I don’t quite know where to begin. There were many reasons that I went to Calcutta. My sister’s great desire to see my pishi (bua/father’s sister)-my father’s only sibling alive. A cousin’s phone call inviting us to attend the wedding of his daughter. Another cousin’s recent brush with cancer. An open invitation from our friends Indrani and Hirak Ghosh to visit the city and, the malai on the lassi, Shantiniketan. AND like the wash on a wash painting, a soft, all pervading awareness that there were many old homes in Calcutta worth seeing.
I last visited the city in transit- on our posting to Bangladesh from 1994 to 1998.And much before that with my mother for the wedding of a cousin. My strongest impression of the city upto this visit had been the green shutters and red floors of my mashi’s house with an overhanging smell of fried fish. And my mother’s dinner for the extended family at Trinca’s with a smell of money–cigarette smoke,coffee-smelling air conditioning.
This time the onslaught on my senses was big. I was noticing almost everything- I suppose my perspective had changed. I noticed most the houses and buildings. Every other house was a mansion- old and beautiful and in various degrees of disrepair-lending, as such buildings do, to a sense of romance and history. The avenues and lanes were largely tree lined(alright! the lamp posts and railings were painted blue/white-Mamata didi’s colours- but, well, they did not look ugly. The one colour she did not want, I was told, was red!).
Waiters, street side vendors often spoke with much wit and awareness.
Real coffee was served at the famous old coffee house buzzing with life; a place where intellectuals and non-intellectuals still seemed to gather for ‘adda'(relaxed chatting) and business-
And musicians boarded local trains to sing Rabindra sangeet or baul songs to entertain(what a delight not to have loud Hindi film songs from cell phones thrown your way!)
And then there was the wash of my wash painting– the houses-
My father’s ancestral house on a narrow lane in Khidirpur- a house never seen by anyone of the present generation of our family- the building falling apart and occupied by people none of us know.This seems to be the story of many large houses of Calcutta. My sister was determined to trace this house. Now we can connect some of my father’s stories with at least an image-
A few of the very many old houses and apartment blocks telling stories-
The ruling Nawab of Bengal granted a trading license to the British East India Company in 1690. The British developed Calcutta as an enormous trading centre and, by 1772, managed to acquire complete sovereignty. It was the capital of the British Raj until 1911 after which the capital was moved to Delhi. The Bengalis(although I would never have believed it looking at the low on enterprise and high on culture type of Bengalis of today!) became trading partners of the British and rapidly made a lot of money. Hiring British architects, they built themselves mansions and palaces in ‘brown’North Calcutta.
Here is one-the home of Babu Haren Seel now a hospital run by the Lohias of the Gujarati community-
The ‘Thakur Dalan'(I had always heard about these but had never seen one before this-I was thrilled !)of the enormous Khelat Ghosh mansion. This dalan is a place where mainly private durga pujas are held for family and friends. The elevated dalan or verandah where the idol is placed and the courtyard where people gather to worship –
The British developed their ‘white’central Calcutta, making magnificent public and private buildings-
One such public building, of the High Court(the image is from the web) made in 1862
The ‘Calcutta Club’,established in 1907 by the more moderate British and Indians so they could intermingle. The Bengal Club,established 1827, however, was strictly for the British. In the all brown world of Calcutta, it remains, I believe, the snootiest of the lot!
The Calcutta Club-
The official residence of the commander-in-chief of the British India Army,established 1771,located on the ramparts of Fort William, centre of the army.It was named ‘Kitchener House’ after the hugely decorated H.H. Kitchener, Earl of Khartoum, who stayed here as Commander-in-chief from 1902 to 1909. Was quite excited to discover that he was born in Kerry,Ireland- one of the places I loved while in that country-
The very first thing that all self respecting Bengali’s swoon over- the poetry, prose, painting, doodling, music, dance, drama of Rabindranath Tagore. The magnificent home of the Tagore family in North Calcutta,now a museum-
The second thing that all self respecting Bengalis swoon or become combative over–their sweets. In Calcutta after many years I was sort of expecting a change in taste(for the worse)-but being witness to three dramatic discussions about the Bengali sweet, I found my trepidations had no foundation. Though,I was told, the chocolate industry has not completely given up yet !
Sandesh at the famous shop of Nabin Chandra Das in North Calcutta- my sister and I tried the ones on the right filled with jhola gur or liquid date jaggery-they were heavenly !
An innovative attempt by a football loving, witty sweet maker to market Cadbury’s chocolate coated sandesh(I told you,didn’t I, the chocolate industry has not given up!)-
I had to put in this one– a wedding procession(with a lot of high-pitched instruction giving and bantering, in good Bengali style) we chanced upon at Shobha bajar raj baari-this famous venue is rented out for weddings, generating much needed cash for maintenance-
I was able to take photographs of three beautiful, old private houses of Calcutta (and Tagore’s public one) thanks to my friends Jhuma Roy, Reshmi Dasgupta and Indrani Ghosh. The owners were unbelievably kind and gracious.I cannot wait to share these images with you.
To keep you and me going until next week-here is one image of the home of Sati Gupto and the Gooptu family-it was everything I had visualized an old Bengali house to be and more-
Much more about this beautiful house in my next post!
Those of you from Calcutta (or not)–please do go ahead and make any corrections or additions and put in your comments–would be very happy if you did !
See you next week !