Wednesday, 27 June 2012

In Memoriam

"The dinner parties given by the Kiernanders were famous for their profusion of dishes and their brilliance.Biren Roy, Calcutta, 1481-1981: Marshes to Metropolis. (1982)
The above quote was written in reference to Rev. Johann Zachariah Kiernander (1711-99) and his third wife Ann, whose elaborate "banquets and wine were famous in England" in the latter half of the eighteenth century.  But it would also serve to describe the great feasts prepared more recently by my grandparents, and in particular my grandfather, George Albert Kiernander (1926-2006).
At home among his books, including Hobson-Jobson.
Having lived across the length and breadth of what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh my grandfather was quite the authority on the food of the subcontinant.  He was born in Calcutta and there, in that hotchpotch city of many tongues, he acquired the palate that would inform his cooking in years to come.   When, on one of our many Thursday evening visits, he produced the greatest vegetable curry I've ever eaten it was, he revealed, the addition of 'a touch of soy sauce' that elevated the dish; and this secret he had learned long ago in his cosmopolitan hometown, Calcutta.
At a dinner with Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto in 1973.
Rising to the rank of Deputy Chief of the General Staff in the Pakistan Army had not given him much opportunity to cook during his working life, but tastes and recipes acquired from Balouchistan to Chittagong, at tribal feasts and official dinners, and from the many khansamas at home, were reborn in his retirement.  Curries, dhals, pulaos, breads, chutneys, salads would all be served up to his adoring family in such quantities that the dining table would strain with the weight of it all.  I cannot recall a dish of his that has been bettered, nor one which was not perfection itself.  Jhalfrazee, Pork Vindaloo, Murgh Musallam, Tarka Dhal, Yakhni Pulao, Aloo Barta, parathas were just some of his specialities.  And if you really couldn't get enough of a dish (I ate so much I could never sleep on Thursday nights) he would write you his recipe and post it to you the next day.
One versatile recipe I treasure and make regularly is for Khicheri, or as Hobson-Jobson has it,

"KEDGEREE, KITCHERY, s. Hind. khichri. a mess of rice, cooked with butter and dal (see DHALL), and flavoured with a little spice, shred onion, and the like; a common dish all over India, and often served at Anglo-Indian breakfast tables, in which very old precedent is followed... The word appears to have been applied metaphorically to mixtures of sundry kinds, and also to mixt jargon or lingua franca."
This recipe is an appropriate choice, then, as my grandfather spoke in the most wonderful 'kitchery' himself.  He was a great and knowledgeable raconteur, and his tales were always peppered with a whole range of Anglo-Indian idioms, now falling from usage.

This is the very simplist of all his recipes, and he would more often than not add vegetables, spice powders, and chillies to his khicheri.

I usually add haldi, fresh green chilli, dried red chillies, a little Sri Lankan roasted curry powder, curry leaves and cubed potato to my take on it.  As he would say, 'very delicious'.  Eating this, and thinking of you Grandpa!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Kiernander's Church

A couple of years ago I came across this page from The Gentleman's Magazine (Feb. 1824) for sale online.  It is a reproduction of an engraving made by G. Hall in 1774,  and is the earliest known illustration of Kiernander's Church at Calcutta.  An original print from 1774 can be found at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Johann Zachariah Kiernander was a Swedish Lutheran, who was dispatched from London to India in 1740 as a missionary under the auspices of the S.P.C.K..  After eighteen years labour in the south, he was invited to Bengal by Lord Clive, victor of the Battle of Plassey, 1757.  In a house given rent free by the Governor,  Kiernander established his Mission Church. 
In 1767 he resolved to purchase ground and build a church at his own expense, and the present church was completed, after many setbacks, in 1770.  Kiernander himself called it Beth Tephillah (Hebrew: House of Prayer), but it was known to many as Lal Girja, or the Red Church, as it at that time dominated Lal Dighi, or the  Red Pool, of Tank Square around which old Calcutta was centred.
This is most clearly seen (below) in Thomas Daniell's 1786 coloured aquatint etching Part of the Old Tank, a copy of which can be found at the British Library.
Kiernander's Mission was the city's sole Protestant place of worship from 1758 until the completion of St. John's Church in 1787.  Subsequently became commonly known as the Old Church, or Old Mission Chuch, while St. John's was often referred to as the New Chuch, or sometimes Pathure Girja, the Stone Church.
An article in The Telegraph in 2003 refered to Kiernander's church as the Swedish Church, and this name has recently acquired some currency, but it is rather misleading.  Though Kiernander never lost his Swedish accent, he never preached in that language - though he did in Portuguese, English and German.  He laboured as a missionary for the English S.P.C.K., and to all intents and purposes saw himself as English, to the extent of refering to England as "Home".  Ironically, he had spent less than a year in England.  Almost sixty years of his 88 years were spent in India; more than forty of those were spent in Calcutta.


Kiernander's church continued to dominate central Calcutta after his death in 1799 (above).  Gradually, however, it retreated behind a row of new commercial buildings which sprung up as Calcutta wrested its status as second city of the British Empire in the nineteenth century (below).



Photographs show that by the 1880s and 1890s Kiernander's Mission Chuch  had become a quite magnificent, being well maintained, extended and restored (below).  J.Z. Kiernander's great-grandson, George Henry Kiernander, made several large donations, including one for a stained glass window for the new chancel.


1897 proved to be an annus horribilis in the history of the church.  The steeple was wrecked in the great Assam Earthquake of that year, and had to be demolished along with the tower.  Replacing the steeple was not possible, such was the damage to the church.

But the church continued to function, and its history is recorded in Westcott's One Hundred and Seventy-Five Years at the Old or Mission Church, Calcutta (1945).

In 1948, on account "of the ravages of time and white ants" what was unsafe roof was removed and replaced, allowing in the process for the church to be enlarged.  No steeple was added at this time, and the church to this day remains without.

Though The Telegraph suggests the church now "lurks despondently" behind B.B.D. Bagh, the photographs below from 2005 seem to tell a different story.