Of the many eminent personalities and families that have taken the Bengali Community into the realm of international exposure, the Tagore family would be at the forefront. Personalities like kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore, the internationally renowned Nobel laureate poet and Abanindranath Tagore, the famous painter and child litterateur belonged to this influential family. With over three hundred years of illustrious history, this family has been widely considered to be leading force in the Bengal Renaissance. And like every community whose origin is deeply rooted in its history, culture and past, the Bengalis have been instrumentally active in preserving the intellectual heritage of the Tagore family since the last many years. But the efforts come with a catch- in preserving the legacy of the Tagore lineage, we have only considered the intellectual properties to be worthy of conservation. While the literary and artistic contributions of the family has been stored, preserved and widely worked upon, we as a responsible society have completely forgotten to pay any attention to the legible heritage that the Tagores have left behind- the heritage that is built, that stands the test of time, that can be walked upon, lived in, touched with bare hands and felt.
In preserving the legacy of the Tagore lineage, we have only considered the intellectual properties to be worthy of conservation.
It’s the buildings of the Tagore gharana that we are talking about here- the built heritage that people have so comfortably ignored for the last many years till date. Of the handful structures that bear the stamp of being a ‘Tagore’ establishment, only the Jorashako Thakurbari is widely known and revered while the few others have slipped down the lost pages of history. Apart from the monumental Jorashako, there are quite a few buildings belonging to this illustrious family- the Pathuriaghata Tagore ‘Castle’ and Ramnath Tagore’s Koilaghata residence being two of them. However, this feature will deal with another of the important establishments of the family that has been long forgotten and is threatened by the real estate and construction industry of late- the garden house of Abanindranath Tagore at Konnagar, Hoogly.
Aban Thakur’s Garden House
Located at 2 Mirpara Lane, Konnagar, Hooghly, this precinct was declared as a heritage on the 28th of May, 2007 by the West Bengal Heritage Commission. Originally belonging to the father of the master artist Abanindranath Tagore, this house is the seat of an innumerable number of memories for a young child who took his first lessons in painting and art while here. This house has a characteristic Victorian style of architecture with the columns displaying brutalist forms and strong interplay of bass and relief. The presence of arches above windows and doors make the building aesthetically pleasing and gives the building a touch of ‘age-old legacy’. Sitting just beside the river Ganges, this vast plot of land is richly canopied by a variety of indigenous species like mango, jackfruit and coconut trees. The compound also had a small caged space housing dogs, horses, deer and pet monkeys as well. The child Abanindranath Tagore had the plebeian pleasures of watching a bahurupi perform or seeing the evening aarti at the temples while staying at this riverside villa; the taste of an upper-class Bengali lifestyle combined with the variety of experiences he received from his family members forged Abanindranath Tagore into what he would go on to become in the coming days- an artist of international caliber and repute, a child litterateur and a staunch supporter of the Swadeshi movement. This garden house also finds mentions in Rabi Tagore’s biography; the master poet used to visit this house often with his family for enjoying the nature. The book named ‘Jorashakor Dhare’ by Abanindranath Tagore and published by Viswa Bharati also mentions that it was here that Aban Thakur first learnt to draw the picture of a hut.
The Tagore family permanently abandoned this stately bungalow following the unfortunate death of Gunendranath Tagore in 1881. Abanindrinath Tagore goes on to describe the incident as “a terrible night which destroyed our lives in an instant”. The long lasting bond between the young artist and the home by the Ganges was instantly severed. He writes: “It is as if a curtain descended between that life and the life that came after, and remained in place for a long time.”
After the Tagore family left the place, it was sold to one Mr. Pulinkrishna Ray of Kolkata. Official records of the same exist in the Konnagar Municipality. In the year 1970, the property changed hands and was named after his wife Mrs. Gouribala Ray and his son, Mr. Pradip Kumar Ray. In the year 2007, the Rays sold off the property to one Mr. Satishchandra Lakhotia for a price of one crore ten lakhs. Mr. Lakhotia is the MD & CEO of Larica Group, a commercial and real estate conglomeration whose website mentions the company to be “one of the leading residential and commercial developer in eastern India”.
The Place was listed under the heritage status in 2007, shortly after Mr. Lakhotia made the purchase. He had submitted an application for mutation of the land and also submitted plans for the real-estate development of the same to the Municipality. Mr. Bappaditya Chattopadhyay, Chairman of Konnagar Municipality has taken active steps towards protecting the place from the developers. The Municipality had urged the developer group to hand over the property to the municipality in exchange for the amount by which the property was bought. Upon disagreement, the developers decided to move to the court on this matter, and the case is, as of now, ongoing.
