What is a common thread that binds Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Debendranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore? Well, they were all guests of Calcutta’s Shobhabazaar Rajbari, at one point or another.
This grand edifice was built some three centuries ago — in 1700 by Raja Nabakrishna Deb. Its architecture, as one account puts it, was a mash-up of Moorish, Hindu and colonial styles. Moor was a term that medieval European Christians used to term Muslim inhabitants of several Mediterranean areas. These architectural influences possibly came about from trade and commerce exchanges between regions.
Raja Nabakrishna Deb was born into a family of relative affluence. His father, Ram Charan Deb, was a businessman, and a dewan in the Nawab of Cuttack’s court. Nabakrishna lost his father when he was young, but his mother ensured that her son completed formal education. He also learnt several languages such as English, Urdu, Arabic and Persian besides his native Bengali. It was Deb’s command over Persian that led to his close association with Hastings; he became his tutor for Persian.
Associations with key figures
Between his tutoring and possibly his deft ability at communication, he grew close to the two key figures—Clive and Hastings—who were credited with paving the way for India’s colonisation by the British.
However, while history books are replete with examples of how the British came and forcibly worked their way upon India, I have always considered it as a dish that has been, far too often, served not with a pinch, but a handful of salt.
For any foreign power to wield authority in a far-off land, there will always be local allies. There will be individuals or even organisations who will, quite understandably, put their material interests first.
My earlier naive view was the British defeated Siraj-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, and then went on to reign for the next 190 years. But not too long ago, I found out the British were aided by Mir Jafar and a Murhsidabad-based money lending family called the Jagat Seths. And now I’ve come to realise there was a third key figure called Raja Nabakrishna Deb. There were other associates too.
This close association, with the powers that were, enabled Deb to amass a fortune. In fact, the story goes that Deb, Mir Jafar, and their associates, earned the equivalent of several million dollars when adjusted for time. Clearly, they were enterprising souls who knew the art of being at the right place at the right time.
In fact, Deb started an elaborate ritual to mark the British victory over the French backed Nawab of Bengal, in 1757. This victory set in motion the grand Durga Puja tradition. Started eons ago, it continues to be held at the Shobhabazaar Rajbari even today.
Support for music and culture
What is interesting to note is that although Raja Nabakrishna Deb was openly in support of the British, he was held in high regard by locals too. Going by anecdotal evidence, this was possibly because Deb also had a knack for personal relations, or PR as we commonly term it. He was a donor for the Calcutta Madrasa, gave away land to build the St. John’s Church and of course, held lavish Durga Puja celebrations. Clive and Hastings attended several of these festivities.
The Deb family were also art and culture aficionados. They helped revive kabigaans, half akhrai and Bengali jatra. The rajbari’s premises, therefore, saw visits from the likes of Anthony Firingee, Hari Thakur and Bhola Moira. Hari Thakur was the founder of the Matua sect of Hinduism.
Raja Deb himself was an ardent follower of the Brahmo Samaj and based on events the rajbari hosted or assisted, he was definitely one with a progressive mindset. This trait was imbibed by his descendants and, across the ages, the rajbari welcomed distinguished figures. In February 1897, a public reception was held for Swami Vivekananda in the rajbari’s courtyard or nat mandap.
The rajbari today
While he did collude with the British, I do not necessarily regard him a conspirator or a traitor. Rather, it may have been the prevailing circumstances of the time that influenced his decision making. Besides, we are all innate capitalists. The want for material advancement is ingrained into the minutest fabric of our beings. One can exercise restraint or maybe use the material gains to fund philanthropy.
But regardless of approach, consider your school history books as only scratching the surface. Most historical events are not fueled by patriotism or nation building, but more by personal pursuits disguised in the garb of noble doing.
The Shobhabazaar rajbari, meanwhile, welcomes visitors during Durga puja celebrations. Its premises can also be rented for weddings or other such events. It seems decently maintained and hopefully, it will not be razed to the ground to make way for some multi-storey eye sore.