Celebrating Chandannagar style at 277-year-old Mondal Mansion

By Indranil Halder

It was a foggy winter’s morning in India. I arrived in a chauffeur-driven car at the 277-year-old Mondal Mansion in Gondalpara, Chandannagar,. Welcomed by Neline Mondal in her Sari, Sindoor and Shakha attire.

Neline Mondal:

Neline Mondal was born in Belgium, raised in the Netherlands, educated in Ecole Normale Seperieure and former Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris and loves Chandannagar. She gave up opportunities to regain her ancestors´ French citizenship. In 1989, she arrived in India and met her husband Ujjal Mondal (from one of the oldest merchant families in Bengal,India).

Mondals of Gondalpara, Chandannagar:

Globally, Mondal is a common surname in Bengalee communities. But the Mondal family of Gondalpara is unique. It is said that the family originated from Central Asia and arrived in India via the Khyber Pass. In Central Asia, the head of the tribe in any village was called Mandaladhik. The Mondal family belongs to the Mandaladhik clan who were Buddhists.

In Bengal, the family traded worldwide from Adisaptagram (a flourishing port in Bengal for maritime trade with Europeans such as Dutch, French, and Portuguese who lived in the area). Other than the booming cargo business, the family made enormous profits from oilseeds, food grains, salt and other commodities. They generated several lakhs of gold coins, also called ’Mohar’ every month from the oilseed trade alone. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, the family became the wealthiest in Chandannagar and owned fifteen ships, a private army of more than one hundred men and a grand mansion.

Mondal Mansion:

Mondal mansion with its high ceilings, ornamental columns, stained glass and marble floors is exquisite. A glance in the corner of the ballroom cum musical salon with ceiling high windows and green plantation shutters revealed the opulence of the mansion. The mansion is part of Bengali heritage culture. It was at this musical salon, Anthony Firingee of Portuguese decent (born as Hensman Anthony, a historical figure in Bengal, was employed as a business manager for Mondal estate) became famous by singing many Hindu Bengali devotional songs.

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Today, it is incredible to think that this Mondal mansion has witnessed and survived in this French colony for 277 years with its unique wall frescoes (which are the same as Fontainebleau Palace in Paris) and sandstones defying the passage of time. It was not subjected to the tragic faith of another lavishly built local mansion named Ghiretti House (also known as Ghiretta House, was once the residence of the French Governor, Saádat Ali from the Awadh royal family and British General Sir Eyre Coote). The mansion’s grand iron entrance gate, pillared verandah and flamboyant staircase are a subtle reminder of grandeur and lifestyle. It was a perfect location for our French Bengali fashion photography to celebrate our cultures and heritage.

A Fairy-tale Grand Duchess Personified:

At Mondal mansion, Neline dressed in a red saree (created by Yūgens, Kolkata) looking like a Grand Duchess face the camera.

Holding a brass bowl full of sweet red apples to offer, she looked like a regal visage of French-Bengali fusion. Her ornamental nose ring, also called Nath, sat perfectly on her European features and complimented her simple makeup – perhaps one of the very first European women to dazzle for a portrait in an ethnic nose ring. As onlookers gathered outside the Mondal mansion for a sneak peek, Neline remained posed in her black mahogany vintage chair with arm handles with grace and dignity. She adjusted her traditional Shakha & Pola ( white bangle made of conch shell and red bangle made of corals) like a Bengali Zamindar’s wife, spoke in fluent French for the social media posts and slowly moved her extra large hand fan ( made from taal leaf of Assam) to stay cool. The colour of her saree was as red as Valentine’s Day rose exhibiting her love for Chandannagar and vibrant Indian textile. Her ‘saree achal’ or end-piece, floated like an Edwardian drape over her left shoulder only to add a majestic look – a classic blend of centuries-old sophisticated French and Bengali cultures. An unique Chandannagar style.

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Celebrating Chandannagar style :

Many centuries ago, just like the rest of Europe, Chandannagar attracted the French for settlement on the shores of the Hoogly river. In 1758, François Bernier (French physician and traveller) arrived in India and visited Bengal. He compared the fertile province of Bengal with her wealth and beauty as ‘far greater than Egypt’. In the 18th century, Jean-Baptiste Chevalier (a French governor in Bengal), revived private trade and organised voyages to export sugar and rice from Bengal to the Isle de France and the Île Bourbon (Reunion Island) in the Indian Ocean. He wanted to drive the English out of India as mentioned in the book, ‘Hooghly: The Global History of a River’, by Robert Ivermee. While Louis Bonnaud also (the first European to establish indigo plant as a crop for cultivation in India in 1777) lived in Chandannagar, increasing steady flow of French people and influence in Bengal. Today, Neline is flag barrier of an unique Chandannagar style with grace and presence that is mesmerising than Bollywood actress at Cannes Film Festival.

I wonder, what would be the reaction of renowned Victorian portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron,, if she witnessed Neline Mondal in her Chandannagar style ? According to an English researcher, Jane Richter from the Isle of Wight in the UK, who is involved with Dimbola Museum & Galleries (the former home of Victorian pioneer portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was half English and half French), “Julia’s father was James Pattle from the East India Company and her mother was Adeline De L’ Etang, daughter of the Chevalier Antoine Ambrose de l’ Étang who worked for French king Louis 16, and Therese Blin de Grincourt. Ambroise Pierrre Antoine de l¹Etang, a French aristocrat, married Thérèse Josèphe Blin de Grincourt. Thérèse was a member of the French aristocracy and had Indian blood through an ancestor who was a high caste Hindu lady from Chandannagar. Their Indian ancestor was a lady called Maria Monica (who later changed her name to Marie Monique).” I am definite that Julia Margaret Cameron would have taken immense interest in clicking portrait photos of Neline Mondal as her subject. And why not?


Madhubani Dutta Baral from Melbourne was correct, when she wrote on my Facebook referring to this photoshoot “Beautiful fusion – a chic mix of royal and Shabeki fashion while the large Haatpakha (hand fan) fits perfectly into the composition to blow away any roadblocks in cultural diversity !!” No wonder, one of Neline’s photos was part of Kolkata Centre for Creativity exhibition. Neline’s Chandannagar style would have probably inspired poet Taru Dutt (1856-1877). Taru wrote Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (first novel in French by any Indian Writer) and poetry in English, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1877) and Legends of Hindustan (1882). I feel, she would have enjoyed the strong connection between Bengali and French cultures. And possibly would have also made Mme Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent (1762–1835) envious. It is said,” born as Catherine Noele Worlée in Tranquebar or Tharangambadi, India, she married George Grand, an Englishman (who was in the colonial civil service). In 1783, she settled in Paris after living in Calcutta, Chandannagar & London. In 1802, she divorced Grand and married the diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Duc de Périgord, and later Prince de Bénévent. Her beauty is captured in her portrait with heavenly gaze or “tête d’expression.” Princesse de Bénévent would have gazed at Neline’s Chandannagar style.

To me, the creation of Chandannagar style for the photoshoot was like watching Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) by the French composer Georges Bizet in a real life setting instead of the Sydney Opera House and I could perfectly hear Lakmé, The Flower Duet (“Sous le dôme épais”) played on a gramophone in the Mondal mansion’s musical salon echoing through the centuries old red and black pillars. I enjoyed Neline’s invitation without the need for an endless flow of French champagne. It was an amazing time to observe a perfect blend of cross- culture, heritage, and fashion creating Chandannagar style.