At Home With the Bonedis on Mahasaptami Pujo
On the Saptami Day of the Durga Puja this year, i.e 2022, Madhusree bought two tickets for herself and me to take a walk into North Calcutta Bonedi Pujos. Bonedi, a Bengali term derived out of buniyadi, or one of establishment in the land, refers to families who have been rich over generations and hence translated their wealth into a substantial cultural capital to uphold the culture and convert these products into the tradition and heritage of the land they belong to. Thus, we visited a few homes such as the above mentioned. The homes were those of Badan Ray (Pal), Motilal Seal, should be written as Mutty Lull Seal, Bipin Bihari Banerjee, and Beni Madhab Banerjee, Purna Chandra Dhar, Madan Mohan Dhar, Radhanath Mallik and Charu Mallik. Among these, there was only one barowari, or a community pandal puja that celebrated the Akala Bodhon, a variation in the theme of the Durga Puja. These pujos are more than 150 years old, all of them seem to be post the Mutiny of 1857, especially 1860 when India passed securely under the Crown. These were cultural assertions of a new elite with their newfound prosperity under the new regime, having faced many vagaries of fortunes for four centuries of political turmoil in Bengal. Bengal’s prosperity ended with the end of the Hussain Shahi dynasty when Akbar attacked Bengal, led by Man Singh. Though the agrarian production increased, land under cultivation expanded, revenues and commerce grew, yet the constant political harassment of the wealthy by the Mughal militia and revenue officers remained a botheration. Akbar’s favour of the Portuguese, with who the Indian seamen often clashed in the waters did not do better. The East India Company was capricious too and it was not until the passing of the government under the Crown that the Bengalis felt safe again in terms of life and property. The Durga Puja was a celebration of safety and territorial security.
Each of the families mentioned above has a distinct origin history, which when viewed together also becomes a lively history of Bengal. The Badan Ray family immigrated from Rajasthan in about the 14th century into Benaras from where they came to Bengal in the 1600, carrying with them their trade of gold, craft of gems and stocks of silk textiles. The expanding bureaucracy and artisanship, the proliferation of trade and money through trade on the Bengal frontier in the 1600’s made this family well settled. Later they came to Calcutta, made a home in the premises of what in present times is the Calcutta Medical College and when the British acquired the land, they bought the ready-made house in the premises we visited. The plan of the earlier house was different, in the sense that it did not have a mandap, now with the new home with a distinct space for the Divine, the Pals celebrated the Durga Puja with aplomb. The courtyard also had a pond! In 1946, the idol was ransacked by Muslims in the riots, and they could not celebrate the Pujo, but since 1947, they resurrected the celebrations in new vigour. Hence, they are celebrating the 75th year of Indian Independence with fanfare.
I was particularly keen to visit Motilal Seal’s home since he was a contemporary of Raja Rammohun Roy, though closer in age to Dwarakanath Tagore, which makes him about twenty years younger to Rammohun. Despite being the “Fort William” gang and good friends with Radhakanta Deb, especially over the quest for universal primary education for both boys and girls, he supported anti Sati and widow remarriage. He must have started his Durga Puja not before 1815, at best in 1812, because that was when he came and settled in Kolkata. Motilal Seal is perhaps the biggest philanthropist known in recent Bengali history. His properties were spread all over the city and hence the home and its pujo looked simple and staid and modest compared to the wealth he possessed. Clearly this was the influence of Raja Rammohun Roy.
We visited the two Basu Mallik families; one which had the surname of Basu Mallik and the other simply Mallik. Mallik is a title of the Hussain Shahi regime, but they added Basu to their names, as per the guide to hide their identities from the Mughal revenue officers. This does not seem to be too probable an explanation; instead to my mind, the great caste reorganization of the 1860’s may have had something to do with this, as the Malliks today are overwhelmingly Baidyas, while the Basus are kayasthas.
