Within the premises of the Panihati Balika Vidyalaya, tucked to one side, is the tomb of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a woman who heralded great reforms in women’s education and emancipation in late colonial Bengal. I have been brought to tears by celebrities on the screen and characters on the page, but it was truly an unmatched, unique experience being moved to tears by such an unassuming grave.
I met Isabel, Marco, and Diego during our Chitpore Road Walk. Isabel and Diego hail from Spain; Marco is from Italy. Isabel was drawn to Calcutta by a noble cause: she is creating a feature-length animated film that connects Rokeya’s seminal work, “Sultana’s Dream,” with the lives of Rokeya and of the director herself. It is at once autobiographical and fantastical, and yet rooted in reality — the reality of women’s plight in Bengal at the turn of the twentieth century, and the director’s search for clues to uncover Rokeya’s life and work.
When Isabel asked Heritage Walk Calcutta to help with the research for the film, I was given the opportunity to explore how to retain historical authenticity in the depiction of nuggets from Rokeya’s life. The team had questions about life in the city in the early 1900s, how Rokeya’s life might have fit into the cityscape, how it affected her writing. I had never known that Rokeya composed one of the earliest pieces of science fiction to come out of Bengal, “Sultana’s Dream.” In her story, men are kept in the zenana, observing the rituals of purdah, and women take the lead in administrative endeavours. One has to remember, this was a time when reforms started by illustrious figures beginning from Raja Rammohan Roy, and then by Vidyasagar, then Rabindranath were gaining momentum and facing stupendous hurdles in the Bengali society. Rokeya was encouraged by her husband, the respected Khan Bahadur Syed Sakhawat Hossain, to write and publish her stories. This was a surprise for me, since this was a time when even the basic rights of education, suffrage, and freedom of expression were not freely offered to women from all communities.
After researching the times in which Rokeya lived, the challenges of being a woman in a world that worked on the whims of men, and the way she maintained her gravitas and reputation in the face of slander (a price paid by the women in another of her famous works, Padmarag, for their attempts to live beyond social norms), I was suitably impressed. My mind could not quite accept that it was only now, at the age of 25, that I had been fully introduced to the legend that was Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
Rokeya’s life was spread across a wide geographical terrain – from her birth in Pairabondh in Rangpur district of what is now Bangladesh; to Cuttack, where her family moved and where she met her husband; to Bhagalpur, where she first established a high school for girls from the Bengali Muslim community; and then to Calcutta and its suburbs, where she lived the rest of her life. In Isabel’s work, the director herself also travels across continents, from seminar halls to mehndi workshops and the rural landscape of Bengal, looking for inspiration for her art.
Besides artistic inspiration, it was also necessary for Isabel to retain historical authenticity in her depiction of late colonial Bengal, which propitiously falls within the repertoire of Heritage Walk Calcutta. After discussions with Isabel and her team, we chose to visit Jamgram near Pandua, visit the ruins of the Badi Masjid on the way, and end the day with a boat trip down the river Hooghly, passing the towns of Halishohor, Hooghly, and Bandel on the way. Jamgram offers picturesque views of the Bengal countryside, as well as many untold stories in the majestic edifice of the Jamgram Nandy Bari. We had the opportunity to meet the members of the family from Nandy Bari, venture into the mansion, and take a close look at some of the typical architectural styles prevalent in nineteenth-century Bengal.
Isabel was interested in observing the kind of village houses people might have lived in during Rokeya’s time, and how the river winding through the landscape changed the way cities and towns developed. To better acquaint Isabel, Marco, and Diego with the river’s course and history, we took a trip on a bhotbhoti nouko, which helped us maneuver between sandbanks and have a close look at the way industrialization had affected the riverscape. The derelict jetties and warehouses, the overgrown ghats, the brick kilns and their chimneys furiously spouting smoke, the kaashphool, and the majestic Bada Imambara of Hooghly—all made for a fascinating experience that would be difficult to replicate. Even the weather gods played nice!
Marco was able to record many of the sights around and across the river’s course, and Heritage Walk Calcutta’s founder Tathagata explained how this part of Bengal had become home to colonies of so many different nationalities – the Portuguese in Bandel, the French in Chandernagore, the Dutch in Chinsurah – and how industries had developed and new townships had been built up around them. It was mesmerizing to see the rapidity with which Isabel took sketches of the people going about their lives on the riverside, how the river itself contributed to their livelihoods. The true métier of the director became apparent to me as I saw her at work, with her paints, alta, and drawing board – the elegant brushstrokes, the steady handiwork even in the oscillating motion of the boat, her devotion to not only recreating but soaking in the vistas that surrounded her, felt like it was worth all the planning and meetings and jugaad!
The next day, I personally took the animation team on a hunt for Rokeya’s grave and the site(s) of Rokeya’s school in Calcutta. It was a hunt in the sense that we would have to take the risk of visiting a school in Bengal on the eve of Kali Pujo, and somehow manage to get ourselves on the right side of the locked gates. It took some time to locate the school itself after emerging from the winding roads through Panihati, a suburb to the north of Kolkata, on the banks of the Ganga. Rokeya has indeed found a peaceful resting place, fittingly within a space meant for girls’ education and upliftment, where she is still revered and remembered. The search for the keys to the gated compound led me to the Gobinda Kumar Home, an orphanage for girls, in the vicinity of the school. The Home is the Pinitir baganbari (Panihati’s farmhouse) where Rabindranath stayed for some time and composed several of his creations while sitting on one of the verandahs – pointed out to me by the Didi who had lived in the premises of the home since her childhood. It was interesting to meet the women who take care of the orphanage and Isabel’s reaction to these very othered spaces. Marco was engrossed by the beautiful locale, the promenade by the river; since it was the holiday season, even Marco and Diego were welcomed onto the premises.
What affected me the most, though, was Isabel’s determination to buy flowers for Rokeya’s grave, and the love with which she placed them on the epitaph that I translated for her. I thanked my stars that I could help her understand that Rokeya was still remembered as a figurehead of women’s education and liberation in Bengal: that the Sultana still lived in the dreams of her many devotees.
We later tried to look for the place where Rokeya had first established her school in Calcutta – 13, Waliullah Lane, in Janbazar – but we were disappointed to see that almost nothing remained of the older structures. While there was no time to continue searching on that day, I have decided to see if any traces can be found of the school in the older ruins beyond the modern structures that line the street. Our journey ended at the Sakhawat Memorial Government Girls’ High School, where the caretaker was kind enough to let us wander around the huge building, so beautifully maintained, and the classrooms, so strangely quiet – as if in waiting for the chorus of its usual occupants.
It was with so much warmth, reverence, and concern that my companions bid me adieu when I dropped them at home, even after what were essentially two immensely hectic and tiring days, replete with both inspiration and exhaustion. My takeaway from these travels were not just my research, which acquainted me with an illustrious figure of yore, but the experience of helping someone find inspiration and, in fact, complete a pilgrimage to sites of such immense historical and sentimental value.
As an epilogue, I would like to acknowledge the contributions made by Dr. Tathagata Neogi, in helping me connect with Isabel and her team. I would also like to refer interested readers to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, translated and with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. Prantosh Bandopadhyay was most generous with his help when I was confused about certain aspects of Rokeya’s works. His erudition helped me to understand Rokeya and her times better.
About the Author: Pritha Mukherjee has completed her M.A. in History from the School of Historical Studies at Nalanda University recently. She has had experience working with archaeological surveys, museum documentation, and heritage walk initiatives in Bihar. Pritha has recently joined Heritage Walk Calcutta as Research and Development Assistant.