Chandannagar, a small town in the district of Hooghly in West Bengal, has a unique for its bond with French culture. The historic town, pleasantly situated beside the Hoogly river, has its Genesis at the end of the 17th century during French colonial rule. The town gained a boost on the cultural and industrial front during the colonial days. The French quit Chandannagar in the middle of the 50s, but they left behind a trail of memories of its art, culture, and architecture.
The French language is inseparable from Chandannagar. Many people here speak French fluently, and many have been learning French here. Meet Chandanngar’s well-known French teacher Neline Mondal ‘ a French-speaking Belgian National.’ Her mother tongue is French. Neline is straining her every nerve to keep up the French legacy in Chandannagar by teaching French and conserving heritage buildings from destruction.
Chandannagar And Neiline Mondal
Born in Belgium and educated in Paris, she holds a triple Master’s in Physiology, Cellular Biology, and Bio Chemistry. She also worked for poor people and educated the youth about conserving heritage property. Standing out from the crowd of Chandannagar, Neiline could often be spotted cycling her way to the destination
In a tete-e-tete with Unveil. Press, she poured out her love for Chandannagar and its heritage:
How did you come to Chandannagar from France and permanently settle down here?
Well, that is a long story. More than three decades ago, I was sent from UNESCO precisely for a Five-year project related to the restoration of the institute (called Maisons Duplex) here. A colleague of mine told me that a little far away from Kolkata, there is a place called Chandannagar. The French once ruled Chandanngar. I was also told about this place’s immense popularity for Jagadharti Puja.
In a project-related matter, I was to interact with a local guy of Chandannagar named Ujjal (then my would-be husband). He, too, was associated with the same UNESCO project. Our daily meeting brought us closer, and we soon formed a strong emotional bond. When Love blooms, it knows no bounds, and before even a year was up, we found tied in a nuptial knot. The marriage opens the door for my permanent inhabitancy of Chandannagar. I became the daughter-in-law of the renowned Mondal family, living in the Mondal mansion, a 277-year-old family house of French colonial-style architecture.
You have been teaching French here for a long time. How was your experience?
Marvelous. All my students are like my babies. Age is no bar to learning. Many are older than I am, but I am like a Mom to all of them. I formulated the syllabus by putting in my effort. I did not take it or structure it from any set format or book. Yes, it is a great pleasure when my students perform well. The word fell short of describing my feeling while listening to my mother tongue in a place far away from my motherland. (Se je ki anondo hoi ami bolay bojhatay parbo na said Neiline in Bengali with a tinge of accent)
When they start, they do not know the ABC of French. But with devotion, they mastered French. And I must say they are doing well.
Do you teach French in a French institute?
No, I have never taught there, but I was associated with the project of the Institute (Maisons Duplay) for 5 years. I have some also reservations about teaching there. Politics is creeping in there. I have been teaching ‘ON LINE.’
Is there any resemblance of any kind between the French language and Bengali language
Not, but yes, very-very stray instances might be there, in Bengali we say Pati Lebu. (in Hindi pattedar nimbu). In French, Pati means tiny.
Are there any scholarships for those studying French here? Has the French government allotted any funds for learning the French language?
Yes, those who passed the certificate course are exempted from paying ‘Chandannagar college’ fees. No more, no aid from the French Government.
What was the popularity of the French language in Chandannagar during the colonial and post-colonial days?
In colonial times, French was compulsory in schools and colleges. Till 1954, even the core subjects were taught in French, But after the French left in 1954, Chandannagar came into the purview of the West Bengal government, and the system was then abolished. Many schools have changed to Bengali medium. The French language has become an optional subject in the syllabus.
Apart from teaching French, what are your other activities?
I do social work, educate poor people, educate the younger generation about the heritage building of Chandannagar, am a documentarist too, and am involved in multiple activities. In recent times, heritage buildings have been rampant destruction, and it is diluting the uniqueness of Chandannagar, known for its cultural and architectural heritage. I am working on a heritage conservation project with Google Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Project, Vielles Maisons Francaises, etc.
Do you love Chandannagar?
Of course, having married here, I have become a part of the town, and the town has become a part of me. The whole environment is very pleasant here. There is a confluence of French and Bengali styles in architecture, furniture, and town planning, which fascinates me. But nowadays, I also miss the old Chandannagar and its older generation.
British rule in India was filled with hostility, and people suffered atrocity, but it was largely unheard of in Chandanngar during French rule. What do you attribute to it?
Well, French people are always liberal and loveable. They are friendly and social. Unlike their British counterpart, French colonialists were much more open-minded and loved the fusion of the two cultures. They easily mixed in with natives during colonial rule.
You would not believe the love between the French and natives of Chandannagar. The pain of parting was perceptible when the French were leaving Chandanngar, and people were in tears.
They locked the main gate of the present institute, where then the administrator used to stay. The natives were unwilling to let the administrator go.
Not only French, but even Dutch in Chinsurah and Danish in Sreerampore were also equally compatible to natives.
Chandannagar has international fame for its glamour and glitter of age-old Jagadharti Puja.. Could you throw light if the French colonial ruler owed any contribution to it?
The skeletal of the Jagadharti Puja administration was framed during French rule. The idea of the Central Committee and other administrative formats was born during French rule. The spectacular fireworks that have become a part of the celebratory experience are possibly owed to French administrators who organized fireworks on the 15th of every July since the 17th Century to celebrate the fall of the Bastile every year.
You are always under the glare of National and International media. How do you view the role of the media?
Yes, the media always chooses me as a target. There are people who work, but publicity comes to me. My students made a documentary on Chandannagar history. They did all the editing work. Now the series will be announced, and my students must get proper credit for their work in media coverage. I only specifically guided the students on exactly what they got to say when to say it, how to say in the documentary video. I cautiously brought out the videos/documentary, which is my student work should not be credited to me by media but to my students who are putting in great efforts.
The media often focused on me, despite dissuading them from doing so. It is unjust. The media often makes cursory references to people sweating blood over their work. Credit must be given to the deserving person.
Chandannagar: At a glance
|Chandannagar was established as French Colony with the amalgamation of 3 localities Khalisani,Boro Kishan Ganj & Gondolpara||1673||Source:Official website CMC|
|Become a permanent French Settlement||1688||do.|
|Based on an outcome of a plebiscite, the French allowed the Indian Government to assume defacto control over Chandannagar. Accordingly,the Government Of India took over the Administration (de facto transfer) of Chandananagar||2nd May 1950||do.|
|Chandannagar merged with the State Of West Bengal||2nd October 1954||do.|