The soldiers of the British East India Company were plainly breaking the law by trespassing into Calcutta’s Red Tank and it infuriated him. A “tall man with piercing eyes and a hawk-like face”, he stopped the sepoys and hurled such “savage and terrible” abuses that it hurt their ears.
From nearby, a wealthy Bengali merchant watched the episode unfold with interest. The invectives had been so colourful, so impassioned, that he saw in it an opportunity to exploit.
The merchant tutored the tall man, named Anthony “Firinghee”, in an “abusive” genre of music until his pupil earned success, independence from the merchant as well as enormous wealth.
To most of Bengal and Bengali cinema aficionados, the image of Anthony Firinghee is inseparable from “Mahanayak” Uttam Kumar, who played that iconic character in Sunil Bannerjee’s film Antony Firingee (1967). Kumar won the National Award for his portrayal of the “half-caste” minstrel, as Firinghee was referred to by the Brahminical society of early 19th century Bengal. In 2014, Srijit Mukherjee’s film Jaatishwar dragged the Firinghee saga into realms of the fabulous and supernatural. With two mainstream Bengali films, one wonders why there is such little writing on the life of this folk hero.
Hensman Anthony was born in Bengal – most probably in the French colony of Chandernagore or Farashdanga – to an 18th century Portuguese settler. He rose as a Bengali kabiyaal (wandering poet singer) at a time when such performing arts were considered lowbrow, indecent and even low caste.
Arguably, the strong fusion of Vaishnavite and French culture of Chandernagore, which abolished sati and slavery much before the British were persuaded to, moulded Anthony’s psychology. He himself rescued a Brahmin widow – known as Saudamini in some accounts – from the hellish fires. Though latter-day moralists may have us believe that he married her, he very likely established an avant-garde live-in relationship with her in Gereti or Boruti near Chandernagore.
Apart from some brief biographical sketches by scholars, little is known about the life of Anthony, though much of it has seeped into Bengali folklore.
In Polycoloniality (2020), for instance, Saugata Bhaduri sees him as “a monumental figure within the popular cultural pole of the Bengal Renaissance” and “a truly polycolonial personality”. Gopinath Sen, in an old essay titled An English Kabiwala of Bengal, labelled Anthony, somewhat metaphorically, as a “Bengalised Englishman”, which he was not. In Chandernagore and Calcutta (2012), Sumanta Banerjee describes him as perhaps “the most colorful product of Chandernagore’s popular culture”. The Kenyan historian JJA Campos, writing in the History of the Portuguese in Bengal (1919), inadvertently discredited Anthony’s multicultural achievements by terming him “a Feringhi (probably a Bengali Christian)”.
Rosinka Chaudhuri, who compares Anthony with his contemporary Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, argues that the kabiyaal represented an alternative modernity to the one enforced by European companies in Bengal or the kind espoused by Brahminical traditions. The profession of kabiyaals, she writes, was spawned by the “urban chaos of cosmopolitan Calcutta in the early nineteenth century, competing with each other in the houses of the nouveau-riche for prize money. Anthony’s songs could be described as devotional lyrics with a secular message, capturing the humanist-universal-folk of the Bengali syncretistic tradition in lines that were uncannily reminiscent of the songs of Bauls such as Lalan Fakir or the aphorisms of Ramakrishna.”
Inspired by his romantic partner – but not entirely because of her – Anthony renounced his European clothes for the dhoti and shawl, while forming a troupe of kabiyaals. We often hear of David Ochterlony, the British Resident of Delhi married to Mubarak Begum, from latter-day postcolonial enthusiasts as a paragon of the sahib-gone-native, what with his patronising Persian and Hindustani arts and culture. In Anthony’s household, however, his Portuguese heritage did not clash with that of her Brahmin partner, as Hindu ceremonies went on unabated in it, even galvanizing his kabiyaal friends during festivals.
With Durga and Kali as his muses, Anthony was one of the pioneers of what Chaudhuri calls the “vulgarized vernacular public culture” that was mushrooming around the suburbs of Calcutta, much to the ire of the Baboos, Brahmins and highbrow culturalists. As a result, even today the figure of the “Firinghee” occupies an ambivalent position between tradition and modernity, between urbanism and folklore.
