Magazine

Little Europe in Bengal: Contemporary trends in conservation

Click here To read Arnab Dutta’s first foray into “Little Europe”.

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Armenian Church Chinsurah

Arnab Dutta

‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is a coinage generally referred to a small patch of landmass on the bank of river Hooghly in the Indian province of Bengal, where a number of European national groups, such as the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Danes and the Armenians, had once settled, in order to carry out their trade and colonial ventures. The setting up of these trade settlements and their indulging in colonial rivalry dates back to late sixteenth century. Although the area became more and more homogenised as Britain rose to dominance in and around this region, the French held their last bastion, Chandernagore, right up until 1952, when this town was handed over to the Republic of India.

Since then for almost half a century there has been little, if any, interest from these different European ‘national’ communities in the region, mostly because there was no immediate necessity on their part to do so. There were indeed a few archaeological remains of the bygone era, scattered around in Dutch Chinsurah or Danish Serampore. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took unfocused measures to preserve some of the prominent remains such as the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah or the Danish one in Serampore. However, it was neither the priority of, nor feasible for, the ASI to physically maintain every single tangible ‘heritage artefact’ belonging to the Dutch, Portuguese or Danish settlers in the region. The French case has been unique. French Chandernagore has been the only place that succeeded in maintaining its both tangible and intangible Frenchness. The façade of Frenchness on its architecture has been one aspect of this. It could sustain certain other features as well. Chandernagore’s French museum, which is housed at the erstwhile residence of French governor, attracted tourists for a long period of time. Chandernagore’s College still boasts of its department of French language and literature, although it has rechristened itself in recent years to remove the name of a former French Governor of India, Joseph-François Marquis Dupleix (1697 – 1763). Now the college has adopted the name of a local hero rather than a colonial figure- Kanailal Dutta, a Bengali revolutionary fighting against the British Empire,. Up until the time when the common European framework of language learning (we usually know it as A1-C2 system) and the global networks like Allinace Française conquered the French-teaching industry in India, Institut de Chandernagor religiously offered French tutelage to its Bengali pupils and had its own accreditation system named certificat d’études primaires, or ‘certificat’ in local Bengali parlance. There has been, sadly, no Portuguese, Dutch or Danish cultural centre of similar repute in the formerly held territories. There have also been instances in the 1990s of PhD students of history in that region, dropping their plan of researching Dutch settlement in Chinsurah primarily because of the dearth of any place in the entirety of Eastern India that offer Dutch language courses.

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Courtyard of the Bandel Basilica, built by Portugese Settlers 

Here comes the questions as to how and why did everything change in recent years? The last few years of twentieth century saw a major upheaval in the interest shown by Europe in this patch of ‘Little Europe’. 1999 marked the four hundred years of the establishment of the Basilica of Holy-Rosary in Portuguese-held territory of Bandel, considered to be the second oldest surviving Christian church in India. A major renovation and reconstruction project was carried out with a lump sum coming from the Holy See. This, in a way, changed the course of the wave, and more and more European powers started coming in with a renewed interest in their Indian past. The Dutch followed suit. Different parties with their individual interests came ashore. The Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in India took keen interest and invested a substantial amount of money in order to document the Dutch remains in Bengal. A conservation architectural firm, ATA (Aishwarya Tipnis Architects) has been appointed to do an extensive survey in the region, and come up with plans to engage contemporary populace of Chinsurah with both the tangible and the intangible remnants of Dutchness in their town.

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A view of Dutch Chinsurah

ATA, along with a number of personnel from the Presidency University, Calcutta, tried to offer newer directions for conservation. At the end of this a multi-disciplinary project was meant to be on the table, focussing on creating a digital archive for shared cultural heritage of the erstwhile Dutch Chinsurah.  These initiatives involved the physical mapping of remaining tombstones in the historic Dutch cemetery, and digitally showcasing the mapping on a digital platform wherein the visitor can actually click on the location of a single tombstone and be redirected to a lot of stories for that era of Dutch rule. A lot of students from the Presidency University, under the leadership of Souvik Mukherjee, a professor of English literature and one of the key figures interested in digital humanities in India, worked day in and day out deciphering the almost washed out Dutch inscriptions on the tombstones. They simultaneously spent time in the archives, going back to the historical narratives around those people whose tombstones they were trying to read. All these findings came together to form a single online platform. By clicking on a location in today’s Chinsurah, one could navigate from one temporal frame to another, from an inscription on a dilapidated tombstone of an erstwhile Dutch governor to a digitally organised visual representation of the lifestyle he could have led in eighteenth century Dutch Chinsurah. One mouse click after another can now lead us to endless possibilities for knitting together a number of otherwise disconnected tales from the Dutch past.

