Magazine

Little Europe in Bengal: The politics and ‘desire’ of heritage

 

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The Hooghly (Chinsurah)  Imambara, a still in use Mosque and Imambarah, used by locals, serves as a reminder that colonial heritage is a small part of modern Bengal: Photo by Amartyabag

Arnab Dutta

‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is a term generally used to refer to a small patch of land on the bank of the 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 and carried out their trade and colonial ventures. Although the British colonial powers in the region gradually seized most of these territories from their Continental rivals, a few scattered architectural remnants from the Dutch and the Danish past continue to play an important role in the unique nature of this area. Enthused by the desire to protect the remnants of these non-British territories, and fanned by the huge sums of money being poured in, the early years of twenty-first century have seen a steady upsurge of interest in these locales.

The Kingdom of Netherlands has been for last few years trying to physically map the Dutch heritage that remains in Chinsurah, and present the findings on an interactive online platform. This endeavor is occurring hand in hand with other Dutch initiatives, such as the publication of a book written by Baule van der Pol about the history of the Dutch East India Company in this region, and a collaboration with the tourism board of the Government of West Bengal to facilitate attracting foreign tourists to these small towns of ‘Little Europe’.

Opnamedatum: 2010-03-18

Painting of a Dutch plantage in Chinsurah, Bengal. It serves as a reminder that the Dutch colonial forces in India were there for profit and exploited the locals. Painting by Dutch painter Hendrik van Schuylenburgh (c.1620-1689)

The Danish initiative is taking a different path, for it is putting more stress on physical restoration rather restoration based on digital humanities. The National Museum of Denmark has initiated the ‘Serampore Initiative’ to carry out conservation projects to refurbish the dilapidated Danish architectural remains of Serampore. As the French managed to hold their last bastion, Chandernagore, right up until 1952, the Frenchness of Chandernagore is both tangible and intangible, and is obviously in a better state than the other European remnants which had been long ago forfeited to British rule. However, this does not mean they are lagging behind. Aishwarya Tipnis Architects, the conservation architect firm that has been entrusted with Dutch Chinsurah has also been appointed to engage with the restoration of French Chandernagore. This, in a nutshell, is a story of various European nation states slicing into the territories they once held; this time not under the cloak of colonial power but as heritage conservationists.

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In Serampore, local art and culture has long overtaken the remnants of Danish colonialism: Photo by শ্রীরামপুর মাহেশ

As far as this narrative of restoration goes it seems like a tranquil tale of European states, having suddenly remembered their Indian pasts, investing huge sums of money into the conservation and the restoration of their heritage. A closer scrutiny would, however, complicate the tale. The path towards the conservation of heritage can always lead to certain uncomfortable questions being asked, like whose heritage is it? Why have the former colonial remnants suddenly come under the umbrella term of heritage? It is also important to consider what has actually survived from the past, apart from the architecture? Considering something as part of one’s heritage involves recognising what is to be inherited and what not. Only after this act of recognition can the act of preservation begin. It is this primary act of deciding what is worth remembering and conserving that invites more controversy than anything that happens to follow.

This polemic of recognition and conservation often takes recourse to the idea of metonymy, where a smaller part of the remnants can stand for a broader narrative of the European past in the region. The fact that,  with the exception of French Chandernagore, there was no uni-linear history of non-British colonialism in any of these small settlements, makes the effort of remembrance more fuzzy and complex. It is a well-known fact that when, in 1825, the Brits were bequeathed Chinsurah in exchange for a Dutch monopoly over Java, they completely dismantled the Dutch Fort Gustavus, and made a British Chinsurah on its rubble. The only thing that remains of the Dutch past is the Dutch cemetery, as it was anathema to desecrate a Christian cemetery even after the Brits took over. An entire historical narrative being built on nothing but a cemetery is in itself a daunting exercise!

