Calcutta in the 19th century was the original melting pot. The first urban centre in modern India, it was a city at a crossroads – between the old ways and the new. This often resulted in conflict, sometimes of a very serious nature.
The 1873 Elokeshi murder case must be viewed against this backdrop, a case that rocked Calcutta and shook both the local people and the colonial administration: It was the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Elokeshi. The murder had such a powerful impact that, even 150 years later, it echoes in the art that had flourished in the city’s Kalighat temple, and now in museums across the world.
On the face of it, the Elokeshi Murder Case, or the ‘Tarakeswar Scandal’, was yet another crime committed over an extramarital affair, with fatal consequences. Only, it was much more than that. The accused, Nobin Chandra, was a government employee working at a printing press in Calcutta. His young wife Elokeshi lived in her maternal home in the village of Kurmul, 70 km from present-day Kolkata, with her father and stepmother.
Elokeshi is believed to have met Madhavchandra Giri, the mahant or chief priest of the Taraknath Temple, in the nearby village of Tarakeswar because she hadn’t conceived a child even years after marriage.
– The mahant was famous for the ‘fertility medicine’ he handed out. One thing led to another and soon an affair started up between the two of them.
Did it really happen? Was the alliance encouraged? The details are still shrouded in mystery.
Eventually, Elokeshi’s husband, Nobin Chandra, learned of the dalliance. Enraged, he is said to have used a boti, or a fish knife, to slit his wife’s throat in a fit of rage. The murder took place on May 27, 1873, which led to two of the most famous cases in colonial Bengal – the first was the trial of Nobin Chandra for Elokeshi’s murder, and the second was the trial of the mahant, for adultery.
The case had all the ingredients of a potboiler – an affair, a murder and a killer who was also cast in the role of a victim. Naturally, it fired public imagination. As always with a case this complex, there were multiple narratives. One was about Nobin’s right to ‘uphold’ his honour; the second was the shock at how a mahant could have taken advantage of a teenage girl; and finally there was the issue of the British justice system, which was seen as interference in local matters. In a nutshell, the affair triggered a clash between a native sense of justice and the larger injustice as viewed by colonial laws.
While both men were convicted and sentenced to prison sentences, ironically, they were both freed after three years. The mahant was reinstated as the chief priest, a position he occupied till his death in 1894, and Nobin Chandra disappeared into anonymity, probably going back to a regular life. It was Elokeshi who lost out, losing her life. She was just 16 years old when she died.
When dealing with the adultery case, the British made a distinction between their own society and that in India. They iterated that a woman must not act independent of her husband and men had complete authority over ’their women’. The British went as far as casting themselves in the role of ‘upholders and defenders of Hindu law’ in order to win over the locals.
Art and literature were the only outlets for people to express their shock and angst. Emerging technology, namely the new printing presses, facilitated this. The publishing industry, it seems, went berserk when the case came to trial. Around 75 titles were published on the scandal between 1873 and 1876, including plays, long poems, books and pamphlets. Most of them exonerated Nobin. Poor Elokeshi got little support!
A significant cause of social anxiety projected in this literature is that of young men going to the city to earn a livelihood, leaving behind their women with little protection or control, which gave them ample opportunity to be led astray.
Many tropes ascribed to women were of them being easily led. They were cast as greedy and vapid, traits projected onto Elokeshi and her stepmother. Some of the accusations against her character were an alleged love of jewellery, her residing at her parents’ home instead of living with her in-laws, her gullible or lusty nature, whichever suited the narrative. Although the stories ascribed many alleged character flaws, they presented few actual facts. Elokeshi is depicted on some of the most well-known Indian artworks, yet we know remarkably little about her life.
However, Elokeshi and the murder case have been immortalized in the popular Kalighat paintings that were evolving at the time. The Kalighat Temple was built in its present form by the Sabarna Roy Chowdhary family in the early 19th century. Soon it became the religious heart of Calcutta. Given that by now, Calcutta had become a melting pot, many newly displaced rural folk who were grappling with change were thronging the Kalighat Temple. It was a familiar refuge in an unfamiliar city. The steady stream of devotees to the temple also led to the creation of a new form of art – Kalighat painting – which became popular as souvenirs.
The temple attracted many traditional Pattachitra artists from rural Bengal, who set up shop selling watercolour paintings on paper as souvenirs. The Kalighat painting style is characterised by broad, sweeping brush lines, bold colours and simplification of the human form. The background of the paintings is usually blank, with figures in the foreground. The settings of the scenes are rarely well articulated, the entire focus of the painting is the figure.
This is quite a departure from traditional and folk styles of paintings prevalent in those times and the plain background suggests an influence of Company Art, which was fading and being replaced by photography around the time the Kalighat style emerged.
Inspired by folk art, Kalighat paintings have distinctive elements like the large eyes and flowing hair of women, echoes of which could be seen in the work of many later masters like Jamini Roy. Interestingly, at the time of the 1873 Elokeshi murder, Kalighat paintings began to go beyond the depiction of Indian deities, to include the depiction of contemporary events – including the murder case!
Of the countless artworks created on the Elokeshi murder, including paintings and drawings on paper, woodcut prints and photographs, the most notable and enduring were the Kalighat paintings. Many scenes of the scandal were inspired by the literature published. Through the art, we see the story. We see Elokeshi being introduced to and being seduced by the mahant. We see Nobin killing his wife, and we even see the trial and punishment meted out to the mahant but not Nobin babu. In all this, Elokeshi is a passive player. She is, however, shown dressed almost like a ‘courtesan’, not the young woman she actually was.
The influence of Pattachitra art which influenced Kalighat is distinctly visible in the drapery and ornaments of the characters. Throughout, the mahant is depicted as the criminal who seduced Elokeshi. Nobin is the hero for killing his wife! The old patriarchy and conservative attitude is evident in the narrative.
In many ways, the Kalighat paintings depicting the murder case were the medium to depict hostility towards colonial rule and anxiety about social change, prejudices against women; the erosion of religious morality and patriarchal authority.
The scandalous case brought into focus some uncomfortable social truths prevalent in 19th century Calcutta. Eventually, interest in the case waned as the protagonists moved on with their lives. But the art survived!
The many Kalighat paintings produced during that time are now part of private and public collections all over the world, From the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to the Brooklyn and Cleveland Museums of art in the United States, to the Völkerkundemuseum in Heidelberg, Germany, or the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, and of course the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, you can still find echoes of Elokeshi’s story captured for eternity.
Eighty six years later, another case, the Nanavati murder trial, would create a similar storm, and it also raised similar questions. By this time, however, art had given way to a more modern medium of capturing history – cinema – a medium that readily fed and fuelled public imagination.