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Authors: Kamalini Sengupta

Rajmahal

BOOK: Rajmahal
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Table of Contents
 
 
 
 
One
1
The Rajmahal
THE RAJMAHAL ROSE IN 1910, NEW, CREAMY WHITE AND CRYSTALLINE ON a prime site on Chowringhee. The clear green of the Maidan opposite and the Palladian mansions juxtaposing it served as its setting.
Chowringhee metamorphoses from residential Tollygunge and Alipur at the southern end and breaks into noisy thoroughfares of commerce further north. Across the
maidan
and out of sight runs the Hooghly, passing first under the partly visible Howrah bridge, and then under the newer bridge, Vivekananda Setu. Today it seems astonishing that the northern end of town, the commercial sector and river front, with what was then a pontoon bridge, was the fashionable hub of early British Calcutta, the lawns of the sahibs' mansions sloping down to the water's edge. But Lal Dighi, the Dalhousie Square tank, was the chief source of water and it was natural that the small British population chose to live near it. The quarter must have been exclusive to the sahibs, with the exception of the scores of local retainers and tradesmen needed to make life tolerable for them as indicated by contemporary accounts and pictures. It would have been quiet, with spaced out buildings and sparse traffic, though there would have been frequent flurries when crowds of
bhistees
carried dripping waterskins from the tank to the mansion of a sahib, or palanquin bearers resting under the shade of a tree rose up with cries and commotion to take up their tasks. As for the
maidan
, it had been a marshy jungle infested with crocodile, snake, and tiger. When the British swanned about uneasily thus, it is said Warren Hastings went out on elephant back to hunt tiger in the vicinity of the Rajmahal. But things changed as the city expanded and only a few residential buildings, including the Government House, continue to exist in the old quarter of the city. The prime locations have, for the major part of Calcutta's history, encroached on the marshes and jungles,
shifting further south, over and beyond the Rajmahal. The area around the Dalhousie Square tank has been left to crowd in upon itself and foster the great commercial houses and exchanges, fanning out toward the congested old “ black quarter,” while the river front, apart from the burning ground at Neemtolla, has turned into a series of ghats for light craft and, further up in Khiddirpur, for major shipping, most of it ineligible for genteel residential purposes.
The clamor of that part of town was partly buffered by distance from the Rajmahal and reduced to a quiet roar on the
maidan
where Victoria Memorial and the gothic spires of St Paul's Cathedral stood serenely amidst trees, watercourses, and green. But the residents had to contend with the noisy Chowringhee traffic, and they often retreated inside to hear themselves think.
The Rajmahal, which was upset at losing its pristine quality after its sale and transformation into a block of apartments, had a history replete with the tales of ghosts. It had four floors connected by a vast, soaring stairway, and the heavy wrought iron balustrades trailed down with festoons of dusty sunlight and pigeon droppings. The iron beams which held up the roof formed convenient roosts for the pigeons and there was a constant bustle, sometimes music, raised voices, a dog's bark, mingling with the pigeon coos and hinting at the life inside the apartments. The lobby, at the foot of the stairs, had a graciously proportioned black and white marble flagged floor, barely visible and seductive from the top floor. Within two curved embrasures, naked marble women tilted urns toward basins once awash with water, and a green light filtered through the fan-palms ranged behind them. The stairway landings between each floor were brightened by strips of light filtering through jalousies, glass panes, and pillars holding up high windows. In all this great space, the stairs took up only the central area. On either distant side were interior verandas, looking out at each other between narrow pillars with the stairs sweeping by in between.
The servants' quarters were tucked away on top of the roof, cordoned off from the skylights by a high wall. So they were well out of sight, and their access to the apartments was by spiraling iron stairways forming two delicate, lacy traceries at the back of the mansion and leading to the kitchens on each floor.
The Rajmahal got its name from the first owner, Raja Sheetanath. When Sardar Bahadur Ohri bought the property, razed the old building,
and built this four-floor beauty, the name stuck, and the new Rajmahal inherited the soul of its predecessor.
Sardar Bahadur Ohri was given his title by the British for his dynamic building activities and his lack of disloyalty to the crown. At the end of his long life, he realized the Rajmahal would soon become an anachronism as a single unit, so he arranged for its sale to a Bengali Muslim family, the Malliks. The Ohris retained the ground floor, and the new landlord rented out the four intermediate apartments while he and his family chose to occupy the top floor, in spite of the loss of grace after the change of the stairs from marble to wood, and the proximity of the smelly pigeons.
