Examining the Oral Traditions from Colonial Calcutta

Abstract: Fanny Parkes famously wrote of her Calcutta sojourn – “How much there is to delight the eye in this bright beautiful world!” This is the observation of a memsahib witnessing an infant presidency flourish in front of her very eyes, and little realizing that she would be a parcel of an ever – turning tide of fusion that would go on to characterize the Kolkata of today. “Her time” is considered an enigmatic piece of history for this city – the essence of which gave the place, and its community (both native, and adoptive) their myth of origin, cultural temperament, social architecture, and self – sustaining vanity. Indeed, colonial Calcutta, with its Sahibs, Babus, Nautch Girls, and Sepoys, still peek through the glittery layer of the “New” to reveal what it has been all along – an endless story of receptivity, and malleability of the human conscious, that fed off the love for the Oriental, and the unhesitant acceptance of the “Other”. The present paper seeks to scribble the picture of the “Consenting Calcutta” that doesn’t associate itself with the provocative, dissenting vignettes of the years of the Independence Movement. Drawn from “local bards” of famous pastry shops, frequented temples, woodcut workshops, antiquity stores, dakbungalows, and aristocratic household, the paper explores some of the beloved (and legendary) “folklores” of the old metropolis; as well as examines the “infamous burnt” of a colonial legacy on a city, once moulded to be the second city of the British Empire. Delving deep into the socio – cultural legacies of the British Raj on the Bengali Culture – the paper will take into consideration the composite material culture of the community, and analyse the “sensibilities” behind the development of the culture in question. Were such sensibilities a “construct”, or natural? What role did the social classes play in fostering this tale of cross – cultural mentality? Were such stories deliberately manufactured to present an overview of racial harmony? Or is any legend ever the whole story?

Keywords: Colonial; Calcutta; Folklores; Local Bards; Legacy; Culture; Sensibilities; Receptivity; Malleability.

For years and years, even during the time of my first visit in 1962, it has been said that Calcutta was dying, and its port was silting up, its antiquated industry declining, but Calcutta hadn’t died. It hadn’t done much, but it had gone on. – V.S. Naipaul[1]

It has always been said that Calcutta is a sentiment, albeit sometimes an unflattering one; but never a city. And even if it is esoterically spoken of as one, it has been romantically described as the “eternally dying” city – the sepia metropolis, whose every withered niche whispers a tale of colonial odyssey, and is still reminiscent of hued vignettes from its queer history; and whose soul “resents with ferocity the reflex stereotyping that labels any civic dysfunction anywhere else in the world [as] ‘another Calcutta’”[2]. A bone of contention in roaker adda[3] is ‘How exactly is the city dying?’ with theories pointing to numerous ‘cultural deaths’ or ‘outrageous philistinism’ and ranging from the erasure of the ‘British golden legacy’ to putting to disgrace Satyajit Ray’s celluloid cultus. In fact, the Imperial city is all but dead in mentality; it retains the bygone echoes that resonate with profoundness, oblivious of the centuries traveled. Kolkata[4], despite being a famous theater of the Indian Independence Movement, relives its colonial roots every day; and this is evident from its reputed treasure – trove of oral traditions that owes its survival to its community’s zealous endeavor to preserve the mass memory “in a lingering and homely style inextricably mixed with oddness”[5]. It makes both the traveler, and the resident “fairly blink with recollection … and rejoice that Calcutta persists in ways that makes its devotees, grateful always to refresh themselves at its sometimes stained fountains”[6].

Calcutta, the “undead” city.

The present paper will attempt an examination of some famous oral traditions forged in colonial Calcutta. To Jan Vansina, “the expression ‘oral tradition’ applies both to a process and to its products”[7]. The paper will trace the origin of the oral tradition in question, and seek to locate its reception in contemporary popular imagination. The traditions have their origins in the socio – cultural and political milieu of late 18th/ early 19th century Calcutta, and their production was largely geared to priding or critiquing the life in the Presidency. Precision in recalling  was so much desired that people resorted to mnemotechnic devices such as writing to perfect remembrance[8]; and hence, the successful trapping of oral traditions in letters, ‘cheap literature’ (.i.e., Battala woodprints, and Kalighat pats), etc.; and their inevitable role in the evolution of colloquial Bengali. Indeed, they don’t just pass as ill – founded rumors. They compel themselves to be considered historical gossip[9].


A century passeth – Calcutta hath grown

To be the first city wide Bengal …

Go ye, who inherit this heritage wide,

By deeds of two centuries bravely won,

Go seek the old records how Job Charnock died,

Seek the grave he lies with his wife, side by side …

-Which tells how in hope of redemption to come,

Two pilgrims of this world found here their last home,

Calcutta’s brave founder – the Suttee he wedded. [10]

Charnock: the founder of a city, and its oral traditions.

The earliest of the colonial traditions[11] go back to the 1660s to the “midday halt of Charnock[12]; and the earliest portraits of Calcutta are “bracketed with distant rumors of appalling disaster, riot, and degradation”[13]. Far away from Kipling’s visionary Eldorado that would “the argosies of Asia at Her doors / Heap their stores”[14] or “The City of Dreadful Night”[15], the fishing settlements of Sutanuti, Gobindapur, and Dihi Kolikata presented the English settlers with barbarism that compelled giddy traders to take up the “White Man’s Burden”. Apart from his logbooks, and his peers’ anecdotes, “Charnock now stands forth in the manuscript records as a block of rough-hewn British manhood”[16]; nonetheless, the most sensational account of his private life comprises his 1663/1678 rescuing of a beautiful Brahmin widow, who had been condemned to die by sati. He had gone to gape at a heathen practice, but smitten by her appearance, had snatched her, and they became domestically involved. Charnock christened her “Maria”, raised a family of kutcha-butcha[17] with her, and after she died in 1683, he is said to have sacrificed a rooster each year on the anniversary at her tomb at St. John’s Church in Calcutta. For her, he had taken to paganism, worshiping the Panch Pir, mastering Persian, “wearing loose and floppy Indian attire, smoking a hookah, and drinking arak punch”[18]. Scholarship has seen through the deliberate romanticizing of the story[19], declaring it to be “too good capital for the poets to part with”[20]; for Charnock was “no decadent Englishmen with fibres sapped by an enervating Orientalism”[21]. Yet his tale provided the ‘negative stereotypical’ mould to categorically cast English men with Oriental sympathies, particularly the Nabobs. If one examines the biographies of Anthony Firangi, David Ochterlony, William Frazer, or William Hickey; the descriptions follow suit. With an empirical laxity, this oral tradition is the first of its kind to socially frame the homogenous representation of the English man with an “Asiatic corruption” – a decadent “Imperial vanguard”, but not the “Asiatic Despot”[22]. Aspectual of the story is the “East – West” friendship, and the dread of that friendship – a paradoxical attitude that was the fieri facias of the most legendary duel fought in all of British India. And Calcutta gave the testimony!

