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Flashback

Rajbari to rubble

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Real life has imitated reel life. The Nimtita Rajbari, immortalised by Satyajit Ray in Jalsaghar, is following the script of the award-winning movie based on a novel by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. It is agonisingly reducing itself to rubble.

This 170-year-old grand palace, an architectural marvel in its time, was portrayed as a crumbling mansion in the film shot 55 summers ago. In this classic, the last in the line of rich zamindars of the fictional 'Kirtipur Raj' estate, Biswambhar Roy, leads a lonely life and, unable to come to terms with reality and his decaying surroundings, gallops to death on his horse.

In real life, the palace, or most of it, has already crumbled. And Sabita Roy Choudhury, the last in the line of descendants of Satyanarayan Roy Choudhury who built the palace, passed away two years ago, leaving behind, like Biswambhar, two faithful servants. The decay has only accelerated after her death. Only the rear portions remain standing today, and of the main palace, only the grand fa?ade that faces the Ganga stands and serves as a sad reminder of what was once a majestic combination of Greek, Victorian and Mughal architectural styles.

As shown in the movie, Nimtita Rajbari used to host musical soirees and was famed for its opulence. The Roy Choudhury clan too was known for its extravagant lifestyle. "My father used to tell me stories of the magnificent feasts, the song and dance performances by artistes from Lucknow and other parts of the country, the profligacy of the occupants of the palace and their passion for horses, elephants and the finer things of life. The Durga Puja at Nimtita Rajbari was famous in this region for its grandness and thousands of people would be fed daily during the pujas, " recalls Sanatan Patra, 68, a farmer who lives in a mud-and-thatched roof hut a couple of hundred metres from the rajbari (palace).

TOI-Crest learnt by piecing together the accounts of local residents that the decline of the mansion commenced in the third decade of the last century when the Ganga, which used to flow about four kilometers away, started changing course. It eroded major portions of the estate, a fact that is incorporated in the plot of Jalsaghar. Biswambhar Roy rues the crumbling of large parts of his estate due to erosion.

Kulashankar Roy, 62, recalls his father Gouripada witnessing the havoc wreaked by the river. "It started changing course and moving westwards from the early 1920s and in two decades, had gobbled up almost 40 per cent of the Nimtita estate, all of it rich farmlands and mango orchards. During this period, it moved about 2. 5 kilometres west.

"My father grew up in Chohapara village, part of the Nimtita estate, that was about three kilometres away from the rajbari. But in the early 1930s, the river gobbled up the village and all families had to relocate. The zamindars gave my dad's family a plot of land adjacent to the palace where we stay now, " says Kulashankar, a landless farmer.

When Ray shot the movie, the Ganga used to flow about a kilometre east of Nimtita Rajbari. Today, it flows just a couple of hundred metres away. "The erosion has slowed down, but not stopped. Every year, the river moves a few metres west towards the palace. I think that in 10 years, it will wash away the palace front, " says Achala Singha, 50, a domestic help who lives in the rear portion of the degenerating mansion.

But even without the erosion, the lights were slowly fading in the mansion, as they did in the movie. "We have heard that the ancestors of Ranima (as Sabita Roy Choudhury used to be addressed) were spendthrifts and started living beyond their means.

They used to spend a lot on organising song and dance performances. Even the legendary Gauhar Jaan, and her mother Malka Jaan before her, performed many times at this palace. There were nearly a hundred full-time servants here, " says Singha.

The jalsaghar or music room in the eponymous movie was actually one of the private living rooms on the first floor of the palace. Only its walls remain - the floor and roof of this portion of the palace have long caved in. The wide first floor balcony along the entire length of the palace fa?ade where Biswambhar used to laze around and listen to music recitals while pulling on his hookah has also caved in. The grand staircase leading to the first floor has collapsed. So has the terrace where Biswambhar used to sit and bemoan the plight of his mansion. Only the outer shell of this portion of the palace - where almost the entire movie was shot - remains.

The first floor room in the southwestern portion of the palace where Satyajit Ray stayed during the shoot in 1957 is in a precarious state and will cave in any day. "It stays locked and no one dares to go to that portion of the mansion. The rooms where Chhabi Biswas (who gave a stellar performance as Biswambhar) and other members of the cast and crew stayed also remain locked and are equally precarious, " says Singha.

Sabita Roy Choudhury's sons and their cousins from another branch of the family live in Kolkata and other parts of the country. They come to Nimtita once a year during the Durga Pujas. This is just about the only thing about Nimtita Rajbari that remains unchanged. Of course, the pomp and grandeur of the celebrations is considerably reduced. The temple is also the only portion of the palace that seems in no danger of collapsing, at least not yet.

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