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This Kolkata boat museum is the only one of its kind in the country

Bachhari from Bongaon, chiefly used as a water taxi.   | Photo Credit: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Gitanjali, Tagore’s collection of poems that brought India its first Nobel in 1913, has a backstory not many would know. The poet began translating the Bengali verses of Gitanjali into English on his favourite luxury houseboat, ‘Padma’. The original boat doesn’t survive: but its memory is preserved in the form of a replica in Kolkata’s ‘boat museum’.

Padma is among the 46 models of boat on display at The Heritage Boats of Bengal gallery in the Cultural Research Institute (CRI) in Kankurgachhi. The nondescript Ambedkar Bhawan which houses the museum is easy to miss, all the more because the building hardly looks like a museum from the outside. Add to this our general indifference towards history and it is easy to guess why, according to CRI figures, the country’s only boat museum receives just 40 visitors per month on an average although it has been around for the past four years. Not many, even Kolkatans, are aware of its existence.

“The history and heritage of Bengal is connected to its naval power, trade and commerce. The gallery is an attempt to archive the cultural heritage of West Bengal and to document the skills of the indigenous, and now marginalised, sections of people who helped maintain Bengal’s dominance over riverine trade by building and using boats,” says Upendranath Biswas, the former State Minister for Backward Classes Welfare Department, who conceptualised the project in 2012.

An original boat brought from Bongaon is the first thing to greet you as you enter the museum. Long and narrow in shape, with a chhoi (cover) to provide shade, these boats are chiefly used as water taxis. Called Bachharis, they are typically from Bangladesh. After taking the beauty of this Bachhari in, you examine the wooden boat models crafted by artisans from Dinajpur district that line the gallery walls. From the ancient boats of Harappa to the still-in-use dinghies, the museum has boats currently in service along with those lost in time.

“We know very little of Bengal’s riverine ecosystem and its culture. Historical texts use the term ‘nousadhon’, indicating how boats were used for various different purposes — commerce, travel, commute — making our culture chiefly riverine rather than landlocked. Unfortunately, we hardly know the details,” says Biswas, who also specialises in cultural anthropology. Till he set up this museum, there were no archival displays of this aspect of Bengal’s past whereas the Bangladesh National Museum in Dhaka has at least 175 typological boat models.

Pinnace, used to ferry Europeans back in the day, and (right) Tabure, common in North 24 Parganas.

Pinnace, used to ferry Europeans back in the day, and (right) Tabure, common in North 24 Parganas.   | Photo Credit: Kainat Sarfaraz

The museum official who gave me a tour of the boats on display did not seem to have much information either. Biswas acknowledges the shortcoming and says that gathering in-depth knowledge of the boats needs a certain level of dedication.

Swarup Bhattacharyya, the curator of Maulana Azad Museum in Kolkata’s Ballygunge area and a boat-enthusiast brought in by Biswas to help set up the Kankurgachhi museum, evidently has the dedication Biswas talks of. He addresses my queries about boats, explaining how the variety of waterbodies across Bengal, like khal (canal), pukur (pond), and doba (marsh land), necessitates the use of different kinds of boats. “Boat-building techniques are handed down orally from guru to shishya. They are tailor-made to the specific requirements of the area in which the boat functions,” he says.

For instance, the flat-bottomed Kosa boats, used in Bengal for fishing and transportation of cargo, cannot function on the Hooghly river. “They are suited to North Bengal since the current in the hilly rivers there is strong and the water is shallow,” Bhattacharyya says.

Bhattacharya points out that at least 25-30 types of boats are still in use in West Bengal. “In low-lying areas like Ghatal, Mondi, and Koyna, houses are surrounded by water even after the rainy season. There, a bicycle is of no use. People need boats to commute,” Bhattacharya tells me.

Apart from having intricate structures, the miniature boats at the museum also have interesting stories behind their names. The Trawler boat, for instance, has its origins in Bangladesh. Despite its name, it doesn’t have trawl nets. So why the name?

“During the 1990s, some fishing merchants of Kakdwip (a place on the mouth of the Hooghly river in West Bengal) fancied a kind of big boat in use in Bangladesh: they found it to be better equipped for coastal or maritime fishing. So one of these merchants sent his boatmakers to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to learn the technique. On coming back, they replicated the same boat in Kakdwip. Locals of Kakdwip found the model unfamiliar and gave it an appropriately ‘foreign’ name: trawler,” says Bhattacharya, adding that the boats, which go up to 50-60 feet, are still functional in the Sundarbans area, Diamond Harbour and Kakdwip.

The cargo-carrier Dholai, operational in the Sundarbans.

The cargo-carrier Dholai, operational in the Sundarbans.   | Photo Credit: Kainat Sarfaraz

“Bengal boats are shell-built, which means that the planks making up the hull are put first and the skeleton or the frame is added later. But these trawlers are built frame first. The boat has a projected plank at the bottom called keel which can cut through wave and current.” The replica at the boat museum has miniature wooden planks joined closely together for its deck and a small cabin with a single entry point.

Another boat built frame first is the Sultani. This deep-bottomed boat propelled by sails can carry up to 2,000-3,000 maunds and is used mainly in Midnapore district. Although it is unclear how the Sultani got its name, it bears a striking resemblance to Mediterranean boats which are also skeleton-built, Bhattacharyya points out. The Sultani is the first boat model on the right when you enter the gallery; you can’t miss its remarkable white sail.

Before leaving the museum, I go through the visitors’ notebook and notice that it asks for your caste. I ask Biswas about this and he explains why caste is an important part of the conversation around boats in Bengal. “Brahmins do not build boats. It is the marginalised section that builds and rows boats,” he says. The intention is to document how many people from the marginalised classes visit the museum.

According to Biswas, indigenous people belonging to different tribes and clans of Bengal have been building ships and boats of unique designs over the ages. But many of them have now been marginalised for political, economic and historical reasons. “The museum is an attempt to highlight their skills and document their contribution,” says Biswas.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 3:53:59 AM |

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