Chandannagar, a former French colony situated in north Bengal, reminds us of our shared heritage.
India’s relationship with France can be traced back to the 17th century when François Bernier, a french traveller and physician, became the personal physician to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. As the British occupation of India expanded its influence on the architectural fabric of the country, French architectural themes and motifs found its own flowering in the port towns along the seaboard. Établissements français dans l’Inde or French Establishments in Indiabecame the formal name of French colonies in India that spread along the coast lines; Pondichéry, Karikal and Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahé on the Malabar Coast and Chandannagar in Bengal, just outside of what is now Kolkata.
Chandannagar, caught between its deteriorating architectural heritage and the aspirations of modernity in new India, has seen various conservation attempts by architects, government agencies and NGOs such as INTACH since the 1980s, despite an active lobby of builders trying to tear it all down. This French colonial cousin, that is trademarked by its French masonry and the Strand Boulevard saw a passionate effort by award winning conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis through a heritage conservation and community engagement project that is still ongoing.
Aishwarya Tipnis graduated from the School of Planning & Architecture New Delhi and received a master’s degree in European Urban Conservation with distinction from the University of Dundee, Scotland in 2007. A recipient of the Commonwealth Professional Fellowship 2011, Bonjour India Embassy of France Travel Fellowship 2010, Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland Award 2007, she has authored Vernacular Traditions: Contemporary Architecture. “Heritage plays an important role in the identity of a place, it reflects its image and reveals stories of its past epitomising its sense of character. If understood and managed properly it has the power to effectively contribute to the overall quality of urban environment as well as serve as the starting point of sustainable urban development.” she says.
Work began on the town in 2010. The first part of the project was about identifying the heritage of Chandannagar and preparing an appraisal of the urban area and the buildings therein. It identified the area’s special features and changing needs through a process which included researching its historical development, carrying out a detailed townscape analysis and finally preparing a character assessment. The second phase of the project known as the “Heritage & People of Chandernagore” was a community engagement and digital humanities project where the youth of the town were appointed ‘Citizen Historians’ to help collect oral histories while at the same time creating a global inventory of all the heritage buildings by crowdsourcing memories of Chandannagar from across the world.