By Indranil Halder
I was delighted to attend an evening of interaction to develop my understanding of the unexplored, long-standing connection between Italy and Bengal. It took place in Tagore Palace, Pathuriaghata, North Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
My Connection To Italian Marble Grandeur:
Growing up in Bengal, I grew accustomed to Italian marble, especially high-quality Calacatta Marble. A few decades ago, when I was living in the Indian state of West Bengal, I was fascinated by numerous dust-covered marble statues, tables, wall-side tables, and floors in many Rajbaris or mansions across Murshidabad, Kolkata and Dhaka. They highlighted the art of indulgent luxury living in one of the richest provinces in the world, followed by a collection of Western paintings, including Italian artists. This was a perfect cocktail for the Renaissance movement in Bengal. As Aparajita correctly said, “The magical efflorescence of vernacular literature, arts, and science in myriad forms and glory, and the appearance of a host of remarkable individuals in different walks of life within the short span of the century had given strength to this claim.”
Again, I am fascinated with Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Italy. Here, magnificent marble sculpture has turned the river-god Ganges into a male rather than female (according to Indian mythology). The use of marble was much grander than what I had seen at Sydney’s Botanical Garden or colonial buildings or during my stay at the Versace Hotel in Dubai or even Bruno Aries in Argentina.
In Wollongong, I ended up using the same marble for my bathroom in my Wollongong residence. For me, refined living in Australia includes a laid-back coastal life with a curated home featuring brass, marble, and pastel color finishes. My ingrained understanding of Italian marble not only surprised the renovator but also increased the price of my residence. Now living in Sydney, I regularly attend musical events such as opera by Greta Bradman at the Art Gallery of NSW, which boasts an Italian marble floor similar to Pathuriaghata Tagore Castle. The only difference is the ambiance, which took my breath away. But never did I ask myself, who is commissioning the marble floors, statues, and verses in Kolkata? Why are Italians coming to Bengal (West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh) to sell their marble? Did Italian artists live in Kolkata?
Tagore Palace still stands in Pathuriaghata today. It was once the residence of Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore, a prominent member of the Pathuriaghata branch of the Tagore family and one of the earliest Indian musicologists. Aparajita, whose maternal great-grandmother was Dwarkanath Tagore’s sister Rasbilasi Tagore and paternal great-grandmother was Sunayani Devi, runs Astrit Research and Advisory Services as a strategic intermediary between Australian and Indian firms. She said, “Tagore began learning the sitar from Lakshmi Narayan Mishra of Benaras at the age of 17 and continued studies in other aspects of classical music and musicology with the well-known scholar Kshetra Mohan Goswami. Tagore also learned Western music from a German pianist and took much interest in collecting books and ancient manuscripts on Indian music theories and works on European music.” As a musicologist, he fascinates me, after learning about his gifts of Indian musical instruments to Melbourne centuries ago.
I couldn’t resist accepting an invitation to Tagore Palace – Pathuriaghata by Aparajita, as both of us were interested in exploring the unexpected Indo-Italian connection in Kolkata. Dressed in my dhoti/kurta and jewelry made of precious and semi-precious stones, I made my way with my dad. My chauffeur drove down the road which was once the vibrant artery of Bengal’s achievements in trade and commerce in the 19th century. We mistook Mullick’s pink mansion for Tagore Palace, only to be guided to the grand entrance of the ceiling-high black-framed Tagore Palace door with tube roses-covered marble vessels. As we entered the inner courtyard for the event, I saw the grand staircase on my right leading upstairs. A house with green plantation shutters, grand pillared veranda, and marble checkered floors. Bengali cultural history seemed to be oozing out of its marble tiles on the palace floor. The palace reflects the refined art of Bengali heritage living with a touch of exquisite Italian Renaissance style. Grand. Elegant. Impressive. Marble busts of eminent family members stood gravitating in front of the ‘Baytakhana’. Sourindro Mohun Tagore’s Italian connection is waiting to be explored by his family member, scholar and maestro – Pramantha Tagore. Looking at the marble floors, statues, and verses, I was sure of the use of Italian marble like many others in Bengal (West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh). They true testament to wealthiest Bengali families in India who could afford marble and Italian art forging a strong connection with Italy and Bengal.
Celebration of Bengal Italian Cultural Connection:
The evening started with a welcoming speech by the Italian Consul General in Kolkata, CG Gianluca Rubagotti, and the Pathuriaghata Tagore Family. We also celebrated the works of Marco Moneta, whom I met at my hotel in Jaipur for Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Florence University. He authored a book on Niccolao Manucci, titled “A Venetian at the Mughal court – the life and adventures of Niccolao Manucci.” A fascinating journey of an Italian in India. As Aparajita says, “In 2006, Marco Moneta authored a volume on the great Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi. Over the last decade, his interests and research have been aimed at the encounter between Europeans and Indians in the early modern age.”
The most important part of the evening was to explore the artists who worked and lived in Kolkata and were connected to the nineteenth-century Bengal Renaissance. Isabella Nardi spoke about the various Italian artists in Kolkata, from 1888 to 1905. During the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th century, several Italian artists played important roles in Kolkata’s artistic landscape. One notable Italian artist was Lorenzo-Terres, who served as the Vice Principal of the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata from 1888 to 1905. He contributed significantly to the development of art education in the city and had a lasting impact on the artistic community during that era. Additionally, artists like Giulio Rosso and Charles Palermo were also active in Kolkata during this period, contributing to the cultural exchange between Italy and Bengal. Their work and influence were instrumental in shaping the artistic environment of the time.
As the evening got more interesting, a sarod and table recital in the Tagore Palace inner Courtyard with ceiling-high pillars and marble statues enriched my incredible cultural experience. It was just the beginning to explore a fabulous Bengal Italian connection that had not been talked about in our history books or in public.
With the advent of the East India Company, Kolkata was the center of Opera Culture too. With the newly accrued wealth in the subcontinent, Bengal once again brought Italian opera singers to the city that influenced the native cultural scene and later on Australian society too. I am sure, there are definitely opportunities for collaboration in the opera world among Australia, Italy, and India but it is also time to ponder how we can celebrate the connection between Pathuriaghata Family and Bengal through musical instruments, art and culture. At the end of the evening, I felt proud of our richest province in the world as not only financially rich but culturally rich too.