The Indian Seal Case Study: The Cossimbazar Raj

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Dress, Bengal (embroidered) and England (made), ca. 1795, cotton muslin embroidered with tussar silk thread, T.220&A-1962, Victoria and Albert Museum.

From his first purchase of property (the produce of a jack fruit tree) in 1742 at the age of 22, Cantu (“brought up in a village community amidst Bengal’s commonest surroundings” according to his biographer) amassed a great fortune through his shrewdness, skill, hard work, persistence, strict economy and, notwithstanding his caution, ability to seize opportunities.  Trading in silk was profitable (up to 300 per cent on some items) but his later investment in land and Zemindaris (f.n. The Zemindari system was one whereby the Zemindar or land holder was responsible for collecting revenues on behalf of the rulers from land held by a number of cultivators while retaining a percentage – usually 10% – for himself) was even more so.  Working with and for powerful Company servants such as Hastings and Sykes did not in itself seem to have increased his wealth – what it did do was increase his power and influence as well as acting as an insurance against attack from his enemies.  As his biographer puts it “He laid the foundation of his house by his own hands and then created the steel frame and the super-structure all by himself.” (S C Nandy – Life & Times of Cantoo Baboo vol II p.407).

Cantoo died in 1794 and was succeeded by his son Lokenath who, weak in health, only survived him by ten years.  He was the first of the family to be styled “Maharajah”.  Although, unlike Cantoo, he lived in a grand style, under his able management the estate thrived.  A much-desired son and heir, Harinath, was born only two years before Lokenath died and consequently the management of the estate was taken under the Company’s Court of Wards in Calcutta during his minority.  In 1809 the annual income of the estate was calculated at approximately 1.42m rupees, at the then rate of exchange equivalent to about £180,000.  By the end of the 19th century the estate’s income had doubled to about 3m rupees, because of a falling exchange rate equivalent to about £200,000.  Yet at times during the 19th century the very existence of the Cossimbazar Raj was threatened by inefficient management, personal extravagance, prolonged litigation and internecine feuds.

The estate was in acute danger during the four years after Cantoo’s great-grandson Maharajah Krisnanath (1822-1844) attained his majority in 1840.  “He indulged tastes for horses, dogs, wine and the company of predatory European cronies, as well as more high-,minded ones for experiments in science, new technology and education.” (S C Nandy – History of the Cossimbazar Raj vol I foreword).  However Krisnanath killed himself in 1844 and the management of the estate was in due course taken in hand by his 16 year old widow, Maharani Swarnamoyee (1827-1897) who had lived and continued to live in purdah (strict seclusion).  Though initially illiterate she learned four languages in four years and developed sufficient tenacity and shrewdness to cope with immense challenges. After prolonged litigation she secured the estate for herself and her children (who predeceased her) and managed it in an exemplary fashion for the rest of her life.  She was very philanthropic setting a trend which was followed by her successors for as long as resources would allow.  Social reform, education and, paradoxically, emancipation of women were her greatest concerns.

Maharajah sir manindra chandra nandy

Maharajah Sir Manindra Chandra Nandy

Krisnanath’s line died out and on Maharani Swarnamoyee’s death the estate was inherited by Cantoo’s extremely distinguished great-great-grandson Maharajah Sir Manindra Chandra Nandy (1860-1929) when the prestige of the family reached its zenith.  He was one of the leading Zemindars in India, a vigorous proponent of industrialisation, a generous philanthropist founding and endowing no less than 21 colleges and schools, a moderate member of Congress, a nationalist and friend of Gandhi.   In a tribute to him after his death the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Anderson said  “…Though a member of the most conservative class, the landed aristocracy of Bengal, he recognised in the light of a personal obligation the importance of developing the industrial and commercial resources of the Province and devoted much of his great wealth and influence to that end….His was indeed a happy blend of respect for the old world tradition with a very modern appreciation of the needs of the changing times.”  Sadly, through excessive (but never begrudged) philanthropy coupled with mismanagement and fraud by his mainly British agents, in 1928 Manindra had to declare himself insolvent and apply for the Cossimbazar Raj estate to be administered by the Court of Wards.

Manindra’s son Srischandra (1897-1952) was the last Maharajah.  He inherited an estate which was 30m rupees in debt and set about paying it off so that the estate could be released to him. This he ultimately achieved in 1944.  Elected to the Assembly he became Minister of Communications and Works in the Government of Bengal.  But Partition and Independence brought insurmountableproblems not least the impending abolition of the zemindari system on which so much of the estate depended. In 1951 the Cossimbazar Raj’s East Pakistan zemindari estate was confiscated and this, combined with poor health and the uncertainties of the estate’s future, led to his death in 1952.  In the words of his son “The death became a landmark, ending the leadership of a special pattern of social, economic and cultural supremacy of Bengal. The idealism nurtured in the aristocratic families came to an end, ushering the age of free for all and selfish pragmatism.”

Bengal Borders1

A map showing the division of Bengal following Partition in 1947. Most of the zemindari estates of the Cossimabazar Raj were located in what became East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Indian West Bengal is only a little over a third of the original area of Bengal.

Maharajkumar Somendra Chandra Nandy (Dr S C Nandy) was born in 1928 shortly before his grandfather’s death.  Aged only 23 he came into his inheritance faced with challenges greater than any of those which had gone before.  Income tax arrears and estate debts totalled almost 10m rupees.  Confiscation of the estate’s zemindaris in five Indian states was not long in coming but before it did swift rearguard action ensured that properties were sold wherever possible so that debts could be paid and retrenchment costs discharged.  The surplus was invested in the estate’s stone quarries and china clay mines, which had been retained, and Dr Nandy even came to England to learn the china clay business at first hand and acquire much needed machinery.

Dr Nandy is a remarkable man.  At a time of radically altered personal circumstances and of profound change in the social system and economy of India, he transformed the Cossimbazar estate from the status of a great landowner to the thriving industrial and commercial enterprise it is today.  He is also an academic historian and amongst his wide-ranging interests a lecturer, playwright, essayist and critic, writing in both Bengali and English.  Thanks to his substantial family records, persistence and hard work in mastering a complex scenario, his four books on the Nandy family history are a magnificent achievement, a record of its triumphs and tragedies over 250 years.

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