (now Dhaka in Bangladesh).

My grandmother was only four years old when her family first left for Dacca from Sylhet but when the family continued to feel threatened, they decided to go on to Calcutta (now Kolkata). For the safety of their family, my great grandparents sacrificed all their assets and properties they had in Sylhet and Dacca. My grandmother would often say that she never thought Bangladesh was strong enough to offer them the secure life they sought. A mugging incident reinforced the impression when she was visiting Dacca with her young son (my father) and they were robbed in broad daylight right outside the airport. My grandmother was deeply upset with the incident and from then on could not find anything worthy of being nostalgic about her “roots”.

My grandmother could be considered highly educated for her time. She grew up at Jadavpur, a southern neighbourhood of Calcutta and appeared for her matriculation exam. A year or so later she majored in Home Science and minored in Political Science from Jadavpur University. She was popular, and had an active life with a lot of friends, family vacations, picnics, and even participating in elocution abritti (Recitation in Bengali). 

My grandparents got married in 1959, and moved to Chandannagar, where my grandfather Dhananjoy Chakraborty, an RBI employee, was posted. My grandparents had a respectful relationship, but didn’t live conventional married lives; neither was my grandmother interested in a usual domesticated life, even after having children. Albeit, she would often lament that her marriage was unromantic – partly owing to my grandfather who was completely uninterested in romance. Soon the couple were leading rather separate lives; and it led my grandmother to become quite disenchanted with her married life. She began to keep herself occupied with friends, and frequent out-of-station travels; that is until she decided to use her talents, and have her life mean more. 

My grandmother had learnt Sewing in her major – Home Science and was a brilliant seamstress, and so she decided to rent a place in Jadavpur, and established a sewing school called Suchi Shilpo Sikhsha Centre with 13 women as her first students. Soon her learning centre became a sought after school among neighbouring towns, especially among women from marginalised sections of society. My grandmother also began a home-run bespoke apparel design business, with her appointment calendar always booked out. Her entrepreneurial activities made her financially independent – a fact she took great pride in, especially because she did not have to depend on her husband, and she had the freedom to pursue any of her interests.  

As you can imagine, my grandmother had a vibrant social circle comprising of several women who shared one common interest – Travel. And so in 1963, my grandmother and her colleagues formed an all-women-travelling-club called the Ladies Tourist Culture Association that would promote and organise female group travel. They organised trips to Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Andamans. At that time, it was unusual for women to travel by themselves by flight yet my grandmother took her first solo flight to Bangalore with great excitement. She found great happiness in her travel friends partly because she believed that they understood her. 

My grandfather Dhananjoy Chakraborty never seemed to have a problem with my grandmother’s frequent absences. She made it clear to her children that they should not expect her to “sacrifice” herself for them and she would be present when they really required her help – they needed to become self-sufficient.  Having said that, she suffered one of the greatest tragedies a parent can suffer, when she lost her 4-year-old eldest son to a truck collision. I am told that after two years she couldn’t indulge her grief anymore – she began giving cooking lessons, and returned to her sewing business. My father grew up in Calcutta with his uncle.

My paternal family is extremely progressive- and also completely disinterested in religion – a characteristic that in fact was shared by my grandparents. They were liberal, and generous with their home, and savings. The 1970s was a tumultuous political period in West Bengal’s history with repression, underground political activities, extreme uncertainty and instability. Although she didn’t have an explicit political stance, my grandmother, like many in the neighbourhood did, offered shelter to radical political activists fleeing the state police. She paid for the entire education for two of her nieces and sent food to victims of domestic violence in her organisation. When my grandfather’s childhood friend, a Bengali Marxist, lost his eyesight, my grandparents took him into their home, despite facing flak from our conservative relatives. Many called her “domineering” but no one understood what she had had to undergo to develop that personality of steel – being tough was her best defence. 

My grandmother has suffered two paralytic attacks, yet each time she has recovered with her spirit intact -. Although she is stubborn, I understand that she finds it difficult to be a dependent on anybody. I also acknowledge that of that generation and culture, there were only a few women like her – distinct from my friends’ grandmothers which makes her incredibly fascinating to me. It could not have been easy to stand up tall in face of a very tough world. My grandmother may be a complex lady, but she is the most inspiring woman I have the fortune of knowing and learning from. And for me this photograph really encapsulates her powerful persona, her love for good attire, and her magnificent independence.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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