Mr. Chattopadhyay has however strongly insisted that the property will under no circumstance be allowed to be mutated, and any development done on the same would be never allowed. The chairman has said that the Municipality will fight the case till the end and make sure that the property comes under the care of the Municipality. To create a strong public movement, the Municipality has taken appreciable steps. A small statuette of Abanindranath Tagore has been placed at the junction of the road leading to the bungalow along with a noticeboard specifying the historical significance of the place. The gate to the bungalow complex has also recently been painted to incite awareness among the people visiting the house. The newly painted gate mentions in broad letters that the house belonged to Abanindranath Tagore and trespassing is totally forbidden by the Municipality. Leaflets and posters mentioning the heritage precinct are being distributed among the public, and they are also being encouraged to visit the campus frequently so as to create public pressure on the developer group to hand the property over.
Making the administrative stand clear, Mr. Bappaditya Chattopadhyay said, “We will not let any third person on this land. This land belongs to the people, and we will make sure nobody gets to destroy the heritage value of the place. Abon Thakur is the pride of all Bengalis, and it is our responsibility to protect this place from the vested interests of some.” While a characteristic apathy and inertia against any solid action can be observed among most administrative bodies when it comes to protection of local heritage, this particular case turns out to be a unique instance because of the active role that the Konnagar Municipality has taken in saving the place. Spearheading a protest movement against the destruction of such an important heritage is an extremely welcoming gesture, and Sthapatya congratulates Mr. Bappaditya Chattopadhyay and the Konnagar Municipality for having taken the initiative.
The chairman has said that the Municipality will fight the case till the end and make sure that the property comes under the care of the Municipality. To create a strong public movement, the Municipality has taken appreciable steps.
What can be done?
It is without any doubt that the compound needs urgent attention. Sthapatya had visited the campus a few days back to conduct a reconnaissance survey of the place, and the preliminary observations were shocking. The entire compound is in a state of lack with the garden growing by its own wild means. Though the building appears structurally strong and stable from a preliminary visual inspection, the general apathy of the overall state of the building is clearly notable. The fenestrations are in a state of despair with most of the windows and doors broken and barely standing.
An extremely shocking revelation was that the iron grills having the old designs are all stolen! Similar is the case with a spiral staircase which was not to be found. It is an extremely sad affair that parts of a heritage building are being illegally taken away (and in all probability, sold as a scrap in the market for nominal profits). The local caretaker was not very happy about the visit, and our representatives had to depart earlier than plan, thanks to their objections.
Mr. Lakhotia had stated that the house of Abanindranath Tagore would be kept intact and development would commence on the surroundings. We would love to point out the apathy of the developer towards the heritage here- being a heritage building, no structures can be erected within a specified distance from the villa. And also, developing the surrounding land would involve felling the trees- what would a garden-house be without the garden? This is what happens when profit-oriented business houses start taking control of our history and heritage and drastically undermine the significance of the place for their vested economic interests.
Developing the surrounding land would involve felling the trees- what would a garden-house be without the garden?
An urgent renovation drive is what the compound needs. The building is in dire need of restoration by conservation architects. Located in a wonderful setting, the site offers innumerable options for adaptive reuse. Having an additional swimming pool and changing rooms as well as parking garages (which is mostly dilapidated), this place retains the possibility of becoming the next big thing in the Bengali ‘Tagoreana’.
It can be developed as a centre dedicated to Abanindranath Tagore and can be used as a museum cum research campus on his works and art. It can be developed as a public library and be kept open for the use of the people. Options of constructive reuse are many, one only needs to have the will to yield the responsibility and spearhead the public into creating an opinion strong enough for the developers to hand over the land back to the authorities. Once that is done, restoration will simply be a matter of months.
Sthapatya sincerely hopes that the Konnagar Municipality will be able to claim the premise back and after a strategic renovation drive, open the building to the public. We promise to bring forward all the support we can through our social and media handles.
Long live our heritage.
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Shubhayan Modak is a graduate architect from Dept. of Architecture, Town & Regional Planning, Indian Institute of Engineering Science & Technology, Shibpur. He is the Co-founder and Editor-in-chief of Sthapatya that aims at raising architectural awareness among the common public by using local language and colloquial glyphs. He is passionate about visiting places and exploring the local rituals, cultures, traditions, and people. He has served as the Convenor & Editor-in-chief of Indian Arch ’16, the annual student’s journal of National Association of Students of Architecture, India.