Prabhat Chandra Barua was a legendary hunter who quit the sport, but his passion for theatre, literature and music remained throughout, and he got his children and even grandchildren trained in music
Princes patronize tabla players, whether for a genuine love of music or as a symbol of luxury. But a tabla playing prince?
Sounds incredible, but that was the case of Raja Prabhat Chandra Barua – one of the most enigmatic landlords among the Barua lineage, who was also known for his benevolence and pushing for the social uplift of his region.
Narahari Rai, who migrated from Mazaffarpur to Koch Bihar in early 16th century, was the first known forefather of the Barua’s.
His grandson Kabindra Patra, appointed as the Chief Minister in the Koch kingdom, was a scholar and was well versed in the Shastras(scriptures).
The Mughal emperor of the time later bestowed on him the powers of a Kanungo(similar to a land record officer) of Thana Rangamati, and was granted vast tracts of land.
The family then on came to be known as the Rangamati Baruas.
He was childless when he died in 1880. His wife Rani Bhabani Priya, adopted Prabhat Chandra as a young boy. Prabhat Chandra took charge of the estate in 1896 when he came of age.
He was bright, energetic and proved to be an able administrator with an eye towards social and cultural development of that region.
Gauripur town, built by Raja Pratap Chandra, was further developed under his guidance and was surprisingly well planned and modern in its layout.
The Middle English School that Pratap Chandra had built (Pratap Chandra Institution) was converted to High English School. He improved the medical facilities, built libraries and schools and instituted scholarships for needy and talented students for higher studies.
On the other hand, his acumen as a great hunter made Prabhat Chandra a legend in the hunting fraternity of those days.
The tradition of big game hunting – probably introduced as a sport by the Moghuls‑caught the fancy of the British rulers too, and was carried on by the sovereign princely states of British India.
Prabhat Chandra Barua could not relinquish this ‘shikar’ culture and continued to organize annual hunting trips to nearby forests.
His family members were trained to handle rifles and shotguns, and even some of the female members were not left out.
But unlike in some other zamindary estates, where trophy hunting meant indiscriminate killing of big game, Prabhat Chandra always determined the number of tigers or leopards to be killed.
But a slaughter was a slaughter, and it was assumed that he soon realised that this legitimised extermination of wildlife has to stop.
So, by the mid 40’s, the organized hunting trips were called off. But there were frequent reports of man-eaters – both tigers and leopards intruding into villages that were in the periphery of the jungles.
The villagers frequently lost their lives as well as cattle.. Since the Baruas were well trained and skilled, hunting was limited only responding to the prayers of the villagers to exterminate man eaters and cattle-lifters, and occasionally, deer and wild boar.
Prabhat Chandra Barua’’s eldest daughter, Nihar was fascinated by the local lore and dances that the house maids entertained them the children with. She gradually started to pick up the same, but surreptitiously.
Even after her marriage, when she shifted to Gauripur with her husband Mukunda Narayan and settled down at their new house that Prabhat Chandra built for them, she continued to pursue her passion.
It was in this milieu that Pramathesh Barua developed his passion for theatre, acting and later, cinema. Pramathesh earned the moniker “Prince”, which he was, and became an early Indian cinema legend, especially for his portrayal of ‘Devdas’
Prabhat Chandra, appointed an extremely talented folk musician Karitulla Khan, to teach dotara– a two-stringed musical instrument ‑to Mrinal – the third child of Nihar.
Pratima, the eldest daughter of Prakritish, started to learn Bhawaia (a musical form of Goalpara, Rangpur and North Bengal region), as she was extremely gifted.
By doing this, Prabhat Chandra not only broke the barriers of conservative Hindu social anathema and the unspoken taboo of untouchability, but legitimised the so called ‘low-caste’ culture into the mainstream society.
Pratima Barua bears testimony to this radical decision. She went on to become a household name in Assam and Bengal and elevated Goalparia folk songs to a different level.
Prabhat Chandra himself was passionate about tabla. For the uninitiated, tabla is an Indian percussion instrument that has a pair of small drums, played in unison, one with a sharp sound and the other with a mellow one.
His musical guru was Krishnadhan Bhattacharya, court musician of the Koch Bihar royalty. At a young age he was sent to the Koch Bihar royal family for his education, where he developed his passion for music. But it is not known whether the same guru was also his Tabla teacher.
Prabhat Chandra was a patron of Hindustani Classical music and invited musicians from Benaras, Delhi and Kanpur for musical soirees to Gauripur.
Not only did he play the table well, he even wrote a book on Tabla, titled ‘Tarangini’.
Frequent musical programmes, plays, literary discussions along with sporting events kept the Gauripur community active under Prabhat Chandra Baruas patronage.
It was in this milieu that Pramathesh Barua developed his passion for theatre, acting and later, cinema. Pramathesh later earned the moniker “Prince”, which he was, and became an early Indian cinema legend, especially for his portrayal of Devdas.
The rest is history.
But it was his father Raja Prabhat Chandra Barua, the last scion of the Gauripur estate, who left his imprint as a social and cultural reformer and arts aficionado on this side of River Brahmaputra.
It was their thirst for knowledge, unbridled passion for life and idiosyncrasy that gave the Baruas of Gauripur an eclectic edge.
*The author does not vouch for this number
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Rishi Barua is an eminent sculptor, painter and photographer, currently teaching as a professor at Kala Bhavan, Vishva Bharati University, Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Rishi and his wife, Sheema Barua, also a renowned painter, live in Shantiniketan. Rishi is a scion of the illustrious Gauripur Barua princely family.