Streetwise Kolkata: Sovabazar, a neighbourhood that played a pivotal role in letting the British conquer India

One of the earliest corruptions of the neighbourhood’s names include ‘Subahbazar’, that according to historian P. Thankappan Nair, is derived from the term ‘bazaar of the Subah’ or ‘bazaar of the governor’, long before the Sovabazar Rajbari family came to be associated with the area.

The neighbourhood of Sovabazar in north Kolkata, or more specifically, the rajbari (palace) that takes its informal name after the area that it is located in, is usually advertised as one of the top ten places for tourists to visit in the city, especially during the Autumn festival of Durga Puja. The advertisements aren’t exactly misleading. After all, it was the Sovabazar Rajbari family that gave the city of Kolkata its first opulent, large-scale celebrations of the festival of Durga Puja, that has become synonymous with the city, and in many ways, with the festival itself.

It isn’t exactly clear when Sovabazar got its name, but historical records show that the neighbourhood is clearly older than the zamindari of the Sovabazar family that eventually settled there and later built their rajbari. There are also varying accounts of how Sovabazar got its name.

One of the earliest corruptions of the neighbourhood’s names include ‘Subahbazar’, that according to historian P. Thankappan Nair, is derived from the term ‘bazaar of the Subah’ or ‘bazaar of the governor’, long before the Sovabazar Rajbari family came to be associated with the area.

According to another account, the story of Sovabazar starts when the city of Calcutta had not yet formed and the villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur that were eventually combined by Job Charnock to form the city, were still separate entities. The story goes that a family of wealthy traders in Bengal, the Basaks, traveled from their ancestral village in the nearby Saptagram, and settled in the village of Sutanuti. The good fortune of the Basaks followed them to their new home, where the family cleared forest land in the village to build a house.

British East India Company employee Job Charnock had formally established the city of Calcutta in 1690 and by 1757, the Basak family became wealthy enough to make them among the richest in the city. Due to the wealth and prominence of the Basak family, it is believed that the neighbourhood of Sovabazar, also called Shobhabazar, came to acquire its name after the family patriarch, Shobharam Basak.

According to Nair, the Sovabazar Rajbari family headed by Nabakrishna Deb, only came to be associated with the neighbourhood after they found themselves displaced in 1758 in their original village of Gobindapur that was being cleared to accommodate the sprawling grounds of Fort William. The Fort William Council gave the Deb family financial compensation with which they purchased land in the neighbourhood of Pataldanga. It is not known how long the family stayed in Pataldanga, but when Nabakrishna Deb became the head of the family, they eventually moved to Sovabazar because land could be purchased at relatively low prices.

Bloggers and tour guides often claim that Sovabazar got its name because Nabakrishna would hold meetings (sabha), especially caste meetings, but Nair says that there is little evidence for such claims. For a long time, the neighbourhood at large belonged to the East India Company government because they continued the practise of giving farming licenses for patches of land to Indians, on which they would collect tax. The book, ‘An Historical Account of the Calcutta Collectorate, Collector’s Cutcherry Or Calcutta Pottah Office, from the Days of the Zemindars to the Present Time’ by Reginald Craufuird Sterndale, republished in 1958, has a comprehensive list of farming licenses that had been given by British and the entry on 1st May, 1768, for Sovabazar reads: “The farming license for Soban bazar’s Towbazary for Rs. 275 per annum.” There is no mention of whom the license for Sovabazar was given to or what the term ‘Towbazary’ means.

Built in sections over at least seven decades, the construction of the Sovabazar Rajbari started in the mid-1750s and was completed sometime during the 1830s. Built in the Moorish and Colonial architectural styles, the building is widely lauded as a site of cultural and historical importance in India today. But the Rajbari at Sovabazar was essentially built by an individual, who sold himself to the East India Company for the wealth he could acquire by cozying up to the British. Nabakrishna Deb had lost his father early in life and his mother ensured that her son learnt multiple languages, including Arabic and English to further his prospects. As an adult, Nabakrishna began to ingratiate himself with British officials, similar to others belonging to the merchant class in India, and began serving as an intermediary for the company. But his collaboration with the British did not stop there.