Again in fancy on mine ear,

Loud burst the thunders of their war,

And now methinks, transfix’d with dread,

My Hastings to their bar is led.[23]

A miniature painting depicting the Governor General, Hastings with his native khansama.

Legend goes that Lord Warren Hastings’ 1780 duel with Philip Francis has been‘re-enacting’ itself, on its anniversary, on “the road leading to Allipore”[24]; for the past 236 years. Blotched with the judicial murder of Nuncomar, and tormented by Francis’ calumnies that continued to London, informing of the Governor General’s ‘financial misbehavior’ – Hastings had sought “the only redress for a fraud for which the law has made no provision”[25] – a duel to resurrect his honor. Historians largely derive the description of the duel from Hastings’ Second, Colonial Pearce’s letter to a friend in England; however it is remarkable how the incident vividly breathes even today, at modern day Alipore. An Antiquarian with a store adjacent to Hastings’ House, ‘recollected’ with ‘accuracy’ the “density of a 1780 August fog, the splitting roar of Hastings’ pistol which made Francis crumble to the ground with a bump, and the commotion that followed when the three dashed the wounded in a palanquin to a certain Major Tolly’s house: the erstwhile Belvedere”[26]. The duel had been conducted “at the crossing of it through a double row of trees”; the trees now stand near the Calcutta Race Course, and have been dubbed by locales as “Trees of Destruction”[27]. Perhaps more famous than this account, is the haunted stories of Hastings’ House.

hastings house calcutta
An old photograph of the Hastings’ House at Alipore, Calcutta.

It is said that every New Year’s Eve, the troubled spirit of Hastings royally arrives at the House in a phantom horse-drawn coach. He rushes into what had been his study, and frantically searches for papers that might prove his innocence, and spare him an impeachment.[28] Far-fetched as the lores are, they are reminiscent of the Victorian etiquette of quarreling, the political scenario of the infant British Raj, and most importantly, they keep alive the legendary extravaganza of Hastings’ that led to his ruin in 1787. Calcutta was a battleground, and it had to encounter such arrogant display of Nabob power.

Zoffany’s The Last Supper at St. John’s Chuch, Kolkata.

Another lesser known instance of such ‘potlatch’ lies in a wall painting in St. John’s Church –   Johann Zoffany’s The Last Supper. In the 1787 painting, Jesus and his disciples are said to be modeled on “members of the fashionable Anglo – Indian society in Calcutta in the late 18th century”[29]. The Greek Father Parthenio had sat down to be painted as Jesus; Mary Magdalene was fashioned on the transvestite police magistrate of 1780s Calcutta, W.C. Blacquiere who was “famous for stalking and rounding up criminals whilst dressed as a woman”[30]; Judas on the auctioneer, William Tulloh; St. John on Hastings; and Simon on James Paul, the English Resident at the Royal Court of Oudh who committed suicide a few years later. The painting is strikingly Indian – it has a munshi’s tulwar, a Hindoostani spittoon, and a beesty bag filled with water.[31] As Worsley says, “the picture borders on sacrilege”[32], and modern day guides are reminiscent of the horror with which the unveiling of the intended altarpiece was received. It was “vandalised, left hanging and sagging”[33]; but it has been restored. The subversive painting might have captured a mere Company meeting in the Council Chamber, housed inside the Church; and can be interpreted as steaming from the hauteur that came with de facto rulers commanding vast wealth – independent administrators who were more than parliamentary back-benchers wearing paper crowns. It is a piece of art with an intricately blasphemous verbal tradition, that is evocative of the “great lengths went to engineer a façade of British respectability”[34] for those who “worshipped mammon, while vowing to God”[35].

Transcendent art!

By symbol mark the heart, reflect the head,

And raise a living image from the dead![36]

The notoriety of the tales of the British in Calcutta knows no bounds! Flattering accounts recall the affluent privilege of the invulnerable, invaded ruling class, but it is in the tombstones, where one sees them at their most humane – perishable, and displaced. The European cemeteries bear ‘commentaries’ and ‘memorized speeches’ on the Dead they host, and therefore come across as sources of oral traditions. The epitaphs on the tombstones of personalities like Sir William Jones, Sir James Kirkpatrick, Lady Rose Aylmer, or Elizabeth Barwell add to an existing legendary status; but two instances particularly stand out. The first is the ‘sensational reason’ behind a memorial plaque on the south wall of St. John’s Church, belonging to Judge James Pattle, and his wife, Adeline.

Pattle Memorial
The memorial plaque of the Pattles at St. John’s Church.

