Barrackpore Park is today a forgotten piece of history.
The West Bengal Police Training Academy operates here, as does the State Armed Police and the Barrackpore Cantonment of the Indian Army. Its once rolling grounds have been divided and built upon by brutal-looking twenty- first century structures, many painted in an alarming shade of white and blue. Somewhere on the edge of the river stands a tomb built over the final resting place of Lady Canning, first Vicereine of India, while a statue of Lord Canning who passed away soon after returning to England stands guard at the foot of the tomb. It was brought here from the streets of Calcutta in the late 1960s as the city administrators went into an overdrive to remove colonial memories by erasing British era statues. Someone, somewhere, placed the magisterial figure of Lord Canning beside his wife’s grave, perhaps mindful both of the pathos of the situation as well as the silliness of defacing or removing statues to obliterate what can only be described as a definite moment in India’s past.
Other statues from colonial India are found on the lawns of the Flagstaff House, which was once the residence of the private secretary to the Viceroy and is today the Governor of Bengal’s riverside retreat.
Few Governors use it though.
The house stands empty and a little run down, with the sofas in the vast high-ceilinged hall sagging forlornly, the cinnamon tree in the garden looking sadly at the scrubby lawn. Only the statues of the great Governors General and Viceroys, the Mintos, a Curzon, a John Lawrence and a Mayo (there are twelve statues in all, of exquisite workmanship) and a semaphore looming out of the grass are reminders of what this house, this garden and this estate once was.
For Barrackpore Park had been begun by Lord Wellesley in 1801 to rival Government House in Calcutta, to function as a weekend retreat for the Governor General and to be a piece of England in a foreign land with its vast mansion — Government House — a rolling park styled and landscaped like an English garden, an aviary, a menagerie, and a cluster of bungalows for the guests and the officers.
In time the estate grew, became a point of leisure for the British administrators where they partied, danced, came on a honeymoon, played golf, rowed on the river, painted, hunted and had a grand time. There was Calcutta — stiff, formal and crowded, and there was Barrackpore, the Latbagan as the Indians called it, the place for pleasure and sport.
The photograph above is a picture taken by a Vicereine. Hariot Dufferin, wife of Lord Dufferin or Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood who ruled as Viceroy from 1884 to 1888 was an avid photographer and took many images of India during her stay here. Lady Dufferin’s photo is one of the many enthusiastic ones taken by other Vicereines or painted by earlier Ladysahibs in which the great Banyan Tree stands as the centre point of this country mansion. The tree stood outside on the lawn in the southern side of the mansion, hundred years old already when Wellesley began his mansion and was a beloved shaded spot under which meals were had, sore minds were rested, games were played and the stiff starched British upper lip could dissolve into merry-making and fun.
After India’s Independence in 1947 the British past began to fade, so much so that sometime in the 1980s a muddled Indian bureaucrat decided that the sepoy Mangal Pandey, whose defiance had flamed into the Sepoy Mutiny (or India’s First War of Independence, as we had been taught at school) had been hanged from the banyan tree outside the Governor General’s bedroom and not the tree in the Cantonment where the hanging had actually taken place. Thus began a completely inaccurate representation of the Government House banyan tree as the scene of India’s spirited defiance. Everybody we spoke to before our research believed it to be so, without pausing to think.
Why would you hang a man in chains at the spot where you had your breakfast and your children played catch!
But to return to Lady Dufferin. Her journal contains riveting accounts of her viceregal life in India, including scenes from her stays at Barrackpore and the picnics, charity balls, levees, dancing and music, Christmases and summers spent there.
No ominous note in her account. Perhaps she didn’t quite realise the full import of the fact that fifteen miles away, in the heart of Calcutta, the seeds of a tiny organisation called the Indian National Congress through the Indian Association had been planted, a flower that bloomed in Bombay in 1885. No one took any notice of it.
God was in his heaven, the British ruled the land, this land and many, many more and the sun would never set on them!
