September 13, 2012

Lady Canning Memorial, Calcutta

This post is part of series about St. John’s Church located in BBD Bagh area, Calcutta. The integrated post about the church and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church


It was the June of 1855. Lord Charles John Canning had accepted the Governor-Generalship of the Queen’s Indian territories and sailed for the colony with his beloved wife Lady Charlotte. They reached Calcutta, the imperial capital, in February 1856 on a ship via Paris, Malta, Egypt, Bombay, Ceylon and Madras. Before leaving England, Lady Canning had not the slightest indication that her life in India would be a solitary one – she was the daughter of a diplomat, her husband’s father was the late Prime Minister, both her and her husband came from high-ranking families and before her departure for India she had been Lady-of-the-bedchamber to the Queen and each of these had made her accustomed to court life and all its intricacies – but in India, she found herself on the other side of the divide – she was the most powerful woman in the country and there were ladies fawning over her every word and servants waiting over her every move. Yet she found herself alone, often engulfed by bouts of isolation and depression – her high stature prohibited her from interacting with all and sundry; there weren’t many noble ladies in India at that time either and her husband was busy most of the time with his duties.

Her Ladyship's memorial

Lady Canning busied herself with her arts – she was an accomplished photographer and an enviable painter, but foremost she was a lady of words – she would write often to the Queen, filling her with details of the life and wonders of India through her illustrated letters. Her vivid letters remain, to this date, a very valuable source of information about life in India and were hailed, even during her lifetime, as the best originating from India. She painted hundreds of watercolors, 350 of which are still displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum of London. The Sepoy Mutiny saw Lady Canning’s letters become even more important – her husband relied on her to convey information to the queen and his colleagues when he was subdued by work and decision-making to quench the rebellion and could not find time to write to them himself. Diligently, the dark-skinned and dark-haired Lady collected information that was to be relayed to the Queen and the Parliament. Besides being celebrated for her beauty and talents, she also took a keen interest in sciences – her knowledge of botany was appreciated and horticulture endeared her. She would often be found admiring the landscape of Coonoor (Ooty) while her husband was away officiating his duties – her favorite spot in Coonoor is still remembered as Lady Canning’s seat and has become a tourist destination famed for its serenity and quiet beauty. Her love for Indian delicacies prompted a confectioner known as Bhim Nag to christen a Bengali sweet prepared with deep-fried chenna (sweet, milk-based dough) and raisins after her – the dish is still sold under the name “Ledikeni” (from “Lady Kenny”).

After the revolt, the country’s control was taken from the hands of the East India Company and transferred to the British Govt. – Canning became the first Viceroy of India and deftly managed the situation in the aftermath of the mutiny. Vicereine Canning, who had never wanted to come to India in the first place, desperately yearned to return to England to family and friends. She travelled throughout the country, sketching and painting most of what she saw. Her favorite spot, though, remained to be the forest land beyond the gardens of the Viceregal resort in Barrackpore (an hour’s drive from Calcutta) – here she would sit and admire the flow of the river and the variety of flora around her, often immortalizing them through her artwork. 

Tribute of a doting husband

A tedious journey through Sikkim and Darjeeling in October 1861 left her exhausted and she was diagnosed with malaria soon thereafter. She passed away on November 18th, shortly before her long-awaited return to England was supposed to materialize, and was buried in a small tomb in the garden that she so loved. Lord Canning was heartbroken by his wife’s death and would often be seen slipping from the lodge to go sit by his wife’s tomb – grieving for her, he too passed away soon. Before his death, the Viceroy commissioned an inlaid marble likeness of her tomb in the courtyard of St. John’s Church, Calcutta and the same was executed by George Gilbert Scott and John Birnie Philip.

The elaborate memorial, one of the most touching sculptures in the entire church complex, is shaped like a grave – it is reached by climbing a small flight of stairs and provides a stunning visual composition with its sculpted patterns & flowers, along with the shuttered windows of the church on one side and the pillars on the other. A magnificent cross graces the headstone. The memorial is a must see for visitors to the church, and photographers will certainly find the memorial’s patterns & shape indelible – both for the mind & the camera. 
The ornate cross adorning the memorial

Situated nearby are other memorials, built to commemorate Job Charnock (the guy who merged three villages to establish the colonial capital at Calcutta), the Second Rohilla War, Lady Johnson and the Calcutta “Black Hole” tragedy.

Location: Inside St. John's Church complex, BBD Bagh area. Walking distance from Raj Bhavan, the residence of Governor of Bengal.
Nearest Metro station: Esplanade
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk or take a taxi from Esplanade 
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Entrance Fees: Rs 10 for entering the Church complex (for visitors on foot, you have to pay more for parking)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 10 min
Relevant Links - 

No comments:

Post a Comment