Drawn from the personal tradition of his descendants, Virginia Woolf, and William Dalrymple, the account can be summed up in a single sentence – “Oh, the old Pattles! They are always bursting out of their casks”[37]. Reputed to be “The Greatest Liar in India”[38] with such vociferated wickedness that “the devil wouldn’t let him go out of India”[39], he asked his body to be buried in England. He died in 1845, and his corpse was ‘pickled’ in a rum cask (to be returned to England); the cask exploded during a storm; causing the body to pop up in front of his wife’s very eyes. The shock drove the widow mad, and she died on the journey home. The sailors put both the bodies inside rum caskets, but the “casks reeked of alcohol, and the men bored holes through the sides of the casks to drink the rum”[40]. The ship with the drunken crew hit a sandbank, exploded, and cremated the Pattle couple in the middle of the river Hooghly. Out of respect, the Pattle’s associates put the memorial plaque on the wall. The second instance is extraordinary, by the virtue of the tragedy it commemorates. The tomb at the Parkstreet Cemetery belongs to the six-year old son of the Lord and Lady Chambers, and the epitaph reads –


Son of Sir Robert and Lady Chambers

Born on the 28th October, MDC CLXXVI

Who was shipwrecked in the Grosvenor and

Perished on the Coast of Africa, in August, 1782.[41]

The 1782 wrecking of the Grosvenor in Africa, as captured by George Carter on canvas.

The Grosvenor East Indiaman started out on her last ill-fated journey on the 13th of January, 1782 from Calcutta, and by early August, she was “cast away, at a point near Durban (present day Zululand), on the shore of what was then an unexplored country, inhabited by savages, and five hundred miles from the nearest civilized settlement, a town of the Dutch, who then held the Cape”[42]. The cast-away of the wreck numbered to 135 persons, who essayed a Hannibal’s Journey to reach the Dutch settlement; but one night, the women survivors mysteriously disappeared. Six survived the perilous peregrination, and soon the story of the wreck closed in contemporary records. But in the passing years, there came strange reports of English women seen in Kaffir kraals, refusing to leave their savage Zulu surroundings. Furthermore, during the 1835 Kaffir War, a tribe of native warriors offered their services as “brothers” to the English[43]; and it was considered that they descended from the lost lady-passengers of the Grosvenor. Nonetheless, the news of the ‘Turncoats’ was met with scorn, and it is said that English women in Calcutta came to regularly spit and curse the empty tombstones at Parkstreet of some certain Mrs. Hosea, Mrs. Logie, Mrs. James, Miss Denis, Miss Wilmot, and others.[44] These two accounts speak of the maritime perils the Europeans underwent in India, but most importantly they are the ‘voices from beyond the grave’, conveying how death was conceptualised, and how memory was preserved in the early days of the Raj.[45]

North Park Street B&W
An old photograph of the Parkstreet cemetery, Lower Circular Road, Kolkata.


The above oral traditions are from the White Town of Calcutta. The Black Town was equally eventful, and the contemporary oral traditions handed down, have been majorly incorporated into popular proverbial sayings. Mostly critiques of the gentry Babu” culture, and the lower order, the poetic lampoons, Personal Traditions, and Group Accounts tattled ‘light’ of the news, gossips, and scandals of the era.

Caricaturing the Babu in lampoons.

Rhyming lampoons like “হরি ঘোষের গোয়াল” (“Hari Ghosh’s cowshed”)[46], “লাগে টাকা, দেবে গৌরী সেন” (“If you need money, go to Gauri Sen”)[47], “যত দোষ নন্দ ঘোষ” (“The fault is Nanda Ghosh’s”)[48], and “প্রহরীনি ধনঞ্জয়” (“The beaten up Dhananjoy”)[49] which appeared in contemporary the prahasan (farce), and naksha (satirical sketch)[50] have passed into proverbial sayings of today, remembering or disgracing the “denationalised or hyper  westernized”[51] Babus, “cow dung busts of well-bred sahibs, and crappy imitations of feringhees[52]. Ridiculed by their Superiors, the Sahibs; and hated by their Inferiors, the lower class; the enlightened “Rammohan Roys, Debendranath Thakurs, Vidyasagars, and Keshab Sens”[53] faced satire the most[54] – their culture being that of the awkward “In – Betweens”, who unfortunately fit the description in Macaulay’s infamous Minute, even before it was conceived – “… Indian in blood, and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”[55] More than their love for English etiquette, their morality and the infamous “Babu bilash” (“Babu Extravaganza”) were attacked – and the character assassination of this affluent class passed into popular chele bhulano chora[56]:

নোটন নোটন পায়রাগুলি –

ঝোটন বেঁধেছে,

দুই পারেতে রুই কাতলা ভেসে উঠেছে;

কে দেখেছে? কে দেখেছে?

দাদা দেখেছে |

দাদার হাতে কলম ছিল, দাদা ছুঁড়ে মেরেছে –

দাদা বড্ডো লেগেছে ||

The new pigeons are playful,

On both the banks, schools of Rui and Katla have washed up –

Who has seen this? Who has seen this?

Dada has seen this.

Dada has a quill in his hand. He throws it at me.

Oh, God! It hurts.[57]

আলতা পরা পা ‘গো –

জামাই আনতে যাও গো;

জামাই আনা এমনি নয়,

তিনটি টাকা খরচ হয় ||

The Bride has worn alta on her feet –

It’s time to fetch the Bridegroom;

It’s not an easy task to do –

For it would cost three rupees![58]

Scope for further debasement of the Babu was provided by opprobrium like the 1874 Tarakeshwar Scandal, the 1875 Sonagachi murder, and the 1878 Upendranath BoseKshetramoni Affair; and textual ridicule got supplemented by paintbrush ridicule in the Company’s Drawings, Battala woodcut prints, and Kalighat pats. Serving the purpose of ‘legitimization’ of catch penny ‘hearsay’, these “cheap – literature” constituted an abysmal den of historical – archival material, which had “a favourite butt in the new city types – the new men, and the new women who had made a cult of ostentation”[59].[60] Such was the demand for these pieces of satire that “in 1854 – 99, Battala published about 500 farces, ridiculing and attacking the Babus[61].

babus in line
From the left: The babu with his vaishya in the colonial city; the babu enslaved to the sahib; the babu beaten up by his wife; and the effeminate, enlightened babu enjoying music with his wife.

In fact, the educated borolok[62] and bhadrolok[63], “ever in search of bourgeoisie respectability, grew to see the public culture as something of an embarrassment”[64]. And it wasn’t long before seriousness replaced the humour in the satirical memory of Calcutta. Lampoons turned into serious Group Accounts to give voice to the subjugated, and bring awareness to the privileged class about the plight of the poor. This is evident from instances like –

খোকা ঘুমালো, পাড়া জুড়ালো, বর্গী এল দেশে-

বুলবুলিতে ধান খেয়েছে, খাজনা দেব কিসে?

