Kolkata is an enigma for many in America and the West. First-time visitors to India typically choose Delhi and the golden triangle, gasping at fine Mughal and Rajput monuments. Business folks and urban revelers congregate in Mumbai and Bangalore, whilst adventure lovers and hipsters soak up the sun (and certain yum yums) in Goa or venture out to the mountains in the north. The spiritual soul or yogi may land up in Varanasi and Rishikesh, but few would deliberately include a stop to Kolkata.
Yet, none of these cities have shaped the West as profoundly as pivotal events in Kolkata’s history have.
The story unfolds something like this. Kolkata was prime real estate in the British Empire and headquarters of the East India Company, whose shares made many an Englishman rich in addition to funding England’s wars against the French, Dutch and Portuguese for naval trade supremacy. In 1757, Robert Clive, the Company’s top boss, bribed Mir Jafer, the Commander General of Siraj-ud-Daulah (Bengal’s then Nawab) and deviously defeated a 50,000 strong Bengal-French army with a mere 3,500 men. In under 12 hours.
Decisively winning the Battle of Plassey, Clive promptly appointed Jafar as the new Nawab and assumed all tax collection rights for the supremely fertile Bengal delta, fed by the mighty Brahmaputra and the divine Ganges. Clive’s and the Company Financiers’ uncontrollable greed to deepen their own pockets first, led to massive tax increases and an utter collapse of Bengal’s economy, therefore an unmitigated financial crisis for the Company. The powers that be in London, pumped in vast amounts to “bail out” the East India Company in Kolkata, deeming it to be “too big to fail.” These funds were in turn replenished by taxing American colonies, irate as it is under British occupancy. Fuel led to fire and protests ensued, leading up to the Boston Tea Party events of 1773, ultimately culminating in America’s independence from Britain in 1776. By the way, “too big to fail” and “bail out” sound familiar?
Anyway, back to Kolkata. Today, for most people, there is little money to make here as recent ruling governments have systematically wiped out manufacturing and other industries. The alarming numbers of hawkers and street establishments combined with an outrageous volume of vehicular traffic make this an unfriendly city for pedestrians. The city can shut down on a whim. Nobel laureate Gurudev Tagore’s second cousin’s 70th death anniversary, local favorite Mohun Bagan’s faltering soccer form, or one union leader’s debate loss to another over tea are all perfectly valid reasons to call a city-wide strike.
“Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi. You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.” — Vir Sanghvi (columnist, print and television journalist)
Kolkata may not be for everyone but it has a place for everybody. I haven’t spent much time here other than the annual trips to meet family. I was born here at the peak of Communist rule, and unlike the besotted Bengali’s unflinching loyalty to anything Kolkata, my love affair with this city found its early roots as a teenager, through Desmond Doig’s sketches. These roots have now firmed up as I’ve seen Kolkata through a photographer’s lens.
And here are seven reasons, why you should too.
1. It’s age-old markets stimulate your core senses.
Kolkata’s wholesale markets run much of eastern India’s trade, attracting migrant workers in large numbers from neighboring states and a much porous border shared with Bangladesh. A 24/7 influx of goods from all over India — poultry, fruits, vegetables, fish, metalware, flowers and more — are sold in ancient ways involving human chains of laborers, manual weighing stations, open bartering and negotiations. These markets, some over 200 years old, are a live movie broadcasting how trade happened back in the day. One senses a reluctance to enter the 21st century (despite mobile phones being common), yet these markets run and support the largest trade engine in eastern India, sustaining some 20 million people. For street photographers, the action is relentless; there are little details everywhere, mini plots occurring by the minute and a distinctive light filtered through centuries of crumbling infrastructure.
2. The maze of North Kolkata is an architectural delight.
Time stands still here, shrouded under two centuries of dust and putrefaction. Shyambazar, Baghbazar, Shobhabazar and Kumartuli once showed off mansions of Bengal’s rich and elite. Walking through these neighborhoods is a visual masterclass in the architectural trends of 19th century Bengal. Unlike the Victorian style of Central Kolkata built by the British in red brick and sandstone, North Kolkata parades classical Doric and neo-classical styles, fluted Corinthian columns and murals in lime and plaster. The crumbling facades — many still inhabited — conceal the borderline hauteur of yesteryear’s Bengali aristocrat (vividly depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar) and offer a visual treat not seen perhaps in any corner of India. These streets delight architecture and history buffs, providing countless abstracts, facade details, and interplays of light and shadow. North Kolkata is a mandatory case study on urban decay and exploration, much like other communist clusters like Cuba.
