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The Gauripur Barua’s – Legacy of an Eclectic Lot – Part-1: Nihar Bala Barua

The Gauripur Barua’s – Legacy of an Eclectic Lot – Part-1: Nihar Bala Barua

Nihar Bala Barua

The Gauripur ‘Raj Parivar’, or princely family, was steeped in culture, and we start recounting them with Nihar Bala Barua, grandmother of the writer

In 1938, when Hitler’s Germany was preparing for war and the Nazi’s virulent anti-Semitism attacks were spelling doom to the resident Jews, a young Indian lady quietly arrived in Germany for ‘sightseeing’‑alone.

‘Alone’ for a visit to foreign climes by an Indian lady was unheard of in those days. But all her life, she remained something of a mystery!

Forget German, she could hardly manage a few words in English. Her name was Nihar Bala Barua.

Born in a princely estate in Gauripur, Assam, Nihar was already married and a mother of six children.

Her elder brother, Pramathesh was an aspiring filmmaker and was in Europe to gather knowledge and equipment for his forthcoming projects.

Matiabag Palace Rajbari Gauripur, Assam
Matiabag Palace Rajbari Gauripur, Assam

Nihar wanted to visit Europe, namely England and Germany, for her insatiable thirst for knowledge in various cultures.

Her father, Raja Prabhat Chandra Barua was highly erudite and a liberal individual, and was known for his benevolence and initiatives to uplift local folk culture of Goalpara, Assam.

In fact, he appointed a Muslim folk singer, Karitullah Khan, to teach Dotara (a folk string instrument) and songs to his grandson Mrinal(third child of Nihar) and granddaughter Pratima (daughter of Prakritish Barua), much to the chagrin of the then conservative Hindu society and even some of his own many family members.

Nihar never went to a school – there were none in Gauripur at that time. Perhaps she received some home education till she was married off at an early age of eleven.

The Baruas were great hunters, and each year there were shikaar(hunting) expeditions to nearby forests.

There were no restrictions on hunting in those times or climes, and there were ample forests and big games for them to pursue this hobby.

While it’s a taboo to even talk tiger shooting today, it was a grand event for the zamindars then.

Nihar shot three tigers and four leopards.

Vintage Pic- Hunting on elephantTiger shooting from the top of an elephant was an extremely risky affair.

The tiger, cornered by drum beaters, would usually charge towards the elephant where the hunter would have to aim from a swaying animal underneath and kill a charging furious tiger hurtling towards him/her at lightning speed!

In spite of their annual shikaar trip, Raja Prabhat Chandra Barua had very strict rules about the number of kills they could make.

Exceeding the number invited strict punishment.

Most of the time they would go for man-eaters‑both Leopards and tigers.

But the raja was also a great educator, and inculcated a sense of ecological understanding among his children to observe and learn from the jungle the vital laws of nature.

While shooting, they never touched a pregnant female or one with cubs.

Nihar realised soon that this practice of killing wild life has to end, and took to conservation.

At a fairly young age, Nihar developed interest in folk dance and music.

While it was a taboo for aristocratic Hindu families in those days to learn or perform songs and dances of the so called lower caste and even Muslim folks, Nihar was passionately involved.

It’s true, she was encouraged in this by her father and after her marriage, by her husband – but in real life, it was not an easy choice to make. It took a lot of grit to engage her family members to learn the same.

Perhaps Nihar was one of pioneers in collecting and chronicling Rajbangshi folklore of that region, Bhawaia being one of the better known forms of music, now popular in Assam and Bengal.

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Nihar’s interests didn’t stop there.

She would collect insects and birds’ eggs of different shapes and sizes, pebbles of different shapes, shells, crystals and an array of natural objects that caught her attention.

I have never seen an emu, but I have seen an emu egg, which she had collected.

There’s a dedicated room in her house which she transformed into a tiny museum with wooden cases exhibiting her collections.

There’s also a cabinet known as ‘Natiputir Chiriakhana’ (literally meaning ‘A Zoo for Grandchildren”) which houses miniature objects ranging from mini animals to musical instruments to kitchen utensils to mini vintage cars!

Her knowledge on animals and birds was exceptional!

As pets she kept animals like monkeys, a huge python, golden langur, owls, a hornbill, parrots and many other varieties of birds, mongoose, even a jackal, which was presented by someone thinking it was a puppy!

There was a beautiful garden with flora and faunas, orchid and exotic plants and a greenhouse.

NiharBala Barua with her grand children
Nihar Bala Barua with her
grand children

Among her siblings, Pramathesh Barua became a legend in Indian film making history. Younger siblings were Prakritish, fondly known as Lalji, the elephant expert, Nilima her sister, and the youngest brother Pranabesh.

Born in 1905, Nihar spent more than four decades in Kolkata, writing and researching on folklore. At one point, she became an active member of the Communist Party of India.

Her constant effort in re-examining her socio-political position, from being a part of an aristocracy to identifying herself with the marginalised gave her a distinctive edge.

Her last years were spent in Gauripur, and she breathed her last at the ripe age of ninety-nine in 2004.

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  • Good endeavour but Gauripur Barua’s legacy should start from Kabindra Patra, the man who had laid the foundation of this jamindari as well as its cultural legacy.

    • There’s so much grey and every little bit of information can make the haze lift a little, maybe you should put pen to paper Rai.

      • Well, Debojit Barua, you are two Baruas conversing on another Barua who’s written about the latter part of the Barua legacy. Most interesting, so we will enjoy your discussion!But do keep reading and do keep sending us your comments.

    • Rai Barua, historically speaking you are so right, as indeed the history of the princely family goes much longer back in time. However, Rishi Barua was focusing not on chronologically valid history, but snapshots of the family which he had come to see in his childhood. We shall be grateful if you point shortcomings in that effort. Do keep reading and do keep sending us your comments.

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