“Ki chayi tomaar?” (what do you want) asked the taxi driver, when he saw me nervously scrolling through my phone. Without waiting for a response, he said,“Dara, toke kolkatar shobcheye best mishtir dokane nie jaabo,” (Wait, I will take you to some of the best sweet shops in Kolkata.”
This was my first day in Kolkata, and he was the second person to ask me what I needed and deliver, effortlessly. A few hours ago, I was generously offered an entire boat to myself after the boatman on Princep ghat noticed I was uncomfortable sharing the ride with strangers, and in doing so, truly made my Howrah bridge experience unforgettable.
That’s the thing about the City of Joy — it will give you everything, you just have to ask for it.
2020 marks the 330th anniversary of a city with its rich cultural identity. It was founded in 1690 after three large villages along the east bank of the river — Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolkata (Calcutta) — were merged as a trading post of British East India Company.
The British had purchased these three villages from local landlords to establish trade links, and the East India Company was granted freedom of trade in return for a yearly payment of 3,000 rupees in 1717. That was the beginning of their interest in the city that rose from rural settlements and in 1772, Calcutta was declared the capital of British India.
Gradually, all the important offices were moved from Murshidabad to Calcutta and by the 19th century, this city was flourishing in various arenas including culture, politics and economics. Around this time it was also home to reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Jagadish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose (co-author of Bose-Einstein Theory).
It Is Not Just A City, It Is Our Pride
Over the years, India has witnessed a rapid transformation and so has Kolkata and yet the city has managed to retain its legacy. The paintings from colourful balconies in houses of Kolkata may be peeling off, but its history still resonates with every proud native.
“Heritage and culture are two words synonymous with Kolkata. The city’s rich legacy has stood strong for over 300 years, but not without occasional cracks. What differentiates Kolkata from other cities is its fondness for adopting people, their cultures, festivals and identities. Which is why both Durga Pujo and Eid are celebrated in the city with magnanimity. Over the years, the city has remained stuck to its cultural identity and the inability to move on hasn’t gone down well with the next-gen Kolkatan. But as always, the city, its culture and its people will make a comeback to restore its old glory,” Saptarshi Dutta, who was born and raised in the city tells The Better India.
For Modhura Palit, an international award-winning cinematographer, who has captured the essence of Kolkata for film projects, the city is her muse.
“For me, the beauty of Kolkata is its timelessness. People from outside Kolkata find the city laid-back, lazy and what not; but the fact is that Kolkata has its unique pulse. Much like the river, it is besides, the city ebbs and flows in its own moonshine beauty. It has heart and soul in its right place. The city doesn’t care about materialistic things. It cares more about the little moments that make up lives. On camera, the city is always beautiful. It’s very photogenic. It’s very difficult to make it look ugly. Just put on the camera and it’s almost always a frame. With its textures, colours, architecture, the city is always a lender’s muse.”
Finding beauty in mundane city life is something that Instagrammer Akash Bhattacharya also enjoys thoroughly. As a millennial photographer, he feels it his duty to showcase the reality of his city.
He believes that the city is a beautiful amalgamation of old charm with a modern-day vibe.
“This is a city where you will find veteran artisans making idols prior to Durgapuja in Kumortuli. You will find us celebrating Christmas in bow barracks and park street. The same zeal will be observed in Zakaria street or in Nakhodka masjid during Ramadan. The people are cordial, and the charm of the daily hustle just never seems to fade. Kolkata has changed a lot if you consider urbanization and architecture, but the aesthetic heritage remains the same in the alleys of north Kolkata. As a photographer, it gives me immense joy to document the impactful change that has shaped the city. A city that organises pride parades also has its own version of Ganga arati which is almost similar to Varanasi. Isn’t that interesting?”
Street food has also seen a transition over the years, Akash points out, “Earlier the heritage of street food was only confined to few localities in the north and south Calcutta. But now one can easily find the branches of famous food joints almost everywhere. Kolkata has its own floating water market in Patchouli, something that I had never fathomed 15 years ago. But somehow the vibe and warmth of this city is just the same. The more you stay here the more you feel at home.”
As a tourist, this was something I noticed too. Where I saw trams still running, I was also pleasantly surprised to see the office-going crowd peddling their way to work on cycles.
Listening to ‘Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi’ on my Phone to recreate a scene from Khamoshi during the boat ride is a testimony that this bustling metropolis with underground metros, high rises and a vibrant nightlife still offers a sneak-peek into its past glory.
The Charming Glory of a 330-Year-Old Kolkata
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)