Mudar Patherya, a heritage activist, has gifted Calcutta with colorful CESC electrical junction boxes that can be found across the city. Many of these once non-descript metallic boxes have been painted with dramatic colors by Santosh Das, commissioned to portray the city’s varied history. The project has completed about 75 story boards that focus on iconic figures from both colonial and present-day Calcutta as well as graphic representations to beautify the City. Patherya expects to commission another 50 story boxes from this September to March next year.

My small road, behind La Martiniere Boys School features CESC boxes picturing Paul Chater, Merle Oberon, Jug Suraiya, Nafisa Ali, and Chhanda Gyan – all of whom were Martinians.

The luminaries featured are indicative of Calcutta’s cosmopolitan character and provide an insight into who we choose to celebrate. In this otherwise unlikely set of individuals grouped together here, four are non-Bengali, three belong to Calcutta’s minority communities, and three among the five are women. These individuals are multi-talented – two excelled at sports, two are film personalities, one is a philanthropist, another is an author and satirist, and of course one is an activist. Two individuals are known of outside India. Honoring them underscores the city’s abiding respect for education, and passion for film, sports, writing, political activism, and the strong women that are integral to the city’s DNA.

Sir Paul Chater, born Khachik Pogose Astwachatoor, was an Armenian who was orphaned at the age of seven. He received a scholarship to study at La Martiniere Boys School and studied there from 1856 to 1863. He emigrated to Hong Kong in 1864, where he lived with his sister and her husband. There, Chater was assisted by the wealthy Sassoon family – Baghdadi Jews who traded across Asia – to become a foreign exchange broker. Later, Chater entered into a partnership with a Parsee businessman. Chater is famed for the roles he played in reclaiming land from Victoria Harbor and acquiring military land for the colonial government. In 1924-25, when his alma mater was in dire financial straits and faced possible closure, he gifted it a sum of 11 lakh rupees. It was then considered the single largest charitable offering to any institution by a living donor. He also bequeathed significant funds to Calcutta’s Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, besides making many charitable endowments to institutions in Hong Kong.

Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, whose stage name was Merle Oberon, started her career in British films and later traveled to the United States to make films for Samuel Goldwyn. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Dark Angel. She remained active in film and television till 1973. Born in Bombay and schooled at La Martiniere for Girls, Queenie, as she was then known, worked in Calcutta as a telephone receptionist until she emigrated to the UK and sought a career in theater. Steeped in the color-conscious prejudices of the times, Merle, who became Lady Korda, assiduously hid her Anglo-Indian identity because she feared the knowledge that she was biracial would derail her career.

Jug Suraiya, a satirist, cartoonist, author, and journalist started his career in journalism when he was hired by Desmond Doig to work as a journalist for the Junior Statesman in Calcutta. Later, he served as an editorial opinion editor and Associate Editor of the Times of India in Delhi, where he also created a daily cartoon, Dubyaman. He has authored several anthologies and travel books.

Nafisa Ali is the daughter of a Bengali Muslim and a Catholic lady of Anglo-Indian heritage. She is the granddaughter of S. Wajid Ali, a prominent Bengali writer. Nafisa has acted in a few Hindi, Bengali, and Malayali films. She is also known for her work as an activist, particularly when it comes to AIDS awareness. She had a short stint in politics and was also a swimming champion.

Chhanda Gayen, the youngest in this group, was a Bengali mountaineer, martial arts exponent, explorer, and teacher of self-defense. She was the first civilian from West Bengal to climb Mount Everest, and claimed a world record for summiting Everest and Lhotse in 2013. While descending Kanchenjunga’s Western slope in 2014, she and two Sherpas went missing in an avalanche. Sadly, all three were later declared to have lost their lives.

While all these figures had a connection to Calcutta, their ties to the city varied. Just as people from India and abroad came to the port city in search of work and fortune in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, many left it to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In 19th and 20th centuries, they emigrated to London or to such colonial cities as Hong Kong – as did Chater and Oberon. After the 70s, when the city de-industrialized, many Calcuttans were forced to find jobs in Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore. Ali and Suraiya, for instance, made their homes in Delhi. Chater stands out as being the one who continued to use his fortune to give back to the school and the city that had nurtured and educated him. Oberon, bowing perforce to the color bias of her time, never revealed her connection to Calcutta. Suraiya and Ali proudly claim their identity as Calcuttans.

It should be mentioned that well-known actress Supriya Devi also had a home on Moira Street. Uttam Kumar left his home in 1963 and spent the last seventeen years of his life with her. Moira Street was also home to Manny Elias, a Jewish boy and a student at La Martiniere who went on to become the original drummer for the English band Tears for Fears back in the 1980s. Moira Street, like many of our streets in the city, has ever more stories yet to be told.

This public art project has boldly brought the city’s rich history to the street. Besides Patherya’s innovative use of public spaces and utilities, other social entrepreneurs have done admiral work by preserving and refitting heritage buildings, opening traditional home pujas to the public, researching neighborhoods and streets to develop heritage walks, educating citizens about traditional neighborhoods through art interventions, and writing blogs about varied aspects of the city’s history. They are making significant contributions towards the preservation of our city’s unique legacy for it is only through knowing our past can we preserve it.

Photo Credits: Jael Silliman