মনি ঘুমালো, পাড়া জুড়ালো, গোর্কি এল দেশে;

ঘুলঘুলিতে ধান খেয়েছে, খাজনা দেব কিসে?

ধান  ফুরালো,  পান  ফুরালো, খাজনা দেব  কী?

আর কটাদিন সবুর  করো,  রসুন বুনেছি |

When the baby sleeps in the silent town, the Maratha marauders come,

The birds have eaten my grain, how will I pay the revenue?

When the baby sleeps in the silent town, the floods come,

The tidal waves have eaten my grain, how will I pay the revenue?

I have run out of grain and betel leaf, how will I pay the revenue?

Wait for better days, for I have sown garlic.[65]

তাঁতির বাড়ি ব্যাঙের বাসা –

কোলা ব্যাঙের ছা ||

খায় দায়ে গান গায়ে;

তাইরে নাইরে না ||

The weaver shelters a toad –

The toad has a family.

They eat, flourish, and sing;

And dance carelessly.[66]

ও  বুড়ি!  ও  বুড়ি!  সুতা  কাট  –

কাল  বিয়ানে   ওলির  হাট ,

ওলির  হাটতে  যাবি  নি –

চরকা  বাঁধা  দিবি  কি ?

Old dame! Old dame! Spin your thread –

The Olir baazar is tomorrow in the morning,

Won’t you go to the Olir baazar?

Do you want to mortgage your spinning wheel?[67]


সা –রে-গা-মা-পা-ধা-নি

বোম  ফেলেছে জাপানি,

বোমের ভিতর কেউটে সাঁপ –

ব্রিটিশ বলে “বাপ্ রে বাপ্ !”

Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti !

The Japanese have dropped a bomb,

The bomb has a viper –

The British are fleeing in horror![68]



Personal traditions also exist from colonial Calcutta, but more often, they have been converted into ‘rituals’ and ‘customs’ that run in the family for generations. The Bonedi baris (“aristocratic households”) of Calcutta are particularly famous for their tenacious love for family tradition, and this is reflected in the festivities celebrated in the respective baris.

The Durga Puja in colonial Calcutta: observance of personal traditions!

For instance, Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar, and his boon companion, Shibchandra Mukherjee of Baghbazar were huge patrons of kobigan. They founded the “Bardies’ Club” in the 1740s to advocate the famous kobiwallas of Calcutta like Horu Thakur, Nitai Vairagi, Ram Basu, Bhola Moira, and Hensman Anthony. Today, the clubhouse exists no more, but the two baris mandatorily host kobiganer pala during the auspicious days of the Durga Puja.[69] Similarly, the 300 year old Chorbagan Mitra Bari had for an ancestor a particularly “Bengali Robinhood” thankare (“thugee”), who robbed the rich to help the poor. They have for their kuladevi, the Goddess Kali – but the idol is not ferocious, and the festival is dubbed as “Mithaipuja”[70] – which is celebrated with a mandatory kirtan session, and jatra – pala.[71] The bodhon[72] to bhishorjon (“immersion of the Goddess”) of the Durga idols of the families are conducted in a plethora of personal traditions, all of which are “excellent demonstrations of oral governance”[73], for despite having their ‘revelation’ in dreams, hallucinations, and visions; they are followed inviolably for generations. The Mitras of Bhowanipore have a Dwibhuja Durga idol with a white horse as a vahana. The tale runs in the family that the mother of Kameshwar Mitra, the 19th century scion of the family, offered only two gold bangles to the Goddess in her dream; and it was a “Swapnadesh” that the Durga, henceforth worshipped, would be two-armed.[74] The Mittirs of Darjipara, after immersion, follow the Nilkantha ritual, to inform Shiva in Kailash that the Goddess is on her way to him, and that the family has safely returned home after bidding her farewell. The origin of the ritual lies in an oral tradition: it was a nilkantha bird[75] that guided the family boat safely back to the shore, after it was lost in the Ganges on a particularly stormy Dashami day.[76] For the Seals of Chorbagan, before immersion, a ‘mirror image’ of the Devi is glimpsed at, in a tub of water placed before the idol. The founder of the bari, Babu Ram Chand Seal went on a hunting trip, and the Goddess appeared in a pond inside the forest, asking him to worship her. He came back and started the family puja in 1849.[77] The Laha Bari, before the Dashami immersion, keeps the shodor dorja[78] closed. It is only after immersion, when someone from outside the house calls out thrice, asking the Goddess whether she is still inside; that the door is opened. The story goes back to the 19th century, when a scion, Ishwar Durga Charan Laha was frequently interrupted, whilst washing up on Dashami, by a small girl begging for alms. He shooed her away, but later found the shodor dorja open, with alta footprints ‘walking out’ of the bari. The little girl was the Goddess herself, and the doors are kept closed henceforth, so that the Devi could ‘walk out’ on her free will, and not ‘sent away’. Other versions say that the kuladevi appeared to a scion, expressing her longing to follow the merry immersion procession; and hence all doors and windows are bolted after the idol leaves the premises to contain the kuladevi.[79] Sometimes the personal traditions arise because of the families wanting to replicate the “first puja” of the bari with hawkeyed accuracy. The Shobhabazar Rajbari ekchala pratima has a very sahib Kartikeya with a horse for an appurtenance: native gossip in 1757 accused Raja Nabakrishna Deb of deliberately making the warrior God in the excellent likeness of Lord Robert Clive, to congratulate him on the victory at Plassey, and gain favour with the British. Since then, the family potua[80] has been instructed to recreate the ‘Clive Kartikeya’ every year for the autumn festival![81] In 1856, the Duttas of Balaram Dey Street asked the famous confectioner, Bhim Chandra Nag to prepare a special sweetmeat to honour the visit of Lady Canning to their Durga puja revelry. Nag made “fried sweet balls of chenna, and flour soaked in sugar syrup”[82], and it became Lady Canning’s favourite dessert. The sweetmeat was named after her, but linguistically, it was corrupted into “Ledikeni”, and made into a puja bhog.[83]


The “consenting” Calcutta.

