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In images: Why did the Armenians leave Calcutta? A new book explores silences and departures

A decade-long project shows how the community’s history is intrinsically entwined with that of the city.

Alakananda Nag

Marie walked over into the darkness of the projection room.

She hadn’t expected to see herself on a large screen. She sat there for a long time watching herself in loop.

The sound of the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian travelled across the room of the bara Armenian Club in Queen’s Mansions.

The exhibition of the book had just opened.

Slowly people started to trickle in.

Marie’s drill was followed by all. They walked involuntarily into the projection room with the sound of the music; on their way out, they found Marie with her red hair and red sweater narrating stories of her Armenian heritage.

A page from Alakananda Nag’s ‘Armenians of Calcutta’.

“Are the Armenians after all the founders of Calcutta?” This question refused to leave me after I read it in a 1936 Bengal Past and Present article by Khoja Israel Sarhad, while sifting through other journals at the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Quiet, often invisible, and now mostly forgotten in a frenetic city, the Armenian contribution cannot and should not be forgotten.

Somewhere over these years of photographing, researching and spending time with them, I think that became my main motivation – the contribution cannot be forgotten.

Why should they not be considered the founders of modern Calcutta?

The first Christian grave of the city is that of an Armenian, “Reezabeebeh, wife of the Late charitable Sookias”, circa 1630. That was 60 years before Job Charnock, the British administrator traditionally regarded as the city’s founder, docked on these shores. Some would consider them stepping stones for the British – wealthy Armenian merchants, who knew the lay of the land, knew the language, showed the way and helped the British establish their rule.

The Armenian Genocide Memorial in Kolkata’s Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth. Credit: Alakananda Nag

I first started photographing the Armenian community in January 2010. I didn’t know much about their history and it was curiosity that led me to them. I met the kinds of people I would otherwise not meet, interact with, share tea and cake with – the very people who were part of the fabric of my city and I was ignorant of what they brought to our history and social milieu.

I met Chacha, Mr Mitra, Susan Reuben, Hermione Martin, Jessica Milne, Armen Marakian, Donna Sidhu, Sunil Sobti, Vache Tadevosyan, Narine Sahakyan, Tadevosyan, Marie Stephen, Sonia Jon and others. I spent my Sundays at the church service, afternoons chatting away at Sir Catchick Paul Chater Home for the Elderly in Park Circus or the library at the ACPA (Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy), and evening teas at Flury’s with Marie. I was getting to know a very different Calcutta, one that I didn’t know anything about until then.

The Armenians are a typically diasporic community. They also have a legacy of shining and thriving wherever they go. And shine they did in Calcutta. From trading to architecture to hotels, collieries, publishing…they were here to stay.

Why did they leave?

A page from Alakananda Nag’s ‘Armenians of Calcutta’.

I was desperate to find research material, dig deeper. Apart from a few articles, a couple of books and some photographs, Calcutta has been unsuccessful in preserving this critical part of history. Did the material leave when they left?

The British Library and libraries in the US have a lot more. I, however, chose to stick with the absence – to also document, in a sense, the truth about migration and what gets left behind, who gets left behind. To find an alternate approach I went looking for shellac, indigo, pure Armenian blood, Armenian delicacies, traditions. It was a hit and miss story because the absence is real, and with time, only getting deeper. In the ten years I worked on this, many of them have passed on. The book therefore is important to mark and celebrate this almost forgotten piece of history that is fast disappearing.

Ultimately the book, Armenians of Calcutta, is me introducing the community as I see them, through my interactions. But it’s their story, their history, intertwined with the history of Calcutta.

Men at Kolkata’s Armenian Ghat on the Hooghly river. Credit

Sitting in Marie’s dining room as she laid out all her family albums, Indian passports of her parents, the will of her grandmother, I wondered how this history would be preserved. Marie Stephen (Stephanian) and her brother Saco are one of the last “pure” Armenian families of Calcutta, and Marie is the only one who archived her family history in carefully restored albums.

Her hands gently went over the photographs and she inaudibly said now they’re all gone.

Walking into the church premises in the bursting, deafening Burra Bazaar, the city and the noise transform. A defiant silence sets in, as the Lord’s Prayer comes floating through.

Alakananda Nag is a photographer, writer and filmmaker. Her email address is armeniansofcalcutta@gmail.com.


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