Chandannagar: A celebration of timeless Bengal French Connection

By Indranil Halder

Last year during my stay at The Imperial Hotel, New Delhi, a grand vintage copy of the Tiger Hunting at Chandanagar, Bengal( now West Bengal) in the Indies by Robert Laurie and James Whittle (published in 1802) caught my eyes. And my recent visit to Chandannagar, made me realise that it can surely remain a magnificent reminder of French colony in the Indian subcontinent .

My experience of Indo-French Connection:

In 1987, I remember, newspapers ran front page story on Satyajit Ray receiving the Legion of Honour from President Francois Mitterrand of France on the steps of the National Library. Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson loved Ray’s The Music Room movie. His photography in India fascinates me. I visited his Paris exhibition when he was still alive. In 1981. I remember Ray’s film wasrevived in Paris. Same year, invited by Radio France Paban Das Baul participated in a French documentary film named Le Chant des Fous (Song of the Madmen).

Learning about French connection to Bengal, I loved the fact that 140 year old, French newspaper Le Petit Bengali was published by Charles Dumaine( the first mayor of Chandannagar). News included reference to Durga Puja vacations, “les vacances de la Dourga poudjah auront lieu cette année du 6 au 17 Octobre”. And in 1841, true blue blooded Bengali Durga Chourone Roquitte was the first Indian to be conferred with the Chevalier de legion d’Honour. And Toru Dutt wrote novel in French, Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers(1879).

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Even today, a former head of the French department in Chandannagar Government College, still receives his pension from Paris. His brother has been made Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Academiques for his contribution to the spread of French culture.

While French consular, Kolkata office launched continuously harnessing this relationship. In 2019, France was the partner country at 2019 Bengal Global Business Summit. And revival of Chandannagar is certainly in the centre of it all. In Paris, prestigious French company Mariage Freres celebrates fabulous Bengal French connection with the launch of an exclusive tea : Chai Chandanagar.

Chandannagar & natives :

History says Bengal’s heritage handloom textile lured the French to Murshidabad for glamours French culture. In 1674, the French gained their first foothold in Chandannagar by the Hoogly river. In 1688, French East India Company paid 40,000 coins for land and a factory. The French promenadel, a French era classical European bunglow( residence of ruling French Governor of Chandannagar), Institute de Chandernagore – Dupleix Palace, Chandannagar Pustakgrah or library and Chandannagar College are some of the building displaying that historic Bengal French connection.

In 1731, Governor Dupleix took over the reins. Did roaring trade. In 1757, during the historic Battle of Plassey, Robert Clive destroyed the Fort de Orleans in Chandannagar. In 1940s, during Indian independence movement, it was also a safe heaven for freedom fighters and brave hearts such as Sri Aurobindo, Kanailala Dutt and Rajbihari Ghosh.

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Other than history, there are certain similarities between the Bengalis (native of Bengal) and French. Ramachandra Guha explores those in his article, Why Bengal Is To India What France Is To The World,

(published in The Telegraph, 5th September, 2015, Kolkata or Calcutta). He argued, “Bookfair is a success story in Calcutta in the digital age. It is always said that Calcutta is a place of poets and singers, novelists and dreamers. Taxi drivers and postmen, hotel maids and office workers all take up pens and compose and publish. Bengalis here think of themselves as better than other Indians, more intellectual, more thoughtful, less superstitious, less materialistic. Their intellectual saint, Rabindranath Tagore, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now, their patron of the screen, Satyajit Ray, has won Hollywood’s highest accolade for his moving pictures. This is why Bengal is to Indian what France is to the world….. Calcutta is like Paris.”

Today, like any Bengalis, Chandannagar inhabitants with the French, love their mustard. Kasundi, a traditional Bengali mustard sauce is quintessential for all-authentic Bengali chops or croquettes or Bengali style baked mustard salmon or classic French ham cheese sandwich with mustard. Chandannagar’s natives such as Batakrishna Ghosh( the first founder of a cloth mill amongst Bengalis), Dinanath Chandra, ( established manufacturing European tincture and other medicines ) and Indrakumar Chattopadhyay( the first maker and publisher of a wall map containing locations of places in Bengal). In 1730, Indrakumar was appointed the courtier of the Company and received a gold medal from Louis xv, the King of France.

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Another Chandannagar resident, Arghya Bose, an author and a doctoral researcher of political sciences at the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris exposed the story of a forgotten Bengali boy Zamor( employed with the Committee of Public Safety, and became the secretary of the Revolutionary Surveillance Committee). There are many such people who have globally connection to Chandannagar and Neline Mondal is one of them. We explored this timeless IndoFrench connection with her as I visited the recently installed statue of Radhanath Sikdar( right across from the Municipal Corporation of Chandannagar), new ly opened Galerie de Monsieur and well maintained Chandannagargrand promenade and celebrated with a classic IndoFrench photoshoot ( with designer Yugen, Kolkata) at the Mondal Mansion.

Viva la Chandannagar !