Masts from Bengal’s Past

Using finely carved miniatures, the Boat Museum in Kolkata gently guides visitors through the region’s maritime history.  
Masts from Bengal’s Past
Without the wooden sailboat, the romantic portrait of Kolkata would remain incomplete. Photo by: Soumya Bandyopadhyay Photography/Getty Images

Inside Ambedkar Bhawan in northeast Kolkata resides a historical ode to a beloved fixture, the wooden sailboat, without which no romantic portrait of the city is ever complete. 

The Boat Museum houses miniatures of a variety of models that sailed across Kolkata’s riverbanks over the ages. The gallery itself, which is a small and quiet room, houses nearly 46 types of the roughly 150 boats native to West Bengal and Bangladesh. Boats, apart from featuring prominently in Bengali mythology, have also played a noteworthy role in representation of time and culture in Bengali film and literature.

This distinctive museum is like no other in the country and was developed to promote Bengal’s maritime heritage. Dr. U.N. Biswas, former minister of Backward Classes Welfare Department in West Bengal, says his personal history and interest led him to institute the museum.

A researcher with a long history in shipping and boats, Biswas’s father too was a merchant. His family traded in sailboats for generations. Born in Gopalganj, Bangladesh, Biswas learnt rowing at an early age.

“Ours is the last sailboat to come from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to Calcutta,” he says, referring to his family’s own voyager. 

The museum categorises its boats into five categories—cargo, passenger, fishing, racing and luxury. The models, handcrafted by the Rajbanshis of Dakshin Dinajpur district in West Bengal, have been intricately carved from high-quality teak wood. Biswas was impressed by the artisans after he asked them to replicate one boat from a photograph; subsequently he commissioned them to undertake the whole project. All the models, showcased in glass boxes, are accompanied by a photograph of the original boat from which they were reproduced.

During my tour, I was instantly smitten by the Dholai, a large cargo boat with a round hull from the Sundarbans, which was once used to ferry nipa palms and ceriops but is now used for transporting bricks, sand, and tile. Salti, another beauty, is a small flat-bottomed boat used for catching fish in the shallow waters of East Kolkata wetlands and Khorokistikhor is hay in Bangla and kisti means boat in Persian–was built specifically to ferry straw.

Rabindranath Tagore’s Padma, one of the five boats he spent time in while visiting Shilaidaha in Bangladesh between 1890 and 1891, has also been charmingly remodeled.

Bengal’s maritime history, Biswas says, can be traced back to 6th century B.C. Even Mughal emperor Akbar had a couple of thousand ships anchored in the Hooghly. Later when the British arrived, they built their ships here too.

“Bengal was the home of shipbuilding in India,” he says.

Apart from Bengal and Bangladesh, the museum has models from Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and other parts of the country too. The miniatures are lovely but there is little to no information on them and some context would have helped in understanding the exact role and importance of each boat better.

A museum such as the Boat Museum also benefits from offering its visitors some time to reflect. Although the tour took no more than hour, I would have preferred to have a seat where I could have taken the weight of all this history in.

Essentials

(Ambedkar Bhawan, P 1/4 CIT Road Scheme VII (M), VIP Road, Kankurgachi; Mon-Fri 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.; +9133-23207623)

  • Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.

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