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Jubilee Bridge, linking Hooghly (Chinsurah) to Bandel, shows the massive transformations the region has gone through since the time of Dutch settlement: Photo by Piyal Kundu

Therefore the Dutch in Chinsurah initiative of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in India had to start with a digital humanities project called ‘Dutch cemetery’. A digital humanist method to approach heritage was, perhaps, a conscious decision on their part, where one could conserve the Dutch past on a virtual platform rather than on a materially palpable scale, a cheaper and less political project. The Dutchness is then to be invoked in one’s imagination primarily. All they are trying to do is to generate a narrative, composed across several channels of communication – anecdotes, oral history, legends, and fantasies – juxtaposing it with an imaginary idea of space. One can imagine a situation where a cannon is unearthed in an archaeological excavation. The cannon carries a VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) logo engraved in it. Considering the fact that this kind of cannon might have been installed at the entrance to a Dutch fortress, urban archaeologist and conservationists might build a narrative of the spatial configuration of that lost Dutch fortress around the restored cannon. Following the rule of metonymy, these small objects become marker of a larger picture, a larger narrative of the lives and times of Dutch traders and colonials.

However, should the conservation recently carried out in the name of restoring Dutch heritage in Chinsurah totally neglect the layers of British ‘heritage’ that had been laid there over a period of a hundred years? Danish Serampore faced a similar question when they started to restore St Olav’s church. After Serampore was handed over to the Brits by the Danish government, St Olav’s ceased to be a Danish Protestant church and was consecrated as the Anglican Church of that parish. It is therefore difficult to ‘rejuvenate’ and ‘reinvent’ the essential Danish styles and markers without completely exfoliating a century of British heritage. Does conservation of one form or era of heritage inevitably mean the brushing away of another layer of colonial deposit? These complex questions are obviously not exclusive to Bengal, but will arise in any conservation project of European cultural heritage outside of Europe.

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Chandernagore Government College today, a world of difference from the time the area was still held by France: Photo by Arpan Sarkar

The broader question behind this ‘politics of conservation and heritage’ is even more pressing. On 9 November 2014 Chandernagore’s Government College (known as Le College Dupleix during the French rule) organised a conference to engage multiple stakeholders and academics to discuss the renewed European interests in the region. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from Columbia University launched a strong critique of the ways in which ‘heritage’ is being invoked as a furry comfort against an otherwise atrocious narrative of the colonial presence in these settlements. Now that different European countries are reclaiming a stake in the region under the guise of conservation, redistributing among themselves their respective claims over a space that is inhabited by a populace who might have no interest in the colonial past, eyebrows are being raised.

Similar to Spivak’s line of argument, questions are being asked, sometimes in a hushed tone and sometimes rather loudly, as to where to locate the place of the precolonial past that occurred long before the Portuguese, the Dutch or the French came? It is, in Spivak’s words, the desire of current European stakeholders to use ‘heritage’ – as a gateway to the contemporaneity of a crucial Geo-political location of the modern global constellation, quite similar to the colonial gateway they used in the early-modern era. If ‘heritage’ means only certain artifacts and architectural remains from the European past in the region, how does the region of ‘Little Europe of Bengal’ engage with its own Bengali past? As the narrative becomes more complex the answer to this question becomes all the more important.

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Photo by Robert Crc

One thing, however, remains unblemished. That is the crucial role ‘Little Europe’ plays to this day in both the Bengali psyche and the heritage-enthusiasm of various European bodies. It could at least fulfill a primary task. After a long time of amnesia, the politics around the ‘heritage’ compelled historians to peek into the forgotten ties of Continental Europe with an otherwise British-dominated Indian subcontinent. Little Europe is being historically reinvented not as a tiny landmass in the Gangetic delta, but as a crucial nodal point for maritime journeys from Portugal or the Netherlands to the Far East. It played the role of a middle ground between the metropolises and the margins of the Portuguese and the Dutch Empires – between Amsterdam and the Dutch East Indies, or between Lisbon and Portuguese Malacca. Today’s Little Europe is still at the crossroads, but of an even bigger world.

Click here to read more about ‘Little Europe in Bengal’.

Click here for more by Arnab Dutta.

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