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’.

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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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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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Little Europe in Bengal: Patches of multi-national interests on the bank of Hooghly

 

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Kolkatta (formerly Calcutta) was once the centre of British power in the Indian subcontinent

Arnab Dutta

Whenever I tried eating Dutch spice cake, Ontbijtkoek, during my semester in Groningen or Swedish cinnamon buns, Kanelbullar, during my time in Uppsala I couldn’t but wonder at the long history of Europe’s culinary tryst with spices. It is these spices that allured Europeans to cross difficult terrains and set sail to distant shores. The fascination with spices made a group of Europeans take part in maritime trade across the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were the first, the Dutch were not far behind, followed by the French and pursued by the Brits. Spice trade gradually gave way to trade in cotton, followed by Europe’s stake in the global slave trade and the mobility of indentured labourers. However, the nature of trade and the interaction in the early modern era between European traders and local communities in various littorals around the Indian Ocean were much different from what they came to look like in the days of high colonialism. In most of cases during sixteenth and seventeenth century, the European maritime powers could only access a few places nearer the sea, not the continental hinterland lying beyond it.

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Bay of Bengal

Our narrative is about such a patch of landmass known as the lower Gangetic basin of Bengal, where the Ganges, one of the mightiest rivers in Asia meets the Bay of Bengal. For strategic reasons the mouth of the Gangetic delta, the largest of its kind in the world, allured maritime traders throughout the early modern era. Land-based trading communities, such as the Turks and the Armenians in the India of that time were met with seafarers like Portuguese and Dutch traders. Conflicting interests controlled their destinies; and Gangetic Bengal became what would later be known as the potboilers of wandering traders and changing communities. Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of British India till 1911, and the second city of the vast British Empire, grew out of this unique story of conflict and reconciliation. However, this was never a unidirectional and easy narrative, for multiple political actors from Europe flocked into a tiny patch of landmass and made this region a unique exception in an otherwise homogenous story of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.

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A church is Bandel, a former Portugese colony in India

Long time before the Brits got involved in lower Gangetic Bengal, the Portuguese were busy operating their riverine ports of Hooghly and Bandel, some forty kilometres upstream on the river Hooghly (Ganges) from what would later become Calcutta. This dates back to mid sixteenth century CE. As the navigability of the river decreased with time the Dutch East India Company settled some three-four kilometres south of Portuguese Bandel. The Armenians got their fair share within Dutch territories, allowing them to operate Armenian Orthodox churches in the region. The French East India Company settled in farther South, nearer the sea, in a place they named Chandernagore, managing to keep it under their hold until 1952, five more years after India gained its independence from the British Empire. Greeks were in the next town called Bhadreswar, and the Danish were busy with the next town, Serampore, the only Danish colony in eastern India. With the decreasing navigability of river and a want to have a British fortress in an advantageous position closer to the sea, British Calcutta was founded some twenty kilometres south of Danish Serampore. To make this long story short, the essence of it is that for almost two centuries in this small patch of land on the bank of river Hooghly, hardly forty kilometres in length, there were trading posts or proto-colonies of so many European communities that it was not surprising for later historians to refer to this tiny area as ‘Little Europe’, way before Brussels got its theme park of the same name.

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Fort Gustavus in Dutch Chinsurah before its demolition

These small towns, which now make up the northern suburbs of the metropolis of Calcutta, were once very distinct from each other in their respective culture and architecture. Portuguese Bandel boasted its culinary distinctiveness, as it provided modern Bengal with Bandel cheese, a Portuguese variant of cottage cheese and were responsible for the invention of Bengal’s national sweetmeat, Rasagolla.  Dutch Chinsurah was an amazingly fortified city with a fort named Fort Gustavus. French colonialists were so invested with their Petite France in Chandernagore that they remodelled the Gangetic riverbank with French-styled promenades. The Danes followed suit. The church of St. Olav in the heart of Serampore and the Danish cemetery were distinct from the British architecture of Calcutta.

