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Thakur Bari - Kolkata

It is the 25th day of Baisakh (8th May). Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Jorashanko house known as Thakur Bari, in north Calcutta, is milling with people. Men, women and children start arriving from the early hours to pay obeisance to the great savant on his birth anniversary. The Thakur Bari now houses the Rabindra Barati University. Incidentally, the university also houses a museum of Tagore’s memorabilia named Bichitra Bhaban. Strains of the poet’s lilting songs transform the atmosphere and take one to a period when Calcutta was still nascent.

In mid-18th century the roads of the city were largely unmetalled and the clatter of horse-drawn coaches was an all-too-familiar sound. It was at this time in 1785 that Nilmoni Tagore constructed a clay-walled house at Jorashanko on a bigha of land donated by a wealthy merchant named Baishnav Charan Seth.

Years spanning Nilmoni’s demise in 1791 and Rabindranath’s birth in 1861 saw Jorashanko undergo a drastic change. From the nucleus of the house, known as the andar mahal (which functioned as the private abode of the Tagores), followed the bar mahal which threw open irts doors to the world outside. The principal architect of this changing face of Jorashanko was Dwarkanath Tagore who inherited the estate after Nilmoni’s death.

To steer clear of conflicts with his tradition-bound family and allow room for his unorthodox pastimes (which included socializing with Englishmen), Dwarkanath built for himself a three-storeyed house on the same compund. This mansion, called Baithakhana (a reception house), in essence became an extension of Jorashanko and bore a common address, 6 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane.

Jorashanko’s character altered half way through the 19th century. Dwarkanath dies in England under strange circumstances shortly after dining with Queen Victoria. Following his passing away in 1846 Jorashando’s affairs devolved on Maharshi Debendranath (Robindranath’s father) and over time on Rebindranath himself who held the reins as karta (head) of the Tagore family.

Debendranath’s spiritualistic bent and Spartan lifestyle, Rabindranath’s stupendous intellectualism and the exquisite skills of his illustrious nephews, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath saw Jorashanko shedding its mere aristocratic trappings and flinging its blinds open to the winds of revivalism. The ages of Brahmo, (a breakaway discipline of Hinduism) liberalism and Tagorean unversalism had dawned on the Jorashanko House.

The Tagores subtly mingled their assiduous intake of swadeshi (Indian) literature and the Upanishadas with the study of Shakespeare, Walter Scott and the diversity of French philosophers and novelists. The first swadeshi soap is also known to have been manufactured at the Tagore household.

One of the truly remarkable happenings at the Jorshanko House in days of dogged obscurantism awas the devoutness of the Tagores to emancipate the ladies of their family. Feminism, till then, was stifled in the inner chambers of the andar mahal. On a summer’s evening, the shackles fell asunder. In the fading light, as the world gaped aghast, two horses trotted out of Jorashanko’s deori (entrance) and galloped in the direction of the riverside. Leading the waywas Jyotindranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s brother) and by his side, with head held high, was Kadambari his wife.

The dakshin (south-facing) verandah of Jorashanko’s Baithakhana House, which overlooked the fountains on the lawns, has now become synonymous with Tagore’s halcyon days. This south verandah or dakshin-barandah has seen a motely stream of characters. Together with customary visitors like political reformers, intellectuals and friends of the Tagore came Chinese shoemakers, Burrabazar’s (an old north Calcutta trading center) textile merchants and dress designers. Gabriel, a Jew from Istanbul (who, Abanindranath thought resembled Shylock) would also drop by to sell perfume and distribute silk handkerchiefs as giveaways.

It is said that Abanindranath and Gaganendranath spent hours in the dakshin barandah palette in hand, to create some of their unforgettable works. Occasionally, Abanindranath would be found here in the evenings plucking on the mandolin or esraj (an Indian string instrument) to the soulful songs of a family acquaintance named Motibabu. The aroma of tobacco, paan (betel leaves) and orange-syrup wafted across the verandah. And in the event of a family wedding it was stacked with wrapped gifts.

Rabindranath’s monumental visions had begun to blossom in Shantiniketan (100 kilometres away from Calcutta) from the turn of the century. As the Tagore family splintered and fortunes nosedived, Jorashanko’s luminosity paled. On 7th August 1941 the tapers flickered out at the house which had bathed Bengal in infinite glory. Rabindranath Tagore died. The Jorashanko House, inevitably, changed hands and the magnificent edifice (requisitioned by British to billet soldiers for a while) was knocked down. Gurudev, we learn, had yearned to end his days in the solitude of his idyllic Shantiniketan. Destiny designed differently. The dakshin barandah stared forlornly as a dazed human mass carried a genius from the portals of Jorashanko for his eternal journey.

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