Calcutta IV: Tagore, Jones and Shaheed Smarak

Calcutta’s Shaheed Smarak was its tallest edifice for a formidable period of time. Some of the early photographs of the city were taken from this tower’s crown. Situated at the vast grounds of Moidan (which itself means ‘ground’), the tower overlooks a very important part of the city, which continues to be its core. Original name of the tower was Ochterlony Monument, named after David Ochterlony. Ochterlony was a general in the army. The monument was erected in memory of his leading the East India Company to a face-saving treaty against the Gurkhas. The British were outmaneuvered by the Gurkhas in their earlier attempts on the hill kingdom. The English learnt the hard way that the Gurkhas were no easy meat like the Nabab’s wet cannons at Plassey. What was at stake, was the illusion of English invincibility in the eyes of Indians. If the illusion went, with it would go the Empire. Under Ochterlony, there was a face-off leading to a treaty that allowed a face-saving exit to the English. However a monument in his name at Moidan would be a constant humiliation for us. The renaming saves that, and so also a heritage. Ochterlony was also a lover of India, and British resident (ambassador) at the Delhi court. He lived like an Indian prince and unlike other English officers who indulged in pleasures of Indian life, Ochterlony did not get up one day and boarded ship for England, abandoning Indian wives and children. He lived with his family, found suitable matches for his Anglo-Indian daughters. He has been romanticized in William Dalrymple’s several books.

We moved on to see Sir William Jones’s tomb at the Park Street Cemetry. Jones was the pioneer in Asiatic studies. Read Indian studies, or more specifically, read this as uncovering of Hindu heritage. From deciphering of ancient Hindu texts, to digging history, he did it all. He laid foundation to a systematic study of our heritage. John Prinsep (of Princep Ghat fame) completed his one major incomplete work many years later – decoding the remaining syllables of the lost script of Brahmi. The tomb seemed the tallest at the cemetery and certainly, was the only one that seemed cared for – and not without reason.

We visited several other edifices of heritage, such as the grand post office headquarters (GPO), St Stephen's Church in Alipore, St Andrew's Cathedral, Town Hall, High Court and the dilapidated ‘Currency Office’.

Jarasanko was the ancestral Tagore residence in Kolkata. Much smaller originally than its current size, the building kept growing as members grew. Each member of the family left a legacy of his own. The building now houses a university. You could take a guided tour of the building and see most of its parts, complete with display of things used by the Tagore family. The soft Tagore music floating around was magical, to a point that I considered it an illusion. The most striking thing you’d learn is the Japanese influence on the family. By the 19th century, Japan was adopting western technology and management styles (including for military), to add to Japan’s traditional techniques and technology. This propelled Japan very fast towards an industrial and military power status that few western nations had achieved. Tagore mansion is full of Japanese gowns, cutlery etc. It also displays pictures of masters of Japanese martial arts. The martial arts were taught to the Tagore family by Japanese masters brought to Calcutta. Tagore stood for the idea itself, as articulated by Amartya Sen so well in his essay on Tagore. Tagore disagreed with the idea of boycotting English ideas and things. He maintained that it is only through adapting better ideas and technology, irrespective of where it comes from, that we can become a formidable social and military power one day. India’s progress of the last 18-years, since economic liberalization, is probably a proof of this idea.


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