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The happily insane city

Rezaul H Laskar

For many growing up in eastern India over the past five decades, Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was earlier known) embodied the high life more than Delhi or Mumbai. It was a city steeped in history but wasn’t caught in a time warp, thanks to its cosmopolitan character, exciting night life and other diversions.

Delhi seemed too far away and too cold and Mumbai had its charms, but Kolkata was the first name that came to mind when people in the east aspired to life in a big city. This, after all, was modern India’s first capital from 1772 to 1931, and, as ‘Calcutta Then: Kolkata Now’ puts it, “where it all began”.

This elegant tête-bêche book – readers have to flip one volume to read its attached companion that has a different cover and author – effortlessly takes us on a journey into the city’s past and gives us a glimpse of its present. It captures its transformation over the centuries and its evolving lifestyle with a collection of black and white and sepia images drawn from newspaper archives, libraries and family collections, and presents its contemporary image, full of contradictions as well as liberal values, through bold colour images.

And then there are the masterly essays prefacing the images – former Statesman editor Sunanda K Dutta-Ray on the city’s colourful past that comes through even in the monochrome images, and writer, journalist and rock’n’roll lover Indrajit Hazra on the city’s contemporary face.

More than anything else, the coffee table book is clearly a labour of love for Pramod Kapoor, the founder of Roli Books. “I have an umbilical connection to the city. I was born in Jorasanko and have very fond memories of the time spent there. I visited Calcutta many times since my birth, but it wasn’t until…when I was researching for this book that I realised how inerasable those memories are,” Kapoor, the photo editor for the section on the past, said at an event to launch the book.

Having already done similar books on India, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, Kapoor seems to have known exactly where to look for the right images, from archives to the private collections of leading families of the Marwari community that has played a key role in the development of Kolkata.

Besides the expected images of the Hooghly river, the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial, the section on the past has more striking photographs, such as one of a waterlogged Central Avenue from the middle of the past century (proving Kolkata’s problems with poor drainage aren’t exactly new) and another of the Mullicks of Shovabazar who imported a zebra to pull their customised carriage!

The second section of the book, with images curated by Anshika Varma, captures the transformation of Calcutta into Kolkata. Hazra, in his essay, describes this as the “dramatic lurch that looks like a rupture but clearly is a push into the future”.

He adds, “Kolkata defies change. This is not to say that over the decades, especially over the 2000s-2010s, Kolkata has not changed. It is simply a city that is defiant to change even as it changes one stretch at a time.”

The section on the modern city captures all its colourful different facets and obsessions – the pujo, mishti (sweets), addas at coffee houses or the neighbourhood tea stall, fajlami (innocent naughtiness), football, fish, and the colonial-style clubs and sprawling mansions that exist cheek-by-jowl with malls and multiplexes.

This is also the section that captures some aspects of Kolkata that have not withstood the ravages of time, such as the once-thriving Jewish community that has dwindled from some 3,000 in the 1940s to just 24 at present or the Chinese community, which has shrunk from 20,000 in the 1970s to less than 3,000 as more and more members migrate to countries such as Canada and Australia.

It also has striking images of the grand mansions built by leading families, such as the Jorasanko Thakurbari, home to the Tagore family, juxtaposed against photos of the urban sprawl. The sheer colour of everyday life in Kolkata – be it numerous pieces of cloth held up by devotees at Madan Mohan mandir to gather sanctified rice thrown from the top of the temple or the magnificent images of Goddess Durga during the pujos and the revelry of Christmas and the Chinese New Year – seeps through the pages in this section.

Food forms a key part of the section on the modern city, ranging from mishti to the ubiquitous roadside stalls serving up ghugni (chick peas in gravy) and puchkas (not gol gappas or pani puris as the authors point out) and the Chinese breakfast market at Tiretti Bazar’s Chinatown.

It also captures the changing political landscape of the city, with a image of late chief minister and CPI-M leader Jyoti Basu gazing wistfully out of the window of a boat on the Hooghly followed by several pages of photos that chart the rise of current chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party.

Kolkata, as the book puts it, is a city where “no one is ever alone” and “given the medley of people carts, trams and motors, something is happening all the time”.

Or as Hazra puts it: “Kolkata is a mad city because of its chaos, but it is also happily insane as it takes pride in this chaos and unscripted life and living. As it hurtles along in the here and now, its head remains turned to the past. This would be considered a fault in any other big town. Here, time and tide waits, and amid exhortations of ‘Hobe na’ – Won’t happen – Kolkata happens. And keeps happening, quite magically indeed.”

And it is just that magic this book distils.

(HT Media)

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