House by the sea

Print edition : September 13, 2019

The house that was once the official residence of the Danish Governor who administered Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi in Nagapattinam district). Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

The Danish fort, called Dans Borg, at Tharangampadi. Photo: M. Moorthy

A skilfully crafted book that paints a vivid portrait of the past as it unfolded in the life of the Governor’s house in Tranquebar and its people.

IN 2008, the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department and the Tranquebar Initiative of the National Museum of Denmark launched a joint project to restore a dilapidated and abandoned house in the erstwhile Tranquebar (now called Tharangampadi). Among other things, the house was once the official residence of the Danish Governor who administered Tranquebar. Given the growing scholarly interest in the history of Tranquebar and the plans of the Tourism Department to promote the town as a destination for heritage tourism, it was only befitting that the house was restored.

Meanwhile, a host of historians, architects, restorers and conservators who became involved in the project meticulously gathered and examined a variety of archival material so that the social and architectural history of the house could be traced and understood. This was significant as it not only determined the character and course of the restoration but also paved the way for putting together a skilfully crafted book that is lucid, imaginative and comprehensible to a wide audience.

Through a narrative interspersed with anecdotes, illustrations, maps, photographs and excerpts from archival materials, the book paints a vivid portrait of the past as it unfolded in the life of the Governor’s house and its people. Written by historians, anthropologists, architects and restorers, the book has rich descriptions about the architectural splendour of the house, the material artefacts that adorned it, and the utilisation of space within it. It discusses the symbolic power and the official presence that the house had within the townscape of Tranquebar. It illustrates the people who lived in the house, visited it and worked in it and even pries into their private lives, intrigues, anxieties and longings. Acknowledging that restoration has, from the outset, been the “point of reference” for putting together the book, an entire chapter, towards the end, is devoted to narrating the painstaking process of restoration and its varied meanings.

Although the book may be taken for just another “coffee table book”, it is far from one. It is a book designed to be read closely, not merely casually looked at or glanced through. It is rich in description and detail. The elaborate and colourful anecdotes, images, illustrations, maps, architectural plans and photographs that appear with the main text deserve to be read on their own terms. They interrupt the steady flow of the main text but are integral to what the book is about and provide a much better understanding of the people, places and times that are being referred to.

Nature of cultural encounter

The larger theme underpinning the book is one of cultural encounter. Through the biography of the house, the book seeks to shed light on and comprehend the cultural encounter that occurred between Europeans and Indians in the late 18th and early 19th century (the years when the house was the Governor’s official residence), albeit from the perspective of the Danish, who were minor players in the race for dominance over overseas trade in the region.

In 1620, Raghunatha Nayak, the King of Thanjavur, invited the Danes to settle in Tranquebar with the intention of stimulating trade in his territory and counterbalancing the dominance of the Portuguese. Subsequently, they built a fort and established a trading settlement in Tranquebar. However, because of insufficient investment and lack of any contact with the home country, there was hardly any trading activity in the 17th century. It was in the 18th century that trade began to prosper in Tranquebar. The neutral position adopted by the United Kingdom of Denmark-Norway in European conflicts and wars made Tranquebar a comparatively safe place for European traders to undertake their trading activities. By the 19th century, as the British East India Company became a formidable force in the Indian subcontinent, the Danes had to give up their control over Tranquebar and, eventually, handed the trading settlement over to the British in 1845.

In spite of its presence in the subcontinent for almost 225 years, Denmark could never establish lasting trade relations in India, nor did it become an important competitor in the race for colonies. But, for Tranquebar and the surrounding areas, those 225 years were crucial in terms of the cultural interactions that took place between Europeans and Indians—an aspect that was closely examined in an earlier book brought out by the Tranquebar Initiative of the National Museum (Fihl, Esther and A.R. Venkatachalapathy (eds) (2014): Beyond Tranquebar: Grappling Across Cultural Borders in South India, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan).

In their everydayness, the cultural interactions that took place in Tranquebar were marked by conflicts and misunderstandings as well as attempts to understand and accommodate everyone’s particularities. There were attempts to protect and segregate everyone’s space, but there were also moments when those lines of segregation became rather blurred. Using the Governor’s house as a point of reference, the book demonstrates how the relationship between the Governor’s family and the local servants, the various diplomatic parleys that happened in the house, the banquets the Governor hosted, the artefacts and furniture that adorned the house, and the relations forged by the residents of the house with other Europeans and Indians became important instances of such cultural interactions.