If you would like to know more about Barrackpore Park and Government House, Barrackpore, do read Under the Banyan Tree: The Forgotten Story of Barrackpore Park co-written with my husband.
2 thoughts on “Barrackpore”
I am usually a speed-reader. If a book does not grab me by the scruff of the neck in the first 5 to 10 pages it is unlikely to sustain my attention for its full length. If it is something I consider outstanding I have been known to read it twice and – in really special instances – add it to my personal collection of ‘books worth keeping’, retrieving it occasionally and re-visiting passages which, somehow, always appear fresh to me. My enjoyment of a good book is, therefore, a serial thing. When I first received “Under the Banyan Tree” i whipped through the book in a week while noting special passages to return to. It is a substantial book, beautifully produced with an obvious quality attention to the paper and binding used, the layout and presentation iof the lavish collection of illustrations, paintings and photographs. Not as large as a conventional coffee-table book but no mere history text-book
When I returned to the passages after a month I found any number of nuances and new things that I had missed in my first speed-read. I decided to suspend my ever-present book queue and focus on this book in a dogged, line-by-line, slow and steady approach, sometimes tracing sentences with a fore-finger with lips moving and making reference notes in a notepad as an aide memoire.. As a ‘one chapter a day’ reader, sometimes I managed only one page a day. The discipline necessary is at least, I suggest, character-building but, in this instance proved most rewarding. Deliberately reading every sentence word by word is not, I believe, a general practice which is why most typographical errors and grammatical slips escape the editorial net (which is no excuse for editors not to do better especially when checking the captions of pictures/illustrations).
Without condescenscion in any form,reading this book was a distinct pleasure. This – in my humble opinion – is how history ought to be written. The connectivity of this backdrop of the early growth of the East India Company’s distant frontier – given Bengal as (I paraphrase here) Britain’s bridgehead in India – is an engrossing story, seamlessly told here. The nostalgia of early administrators endeavouring to replicate a piece of their homeland in an erstwhile alien setting and with edifices reflecting their imperial ambitions remains central throughout. The authors’ efforts to recover and restore it to its former glory is a signal understanding and acknowledgement that the history of invaders, while in occupation, are, de facto, just as much a part of the evolving history of the land. The British presence in India was, in the overall passage of time, just another episode in India’s – Bengal in particular – ancient, colourful and dynamic history. . Obliterating it does not wipe out the memory of it. Remembering it helps one to celebrate how a nation has overcome historic adversties and how far it has come. An appreciation of the aesthetics of historic architecture and their maintenance as objects of beauty speaks voluimes about the civilisation and culture of a nation.
I once lived in the grounds of Latbagan for a year over half a century ago (as a very junior employee, I might add), so, for me, the book was a lavishly indulgent wander down memory lane. I saw where improvements had been rendered and remember the features illustrated and described so well. Connecting them with the historical narrative of their origins was serendipitous.
Knowing the bureaucratic inertia of India, as I do, mustering official support, finance and resources in order to carry out the renovations, refurbishments and landscaping necessary to revitiate Barrackpore House and its environs would have been an enormous challenge. The visible results achieved must stand as a monument to Soumen Mitra’s vision, dogged determination, persistence, tenacity, patience, diplomacy, endurance. and rhetorical powers of persuasion. It is also a tribute to the level of credibility and esteem that the state government administration hold him in and, accordingly, supported this initiative – and not for the first time either.
Anything a very ordinary high-school graduate could say about the work of a Professor of English would , prima facie, verge on impudence. I write, therefore, as an average bookstand consumer of her product. More than mere value for money, Professor Mitra has an easy, lucid, narrative style, free of literary distractions which entertains as it informs. I didn’t want her book to end and, had she continued to write about the British in Bengal following its historic timeline, I would still be reading. Thank you for the book and the reading pleasure it afforded me.
It is always a pleasure to be read by someone as well read as you. Thanks again.