The paper examines three types of oral traditions from colonial Calcutta: [1] when the story starts off the leaf that records a historical event; [2] when lampoons created in reflection of a society, pass into nursery rhymes, or proverbial sayings; and [3] when ‘ fantastical visions’ turn into de facto oral code of law. All are meted out of the observations of the various strata of late 18th/ early 19th society of Calcutta, and create the idea of a city that commands its own interpretations. The city in question is not a mere colonial bastion; it is also a conception of the bhadrolok, and the plebeian. The character of a city can only be sensed by looking at its people and its stories, and not just the historical events/facts – because it is ultimately the ‘folk’ who is the medium through which the events take place. The importance of empirical records is sometimes ‘overestimated’, leading to the futility of contextualizing an intangible entity like a city into a particular historical time frame. In relation to history, the oral traditions of Calcutta are both the influencer, and the influenced – deconstructing a perceived reality, whilst capturing the ‘essence’ of the contemporary social phenomena (.i.e., social mobility, the early Imperial Cult, hatred toward the privileged social classes, and the plight of the lower orders). The stories are residues of the happenings that didn’t make it to the paper. They have brought alive the people of old “consenting” Calcutta, who have gone to dust, and whose memory is scorned at by the ruthless scribe of all – History. These are, in fact, instrumental in peeking into a locale, through a silhouetted Tattersall. Its oral traditions give Calcutta a face, whilst History has deemed it to be faceless, all these years!


[1] Ishita Sengupta, “Kolkata is not a city, but an emotion: 10 quotes about the city that prove this”, Vagabomb, February 27, 2017 https://www.vagabomb.com/Kolkata-Is-Not-a-City-but-an-Emotion-10-Quotes-about-the-City-That-Prove-This/ (accessed February 27, 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bengali for “gossiping in the porch”.

[4] In fact, Krishna Dutta states, “For the majority of the Bengali community, the new name Kolkata (Calcutta officially became Kolkata in 2001) suggests a compromise between acknowledging the city’s colonial past, and the need to restore its threatened identity as a Bengali city. They want to avoid the British – given name Calcutta, but they also do not like the original name, Kolikata, a swampy fishing village. Bengalis have always been acutely aware of how they relate to the rest of the world, particularly the English – speaking world. Thus, for them, the new name serves as a natural, if unconscious metaphor for the cultural fusion in the city’s architecture, art, literature, and other artistic manifestations. After all, Bengal, and especially its capital city, is where the East first came face to face with the West – its intellectual as well as its colonial brutality – and responded creatively to the encounter through Bengali culture. Rather than taking a strongly nationalist stance or becoming almost unrecognizable, Calcutta preferred a comparatively minor name change, which frankly is a bit of cultural mishmash.” See Krishna Dutta, Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History (New Delhi: Supernova Publishers, 2013), pp. xix – xv. This very essence of the city also defines its oral traditions, as examined in the paper.

[5] Geoffrey Moorhouse, Calcutta: The City Revealed (England: Penguin Books, 1974), 15.

[6] Ibid., pp. 14-15.

[7] Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 3. He states the process of creation of an oral tradition to be – [1] the generation of messages (news, eyewitness, hearsay); [2] the interpretation of experience (reminiscence, commentaries, verbal art); [3] oral history. The paper will examine the oral traditions of colonial Calcutta within this framework. See Ibid., pp. 3-32.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] The oral tradition arises as observation/ experience from, or is a supplement of a historical occurring.   

[10] An extract from H.T. Princep, “Job Charnock: Founder of Calcutta, AD. 1686 to AD. 1692” in Job Charnock, The Founder of Calcutta: In Facts & Fiction, ed., P. T. Nair (Calcutta: Engineering Times Publications Private Ltd., 1977), pp. 206-207. 

[11] The Oral Traditions examined in the paper include instances where gossip can be treated as a mode of discourse. The oral traditions (of the White Town) in Part.I of the paper don’t confirm strictly as ‘oral’, because of their empirical roots, and the overbearing presence of historical gossip in them. However, they are the instances in which the gossip is from the perspective of someone who is perpetually an outsider, who don’t participate in the event but make comments about the event, and moral judgements, essentially. These traditions are both subversions and sub-versions of ‘officially recorded reality’: in one hand, these challenge the registered reality (.i.e., the dominant idea of history, and what constitutes it), on the other these demand a certain kind of historical authenticity. These start off the pages where the pen of history has aborted, giving historicity and imagination an equal adoration. These are quite different from the oral traditions examined in Part.II (quasi-historical traditions) or Part.III (non-historical traditions) of the paper. Yet their historicity is a curse in itself, for these traditions are dismissed as ‘simply local history’, and find almost no welcome in books written on the oral traditions of Bengal. These are, in fact, like the peeking into a locale, through a silhouetted Tattersall.

[12] An extract from Rudyard Kipling, “A Tale of Two Cities” in The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling (New York: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1999), 76.

[13] Geoffrey Moorhouse, Calcutta: The City Revealed, 19.

[14] Kipling, “A Tale of Two Cities”, 77.

[15] Rudyard Kipling.

[16] Quoted from Sir William Hunter in Wilmot Corfield, “Some Historical Myths” in Job Charnock, The Founder of Calcutta, 139.

[17]  Hindi for “half-baked child”, referring to the brown colour of half – baked bread. Kutcha – butcha was a derogatory epithet used for children of British-Indian parentage in colonial India. See Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “Kutcha Butcha” (accessed February 28, 2017) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kutcha_butcha.  

[18] Krishna Dutta, Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History, 4.

