Once upon a time, they owned the three prosperous villages- Kalikata, Sutanuti, Gobindapur which grew into the city of Calcutta. Centuries later, though their palatial houses have somewhat lost sheen, the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family has branched out and spread to various places, and the present generation has been able to build up a private collection of antiques and artefacts in their possession. However, their prized possession is the photocopy of the original document of the lease deed signed between Charles Eyre and minor members of the family at the Barisha Aatchala, bestowing the Right to rent of the three villages to the British. The documents proclaimed the Roy Choudhurys to be the original zemindars of Calcutta.
The origin of the iconic family can be traced back to the 10th century. But it was not until the time of Mughal Emperor Humayun’s reign in the sixteenth century, that they gained prominence in Bengal. Panchanan Gangopadhyay acquired the Khan title from the emperor for his duty as a cavalry officer and later developed a Janapada that came to be known as ‘Haveli Sahar’ or Halisahar at the northern suburbs of the city.
The Roy Choudhury family eventually spread out far and wide at various parts of the undivided Bengal including Halisahar and Nimta-Birati in North 24 Parganas, Barisha of South Kolkata, Uttarpara of Hooghly and Kheput of West Midnapore. However, it is their establishment in Barisha that has been turned into a private museum by displaying the various artefacts collected from the other branches of the family.
The museum is called Sabarna Sangrahashala after the family’s gotra Sabarna and was set up at the famous Baro Bari as the structure is popularly known as among the locals. Established in 2005 in order to spread awareness about the preservation of historical source materials, the museum is an absolute delight to history lovers and researchers. According to some historians, the knowledge of Kolkata’s opulent past would be incomplete without the knowledge of the family’s contribution to the city in social, political and religious realms.
“We took this initiative to inculcate an interest of history among the students and the younger generation, unaware of the timeline of Kolkata’s growth as a city. This is a one of a kind museum in the country that is run solely by the family members, without any assistance from the government. In order to know about the real history of Kolkata, one has to visit this museum,” said Devarshi Roy Choudhury, the curator of the museum.
The first floor of the gallery displays some of the rare pictures of the family’s century-old Durga Puja that can be traced back to seventeenth century. The first Durga Puja, was arranged in Barisha in 1610 by Lakshmikanta Roy Choudhury, the first ‘Jagirdar of Kolkata’. It was the beginning of the practice of worshipping Maa Durga along with her children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartick and Ganesha.
The room also displays the iconic ‘Right to Rent’ deed of the three villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur to British East India Company, written in Persian -the official language of the court at that time. It is revealed that the three villages that germinated into a trading post of the British and then grew into the second colonial city was given on lease to the British on 10 November 1698 for an annual rent of rupees 1300. It is a copy of the original document which is with the British Museum. The ground floor houses a fabulous collection of artefact’s starting from vintage cooking utensils to exquisite ivory boxes and the philatelic and numismatic stuffs like rare stamps and currencies.
The cooking utensils of 1800 includes huge curved blades, metal knives and peelers, ladles, grinding stones and gigantic cooking vessels, and an earthen grain pot, dated 1840 that could hold 240 kilo grams of grain at one go; it helps us to visualise the huge scale of preparations in the ‘Zamindar-bari’ and a pointer to the Bengali joint families of the bygone days. A vintage Burma-teak dressing table used by Kamalini Devi and a folding table used by John Firingi, grandfather of singer Hans Van Anthony popularly known as Anthony Firingi who worked at the cutcherry and was allegedly beaten up by Job Charnock – all are source of fascinating stories that cannot be found in the history books. An inner room at the ground floor of the museum has a curious juxtaposition of various artefacts used by the Roy Choudhury family members. A snuff box of 1940s, the cartridge of a double barrel gun made in Germany in the 1920s and the disparate collections of walking sticks used by different landlords are sure to fascinate the visitors.
The family is also said to have the priceless possession of a diamond ring given by Mughal emperor Jahangir during the handing over of the ‘jagirdari’ of a vast tract of land in the state in 1608. However, the ring is usually kept under lock and key and displayed only during the special exhibitions. The museum organises an International History & Heritage Exhibition every year in the month of February based on different themes. Seminars, cultural events and open quiz are also a part of the four day annual event that focuses on the history of a neighbouring country of India.
“There are so many families like us in India with invaluable historical backgrounds. We encourage them to come up with initiatives to preserve the untold history. We have been trying to evoke passion about the past among today’s generation ever since the museum was established. A lot more remains to be done,” said Devarshi Roy Choudhury, the 35th descendant of the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family.
Name: Sabarna Sangrahashala
Initiated by: Sabarna Roy Choudhury Paribar Parishad
Location: Barisha Sakherbazar
Phone no: +91 33 2447 3550 / 9830289400
Timing: 10 am – 12 noon and 5 pm – 7 pm
Photography: Allowed only for students, scholars and press with formal permission
Days closed: Thursday
Parking area: Free for museum visitors at the front courtyard
Additional info: Books and tabloids published from the museum can be collected from the book counter. Smoking not allowed inside museum premises