In Kolkata, archiving projects aim to restart dialogue on forgotten philanthropist, neglected cemetery
Projects involving digital archives of important, yet little known 19th century Bengali tradesman-philanthropist Mutty Lall Seal, and the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata, have been led by Dr Souvik Mukherjee of Presidency University, who believes public participation in heritage conservation is the need of the hour.
The 'Scottish Cemetery Project' is a part of the UK-India Research Initiative (UKIERI) between Presidency University (Kolkata) and St Andrew's University, with funding by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The project, 'Mutty Lall Seal Archives', is funded by Seal's direct descendant.
Both projects have been led by Presidency University's Dr Souvik Mukherjee.
The deceased, more often than not, are burdened with shouldering the weight of legacies left behind. It's no surprise that crematoria and graveyards have long attracted storytellers from across the world. And it's this fabled middle-ground, which evades the living and homes the dead, that has successfully piqued the interest of researchers in Kolkata who authored 'The Scottish Cemetery Project: Digitising Memories and Mapping the Narratives of Migration and Exchange', as a part of the UK-India Research Initiative (UKIERI) between Presidency University (Kolkata) and St Andrew's University, with funding from the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The project was showcased at 'Calcutta Collages' — a recently concluded, month-long exhibition at Kolkata's Victoria Memorial Hall, an initiative of 'Sustainable Heritage and Policy of Kolkata' (SHPK) that has been jointly undertaken by the University of Liverpool and Jadavpur University.
Leading the research on Kolkata's Scottish Cemetery was Dr Souvik Mukherjee, who heads the department of English at Presidency University. A second project helmed by him also found space in the exhibition — 'Mutty Lall Seal: The legacy of philanthropy', which is an attempt to start a dialogue on the contributions made by the 19th century Bengali entrepreneur, also known as Motilal Seal back home.
"These are two rather different projects, albeit connected, because they deal with less-researched aspects of 19th century Calcutta. I have always been fascinated by the ways in which cemeteries function as archives and also concerned about how much these have been neglected by the academia here in India," Mukherjee says, drawing attention to the fact that organisations like the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA) have made consistent efforts to preserve the burial grounds in India, with little to no help from local bodies.
"Kolkata has lost three cemeteries to realtors because the government of the time did not care to preserve them. These are the North Park Street Cemetery and Kiernander's Mission Cemetery (both currently the Mercy Hospital and Assembly of God Church), as well as the French Cemetery (currently the Apeejay School). As a researcher in the digital humanities, I believed that digital archives of colonial cemeteries would contribute to the preservation of the history as it is told by the extant tombs, and they would also reach a much greater number of people across the world," the scholar says.
While the tangible heritage of cities is mired in debates on conservation, it is intangible legacies that are threatened with extinction, owing to scanty documentation and unreliable historical records. Mukherjee's projects aim at plugging these lacunas. "'The Mutty Seal Archive' will be maintained by Mr Mohon Lall Seal (direct descendant of Mutty Lall Seal) from his private funds. I am personally paying for the hosting of the Scots' Cemetery Archive, as I have received no support from either academic or non-academic organisations," he rues, adding that he will continue to do so, despite his endeavours facing resistance from various quarters.
The idea of "recovering" the history of Mutty Lall Seal, an omnipresent-yet-invisible figure in the city's socio-cultural landscape, was postulated to Mukherjee by Seal's own family, who then went on to digitally archive his stories. "I started with no knowledge about Seal except that the Free College on Central Avenue was named after him. When I started working on him through archival material such as contemporary newspaper reports, wills and letters, his contribution to the city emerged as being no less than that of Dwarkanath Tagore or other well-known figures," Mukherjee asserts. The comprehensive website highlights "the achievements of Bengali entrepreneurship", and its poorly-researched sway on contemporary culture.
Seal was a pioneer in his own right — from donating an extensive plot of land for the construction of the Calcutta Medical College, to helping set up some of the biggest businesses and establishments in India today, the list of his social contributions is rather long. "Not many know about his interest in promoting technology such as the railways and the telegraph and this is what emerges from an online archive such as this one" — the website mentions. Seal helped set up the Assam tea company, along with investing in the erstwhile Oriental Life Insurance Company. He was also among the founders of the Bank of India.
While the Scottish Cemetery Project took two years to complete, the other was concluded in seven months. With the advent of digital resources and social media, several and speedier mediums are at the disposal of heritage enthusiasts, helping the community to get their word out faster. "For me, 'sustainable heritage' is about being able to preserve our history despite the challenges that we face; this is very citizen-driven. This is a two-way street. We reach out to citizens and they take up some such endeavours themselves...The 'ghost walk' that I started with Anthony Khatchaturian and Rangan Dutta was a great way for us to reach out to people interested in the city's heritage but unsure about where to start," Mukherjee says, further elaborating on the several challenges faced by him during his research.
He mentions not having received any support from academic or government institutions in India, but credits enterprising individuals and researchers for having aided him in the process. "For example, one of my students was expelled from a library because she was wearing shorts and I myself could not go on a field trip because I was allowed to spend only Rs 100 for accommodation. We faced major problems in accessing records and material in some of the libraries in Kolkata. Also, working in cemeteries is kind of taboo so that was there," the academic points out. Additionally, photography in the cemeteries proved to be a major roadblock, along with difficulty navigating with the help of mobile GPS. Mukherjee implores people to treat digital works as seriously as printed ones, instead of asking professionals in the field to "just write a book" in place of "maintaining digital archives".
In case of the Scottish Cemetery Project, which unravels stories of eminent men (like Lal Behari Day, a Bengali-Christian missionary and educationist, Samuel Charters Macpherson, political agent at Gwalior, and Reverend Thomas Jones, a prominent figure in missionary activities in the North-East) buried in this churchyard built in 1820, the aim is to join the dots that connect these names to key events in the early stage of British colonialism. The paucity of such seminal research handicaps the dialogue on heritage conservation greatly, with Mukherjee questioning its "top-down" approach that is "more about public intellectuals than the public".
"How does one address the issue? Involve more people for one. As they say in B-schools — don't just tell them what to do, show them. Just asking the owner or custodian of a heritage building to look after will achieve nothing. Work with them to establish the way forward and that will vary on a case-to-case basis. There should be a public forum involving all the stakeholders but then again, I'm no expert," he says.
Now, at the end of the exhibition, an exhaustive Advisory Policy Report comprising the outcomes of the various projects is slated to be drawn up for publication and presentation to the state government.
But Mukherjee isn't one to lose his sense of humour, in spite of having scaled several bulwarks to make heritage more accessible to people. While on one of his countless visits to the city's cemeteries, the scholar was met with an unusual request from a security guard at the South Park Street Cemetery ("where bizarrely some of the tombstones and plaques from the Scots' Cemetery have been relocated"), who knew about the project. "He asked me if I had seen a ghost on my many visits to cemeteries," he recalls. Much to the guard's dismay, his visitor hadn't. "[H]e started pleading with me for a few ghost stories. Apparently, he was regularly pestered by visitors about ghost-sightings and he had run out of stories that he could make up on the spot!"
Mukherjee concludes with a word of advice, asking anyone who comes across ghost stories about the South Park Cemetery to "check back" with him, just to ensure it isn't one of his.