My friends Hirak and Indrani Ghosh are the content, laid back kind of people most people can relax with. I love their company. I got to know them in Geneva where Hirak Ghosh of the West Bengal cadre of the Indian Administrative Service was doing a stint at the International Labour Organization and my husband,Debashish, was first secretary at the Indian Mission to the United Nations. We discovered we had things in common. Then, and this just crossed my mind, Hirak da, Indrani, Debashish and self got invited to a highly exclusive dinner at the Geneva home of one Mr Tanmoy Ghosh(pronounced Gosh)–a pucca sahib if ever there was one ! We knew for a fact that NO ONE, at least at that time, ever got invited to Mr Ghosh’s home- leave alone at a sit down dinner ! We were the anointed ones! And that was yet another thing we found in common !
This time in Calcutta, Indrani arranged for my sister and I to visit her mama r baari–her maternal uncle’s house- on Beadon Street, North Calcutta. It is now lived in by her uncle’s daughter Sita Roychaudhuri and her two children. Sita’s husband, Shyamol Roychaudhuri works in Bangalore and visits from time to time.
Many such homes have facades that look unassuming and surprisingly small. They are built inwards and are actually very large .
Adjacent is a large plot with a multi-storied building-you can see a bit of it in the picture. In its place had once stood the main house, an enormous one, built by Sita and Indrani’s great grand father, Kali Prosonno Ghose. The plot of land on which it stood was huge and included many gardens and a large natural pond. Sita’s house built in 1936 by Kali Prosonno’s son, Shib Prosonno, stands on what was the play ground and stables of the original house.
The story of the rise and rise of Kali Prosonno Ghose is an interesting one. From a humble background in Jessore, today’s Bangladesh, Kali Prosonno came to Calcutta to find a job. He was 12 years old then. Chance brought him in contact with the wealthy family of Raj Krishna Mitra. Infant mortality at that time was high and children born to Raj Krishna’s wife used to die soon after birth. To ward off evil that caused the Mitra children to die, Raj Krishna’s astrologer arranged for their 6 month old daughter, Aparna Devi, to marry Kali Prosonno, who ,they believed, destiny brought to their doorstep! What sealed the match was Kali Prosonno’s ‘caste'(the ‘caste’ system existed then, as, I find, especially near Indian elections time, it does now). He was a ‘Kulin Kayastha’-a high class Kayastha ! The marriage took place and the young groom started to live in the comfort of the home of his wealthy in-laws. He carried on living in luxury for some years and bore the occasional insult at being a ‘ghar jamai’ till he decided he had to do something for himself.
He slowly established a lucrative business supplying the much sought after indigo to the British, then became partner in a ‘Wilkin Brothers’ trading company, making so much money that he could become financier of The Mercantile Bank. He acquired, it is said, about 120 houses all over Calcutta, including many acres of Tipu Sultan’s land in Tollygunj. The house he lived in was, of course, the one on Beadon Street that now does not exist. No,as I said in my previous posts, I cannot imagine a Bengali of today even dreaming of such business sense !
I missed taking a picture of Kali Prosonno’s portrait. So Rajarshi, his great great grandson, took one and sent it to me- it has darkened with age and, where it hangs on the staircase, was difficult to get a proper photograph of.
The man worthy of admiration-
Sita’s house was built in 1934 by Kali Prosonno’s son Shib Prosonno, who also continued his father’s business of being financier. It was inherited by Sita’s father, Anadi Prosonno and now, by Sita.
And here we were – about to see a house which was, through the sons, associated with the enterprising Kali Ghose and his indigo and trading businesses of long ago. Entering through a side door, into a lobby with a magnificent teak wood staircase-
On the left of the image is a beautifully crafted, projected pelmet on top of a glazed door to the drawing room, and in the middle of the landing a stately clock bought to fit the space it inhabits. A closer look at the pelmet-
The frosted glass on the doors has SPG, the initials of Sita’s grandfather’s name, etched in.
In the corners where the staircase turns are two windows of coloured glass which let light stream in- one of the windows-
Through the landing, a door opens into the now main area of the house-a long verandah ahead with rooms opening off it and to the left a passage leading to the drawing room.
The verandah with rooms on one side and on the other looking out and down onto a courtyard. The covers cast a soothing blue light to the verandah and its beautiful floors in marble which had been imported from Italy-
The passage on the left with the drawing room-
Two gilt edged mirrors from Belgium decorate a wall-the mirrors completely unstained and bright as though they were brand new- here is one-
Brass items cleaned with tamarind and salt,such as these are,tend to glow in a matted gold rather than a very shiny gold that something like ‘Brasso’polish tends to impart.
The opposite wall is lined with shuttered windows, letting in lots of light and air-
Marble statues carved by Italian artists are dotted around the house-they fit in perfectly- and, I found, grace many Bengali homes of that period. A large collection of statues and other decorative objects existed in the main house. These have, no doubt, found their way to antique dealers’and collectors’ stocks.
A view of the drawing room with its Belgian glass chandelier-and the mandatory takhta/takht- a flat bed that Indians use to sit/lie upon- always in drawing rooms-
Also in the picture is Hirak Ghosh and two plates of heavenly Bengali mishti. Just before going to Sita’s house Hirak da had given us a sumptuous lunch at the pucca English style Calcutta Club. We nearly wept in frustration at not being able to manage more than one sweet each! So Sita graciously packed them for us to eat later!
An occasional table with the top made of English tiles- unusual and so beautiful-
Anadi Prosonno’s lovely daughter, Sita Roychaudhuri, her son, Rajarshi and daughter, Reeni-
Like Sati Gupto (see my post on the Gooptu house by clicking here), Sita, too returned to her father’s house. In Sita’s case she made the move just after her father’s death so she, an only child, could look after her ailing mother and the house.
On one side of the verandah was a spiral staircase–which in the late 19th and early 20th century took Calcutta and India by storm. Smart business people in Britain discovered that they could have these iron stairs manufactured in England in sections and ship them to India to be assembled and installed. Most self respecting houses of that time had one of these-
A view of the calm and soothing Pujo ghar with its black and white marble floors-
A few everyday objects of immense beauty used for puja, adorned with fresh flower offerings-
Traditional objects such as these and traditional style decorations as in the picture above can never go wrong–they are pure, unconfused and uncontrived.
Exactly like these gracious old homes.
Sita’s mother passed away. She and her children, with full support from her husband, live on in 75 Beadon Street.
Antique dealers periodically come knocking at her door asking if she would like to part with anything and everything in the house. Strangers religiously come looking to rent parts of the house for assorted businesses. She steadfastly turns them out. She cares for her home, nurtures it and protects it- just as she does her children.
It is, after all, her legacy, she says.
Thank you Sita for letting me share this house and thank you, Hirak da and Indrani for making this and many other things possible !
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