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East and West Bengal filmmakers come together for restoration of Ray, Sen, Ghatak ancestral homes

The ancestral homes of the three masters of Indian cinema are in a worsening state of decay in different parts of present-day Bangladesh, where all of them were born.

Satyajit Ray's ancestral house at Kishoreganj in Bangladesh is in ruins. Photo: Courtesy Premendra Majumder

Shoma A Chatterji

The word 'restoration' in the Indian context is usually limited to heritage buildings, museums and other classic works of architecture. It does not extend to the ancestral homes of great Indians whose contribution to history, culture or literature can never be overestimated.

Raja Rammohun Roy’s ancestral home in Amherst Street, Kolkata, lay in a dilapidated condition, threatening to collapse any moment. The building was known as Simla House. This house was supposedly designed by one W Wood and structured in the colonial Georgian style.

It was Rammohun college that took the initiative to rescue the house from its wretched plight and, with the active assistance of the state and central governments, acquired it in 1986. It now stands as a grand building. The restoration architects have tried to reconstruct the building according to its original Georgian style and it has been converted into a museum. Rammohun college initiated the move to acquire the entire land (76 cottahs) in 1972, during the bicentenary celebrations of the great social reformer.

But some of Bengal's leading cine personalities have not been so fortunate. The ancestral homes of three stalwarts of Indian cinema — Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak — are in a worsening state of decay in different parts of Bangladesh, where all three filmmakers were born.

The desire to preserve and reconstruct architectural heritage in Bangladesh is as conspicuous by its absence as it is in India. Even in India, it was only in 1986 that a heritage movement was begun by the late historian Nishith Ranjan Ray who founded an awareness society. By then, however, it was already too late for many Indian heritage buildings.

“Satyajit Ray's ancestral house is at Mashua, Katiyadi, Kishoreganj, about 115 km northeast of Dhaka," Premendra Majumder, vice-president of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), said. "This property is now in a dilapidated state. Film activists of Dhaka have appealed to the government through the district administration for immediate renovation and preservation of the house. No action has been taken.”

In a press release issued on 31 January, the FFSI said India had decided to take the issue up to the international level so that the government of Bangladesh gives due importance to the need to preserve these three properties owned at one time by ancestors of the great masters. The issue will be brought to the notice of India's culture ministry, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Ritwik Ghatak's ancestral house at Rajshahi in Bangladesh. Photo: Courtesy Premendra Majumder

Ritwik Ghatak's ancestral house at Rajshahi is about 245 km northwest of Dhaka. Ghatak spent his childhood and teenage years at Rajshahi and studied at the Rajshahi college. The family had to leave this house in East Pakistan in 1948. The river Padma, flowing through Rajshahi, remained Ghatak's favourite.

The family home was leased out in 1987-88 by the military government of Gen HM Ershad to a private homoeopathic college which demolished most of the old structure to build a badly designed new college.

At present, they have demolished another room of Ghatak's ancestral home to create a bicycle garage. The entire film and cultural community of Rajshahi and Dhaka came out on the streets to protest against that misdeed. Human chains were formed in Rajshahi, Dhaka and Toronto in the last week of December to register the protest. Many important filmmakers, film scholars, college and university teachers, students and activists took part.

Eminent film personalities of Bangladesh like Tanvir Mokammel, Morshedul Islam, Nasiruddin Yusuf Bacchu, Shameem Akhtar and others protested on the streets and fired a petition to the government to not only save Ghatak's ancestral house but to also save the houses of Ray and Mrinal Sen.

Sen's ancestral house at Jhiltuli in Faridpur district is about 130 km west of Dhaka. The house is now in the possession of a private party. Most of the property has been demolished to facilitate new construction. Still, the original house is there which could be renovated and preserved. Film activists of Dhaka are demanding this, but so far there has been no reaction from the government of prime minister Shaikh Hasina Wajed.

Mrinal Sen's ancestral house at Jhiltuli in Faridpur district. Photo: Courtesy Premendra Majumder

Mrinal Sen’s son Kunal, who lives in the US and is a senior citizen himself, recently came to Kolkata to dispose of the personal belongings of the great filmmaker to people who cared to collect them. These included photographs, photo albums, books, shawls, kurtas, a hospital bed, chair, pen, telephone instrument, and film stills. Many of these items have been taken away by relatives, archivists and commoners. Kunal and his wife Nisha have also decided to sell the flat in which Sen lived for the past 15 years as they do not have any children. One wonders why it did not occur to any organization, principally the state government or an organization like INTACH, to turn the flat into a museum in Sen's memory and stock these memorabilia and artefacts within it.

The couple have taken the filmmaker’s Padma Bhushan, the Silver Bear he won at Berlin, the French honour (Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) and an award bestowed on Sen’s wife Geeta. They will take back some more awards. The Sens intend to donate 80% of these awards to the University of Chicago and to Stanford University. A white Shiv-Parvati idol was given away to one of Mrinal Sen’s favourite actors, Mamata Shankar. Filmmaker Nandita Das had requested for a shawl and so the Sens have kept one aside for her.

Ray’s rented apartment on Bishop Lefroy Road with an elevator built by the former Left Front government of West Bengal at the initiative of then chief minister Jyoti Basu when Ray fell ill is currently occupied by his filmmaker son, Sandip Ray, and his family.

Ghatak's case seems to be the most unfortunate of the three. His wife Surama Ghatak died in 2018. By then, their two daughters, Samhita and Suchismita, and a granddaughter had already died. Their only son Ritaban, last heard, was in and out of mental homes. So one has no clue what happened to the Chetla flat where Surama lived. But Ghatak did not live there as they were estranged for many years.

Majumder said he would be in touch with directors Morshedul Islam, Tanvir Mokammel, Shameem Akhtar and Abu Sayeed to coordinate a global campaign to get these properties restored. Tanvir and Sayeed welcomed the initiative and said the filmmakers of Bangladesh and India working together for the restoration would be effective. Sayeed added that the restoration of Ray’s ancestral house at Kishoreganj should be a priority, as it is also the house of Ray’s father and grandfather.

Majumder, who is also the Asia Pacific secretary of the International Federation of Film Societies (IFFS), has been entrusted with the responsibility of taking the issue to the IFFS and getting it to support the FFSI's demand.

A human chain formed in Toronto on 28 December 2019 by filmmakers seeking restoration and preservation of the ancestral property of Ritwik Ghatak in Bangladesh