I have split my reflections into 3 sections, first I will address the notion of why I chose the courtyard houses of North Kolkata, which were the houses and what was the process my project, (I will try to be as brief as possible)… then I will speak about the culminating event “Courtyard: Re-imagined” which was part of the Chitpur Local art festival held in February this year and lastly I will speak about the reflections in the form an exhibition, exhibited here at Max Mueller Bhavan.
According to the oxford dictionary the word “Courtyard”, is an unroofed area that is completely or partially enclosed by walls or buildings, typically forming a part of a castle or a large house but as an individual, courtyards have always secured a special place in my life as it carries memories from my childhood. I have stayed, grown up and even studied in courtyard houses/buildings not just in Kolkata but in different parts of Bengal.
Though as an individual the courtyard brings back memories but being an installation artist, I see it as a public-private space. A space where people congregate for an event or a meeting. A space where the public enters a private domain and the private meets the public in their own enclosed area but under the open sky.
Kolkata, as we all know has a distinct food & adda culture, way of living and a distinct architectural legacy which are an amalgamation of different styles and interests of people living in these houses.
While speaking about the living history of the past, one aspect which is distinctively visible are the old residential buildings in Kolkata. So, when I returned to this city about 5 years back, I started re-looking and re-discovering this city in a different way. I was gravitated towards the old architectural buildings, especially the residential one where people were still residing. For me, those build structure, some which were standing there for more than 150 years were treasure trove of various narratives. When you see a house, they are not mere roof over the head, but an outcome of the family’s needs, desire and re-lived memories. While doing the research, I was initially drawn towards two aspects of these residential houses - one, all housed joint family system and second, each of these buildings had ‘courtyard/s’ or the Uthan/Dalan as we call in Bengali.
Courtyards in every region of India has its own reason behind its presence but one distinct characteristic has been, the community public space in a private domain. This research project was an attempt to know, understand the past and present scenario and arrive at some inference as to what lies ahead of these courtyards and the families living there.
There are many courtyard houses in north Kolkata, finding them were easy but their involvement in the project was the toughest. Initially, few families like Rai Bari and Bagla house found the concept interesting but were quite reluctant to interact for long. I believe there was a ‘trust’ issue. There was a time when I had almost given up on the project but fortunately met one or two people who agreed to be the mediator between myself and the courtyard house-owners.
Finally, I worked with 4 courtyard houses, Mitra Bari in Darjipara, Sen Bari in Ahirtola, Dawn Bari in Dinarakhsit Lane near B.K. Pal crossing, and later briefly at Fanush Bari on Beadon Street (Bholanath Dham).
Mitra Bari in Darjipara, which is on Nilmoni Mitra Street and famous for hosting Durga puja are the decedents of Durga Charan Mitra, the court jeweller of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, which was later continued by Nilmoni Mitra but the family condition worsened with time. It was Nilmoni Mitra's grandson, Radhakrishna Mitra who brought back fortune in the family and started the Durga puja in the family in 1807. In recent times the Durga puja is organised and maintained by the daughters of the family.
Sen Bari which is in one of the narrow lanes in Ahiritola, have a different social stature in the society. It house a joint family system which is quite a contrast to the rest of the houses I was studying. Their courtyards are much smaller compared to the rest of the three houses, which is called uthan in Bengali. Despite being smaller in size it is the most active courtyard. The courtyard is more of a private space, not quite open to the public unless invited.
Dawn Bari in Dina Rakhshit Lane, near B.K.Pal crossing is a business family. They had business of motor parts and owned various petrol pumps in this city. They came to Kolkata towards the end of 19th century and started building this present house around 1910 but none of the family members use to stay here as a result the house was in dilapidating condition. About 25 years back, Amarnath Dawn moved into this house and took charge of it and started renovating the space.
Bholanath Dham (also known as Fanush Bari) is on Beadon Street. It is owned by the Dutta family. The house celebrates both durga and kali puja, it is during the kali puja the courtyard becomes quite active. The Dutta family has been flying Fanush from 1925 onwards and kept alive the Fanush making and flying culture since them. Hence the name, Fanush Bari.
I have been interacting with all the families for more than a year, documenting their present-day activities in the courtyards and doing art interventions in some of the houses on regular intervals.
While documenting various activities in the courtyard, I learnt that apart from the different religious rituals during the pujas, nothing much was happening in any of the houses except in Sen Bari, where they use the space for household chores and regular interactions within the family take place.
Apart from interacting with the courtyard house-owners, I also started interacting with the people living in the surrounding areas of these house. My regular presence in the locality initially garnered curiosity but it soon got overruled when I started interacting with the family members of these people. I was soon invited to play carrom with the local people in the neighbourhood.
By now, it was more than a year of interaction with both courtyard house-owners and the neighbourhood people and was also the time for the Chitpur Local Arts Festival, which takes place towards the end of the program tenure. For the festival, I decided to do the project event at the Dawn Bari, titled, ‘Courtyard: Re-imagined’. I selected the courtyard house not only for its location but also because it was an example of a well renovated house, carried out by one of its family members, who went against all odds to bring back the lost glory of the house. Though he has some restrictions in place, Amarnath Dawn keeps finding sustainable ways to maintain this house and retain its stature. The various interactions with the house owners and the neighbourhood people shaped my event structure for the Chitpur Local Arts Festival.
The First event was, 'Carrom Board tournament' which started from 12 noon, a game which is fast depleting from the streets of Kolkata, especially North Kolkata. The concept was to bring the outside in.
Followed by a Mime act by Soma Das and her team. They performed ‘Anadarmahal er Katha' to bring the close door stories of the big Bengali joint families to the forefront. Introduction of Mime theatre in the event was also an experiment to realize how it gets played/accepted in an area where theatre practice is predominant. It was also done to redefine the concept of a stage.
The final event was the releasing of the fanush.
When you ask Ajoy Dutta, the main person behind the fanush making and flying, about sky lantern, he keeps clarifying that it’s not sky lantern but Fanush. Fanush comes in-between category of sky lantern and hot air balloon and they are release when there is day light. Fanush making and flying has reduced considerably with time, which was once a predominant practice in the houses of North Kolkata.
To revive and re-invent the fanush, a two-day fanush making workshop in the courtyard of Fanush Bari/Bholanath Dham, was arranged, a week before the final event. Students from St. Xaviers College, Government Art College, and few professionals participated. Some fanush were also released as a trial before the final event.
Making of Fanush is a tedious process and needs lots of patience, but the students learnt the technique in the two-day workshop and produced 9 fanush all by themselves. The fanush were released on the day of the event with the help of Ajoy Dutta and his assistants.
For me the project and the project event were a success as I could bring in the locals inside the courtyard as most of them were sceptical about entering the premises.
After the festival it was time to look back and reflect on my association with all the collaborator be it with the courtyard house-owners or the people from the neighbourhood. Though my association with both courtyard house-owners and the neighbourhood people continues, my desire to know their response and what do they plan to do next was profound.
It was interesting and wonderful to know that they are ready to open their space for such events where even the families can participate. Some are re-thinking ways to open up their courtyard houses. The demand for more documentation and compilation of courtyard houses in Kolkata was also put forward by the house-owners and they feel these courtyards are not going stay long and citing various reasons behind its disappearance. They also feel not just for historical value, it has its socio as well environmental value attached to it.