One might notice that although the different ‘national’ actors were competing with each other for more than two centuries in a tiny space like this, the political structures gradually became homogenised, as it was seemingly impossible to practice exclusivity within the otherwise British surroundings.  Brits were late in reaching the shore; but following the saying that slow and steady wins the race, Brits were the ones who remained in pursuit of colonial power and eventually got hold of most of these other European trading posts in exchange for something or the other. The Dutch East India Company left Chinsurah in 1825 in exchange for complete hold over Java in Indonesia. Brits gave up their stake in the Dutch East Indies, modern Indonesia, and occupied Chinsurah; the Dutch fortress got demolished and with the dismantled Dutch material they made a British Chinsurah. However, the civil institutions conceived during the final days of Dutch rule over Chinsurah remained as a bizarre mix of Dutch, British and indigenous Bengali customs. Hooghly Collegiate School, established in 1812 and the oldest European styled school in Eastern India bears testimony to this rare Dutch-English-Bengali conjunct.

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Danish Serampore’s fate was a bit different, mostly because of the Christian missionaries.  Since the late eighteenth century Danish Serampore had become a melting pot of missionaries coming from different European backgrounds, eventually making it a prominent centre of scholarship and printing. Whether or not all these activities were Danish or English or Scottish does not make the narrative less fuzzy and complex. Panchanan Karmakar, a master craftsman from Danish Serampore, assisted Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and Charles Wilkins, two Englishmen coming to serve the British East India Company; and together they made possible the first ever moveable typefaces for Bangla script. With this Danish-English axis in the background there came out the first ever book in Bangla printed with those moveable typefaces. A Grammar of Bengal Language by an Englishman Nathaniel Brassey Halhed was printed in 1778 in Hooghly, the erstwhile Portuguese port next to Dutch Chinsurah.

Chandernagore, ‘la petite France en Inde’ for the French colonials, was perhaps the only place that passionately resisted, for more than three centuries, the cultural influence the English could exert from its surroundings. Chandernagore, along with a few other French towns like Pondicherry in the south of India, remained a symbolic and ideal space of what could have been a French-influenced Indian subcontinent, had the British not defeated them in the Indian extensions of the Napoleonic wars. Chandernagore continued to be a French town up until 1952, making it a safe haven for French architecture and culture to flourish. It was the only town in eastern India to have a school-curriculum with French as the medium of instruction. Generations of Bengalis in Chandernagore were taught in Bangla and French, with little or no English interference whatsoever.

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Chandernagore’s riverside

In a nutshell, this small patch of land, affectionately called ‘Little Europe in Bengal’ garnered among generations of Bengalis a sense of Europe in its totality. This awareness of an ‘other’ Europe, a Europe outside the immediacies of British colonial interests, kept fascinating the Bengali psyche for a rather long time. Bengali revolutionaries who were struggling against the British Empire often took refuge in these non-British territories so as to avoid arrest, eventually taking French ships to flee to the mainland of Europe, the Continent in British parlance. This, in turn, gave rise to a different pattern of mobility that was quite different from usual colonial mobility within the metropolis and the margins of a single empire. Little Europe’s legacy transcends those otherwise homogenous patterns of binaries. Just like the  theme-park in Brussels, this Little Europe had also tried casting the idea and image of Europe in a multi-national and pluri-cultural mould. The narrative, however, does not end there. Permeating its historical specificity etched in a distant past, Little Europe has again started attracting various European nation states to have a closer look at the somewhat forgotten territories they had once occupied. The early twenty-first century has brought back Dutch historians to Chinsurah, allowing them to have a closer look at their forgotten Dutch-Bengal style of painting and architecture. Danes, as usual, are not far behind. The National Museum of Denmark, under a project named ‘Serampore Initiative’, has plunged into one of the biggest urban conservation projects in recent times, taken by a European state outside Europe’s territorial outreach. These renewed national interests are manifold, involving more and more historical nuances to unearth and contemporary narratives to explore. Little Europe continues to be an incessant point of convergence between Europe and South Asia.

Join us next week, when Arnab Dutta will continue our tour of “Little Europe in Bengal”, leading us into the contemporary conservation efforts being made  in the region.

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