The World of Ramjan Ostagar: The Common Man of Old Calcutta

Guest Author: Upayan Chatterjee

The World of Ramjan Ostagar: The Common Man of Old Calcutta is a chapter written by Sumanta Banerjee from the book ‘Calcutta: The Living City’ (Oxford University Press), dedicated to the anonymity of Calcutta’s common man in the 19th century. The author speaks of how all the history of the period is centered around the elite minority and the stories of the vast majority, the common man, are largely lost in time.

The author introduces the imaginary ‘Ramjan Ostagar’ as a representative of the common man – he is a tailor but he epitomizes the artisan, the hawker, the servant, and the coolie, the cobbler and the tailor, the street entertainer and the prostitute. Through his eyes, the author takes us into the dark alleyways of Calcutta’s colonial past and the structure of the society, that ignored the very pillars it stood on.

While going through the chapter, I found stark similarities with the society I was born into, two centuries down the line. As I went through the historical instances and conclusions, I could find almost every single aspect around me. The read made me question the term ‘progressive’ that we have conveniently attached to our social structure. It seemed that society was actually frozen in time, and was working in the same pattern that neglects the toil keeping the wheels rolling. The common man of the 21st century is still as anonymous as he was in the 19th century colonial era and the hierarchy of bhadralok, khansama and labourer is still very much the same with perhaps changed names and altered apparent dispositions.

This prompted me to translate my understandings into the visual medium and I started working on a personal project which aims to present the modern society side by side with the world of Ramjan Ostagar, through scenes and frozen moments of modern-day Calcutta.

I shortlisted portions/stanzas from the piece, and tried to find true, candid moments in Kolkata that supported my claim. I decided to base this entirely on real moments, as staged photographs perhaps kill the very notion of presenting the natural flow of the social ways, which forms the basis of the project.

At its heart, the project seeks to question progress at the societal level.

Have we, as a society, been able to overcome our colonial past towards setting the right priorities? Have we, with so much of media and communication, been able to ensure that the majority, the common man trying to feed his family, does not remain anonymous in time?

Does the majority actually have a voice loud enough to be heard in history?

Or, are we still living in the 19th century Calcutta, a divided city of sections with their own agendas, feeding on the toil of those who aren’t allowed a say? I faced these questions as I read. I asked these questions when I photographed. I used composite images and juxtapositions to press my case and communicate through a layered narrative.

The description to each of the photographs is a direct quote from the said chapter and as is always the nature of art, all of it is open to interpretation.

The pageantry of the English Nawabs and memsahibs and of the Bengali diwans, banias and babus has engrossed us too long. It is time to remember the anonymous citizen of 19th Century Calcutta
The artisan, the hawker, the servant and the coolie, the cobbler and the tailor, the street entertainer and the prostitute; it was his toil that made possible the high life of the ‘City of Palaces’
It is a pity we do not have a Bengali equivalent of Henry Mayhew, author of the massive Victorian study, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. In absence of such documentation, much of the lives of old Calcutta’s populace has simply disappeared from the pages of history.
From bits and pieces scattered in newspaper reports, memoirs, street names, songs and proverbs, we can at least try to rebuild the twilight world of shadowy figures who once populated the dark alleys of Calcutta’s ‘Black Town’
One such figure, whom we can conjure up is Ramjan Ostagar, who may provide us an entry point for our adventure into the past.
Ramjan Ostagar and many like him, amassed fortunes by their traditional professions. But later, with the arrival of Mr. Gibson’s company and similar firms, the needle experts have now out of hunger- apart from their inability to buy a piece of land the size of a needle- themselves been reduced to the lean girth of a needle.
We hear of master masons, well-known carpenters and famous goldsmiths. They were replaced by European retail proprietors like the tailoring company of Ranken, Hamilton’s jewellers and Monteith’s boat and saddle makers. The descendants of traditional craftsmen were employed at low wages by these firms, which won over the city’s elite by extending long credit.
The rise and fall of Ramjan Ostagar epitomizes the changing fortune of the working class in 19th century Calcutta. Traditionally skilled craftsmen, who had been lured away from the villages of Bengal to the new city in the 18th century and had struck it rich, gradually sank to poverty by the middle of the next century, unable to compete with the European traders who began pouring into the metropolis
By the last quarter of the 19th Century, the once prosperous artisans and craftsmen had joined the lowliest labourers- the barbers and washermen, the servants and scavengers.
The 1876 census of Calcutta – the first to list the population according to occupation, referred to the ‘small number of artisan castes (12,684)’ in the city compared to the past. ‘A Report on Conditions of the Lower Classes’ of Bengal observed in 1888: ‘as their occupations are hereditary, and are changed with difficulty, they suffer much when any alteration in trade renders their particular handicrafts unremunerative’.
H. Beverley, the officer in charge of the Census, pointed out that ‘huts have largely made way for the construction of pucka buildings and the construction of tanks and new roads.’ He added: ‘Every street that is widened, every new square that is opened, means so many persons displaced, and as the limits of the town are fixed, many are doubtlessly removed outside it altogether.’
All through the 19th century, the poor were being displaced from their original settlements in the city and forced to seek shelter in the outskirts. According to an estimate by Captain Steele in 1831, at least one-fifth of the servants and other workers employed within the town, were residing outside its limits. The 1876 census found that 10,000 people entered the city everyday by the river Hugli, from the suburbs.
We can get an idea of the living standards of the Calcutta poor from an English Missionary’s account in the 1820s. It seems that the highest-paid among them was a khansama, working in some English or rich Bengali household for Rs. 8 a month. The lowest paid was a coolie or a labourer, at Rs. 4 a month. Sweepers, gardeners and water-carriers made between Rs.4 and Rs.5 a month.
About the diet of the poor, the missionary commented: ‘The coarsest rice even in the good harvest season cannot be purchased for less than one rupee per maund. Wheaten bread is never seen in the houses of the poor, nor any animal food.’ The plight of the Calcutta poor had not changed in the slightest, a decade later, as evident from J.R. Martin’s description of the average daily labourer’s lifestyle in 1837. With his wife and two children, he could afford only two maunds of rice in the month
The bulk of the reports in contemporary journals, newspapers and government dispatches may give the impression that the entire city throughout the 19th century was obsessed with subtle points of Hindu and Christian scriptures, controversies over ‘satee’, and widow remarriage and meetings in the Town Hall and other places to press the demands of the educated Bengali bhadralok for posts in administrative services. But the truth is that the vast majority of the city’s population dwelt completely outside of these reports. The issues that stirred the bhadralok were virtually meaningless for them.
Kulin polygamy, one of the objects of reform in 19th century Bengal, affected only the upper castes. Satipratha or widow-burning was not widely prevalent amongst the lower caste Bengalis. As for widow-remarriage, among lower caste and lower-class Bengalis, the remarriage of a widow or cohabitation with a man was quite often accepted by their society.
In cities like Calcutta, widows from labouring classes often cohabited with men of their own choice. This was testified by a woman textile worker before the ‘Indian Factory Commission’, 1890, who said that she was a widow, living with an ‘adopted husband’

Upayan Chatterjee is an engineering student who spends his time reading and learning all that he can, and sometimes tries to communicate his interests through images. His interests lie in India’s lost wildlife spaces and their stories.

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