Less well-known is the instrumental role that Nabakrishna played in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that lay the foundations of British rule in India that lasted for at least two centuries. In his book ‘The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational’, author Nick Robins writes that for almost half a century, Nabakrishna actively colluded with the British, to further the East India Company’s ambitions in the Indian subcontinent. While the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah was defending his kingdom, including the city of Calcutta, from British invasion, his commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar, conspired with the British, having been enticed by them with the prospect of being made the new nawab after deposing Siraj-ud-Daulah. In the background, particularly in the run up to the Battle of Plassey, Nabakrishna was helping the British, under the leadership of Company employee Robert Clive, to plot against the Nawab of Bengal. After the fall of the kingdom, Nabakrishna assisted the British to loot the coffers of the fallen Nawab, of “Rs. 80 million in gold, silver and jewels,” writes Robins.

The friendship between Clive and Nabakrishna was deeper than most people are aware. To celebrate their win after the Battle of Plassey, Nabakrishna offered the use of his own home in Sovabazar to Clive and as legend goes, organized the first “barir pujo” for the festival of Durga Puja, where he invited Clive to pay respects and offerings at the feet of the deity. The religious festival acquired a new shape and form, and specifically in the barir pujo organised by Nabakrishna, faith took a backseat in his attempts to impress his British guests. Along with food and drink, Nabakrishna hired “nautch girls” to entertain his guests in the premises of his Sovabazar home, while the rituals of the festival were ongoing.

A wing of the Sovabazar Rajbari directly opposite to the thakurdalan, where the idol of the goddess is kept, is where the performances by the nautch girls used to occur. Today, this wing lies in a relatively dilapidated condition, with none of its former glory, and is open to the elements, presumably after the roof caved in and was not repaired. A door, now sealed shut, on side one of the wing was used by the women for entry and exit, separated from the residential quarters of the family.Such was the reception and success of the barir pujo, that Nabakishna inspired others in the wealthy merchant class to start similar traditions of celebrating Durga Puja in their own homes, some without the dancing women. Thus, a European, specifically a British individual, accepting an invitation, the more in number the better, to a barir pujo became a symbol of status, wealth and connections with the Company.

Such was Clive’s appreciation for Nabakrishna’s contributions to the Company’s occupation of India that he awarded him the title of “Raja Bahadur” and later that of ‘Maharaja’ and a salary of Rs 2,000 for his services to the Company. Robins writes of Nabkrishna receiving his new title: “Returning home from the ceremony, Nabakrishna rode on an elephant, scattering money on the streets.”

Nabakrishna’s good relations with the East India Company continued for the next two decades, after the departure of Clive from India. Warren Hastings arrived and took up the post of Governor-General of India in 1774 and took off from where Clive left, making Nabakrishna a talukdar of the area of Sutanuti, a neighbourhood that had developed on prime real-estate and was dotted with large mansions of the wealthy merchant class of Calcutta. Towards the end of Hastings’ rule in India, this relation soured however, particularly after Hastings started getting engaged in large-scale corruption that was later discovered by the Company and the British Parliament, and included the possibility of Nabakrishna’s own actions and income being investigated.

In 1897, after Swami Vivekananda returned from Chicago, his first civic reception was held on the grounds of the Sovabazar Rajbari and a framed photograph of the event hangs in the premises of the rajbari today.

Durga Puja is still celebrated in the Sovabazar Rajbari today, albeit with diminished pomp and circumstance. A large, red brick mansion with wooden slatted windows painted green, on the opposite side of the street called Chotto Rajbari or “Small Rajbari” belongs to the descendants of Nabakrishna’s biological son, Rajkrishna, and here too a barir pujo continues to be organized every year. While both are heritage properties in the city today, the original Sovabazar Rajbari belongs to the descendants of Gopi Mohan Deb, Nabakrishna’s elder brother who had given his son to his younger sibling for adoption.

The original Sovabazar Rajbari, despite its heritage status, is a shadow of its former self. The descendants of the Sovabazar Rajbari family have capitalized on the heritage value and the reputation of the property, making the celebrations during the festival of Durga Puja a must-see for visitors. City residents, along with tourists, photograpgrapher and bloggers, make an annual pilgrimage to the rajbari during the days of the festival and the city government has consistently done its own bit in promoting the site in its tourism campaigns. The family also has a website with brief details of their own history and that of the heritage building, but nowhere is there any mention of the role that their ancestor played in handing over the nation to the British. History has been conveniently wiped out from collective memory.

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