Hidden histories Chennai

The Bengali bond

By the time this article is published, Navaratri will be in full swing. The city’s Bengalis will be organising Durga Puja at various centres. Chief among these is the one at Besant Nagar, hosted by the Cultural Association since 1975. Far older is the Bengal Association, which began life in 1929 as the Bengali Settlers Association. The Bengali presence in Madras, however, dates to much before that.

Perhaps the first to arrive was the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Leaving Calcutta owing to his conversion to Christianity and marriage to a Eurasian — Rebecca Thompson, he arrived in 1848, to take up a teaching assignment at the Male Orphan Asylum that functioned from Egmore and later was amalgamated with the St. George’s School and Orphanage on Poonamallee High Road. While there, he learnt Tamil, probably becoming the first Bengali to do so. Dutt shifted in 1852 to the Madras High School, which in 1855 became the Presidency College. In 1856, he left Madras for Calcutta, not with his wife but a new female companion.

By the time Swami Vivekananda came, there was a Bengali already resident here — Manmathanath Bhattacharya, Accountant General, Madras. It was at his house on Santhome High Road that the former stayed in 1892. Three years later, Albion Rajkumar Banerjee would qualify for the ICS and be appointed to the Madras Presidency. After Michael Madhusudan Dutt, he was perhaps the second Bengali to learn Tamil. He later successively became Dewan of Mysore and Kashmir, earning a knighthood in the process. The first Cauvery Water Agreement between Madras and Mysore was signed in 1924, with him representing the latter state.

In 1898, Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu married Sarojini Devi Chattopadhyaya. The venue was Sasi Vilas, the residence of Dr. M.C. Nanjunda Rao that stood till recently on R.K. Mutt Road. The house took its name from Sasi Maharaj (Swami Ramakrishnananda), a Bengali and direct disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who set up the Ramakrishna Math here in 1897.

In 1920, Professor Biman Bihari Dey joined the Presidency College’s Chemistry department. After a distinguished career there, he became head of the Alagappa Chettiar-funded Central Electrochemical Research Institute in Karaikudi. Prof. Dey died in Madras in 1959. His residence on Santhome High Road survives as an empty shell.

B.B. Dey was a settler, and by 1929, there were enough of his kind to form the Bengal Association. Another was D.P. Roy Chowdhury, who gave us two iconic sculptures — Mahatma Gandhi and the Triumph of Labour, both at the beach. He was Principal of the Madras College of Arts and Crafts from 1929 to 1957. His son Bhaskar began his career in avant-garde dance from here and later migrated to the U.S. where a stage accident left him paralysed for life. The lure of the film industry would bring many Bengalis, such as ace cameraman Jiten Bannerjee to Madras. Sarojini Devi’s brother, Harindranath Chattopadhyay worked for Gemini Studios.

Today, there are enough Bengalis here for shops to have signboards in that language!

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 7:11:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/The-Bengali-bond/article15430321.ece

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