The original Rajmahal, a Palladian garden house, had fallen to rack and ruin when Raja Sheetanath had retired to the dung beetles and rambling grounds of his estates in Purulia to administer them first hand and introduce reform to his peasant-tenants. He believed the British would never leave unless the people of India, each and every one of them, were made aware through education of their birthright and a revived Hindu pride.
“How can I possibly accept that we Indians are part of a degraded and barbarous society? Am I, as an Indian, to assume I am incapable of appreciating the finer elements of civilization? It's time we woke up!” he would exhort. When the Ohris bought over the site, therefore, they found the furniture, paintings, and artifacts decaying in the rundown old Rajmahal, for Raja Sheetanath found these too glaringly foreign. “I vow to wholeheartedly embrace
swadeshi
, our own heritage!” he declaimed. “And all such alien objects I abjure!”
When the new Rajmahal was built by the Sardar Bahadur, he was already sixty, successful and rich after fulfilling his many contracts in the developing cities of the country. His wife, Inderjeet Kaur, was deeply upset at having to move so far away from Punjab.
“Will he ever ask my opinion?” she complained to her confidante and maid Heera. “How does he think I can live in the midst of all those Bengalis? He could have improved our haveli right here in Saidabad instead, God knows how much it is needed! Or built something in Amritsar.”
The Sardar Bahadur dismissed her by saying, “The sight of the house will make you change your mind at once! And Calcutta is the capital of India, after all!” A year later, when a royal proclamation said the capital was to move to Delhi, he kept away from his wife for some days. His chagrin showed only to his sons.
“It was a terrible error of judgment on my part! How easily I could have built a house in Delhi!” he said.
“It's all right,
Bhapaji
,” was the complacent reply. “There is nothing to stop you from building another house in Delhi or any other place of your choice!” “But,” they may have added, “the Rajmahal is so perfect and Calcutta is so much fun, that we, in any case, are staying put!”
The Sardar Bahadur couldn't tear himself away either. He didn't lose time, though, in bagging some of the prime contracts for the shift of the capital to Delhi.
Raja Sheetanath's family heirlooms graced the new Ohri household. Tables with gilt legs, stuffed sofas and chairs, hunting scenes in over-varnished oil paintings, marble busts, gilt-framed mirrors and velvet drapery cascading from elaborate pelmets, Persian carpets, old armor, tiered cabinets full of Staffordshire china, venetian glass, Chinese vases, candelabras . . . from the stuccoed ceilings of the reception and banquet rooms hung chandeliers and fans.
The first floor, the favorite area of the Rajmahal itself, was the Sardar Bahadur's bachelor's retreat which included a conservatory, a
Guru Granth Sahib
room and a splendid mirrored bedroom. The main bedroom on the second floor, which Sardar Bahadur Ohri occupied with his faithful Inderjeet Kaur, was elevated and separated by a floor from this retreat. He shared the conservatory floor with his visitors and current mistress, of whom he had a succession of three throughout his years in the Rajmahal, apart from short-term fancy girls. They came up to this floor by the outer veranda stairway, and it was tacit they would never use the main lobby. This was so the two uppermost floors, the third and fourth, could be kept secluded for the women and members of the intimate family whose importance receded as they ascended. In this, the Sardar Bahadur was carrying on the ancient tradition of courtesans being allowed access to the master's chambers, while the honored wife was confined to the inner sanctum. It also echoed a tradition among some of the earlier British whose local keeps, while the wives stayed back in Britain, lived in private apartments in the very same building to which they retired coyly at dawn. The conservatory was partly south facing, looking out on to the
maidan
. It had plants of every exotic variety and its windows were lined with flounced silk curtains, which turned yellow and brittle in the sun and came off in flakes. Cane chairs and tables lay scattered on the floor, while a bar was cunningly camouflaged behind a bottle palm. The rest of
the rooms were less elaborately, though expensively, furnished. After the sale, when the ground floor was all that remained with the Ohris, it was carefully altered and refurnished with the best of these treasures before the rest were scattered to other Ohri establishments countrywide.
Though the Sardar Bahadur identified happily with Bengal and Bengalis, he had never thought of shaving his beard or cutting his hair. And it was natural his origins called as he lay dying.
“I must see the Golden Temple one last time,” he told his doting family. “See that it is arranged for me to move to Amritsar.”
BOOK: Rajmahal
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