Given the fact that Tranquebar was under the administrative control of the Danish Crown and that Europeans, in general, felt they were justified in asserting their economic and political dominance in the region, it would be facile to assume that these cultural encounters were not mediated by power. They were definitely tinted with paternalism, racial superiority and a sense of entitlement, something that is evident in the relations between the Governor’s family and the local people. However, this does not mean that there was a premeditated and uniform manner in which power operated. The unequal relations of power between the Danes and the local people, between the various imperialist nations vying for dominance in the region, and the social hierarchies that existed among the Danes and the local people reveal that there were multiple centres of power, and the intersections and negotiations between them made the cultural encounter a more nuanced, complex and multilayered process.

In general, the nuances, dilemmas and politics of cultural encounter are something that the book tries to be conscious and sensitive about. However, there are occasions when it tends to slip into casual references that imply that the Danes were magnanimous for not having imposed their Danishness on local society and for being accommodative of local spaces and culture in spite of their presence in Tranquebar for a little over two centuries; furthermore, there is a tendency to romanticise the Indo-European cultural exchange, almost becoming forgetful of the privileges and power the Europeans were beginning to wield in the region.

Rather than magnanimity or genuine romance for local culture, it might be more apt to say that the limits of circumstances and the negotiations of power restrained and determined the character of the Indo-European cultural exchange. The scope and limitations of the archives and museums consulted, which are primarily located in Denmark, could be one of the reasons for this shortcoming as they mostly privilege the voices, thoughts and feelings of the Danes while the local people tend to be mute and passive subjects.

Restoration as storytelling

The main impetus behind the book was the effort to restore the Governor’s house and turn it into a cultural centre that would contribute towards the development of Tranquebar as an important destination for heritage tourism. Although the book remains silent about the political economy of heritage tourism—despite the involvement of various stakeholders with variant interests—and its implications for local society, it does provide an extremely instructive account of the entire restoration process. It presents the minute planning and details that went into the restoration process—recovering architectural plans of the building complex, excavating the area in and around it, and carefully studying the architectural modifications and additions it was subjected to over the years; also, deliberating and working on the various aspects of restoration, for instance, the materials to be used, the craftsmanship to be employed, the colours to be painted, etc. It also delves into the various concerns and dilemmas that came up during the course of restoration.

Because of certain antiquarian anxieties, there has often been a tendency to perceive restoration as a process wherein a remnant from the past is reinstated to its “original” or “authentic” self. However, as those who were involved in the restoration work aptly point out in the last chapter, restoration involves “a loss of authenticity”. A restored structure is never an exact reconstruction of the structure as it appeared at any point of time but an entirely new structure that has been put together taking into consideration what is known about the building and what remains of it. It represents a flattening of time and an attempt to combine elements from different periods in a structure’s history.

The building complex had been put to multiple uses in the past: To begin with, it was the private house of an English businessman. In 1784, it became the official residence of the Danish Governor. Much later, in 1845, as Tranquebar came under British rule, it became a place for the Collector of Thanjavur to hold “the records and the treasury”. From 1860 to 1884, it was turned into a courthouse and, afterwards, until the 1980s, an office for the Salt Department. And, the mandate of the restoration project was to restore the building complex taking into consideration its multiple lives, to compress multiple phases of its history into one.

However, in order to do this, there had to be a point of reference, a moment or an aspect that would be “the basis for the major story in the restoration process”. Given the prominence of the building complex in the town when it was the Governor’s official residence and the fact that much of the architectural and historical details available on it are from that period, the obvious choice for the restorers was to treat that period as the point of reference, though they remained conscious and accommodative of the modifications and additions that may have happened during other periods. The residence was handed over to the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department after the restoration was completed in 2011. The book, ending on a hopeful note, underlines the potential of the restored structure to become an important meeting point for cross-cultural dialogues, a hub of various historical and cultural activities. Although it is for the various stakeholders involved in the restoration process to assess if it has served that important purpose, the reflections of a travel blogger who visited Tranquebar last year may be taken earnestly, especially given the plight of various restored buildings and sites in the country. In her blog, she narrates how deserted and lifeless the town and its many restored structures seemed and wondered whether those structures were restored “only to be kept under lock and key” ( 2018/10/01/travel-exploring- tranquebar/).

Tranquebar is one among the several places along the coast of the Bay of Bengal that have had a history very different from the landlocked hinterlands of the subcontinent. Given their proximity to the seas, such places have been centres of cross-cultural exchange and assimilation for long. Cultural negotiations and contestations have been an inevitable part of it. In this respect, the book provides important glimpses of how lives may have been made and lived in coastal and southern India.

John Thomas is an assistant professor of history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati.

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