Memories of my Sareeholic mother : Smt. Chhaya Sengupta

By Amitabha Sengupta

In Indian state of West Bengal, women wear saree to look elegant and classy. I feel, a painting by Frank Owen Salisbury named The Sen Sisters or three Bengali sisters who posed 176 years ago for a British Raj era Bourne & Shepherd photographic studio in Kolkata or painting of Lady Ranu Mukerjee( wife of industrialist Sir Biren Mukherjee) in saree, highlights sophisticated Indian females, better than, the two Indian half-sisters in the popular Netflix series ‘Bridgerton'(set in 19th century England). And also repeated requested from my friend Mr.Indranil Bengal Halder (whose Australian wife loves wearing sarees in Sydney), got myself interested to explore my mother’s sarees. Collectively they tell a wonderful story.

Everyone in my family knew that Smt. Chhaya Sengupta, my mother was a Sareeholic and master of handloom textiles. She loved buying sarees with all the liberty. And with time her saree collection became an unique treasure trove of Indian heritage textile.

In 1941, born in an aristocratic and Illustrious families of Bengal. She was a princess born with a silver spoon. My great grandfather always treated her as a boy and called her “Dadu” (grandson in Begali) instead of treating her as a granddaughter. I heard, once two of my great granfather’s close friends, Late.Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (first Chief Minister of West Bengal, India) and Sri. Huseyn Shaheed Shurawady( an eminent Bengali Barrister and later a political giant had come to our Kolkata home. As they were having tea in our sprawling courtyard, they noticed my mother, who was a five year old little girl, sitting high up on the walls with a banana in one hand and a book in the other. Both ask her “Tomar Naam Ki?” (What’s ur name?). And the child without any hesitation replied “Ami Jambubaan …Hanumaan-r Bon” (“I’m Jambubaan-the sister of Hanuman-The Monkey God). “Jambu” remained her nick name and identity.

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When she was in her eighth standards a rare neurological disease became the reason to lose vision in her right eye completely. It didn’t stop her from completing her studies. She dreamt one day to visit Edinburgh University, United Kingdom to study Medicines. She went to The Gokhley Memorial Girl’s High School and entered the prestigious Women’s Christian College, Kolkata for Graduation with Honors in Economics. Studied French, Urdu and Pharsi too. Completed her Master’s Degree from Calcutta University. Started teaching at Alipore Multipurpose Government Girl’s School as an Assistant Teacher of Economics and English which she attended in her Bengal cotton sarees. With her education, qualifications and job experience, she was a Bengali bride in waiting.

One day, my grandfather- The Kumar of Kharodia Estate (presently in Bangladesh) came to my maternal house with his extended family to enjoy tea with tasty home cooked Indian snacks served in fine China. And it was then my paternal grandmother said to my mother, ” We are not here to force you for wedding, since you are not a kid, but only if u feel that you wish to come to be a part of our family then you won’t have to say it a loud but you would prepare the tea for all of us.” My mother who was draped beautifully in a Murshidabad silk saree, prepared tea for my grandmother Maharani Sahiba of Kharodia Estate. Mum was petrified. Even with all her high degrees, she felt trapped by a tigeress. For the first time, mum trembled as she prepared the tea and carefully poured it into the cups without spilling in her saree. And she passed perhaps the most difficult exam in her whole life with flying colours.

Wedding bells started ringing loud and clear. My maternal grandmother started the preparations for the wedding in full swing. My Mum had Navratna jewellery (Indian tradition of nine precious gemstones : Ruby, Diamond, Blue Sapphire, Yellow Sapphire, Emerald, Red Coral, Pearl, Cat’s eye and Hessonite in gold) jewellery set that included a necklace, earrings, chuurs( armlets) with 4 strands of Pearls and Sita Haar( Bengali traditional necklace) with Navratna Pendant. She chose her wedding Banarasi saree which would match that Navratna fine jewelleries. She was not fond of sarees with red or any shades of red. Rather blue was her favourite. She went to a Kolkata saree shop called M/S S Lalchand &Company in New Market ( British Raj era shopping centre)with her family to purchase her favourite wedding saree. She picked up a stunning peacock blue Banarsi saree with Gold work and Turquoise meenakari.

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While for Boubhat (Reception on the Groom’s side where the Bride is supposed to serve rice with Ghee to her in laws) mum was given a golden yellow Banarsi saree stitched with silver from a shop in the 800 year old heritage city of Varanasi. She paired the saree with pink rubies and diamond studded heavy gold Karhas or Balas or Indian traditional bangles. She faced criticisms from her in-laws for her choice of wedding saree colour which was not auspicious red.

After marrying my father Sri.Asit Kumar Sengupta, mum would accompany dad to saree shops, as he could make out that sarees were one of her weakness. He often took her to one of her favorite saree shops, M/S K Bhojraj (Triangular Park, Kolkata). On their 1st wedding anniversary, dad bought her silk Chanderi Saree with black border and golden dots. Dad who visited Indian city of Hyderabad for work, would bring Gadwal Sarees for mum from the famous Gadwal House located in Koti area at the heart of Hyderabad. Some years later, when I was born my Grandmother also gifted a traditional Gadwal saree from Hyderabad to my Mom for her baby shower. The Gadwal saree was cream with purple bordered with Golden Zari in the pallu( the loose end of a sari). Dad too had a great sense of colours from picking the best Sarees for mum.

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In her 40s, mum’s life took a giant professional leap. Appeared for the West Bengal Education Services Examinations. Became, the first lady who bagged the 1st Rank.She joined as the Principal of Government Girl’s School,Purulia (a district of West Bengal) and stayed there for almost ten years. During her time in Purulia, she remained true to herself as sareeholic and visit communities where fine Tussar silk fabric and sarees were weaved. She would visit the adjacent Bankura district too, only to fall in love with handloom made famous Baluchari sarees. Her collection of sarees grew and it included lovely pure Tanchoi Banarai saree, a rare combination of cheese cream and gold.

When she became principal of Bethune College, Kolkata, (Asia’s first women’s college and Women’s Formal Educational Institution in India, established by Masters of Bengal Renaissances like Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rammohan Roy, Sir.John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune and many other luminaries), she wore amazing Bengal handloom woven silk or cotton sarees with pearls, diamonds and emeralds and spent most of her time championing for women’s education in India. On 5th of September,2012, mum was awarded with a prestigious state award by the Honourable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Smt.Mamata Banerjee for her enormous contributions in the field of Women’s Education. It makes me happy as I wondered how a Bengali girl child with partially vision rose to the highest level of honours and kept celebrating each and every memorable moment of her life with collection of stylish Indian sarees. She was a true blue sareeholic and we love her and her celebration of Indian sarees.