There is something about Kolkata that anyone who has visited it, finds inexplicable. They call it the “City of Joy”. I reckon, it is not all about the people living in apparent happiness. There is the “adda”, which essentially means gossip. But is so much more. I found it to be more of a ritual. Something so intrinsically woven in the society that it cannot be seen as a separate entity at all. Not too long ago, I found myself walking the roads of Kolkata, the dSLR in hand, snapping away.
I noticed a few things as soon as I stepped out. First that the city is incredibly camera friendly. Perhaps it stems from the city’s unbelievable familiarity with arts; classic, performing and the modern. The second was a realization that the bloke who attached “joy” to the city’s name, must have been in a poetic trance and at his allegorical best. This I say because the city, while by no means is a personification of all things nice, somehow, brings out an intense feeling of elation.
The third thing that I figured, and this has the most to do with this post, was that it is on foot that the city is best appreciated. While I had the pleasure of the company of one of Kolkata’s oldest families, not all who wander here can be expected to have such acquaintances. Not that one will have to look too far for direction. The people are living information directories here. While most Westerners, with the possible exception of La Nuit Bengali (a Bengali Night), have interpreted it as a city of struggle, many others are infuriated by this one-sided depiction.
Kolkata, I found, is deeply etched in an era, and a sensibility that is lost in time – an immense city which comes out as a celebration of human existence playing out right in front of the eyes.
Coming back to the walking part. While I was trying to discover as much as I could in the little time I had in hand, I saw things I did not expect. Plazas the kind one would find in Seville, or Rome. The kinds that are glorified by the guidebooks. I found Gothic architecture in the middle of the street, Russian styled apartments built in the late 1800′s and people still living in them. I saw gargoyles atop staircases and weather-vanes made of iron; the types no longer built. And hence this post. A collection of some of the best routes in the city that are well worth the walk.
College Street – The Renaissance Trail
Kolkata Magic runs the Renaissance Walk in the captivating College Street - the hub of the social and intellectual concerns that had once shaped India. The area was the epicenter of the Indian renaissance and as the phenomenon goes, was the forum for questioning orthodoxies. Although called ‘street’, it is more like a neighborhood and as any neighborhood in Kolkata goes, a huge melting pot of cultures. A crazy network of lanes stock full of books. Used and new publications alike. There are gems to be found here. In fact, local literary evangelists haunt the street to pick out rare first editions and signed copies. Some even manuscripts, easily dating back a century if not more.
And then there is the hugely popular Coffee House. A place of intellectual importance where in times of financial decadence, emerging artists, poets, musicians and journalists exchanged ideas, hopes, philosophies and carefully guarded dreams. There is a cult song by a popular singer Manna Dey, where he reminisces his own time there. Here is Kolkata at its literary and intellectual best.
Kumartuli – about creating religion
The Durga Puja is an event like nothing I have seen. And I have seen a good share of festivals and rituals. The colours, the glamour, the fascinating ladies, and the astounding art create a world of their own.
At Kumartuli, artisans in seemingly endless lines of idols lit by light bulbs, tirelessly practice the craft. The walk fringes along the riverside, meandering along the living quarters of the artisans, the place where the material for the idols is sourced from, and a myriad of other associated sights. Walks of India rediscovers Kumartuli and its internationally renowned artisans who create magic out of straw and clay.
Sovabazar and Kolkata’s royal side
Another Walks of India endeavor that concentrates on the city’s royal limbs. A neighborhood that once was home to Kolkata’s upper social strata, it now represents a flamboyant cosmopolitan melting pot. With unique architecture of the city’s aboriginal dwellings forming a backdrop. This is where the richer Bengalis made their homes. Call it the Beverly Hills of Kolkata, or the other way round if it so pleases you. Either way, a great place to check out India’s secular architecture, which goes back centuries.
Here is an unbelievable number of grand palatial homes, many of them still house Kolkata’s erstwhile royalties. Such properties have the usual characteristics of flowing courtyards, massive rooms, endemic window leaves and intrinsically made arches. Punctuating these old houses are some small press establishments. Places which printed the first volumes during the city’s renaissance. There’s street-food to look out for, those fantastic egg-roles and the city’s version of Chinese. During the fight for independence, the streets of Sovabazar was known to be particularly notorious – the extremists were able to ‘vanish’ at will among the numerous narrow lanes; the opposing walls easily keeping off any vehicles. An art of disappearing that often led the pursing British to either annoyance or suspicion of voodoo.
The Flower Market and the quintessential Howrah Bridge
Kolkata Magic conducts this tower. However, I would say it can well be done independently. The area, although a mayhem of activity, does not really require a guide, being right beside the transport hub of the city, the Howrah station. The Flower Market is a one of its kind real-life spectacle. No discernible market lanes, stalls or even a well defined boundary. But rather, a huge open space, a riot of colours, and countless vendors selling flowers by the tons. By far not a tourist attraction. The sight of an old man siting by himself in a comparatively quieter nook and reading a newspaper in such profound peace and content, and once again, “City of Joy” rings a bell; more audible now.
The market is almost directly under the Howrah Bridge which is quite a photogenic landmark. So much, that enough has been said about it. Wandering enough towards the east leads to more hidden culture – an entire market just dealing with mustard oil. And I mean an entire market – streets of it! Next comes a market for onions. I was told, as I sat inside one of those lovely yellow cabs, that I was seeing the outer reaches of the “Bara Bazar”. I got an idea of just how large that might be.
From the little that I saw, two things were very clear – that Kolkata deserves a re-look, and that it will easily take a very large number of visits before I can say “been there, done that”. Some of the pictures in the post were taken in late October, at a time when perhaps, Kolkata is at its glamorous best.