Anthony’s association with kabiyaals began when, during one Durga puja season, a Kabi Sammelan (poetry reading) was organised at his house under the promising influence of his wife. So steeped would Anthony become in the kabiyaal tradition that he began neglecting his family’s salt business. As the business collapsed, Anthony took up kabigaan (minstrelsy) on “a professional footing,” writes Gopinath Sen. Dinesh Chandra Sen, Sumanta Banerjee and Saugata Bhaduri agree that Anthony employed Gorakshanath as his lyricist, although they fell apart over the question of the latter’s fees. It was this incident that, as Banerjee believes, compelled Anthony to compose his own songs, which would later become “classic examples of the eclectic culture that Chandernagore nurtured”.
Conscious of his subaltern position in Bengal’s colonial and Brahminical climate, Anthony safeguarded his independence with a “contemptuous rejection of any attempt on the part of his rivals to ridicule him on the basis of his race or religion,” writes Bhaduri. A devotee of Kali, Anthony was closely associated with – some even say restored – the Firinghee Kalibari on Calcutta’s Bowbazar Street, where he spent his final years.
This much merits being called history in scholarly registers. What is not well known is a fabulous account of Anthony by Henry Newman in a forgotten book called The Indian Peep Show (1937). Newman is perhaps the first to refer unsparingly to the caste politics in Anthony’s lifetime, whom he calls “a singer of the Bhang type, though he was not a Bhang; he was, indeed, a Feringhi”. Newman implies that Feringhi was a derogatory term used especially by upper-caste cultural vanguards to denote fallen Europeans. “When applied to Europeans in general,” he writes, “the person who applies it as a rule means to be rude; it is just as offensive to say Feringhi of a European as it is to say Nigger of an Indian. The use of these words should be forbidden by law.” That said, Feringhi had a double meaning, that of Europeans who had assumed Indian customs, wore Indian clothes, had “adopted the Bengali language”, and assimilated as agriculturalists.
Even in Newman’s time, as he says, Anthony’s name could be found in books about Bengali musicians. But his initial claim to celebrity was the incident from around 1800 when he took on British East India Company sepoys near Calcutta’s Red Tank (Lal Dighi or Tank Square). The memoirist’s mythmaking becomes apparent as we are told that Anthony was tutored by the merchant in that abusive genre of music, and his instantaneous success earned him his independence from the merchant as well as enormous wealth.
“I have tried to get hold of some of the rhymes that Antony made,” pleads Newman, “but it is not easy. There may not have been strict laws about libel or slander in those days, but somehow nobody seems to have kept any Antonian verses; it seems a pity.”
What makes Anthony’s life and legacy even more interesting is that there is reason to believe that Newman’s anecdote is not about Anthony at all, but rather his grandfather, who was also known as Anthony Firinghee, and lived in the time of Job Charnock – once erroneously believed to be the founder of Calcutta. Writing 30 years before Newman, HEA Cotton observed in Calcutta, Old and New (1907) that “Anthony Sahib” was horse-whipped by Charnock near the tank of Dalhousie Square. While the enclosure in which the tank was located had been given over to the English by the local zamindar, Antony Sahib prevented the English factors from entering the enclosure during Holi.
It was true that Bengal’s “abuse-with-music” were gone by Newman’s time, but if such legendary details of Anthony’s life were known to the author, surely his verses were not as difficult to find. In fact, it is Anthony’s music that is still far better known than his biography. In one kabir-ladai (battle of minstrels), when Anthony took on Calcutta’s kabiyaal Ram Basu, the latter insulted his hybrid position in the words:
Saheb! Mithye tui Krishna pade matha murali
Tor padri saheb sunte pele
Gale debe chunkali
O Sahib, your phony catalogue of Krishna’s avatars
If your padre comes to know of it
He’ll blacken your cheeks with tar.
Anthony replied cheekily:
Khrishtey ar Krishney kichhu bhinno naire bhai
Shudhu namer phere manush phere
Eyo kotha shuninai
Amar khoda je, Hindur Hari shey
Ei dekh Shyam dariya achhe
Amar manob janam shaphal hobe jadi eyi ranga charan pai
Brother, Christ and Krishna have but one creed,
Where prayers are not mere chanting of names
But where souls flock to greet
Your Hari and my god are all the same
Look here stands Shyam
My human form will honor itself if only I had his lotus feet.
The author is grateful to Prof. Saugata Bhaduri for his comments.
Arup K. Chatterjee is an author and academic, whose latest book is Indians in London: From the Birth of the East India Company to Independent India.