[19] The accounts of Charnock’s marriage with a rescued sati differ, and hence their validity can be put to test. The testimonies are ‘rumoured’ to be derived from Mr. William Hedge’s 1682 journal (which derogates Charnock for marrying a “Gento woman” who had run off with her husband’s goods), Miss. Blechynden’s gossipy memoirs, Hamilton’s entertaining dinner story, and a poetic epitaph on an unknown tomb – “Shoulder to shoulder, Job my boy – into the crowd like a wedge / Over with your hangers, mess mate, but do not strike with the edge; / Cries Charnock –“Scatter the faggots! Double that Brahmin into two! / The tall, pale widow is mine, Job – the little brown girls for you”.  This is an ideal instance of how oral traditions selectively preserve historical gossip. No one, except historians, in Calcutta is aware of the other versions. To them, Charnock’s marriage to a beautiful sati is the one and only story. See Hari Charan Biswas, “Job Charnock’s Hindu Wife: A Rescued Sati” in Job Charnock, The Founder of Calcutta, pp.131-136. See Wilmot Corfield, “Some Historical Myths” in Job Charnock, The Founder of Calcutta, pp. 137-42.   

[20] Arnold Wright, “Job Charnock founds Calcutta” in Job Charnock, The Founder of Calcutta, 100.

[21] Ibid., 92.

[22] Meike Fellinger, “‘All man’s pollution does the sea cleanse’: Revisiting the Nabobs in Britain, 1785 – 1837” (MA Dissertation, The University of Warwick, 2010) http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/emforum/projects/disstheses/dissertations/fellinger-meike.pdf.

[23] An extract from Elizabeth Ryves, The Hastiniad: An Heroic Poem (Calcutta: Paturiyaghata Banga Parishad, 1789), 13.

[24] Kathleen Blechynden, Calcutta: Past and Present, ed., N.R. Ray (Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers, 1905), 89.

[25] Moorhouse, Calcutta: The City Revealed, 56.

[26] Shekhar Gordon, interview with author, January 29, 2017.

[27] Reverend James Long, Calcutta in the Olden Time (Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, 1974), 106.

[28] Nilanjan Ghosh, interview with author, January 29, 2017. Krishna Dutta states that “the incident was first noted by H.E.A. Cotton in his Calcutta Old and New. A curious corroboration of this story was found in a letter from Hastings to his principal secretary, Nesbitt Thompson dated 21 July 1785, expressing anxiety about the lost contents of one of his bureaus. In spite of a good deal of effort, the missing contents – a couple of miniature paintings and some private papers – were never found”. See Dutta, Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History, pp.63-64.  

[29] Dr. Jayanta Sengupta in British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: The Jewel in the Crown. Directed by Nick Gillam-Smith. Performed by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2017. Documentary.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Sudipto Halder, interview with author, January 28, 2017.

[32] Worsley in British History’s Biggest Fibs, 2017.

[33] Renate Kant in Das, Soumitra, “Look, Last Supper restored – Johann Zoffany’s 1787 painting at St John’s Church ready to be unveiled”, The Telegraph (Calcutta, India),  July 1 , 2010, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1100701/jsp/calcutta/story_12628679.jsp 1/.

[34] Worsley in British History’s Biggest Fibs, 2017.

[35] Long, Calcutta in the Olden Time, 107.

[36] An extract from the epitaph on the tomb of Lieut. Colonel James Kirkpatrick at St. John’s Church. See Blechynden, Calcutta: Past and Present, pp. 141-142.  

[37] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (UK: Vintage, 1999), 87.

[38] Chakraborty Lahiri, Samhita, “Wicked Man on the Wall”, The Telegraph (Calcutta, India), January 3, 2010, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1100103/jsp/calcutta/story_11934814.jsp.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “St. John’s Church, Kolkata” (accessed February 27, 2017) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John’s_Church,_Kolkata.

[41] Blechynden, Calcutta: Past and Present, 150.

[42] Ibid., pp. 150-151.

[43] Ibid.,152.

[44] Sandip Martin, interview with author, January 28, 2017.

[45] This particular oral tradition is demonstrative of the ‘appearance’ of the Imperial Cult, that effectively drowned the Nabob sahib into disgraced oblivion, and ushered in the superior British administrator. Some interpretations discard the racist tint in the narration, pointing to the sharp reaction against the lost women-passengers’ memories as a reaction against the negligence of motherly duties, and turning their back to nurturing the ‘men of their own nation’. To the latter justifiers, Calcutta is always taken to be the place where the East and West stood together in perfect harmony. The accusation that Calcutta suffered from racism was a nationalist feat, coming well after the 1905 Divide of Bengal. Calcutta was the second city of the British Empire, enjoying comparative ‘social’ bliss, as compared to the other cities of her day. The late 19th century/early 20th century ‘traces’ of Calcutta in the paintings of Frank Clinger Scallan, and Edward Lear; the photographs of Thacker, and Spink & Co.; and the oleographs by Raphael Tuck & Sons successfully  showed that “Indians and Europeans seemed to share space [in Calcutta] without indication of social hierarchy”. See Sujaan Mukherjee, “The story of the elusive man who made these fascinating pastel postcards of Calcutta”, Scroll.in, March 2, 2017 https://scroll.in/magazine/829156/the-story-of-the-elusive-man-who-made-these-fascinating-pastel-postcards-of-calcutta (accessed March 3, 2017).   

[46] Allusion to a famous babu, Hari Ghosh who ‘loaned’ his cowshed to a local Brahmin, and a sahib to start a school to impart an education that is both Indian, and Western. The phrase is used to mock people stuck between two cultures.

[47] Allusion to a generous babu and banker, Gauri Sen, who loaned money to the poor, and the needy. The conclusion of the festivities at his house comprised the “Daridra-Narayan Seva” – a ceremony in which the host washes the feet of the poor, feeds them, and gives them alms. The phrase is now used to refer to a generous person.

[48] Allusion to a babu, Nanda Ghosh, who was notorious for immorality, and corruption. The 19th century story goes that for any disaster striking the district of Chitpur in Calcutta, the lower class population blamed him; for they believed that God was displeased with the babu, and the disaster was meant as a punishment for him. The self-referring phrase is sarcastically used to denote a scapegoat for any wrong-doing.

[49] Allusion to a babu, Dhanonjoy who was a lavish ghar-jamai. His in-laws had to beat him up to send him home. The self – referring phrase is used for a person who is forcefully assigned an undesirable task.