The Basu Malliks were, as the guide tells us, shippers and it is interesting that their homes are overwhelmingly studded by cast iron pillars, grills, panels and laced with glass! The glass was sourced from Italy rather than Belgium, the Belgian glass being a luxury a century later. The cast iron pillars and panels appear to have been imported as well. The Bessmer process had just started in England around the 1850’s and though there were valiant efforts by the Mysore Maharaja, an American in Madras and a Parsi cum Ethiopian trader in Chittagong to set up an iron factory for mass production, these were not too successful. It was not until the 1930’s that Alamohan Das could finally stabilize the technology of castings. However, the Basu Malliks being shippers also explains their access to imported goods.
In the Surya Sen Street, Kabiraj Lane and the entire area of Radhanath Mallik Street, we see the profuse use of iron castings for pillars and grills. These homes may have belonged to those connected with overseas trade, which helped them with currency and resources to obtain the material, especially glass. The import and use of Italian glass may be explained by the fact that Italian seafarers and craftsmen who were frequently onboard the Company ships.
Purnendu Dhar was in the Company treasury, and this is pretty clear in his version of the Abhaya Durga, who has just two hands instead of the ten, rests herself on a pair of lions, is not killing any demons, comes with her children, with her guards, Jaya and Bijaya. The fact of Mr Dhar being in the treasury tells on his search for nonviolence and a more realistic image of Durga, he is already closer to religion less totemic.
Close on the heels of the Abhaya Durga is the Akalbodhon where, not the Mahisasur but Ram lies praying at the feet of the Goddess, about to blind himself in the eye because he failed in his promise to dedicate 108 blue lotuses to the Goddess. Since the Goddess hid one and counted only 107, Ram used his own eye as a substitute for the blue lotus. The four companions of Durga are Sugriv, Hanuman, Lakshman and Vibhisan, as this is the untimely call for her, and she could not have arrived with her children as she would have been she to be worshipped in spring, the original season of her homecoming. Autumn, despite being called the untimely and exceptional season of the Goddess, nonetheless is widely worshipped and the evidence whether she was ever worshipped in spring remains a big question.
The home of Benimadhab and Bipibihari, who worked in the Company’s judiciary services us very well explained by the fact that they have rectangular Corinthian pillars with Greek sculptures cast upon them in golden coats and plaster of Paris. All homes are rectangular with a courtyard in the middle, balconies overlooking the courtyard, cut off from the world at large except through the windows in the rooms. Even then these hardly overlook the street below. Interestingly, these are the families which have the most elaborate display of photos of ancestors on their walls, though some other families have these too though not so ostensibly.
The property of the Subarnabaniks, which is of Badan Ray is the best maintained, they started off being as rich as anyone else but somehow could maintain their riches through the generations. They had been the organizers of the Subarnabanik society in Calcutta and still maintain wide contacts within the extended family networks. Those who are keen to work from the angle of caste, would do well to study the role of the Subarnabanik caste in maintaining the family wealth and hence the cultural heritage of their ancestors. It is intriguing though why in 1946, despite the presence of so many bonedi homes, only that of the Subarnabaniks were attacked by Muslim rioters; it is possible that their wealth must have attracted contempt. There was a stair gallery in the sense photos were hung along the stairway; there were photos of Queen Victoria, the Queen Consort, Napoleon on a warship, British Parliament, the group photos of the Subarnabanik Associations in full swing and ofocurse of Benaras ghats and nooks along the Ganges, nostalgia of a home they once had and now they left.
Interestingly, a few of the footpath poster and calendar art shops were open; I gasped at the presence of European, and not even American music and sports icons in pictures. Tackily drawn and gawdily printed, it had the Beatles, Smiths, Rolling Stones, T Rex, Pink Floyd and then again images of Viven Leigh, Audrey Hepburn and then images of the English cars, such as the Rolls Royce. This was along the boundary wall of the Hindu Hostel. The streets of North Calcutta were spic and span, even when they could get really narrow, the paving perfect and the sewer and storm water system impeccable, all wires underground, and strangely, homes even when the most tragically dilapidated, were neat and looked organized.