3. Kolkata’s festivals are celebrations of epic proportions.
There is a Bengali saying “Baro maashe tero parbon,” which translates to thirteen festivals in twelve months. More than religion, festivals in Kolkata are a celebration of its cultural diversity, creativity, culinary delights, music and any set of beliefs that one can loose themselves in. Festivals transcend this city to an overdose of gossip (adda), food, shopping and bonding with friends and family. There is something on every month, some more religious than others, but each with a strong human element and a story to share.
4. Life along the Hooghly shows you a different world.
The river served as a major artery for jute and textile trade back in the day and the lifeblood of the East India Company, and the Mughal Empire before them. Today, these banks exude a sense of the tranquil days, ancient temples, rituals and a visual archive of four hundred years of British rule. The banks are a mini river civilization of sorts, preserving a fraction of the past. Every morning starts with prayers, bathing, commerce and ceremonies of birth and death. Banyan and peepul trees dot the length of the ghats supporting micro-communities, small temples and markets. Under the belly of the towering Howrah bridge is the Mullick Ghat flower market; no amount of description can truly explain what this place is, unless one goes there. Just north of the flower market borders Posta, a market trading in spices, garlic, salts, oils and sugar. An early morning photowalk along the Hooghly is extremely rewarding for any visual artist as is evident from the growing number of local and visiting photographers from around the world.
5. Chitpur road and its centuries-old lifestyle.
This is the oldest road in Kolkata — some say 400 years old — and is home to a varied range of businesses that take you back as long ago. The Bengali almanac (panjika), traditional eateries, road theaters (jatra), music shops, cotton merchants, tailors, block printers, metal workers, carpenters, potters, jewelers, perfumeries, sex trade, and pretty much any old school commerce that can be imagined, will be found here. It is also a validation of the ethnic diversity in Kolkata, as different cultures hold sway over specific sections of Chitpur — Muslims, Marwaris, Sikhs and Bengalis all have their distinct buildings, street decor, odor, eateries and heritage well reflected in their surroundings. Chitpur Road is a magnet for street and documentary photographers with many global photography grants and projects getting commissioned in recent years.
6. It’s eclectic street art scene.
Kolkata is the intellectual, cultural and creative capital of India, colloquially at least. Much of present day Bollywood’s early genesis traces back to Bengal — Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tapan Sinha and Ritwik Ghatak to name a few — the most eminent being Oscar winning Satyajit Ray. Same with music — Sachin and Rahul Dev Burman, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hemant Mukherjee and the legendary Kishore Kumar. So, the land of Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose having creative clout ought to be a trivial matter. Yet Kolkata has not been a hotbed for street art until recently, primarily because much of its walls were a canvas for political advertising. A new genre of urban artists are changing that throughout the city with murals, abstracts, caricatures, quotes and satirical commentaries, which are particularly inviting to street art and street photography aficionados.
7. It’s a gateway to the splendor of the eastern Himalayas.
Mountain and landscape lovers find a healthy share of hiking and photography options in the Garwhal and Kumaon ranges of the north. The magnificence of the eastern Himalayas is only recently unwrapping itself in a meaningful way, i.e., beyond the locals and hardcore adventurers who’ve traversed these parts for decades. Sandakphu for instance, is probably one of the best hikes in all of India, offering views to four of the world’s tallest peaks. There is Everest itself in all its resplendent glory, with deputies Lhotse and Makalu (fourth and fifth tallest in the world) and on the other side is the majestic Kanchenjunga (third highest in the world). In addition, marvel at the Annapurna ranges spanning Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. Kolkata acts as an effective gateway to this region, ideal for nature and landscape photographers, but also for bird and wildlife lovers.