[50] The Bengali prahasans, and nakshas are different from ‘heroic’ literary traditions of the period which dealt with classical, or mythological themes in heavily Sanskritized Bengali. “These dealt with the follies, and foibles of the contemporary Bengali society in the colloquial urban language of the day” .i.e., chalitbhasa. They “speak about themselves and the changed conditions of their society in satirical mode. The main butt of ridicule in these sketches was the parvenu, and the scene of action was Calcutta, the emerging metropolis”. See Kaliprasanna Sinha, The Observant Owl: Hootum Penchar Naksha, trans. Swarup Roy (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008), pp. xiii – xv.

[51] Roshnika Chaudhury, Freedom and Beef Steaks: Colonial Calcutta Culture (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2012), 29.

[52] Sinha, The Observant Owl, 15.

[53] Ibid., pp.21-22.

[54] It is interesting that only the ‘male’ babu figures in these lampoons. Even if female figures featured, it was generally of lowly women, and the bibis’ ‘performance’ in public like worshipping in a temple, etc. Women are nearly invisible in satire, and their stories take a backseat when compared to the men’s. The babu was the face of the household, and the representative of the native society in Calcutta – his ‘recognition’ in the colonizer’s and the colonized’s mind indicates that colonial Calcutta was the “setting of more composite, and self-consciously bounded forms of religious community identity”. The patronization of the Babu class by the British can be seen as the earliest attempt of “Divide and Rule”, and the creation of safety valves of politico-social nature to sustain colonial subjugation. See Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu, ed., India and the British Empire (UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp.100-134.

[55] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “English Education Act 1835” (accessed January 29, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Education_Act_1835.

[56] Bengali for “rhyme for appeasing children”, or alternatively khukumonir chora (“little girl’s fables”). Bengali folk rhymes such as these are of considerable antiquity, and aren’t simply instruments for amusement of children. They bear the essentials of oral traditions – anonymous and collective creation, dynamism, textual variation, and social functions. The first compilations of these rhymes in Bengal, date back to the colonial era – William Mortan, James Lang, Sir George Griarson, and Reverend Lalbihary Dey, Rabindranath Tagore, and Yogindranath Sarkar. The rhymes are characteristically – “short verses with lines that almost invariably rhyme; a basis in sound, sometimes with a musical setting; a structure with, generally, no logical idea, story, or continuity of event, but composed rather of a series of images; composition in simple meter and language; marked by nonsense, fantasy, absurdity, impossibility, etc.— most are free from didacticism and idealism” See Syed M. Shahed, “Bengali Folk Rhymes: An Introduction”, Asian Folklore Studies 52 (1993): pp. 143-160.

[57] Reference to the foolish habit of babus to stand guard at the river/pond bank during the mating season of fish, to prevent the poor from stealing the ‘harvest’; but to no avail! The above poem refers to one typical babu who is standing guard by his pond, and composing poetry. “Dada” is the Bengali term for addressing a respectable gentleman. He sees a thief attempting to steal, and hence throws the quill in his hand at the thief. The thief mocks the folly of the rich, and says that he is ‘wounded’ by the pen.

[58] Reference to the expensiveness of the Kulin Brahmin bridegrooms in Bengal. Hypergamy was the norm in colonial Bengal, and helpless fathers sought to marry their daughters to the highest caste of the Hindu society – the Kulin Brahmins. The bridegrooms were ‘bribed’ into a namesake marriage, and they left their brides at their maiden homes. Each man had 250 – 300 brides; all but the rich few, were neglected which led to the plight of women. The problems of this polygamy find mention in contemporary vernacular literature like Sarat Chandra’s Srikanto, P.C. Mitra’s Alaler Ghorer Dulal, and Bankim Chandra’s Debi Chaudhurani.

[59] Ashit Paul, ed., Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1983), 35.

[60] The babus (bhadralok), and their bibis (bhadramahila) weren’t the only ones caricatured. Characters like the ছেলে ধরা কাবুলিওয়ালা (“Child-lifting traders of Kabul”), বেড়াল তপস্বী (“Fake hermit”), বৈশ তপসিনী (“Holy prostitute”), কলির বৌ (“Mistress from the Kaliyug”), ইয়ং বেঙ্গল ক্ষুদ্র নবাব (“Miniature nawabs of Young Bengal”), etc., were developed by poets, and litterateurs ad infinitum, stereotyping the many echelons of the colonial society. Calcutta – the city was also honoured with a satirical description: বাঁড়, ভাঁড়, মিথ্যা কথা লয়ে কলিকাতা (“The sins of the flesh, flattery, and flouting of rules make up Calcutta”).

[61] Ibid. The production of the Battala books increased by nine times (10.24% – 91.89%) in the years 1817 – 1853. The demand for the books reflected the growing discontent against the bourgeoisie; yet it created in the minds of the literate classes a notion of modernity and citizenship, and fostered a deep respect for the Western aspectual of civilization. See Adrish Biswas, ed., Bototolar Boi: Unish Shotoker Dushprappo Kuriti Boi [Batatala Books: Twenty Rare Books of the 19th Century] (Kolkata: Gangcheel, 2011), pp.11-25. Nonetheless, the books with obscene content like রসিক তরঙ্গিণী (“Humorous Mistress”), কুলের পুরুষ নারীর বশ (“Aristocratic men in the grasp of women”), কি ভয়ানক বৈশ্য সুক্তি! (“What a terrible vaishya is Suktee!), নারীর ষোলো কলা (“Complete redemption of the woman”), etc., enjoyed popularity, and faced unofficial proscription in 1874. See Bidisha Chakraborty and Sarmishtha De, Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century: An Archival Exploration (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2014), pp.155-163.

[62] Bengali for “rich man”.

[63] Bengali for “enlightened gentleman”.

[64] Sinha, The Observant Owl, xii.

