Along the quiet banks of the river, a few hours north from the bustle of Kolkata, lies a string of dusty towns. They are most notable for their roles as distant trading outposts for several European nations over the past few centuries. This past is evidenced in the grand arcades of crumbling Indo-Dutch mansions and sweeping staircases of elegant French-style houses. Photographer Sugato Mukherjee captures that architectural history and how it’s being recognised with a series of restoration projects.
North of Kolkata, foreign trade has been bustling along the Ganges since the end of the 16th century, with the arrival of the Portuguese, who were drawn by the pepper trade. They created the first European settlement at Bandel, 55km from modern-day Kolkata.
The Dutch were next to arrive, setting up a trading post at Chinsurah (1610–1825), where they built a series of palatial mansions notable for their unique Indo-Dutch architectural style.
Down river, Chandannagar was founded by the French at the end of the 17th century. The imposing Chandannagar Strand remains with its elegant pastel façades, like the former French Governor’s House, now a museum and an institute of French studies
A short distance away, Serampore – a colony of the Danish East India company from 1755–1845 – is now the focal point for several recent renovation projects.
Started by the National Museum of Denmark, in collaboration with the West Bengal Heritage Commission, the Serampore Initiative aimed to restore what remained of the Danish settlement. First off was St Olav’s Church (built 1806), which occupies the main riverside promenade of the town and was reconsecrated in April 2016.
Just a short walk from the church, the green louvre windows and vivid yellow walls of the 18th-century Danish Tavern beckon. It now houses a bakery, coffee shop and a boutique hotel.
Serampore is not the only town to benefit from a renewed interest in its past. Upriver in Chinsurah, conservation architectural firm Aishwarya Tipnis Architects (ATA) has been documenting historic buildings which reflect a shared Indo-Dutch cultural heritage since 2014.
Meanwhile in Chandannagar, the French Embassy also commissioned ATA for a multi-disciplinary conservation project. As well as mapping the town’s rich architectural heritage, workshops have been organised to introduce the town’s children to its French past. The next steps include plans to open eateries specialising in French cuisine and reopen a French bakery.
This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine