by Tathagata Neogi
North Kolkata, and its maze of back alleys contain a number of surprises. As a history-buff, one can stumble upon a million stories of now forgotten families, and their valuable contribution in the 18th and 19th century cultural and economic efflorescence of the city. This is one such story. My wife Chelsea and I had chanced upon this house when helping our friend, a researcher from the US to locate a more famous family mansion. As usual, we were taking an alleyway that we have never walked through before, in the hopes of finding a new story. From outside this house on Neelmani Sarkar Lane looked unimpressive, and shabby, and of relatively recent construction. But luckily, the door at the entrance was slightly open, giving us a glimpse of this beautiful little courtyard. From its red-brick architecture, I could tell that this was a post 1865 building, when the use of red-brick becomes in vogue in Calcutta. A family member had kindly allowed us to wander around in the courtyard. Although he was in a hurry and did not have time to speak to us, we soon found out from a plaque that this house was associated with someone named Bamacharan Bhar (1851–1904). The name did not strike a bell, and we were more interested to find out about the history of the house and the person associated with it.
Our routine first stop for these are the old Calcutta Street Directories. The 1915 Directory suggested that the name of this house is Brojokishore Thakurbari. It was established by Bamacharan Bhar (1851–1904) in the late 1800s for his family. Bamacharan had established a Krishna temple adjacent to the courtyard that we had wandered into. The temple still exists and is being worshipped by the family. Turned out, this temple was famous for Kirtan or Vaishnavite devotional songs in the early 20th century attracting a number of famous followers.
The story of Bamacharan Bhar was even more intriguing. Born in a very poor family, Bamacharan had moved to Calcutta in search of work. In 1860s, Calcutta an economic and industrial powerhouse sucking in a large migrant labour force from far and near. It was a city of opportunities, and if one had entrepreneurial acumen, one could rise fast. But on the downside, Calcutta was also a city of distractions. If one was not cautious, its many distractions could make one lose wealth almost overnight.
Bamacharan soon found work as an apprentice with a tailoring business which specialized in making European clothing. He was a quick learner, and soon he was appointed as a partner in a British owned Western outfit manufacturing unit in Calcutta. When the owners left, they would hand the entire business over to Bamacharan. Unfortunately, I could not find any record that names this British owned factory.
What we can guess from the records however, is that Bamacharan had rechristened the old company in partnership with another western outfits merchant, Khetra Mohan Dey and formed Messers Khetter Mohun Dey & Bama Churn Bhar and Company Ltd. This new company had also moved into a niche market, that of manufacturing uniforms for different colonial police forces (and probably the army) in India. For example, we found this 1875 Annual Report of the Assam Police where it specified the newly sanctioned uniform for the British Frontier Police. The report then talks about suppliers and complains that the quote provided by their usual suppliers, Bamacharan’s firm, had quoted an exorbitant price.
Tenders for the supply of clothing for the Frontier Police were received during the year from Messrs Khetter Mohun Dey and Bama Churn Bhar & Co., but the rates at which they proposed to supply the several articles of clothing appeared to be very high.
During the First and Second Boer Wars (1880–81 & 1899–1902) Bamacharan’s firm became the sole exporter of uniforms for the British army & became extremely profitable as a result. With his new found affluence he had then constructed this beautiful house for his family, along with the Krishna Temple. Bamacharan died in his brand new mansion 1904, two years after the end of the Second Boer War.
His business partner, Khetra Mohan Dey seemed to also have an auctioning firm running parallel with this one. An administrative report from Andamans mentions that the government had contracted Messers Khetter Mohun Dey & Co. along with the British Burma Trading Company to auction-off logs of “Andamans wood” at Port Blair. The report mentions that both firms had a very difficult time finding buyers due to the alleged inferior quality and high weight of the timber. The firm filed for insolvency in 1895 as a report on London Gazette of 22nd March 1895 suggests:
In the Matter of Reginald Edward Leech, of №2, Wellington-square in the town of Calcutta, a Cutter and General Manager in the service of Messrs. Khetter Mohun Dey and Co., an Insolvent. Notice that the petition of the said Insolvent, seeking the benefit of the Act 11 Vic., cap. 21, was filed in the office of the Chief Clerk on Tuesday, the 12th day of February instant, and by an order of the same date the estate and effects of the said Insolvent were vested in the Official Assignee.
However, it appears that Khetra Mohan Dey had later established another eponymous clothing business based out of 45 Radha Bazar Street in central Calcutta. A 1911 advertisement of the firm on the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reads:
WHOLESALE AND EXPORT CLOTHIERS AND PITH HELMET MANUFACTURERS. Assam Silk Drill Suits OF REGULAR LEEDS SIZE. Latest Cut, Fashions and Styles PRICES MODERATE. FOR ILLUSTRATED PRICE LISTS, PLEASE APPLY TO Khetter Mohun Dey & Co, 45, Radha Bazar Street.
It is however, uncertain whether Khetra Mohan had inherited the partnership firm with Bamacharan, after the latter’s death and renamed it to Khetter Mohun Dey & Co.
In history books here, we hardly read about Bengali entrepreneurs in the 19th and early-20th century, when Calcutta was a thriving hub of commercial activities of the British Empire. Chasing this information therefore, was a delightful journey.
P.S. If you come across any information on the protagonists and their businesses mentioned on this post, please do not hesitate to comment and enrich the discussion!