[65] Rhyme composed during the Maratha scare of 1742, and sung by natives whilst digging a ditch in 1743, to repeal the skirmishes. The so called “Maratha Ditch” was a sizeable project and the bill was met by the natives of the Black Town. The first couplet of the poem refers to the seizing of goods by the Maratha invaders from the local cultivators during a famine, for which the deranged latter muse to themselves about how they would pay taxes to the British. The second couplet refers to the plan of Jonathan Winder (the East India Company’s Council Member in Bengal) to make the ditch serve as a drainage facility. But heavy rainfall made the ditch overflow, and flood the neighbouring farm lands, and the cultivators lost their crops again. Desperate for survival, the farmers naively planted garlic (a crop unfit for the soil in Bengal), and rooted their hopes on it. The third couplet records this folly of the farmers. See Ranabir Ray Chaudhury, A City in the Making: Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2016), pp.105-116. Other interpretations assign the second couplet to rural Eastern Bengal, rather than Calcutta; depicting the memory of floods in the coastal areas, that flooded the paddies, and destroyed the rice. The difference in folk experience (between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ Bengal) is reflected in the above textual variation. See Shahed, “Bengali Folk Rhymes: An Introduction”, 152.

[66] Allusion to the babus’ exploitation of craftsmen in the name of art. In this case, the exploited craftsman is the hardworking weaver who weaves the fine muslin and silk – cloth used for making the traditional and aristocratic Bengali attire of Dhoti and Panjabi; but is cheated of his pay by his miser masters.

[67] Shahed, “Bengali Folk Rhymes: An Introduction”, 155. Allusion to the plight of the aged, widowed mother of a babu, who is submissive to his wife, and dismissive of his mother. In this particular work-song, one tells a certain old mother to go on weaving, so she could sell some of her products in the native “Olir baazar” (in Bengal, every public place has a popular name), and earn her living. Failing to do so, she will have to forfeit with the spinning wheel, and die of hunger.

[68] Ibid. Reference to the 1863 bombardment of Kagoshima. The historical rhyme can be read as a sign of dislike for colonial rule, and the growing acknowledgement of the superiority of Asiatic cultures.

[69] See Sinha, The Observant Owl, pp.24-72.

[70] Bengali for “a feast of sweets”.

[71] Samit Ranjan Mitra, interview with author, February 15, 2017.

[72] The ritualistic invoking of the Goddess Durga on Sashti, the first holy day of the Sharadiya Utsav.

[73] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “Oral tradition” (accessed February 25, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_tradition.

[74] Sushroto Arindam Mitra, interview with author, February 22, 2017.

[75] Bengali for “blue robin”.

[76] Indrajeet Mitra, e-mail message to author, February 18, 2017.

[77] Jyotirmoye Seal, interview with author, February 28, 2017.

[78] Bengali for “main gate leading to the porch”.

[79] Chirayoto Kumar Laha, e-mail message to author, February 11, 2017.

[80] Bengali for “artist”.

[81] Amitabha Roy, interview with author, February 27, 2017.

[82] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “Ledikeni” (accessed February 2, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ledikeni.

[83] Ashish Nag, interview with author, February 2, 2017.


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Das, Soumitra, “Look, Last Supper restored – Johann Zoffany’s 1787 painting at St John’s Church ready to be unveiled”, The Telegraph (Calcutta, India),  July 1 , 2010, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1100701/jsp/calcutta/story_12628679.jsp 1/.

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Mr. Shekhar Gordon (Shopkeeper of Jaba Varieties Stores, and resident of New Alipore, Kolkata) in interview with author, January, 2017.

Mr. Nilanjan Ghosh (Caretaking official of Hastings’ House at New Alipore, Kolkata) in interview with author, January 2017.

Mr. Sudipto Halder (Caretaking official at St. John’s Church at Esplanade, Kolkata) in interview with author, January 2017.

Mr. Sandip Martin (Caretaker at Parkstreet Cemetery at Parkstreet, Kolkata) interview with author, January 2017.

Mr. Samit Ranjan Mitra (Businessman, and resident of Chorbagan, Kolkata) in interview with author, February 2017.

Mr. Sushroto Arindam Mitra (Former government employee, and resident of Bhowanipore, Kolkata) in interview with author, February, 2017.

Mr. Indrajeet Mitra (Government employee, and resident of Beadon Street, Kolkata) in e-mail message to author, February 2017.

Mr. Jyotirmoye Seal (Shopkeeper of Aanjali Jewellers, and resident of Chorbagan, Kolkata) in interview with author, February 2017.

Mr. Chirayoto Kumar Laha (Lawyer, and resident of Grey Street, Kolkata) in e-mail message to author, February 2017.

Mr. Amitabha Roy (Former government employee, and resident of Uttarpara, Hooghly) in interview with author, February 2017.

Mr. Ashish Nag (Confectioner, and resident of Taltala, Kolkata) in interview with author, February 2017.

British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: The Jewel in the Crown. Directed by Nick Gillam-Smith. Performed by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2017. Documentary.

Mukherjee, Sujaan. 2017. “The story of the elusive man who made these fascinating pastel postcards of Calcutta”. Scroll.in, (web log), March 2 (8:00 pm), https://scroll.in/magazine/829156/the-story-of-the-elusive-man-who-made-these-fascinating-pastel-postcards-of-calcutta.

Sengupta, Ishita. 2017. “Kolkata is not a city, but an emotion: 10 quotes about the city that prove this”. Vagabomb, (web log), February 27 (11: 00 am), https://www.vagabomb.com/Kolkata-Is-Not-a-City-but-an-Emotion-10-Quotes-about-the-City-That-Prove-This/.

“St. John’s Church, Kolkata”. Wikipedia. Accessed on February 27, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John’s_Church,_Kolkata.

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A note of immense gratitude …

Goes to Miss.Samprikta Chatterjee, Miss.Dyutismita Das, Mr.Soham Deb Barman, Miss.Jasleen Kaur, Mrs.Mousumi Banerjee, Mrs.Mahua Roy, Miss.Suchismita Datta, Mr.Chandrabhal Mukherjee, and Mr.Amitabha Roy for your invaluable contributions to this paper. You all don’t know how much indebted  you make me. Thank you so much! 


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