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Dutch Cemetery Chinsurah

At the same time Bauke van der Pol, a Dutch anthropologist, was trying to unearth the hidden narrative of Dutch presence in India. This has culminated in his book, De VOC in India: Nederlands erfgoed in Gujarat, Malabar, Coromandel en Bengalen. These two projects – one narrating the tale of the fringes of the Dutch Empire, and another documenting with the tools of Digital Humanities the remnants of that past scattered across present-day Chinsurah – came to mingle at a dingle juncture, when in 2014 Presidency University simultaneously launched van der Pol’s book and the website of ‘Dutch in Chinsurah’.

The French Embassy has commissioned a similar approach to conservation. This project ran until 2012 and received support from the Embassy of France in India and the foundation Vieilles Maisons Françaises (VMF), and was executed by the same architectural firm involved in Dutch Chinsurah, ATA. Although it was not exactly like what the Dutch initiative tried to pursue, it has its own charm as well. Apart from documenting the French architectural heritage and presenting the findings on an online platform, ATA organised workshops with children to encourage them draw comic strips about the French past, and hosted a French cookery show.

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Interior of a Chanderagore Home in the 1870s

The Danes, as usual, were not lagging behind. The ‘Serampore Initiative’, a project initiated by the National Museum of Denmark in 2008 with the purpose of documenting and preserving cultural heritage from the Danish period in Frederichsnagore (today Serampore), is among the largest conservation projects taken in recent years by any European nation outside Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. Apart from the funding from the Danish Ministry of Culture and the local population, it could also garner interest from other quarters of Danish society and life, and could therefore secure funding from a Danish philanthropic organisation, Realdania. As a result of this initiative- taken as an Indo-Danish joint architectural venture- the dilapidated church of St. Olav has undergone a major facelift, resulting in its reopening after being declared abandoned and unsafe in 2013. This year the totally renovated St. Olav’s has again been consecrated to the parish of Serampore. The Danish Tavern, the residence of the Danish governor and the riverfront in the Danish style are now being restored.

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Image by Debraj Goswami of the Shrirampur (Serampore) Heritage Restoration Intiative, a group of locals aiding in restoring the various heritages of the area.

As far as this narrative of restoration goes it appears like a pretty and tranquil tale of European powers suddenly remembering their bygone past and investing a huge sum of money in the conservation and the restoration of their heritage. A closer scrutiny would, however, prove otherwise. The path towards the conservation of heritage can always lead to certain uncomfortable questions being asked, like whose heritage is it, and why at this point in time it has suddenly come under the umbrella term of heritage? Since, with the exception of Chandernagore, most of these settlements did not have a unilineal colonial narrative attached to them, defining what ‘true’ heritage is, in certain towns, gives rise to a lot of itchy smirks. Should the conservation recently carried out in the name of restoring Dutch heritage in Chinsurah prior to its British annexation in 1825 totally neglect layer after layer of British ‘heritage’ laid there over the next one hundred years? How should a conservationist deal with the alterations the Anglican establishment had once made to the erstwhile Danish Protestant Church of Serampore?

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St. Olav’s in former Danish Serampore

Even these problematic questions are sometimes overshadowed by even trickier questions of entitlement and participation. Who is indeed entitled to stake a claim to a physical space inhabited by people who by no means feel interested in the colonial narratives of these European powers? Although it did not always appear like an old-school colonial rivalry between major European powers of early modern times, the way one conservation project taken up in one town by a modern European nation immediately gets rivalled by another one in an adjacent town might raise one’s eyebrow. There seems to be justifiable reservations from other quarters as well, the most prominent being from the local historians. These are the people who often devoted their life sustaining in the public the interest in this patch of ‘Little Europe’. For almost half a century, up until the first decade of the twenty-first century, these individual endeavours kept the awareness alive. How do they feel when governmental bodies armed with professional architectural firms start expressing renewed interest in conserving the heritage or generating historical awareness in the region? ‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is again at the crossroads. It is in a unique situation in its contemporaneity, where different national communities from Europe are again chiselling in its physical territory, not as the colonial intruder but as the conservationists. The future of the ‘Little Europe in Bengal’, and its ties with Europe would definitely be subject to its various approaches to conservation, and simultaneously the love-hate relationship of the local populace with those approaches.

Join us next week, when Arnab Dutta will conclude our tour of “Little Europe in Bengal”.

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