Rabindranath Tagore is a renowned literary figure. His contributions to the Indian freedom movement too were substantial. Among Bengalis particularly, Tagore occupies an even more special place of pride.
A few months ago, I’d written about the Sens, and their bungalow in Mungpoo, that hosted the Nobel Laureate on a few occasions. It is located amid quiet environs and even today, some eight decades on, it is still the perfect haven for a writer or a poet.
Mungpoo also enjoyed a brief spell of global limelight in 2020 when its long-shuttered cinchona processing facility was proposed to be reopened. This was amid initial reports that cinchona derived hydroxycholoroquine might be an antidote to COVID-19.
Unfortunately, this study was rubbished as quickly as it was published. And quiet Mungpoo has remained exactly the way it has for the better part of three decades.
The Gouripur House
Unbeknownst to me, Tagore would also visit another bungalow–albeit a statelier one–in nearby Kalimpong. I learnt about it when a reader, and fellow history buff, shared with me an article about the Gouripur House. It belonged, or possibly still belongs, to the Roychowdhurys of Gouripur — a town in present day Mymensingh, Bangladesh.
Now, Kalimpong is a town with a vibrant past. It was once an important trading hub, being as it was the closest urban centre to Jelep La. This mountain pass allowed trade with neighbouring Tibet. Kalimpong flourished during this era, although its fortunes began to decline after the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
Kalimpong also acquired notoriety as being a hot bed for spies. The town was keenly observed by the CIA — the US intelligence agency in the years leading up to China’s annexation of Tibet. The Chinese government, it turns out, suspected the Indian administration of training ‘Tibetan separatist elements’ in this otherwise tranquil town.
Kalimpong once attracted the wealthy, not only because of the economic opportunities it offered but also because its climate was pleasant all through the year. Unlike Darjeeling or Kurseong, this hill town is located at a much lower elevation. The winters are much milder.
A shadow of its former opulence
The Gouripur House was a stately manor home, clearly inspired by Gothic influences. Its façade is flanked by Juliet balconies that further add to its old-world charm. The arches seen on the lower level were a common feature in colonial era structures built in the hills.
Arches, as one account put it, were as much an aesthetic element as they were functional. The bulk of the eastern Himalayas are an active seismic zone. And arches are supposedly better able to dissipate the tremendous forces generated during an earthquake. Unfortunately, a part of the ageing structure did suffer serious damages during the September 2011 tremor.
An avid traveler and friend, Avik Bhattacharya, recently visited the Gouripur House in October 2021. Avik recounts how most locals, whom he asked for directions, had no clue of the illustrious visitor who’d once visited Kalimpong. They were also unaware that there was a house that stood there.
Avik eventually decided to explore various roads in the approximate area. Not too long after, he came upon the now abandoned structure — reduced to a shadow of its former self.
An educational institution was being built in front. What might earlier have been an uninterrupted view for the poet, was now definitely obstructed by a concrete eyesore. The house was open but there were residents. A caretaker family resides there and going by their account, they have been associated with the Roychowdhurys for three generations now.
Avik and his family met an aged lady called Sangita. Her father apparently was around when Tagore had visited, back in 1938.
It deserves a restoration
One interesting highlight I came upon while researching the Gouripur House was the fact that it had a telephone connection in the late 1930s. It was using this phone that Tagore was able to broadcast a few of his recitations live on the All India Radio.
From 1956 onwards, this service was renamed Akashvani. But if one is to analyse tech devices available at the time, chances are the Gouripur House might have had an electrophone.
This device was the early equivalent of what social media enthusiasts will identify as live-streaming. It was a telephone-like device with the capability of a radio. The London Electrophone Company, for example, streamed the sound of live theatre into listeners’ homes by using electrophones from 1893-1925.
Avik says visiting the house left him with a bitter sweet experience. In its heyday, the Gouripur House would have once been a site of sheer opulence. But in its current iteration, it was more a fragment of its storied past.
For me personally, there is a curious observation I’ve made. Two Tagore related relics seem to have been allowed to fall into decay. The first is the Gouripur House in Kalimpong, and the second is his Humber car.
Three failed attempts to restore the Humber have ensured it is now living out its days in an enclosure at the Vishva Bharati in Shantiniketan.
The Gouripur House will, hopefully, be restored and maybe turned into a heritage hotel, much like Kalimpong’s Morgan House. It could even make for a museum or a cultural centre, named in Tagore’s honour.