Kolkata is India’s fourth-largest city and with a population of 4.5 million; it is also one of the most crowded. Job Charnock, an emissary of the East India Company, first arrived in 1690 in what was then Kalikata, a small village on the Hooghly River. He was to establish a trading post which over the next 200 years grew to a flourishing commercial centre. British India had its capital here until 1911 when it was transferred to Delhi, and the city and much of its former grandeur began to fall into decay.
Rudyard Kipling referred to it as “The City of the Dreadful Night”, and it was no surprise that the British retreated to the hills to escape the oppressive heat of the plains. British India was then governed from Shimla, due to its cooler climate, during the summer months. Conversely, it became known as the City of Joy following Dominique Lapierre’s book and subsequent film.
I first visited Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in 2004, en route to the Sonepur Mela, and stayed over for a couple of nights before flying on to Patna. Having arrived in the early hours of the morning, I was soon in a taxi and heading to the city. This was my first taste of this most chaotic and frenzied city and certainly was not my last.
It was fitting that I had decided to stay at the Fairlawn Hotel, then owned by Major Ted and Violet Smith who referred to this, by now something of an institution, as the “last of the Raj”. This small hotel on Sudder Street with its kitsch interior and many coats of a rather loud green paint was to be my home for a couple of days. It numbered amongst its many celebrity guests the aforementioned Dominique LaPierre, actress Felicity Kendal and Sting.
It should be pointed out that this hotel whose excellent location (for exploring the city) was in a rather busy and somewhat worse for wear street that seemed to home to many of the dispossessed. It was my first introduction to the chaos and humanity that was to be a constant fixture for the next two days and every subsequent visit. It remains to this day almost impossible to describe this assault on the senses.
It seemed that most of the population of this incredible city were on the street with me. The seething mass of humanity, the decrepit trams, the battered Hindustan Ambassador taxis and buses and the rickshaws, all staking their claim. It was not too long before I became aware of the decaying grandeur of this once jewel of the empire. It’s neglected vestiges of the Raj giving way to what had become an Indian city. At this point, the Indian Photographer Leena Kejriwal and her book “Repossessing the City” encapsulates this transition.
Kolkata had become a centre for Bengali culture, literature and the arts. This city of West Bengal was now along with Kerala in the south were the only two communist states in India. On this and every subsequent visit there were demonstrations, hunger strikes and marches all adding to the general mayhem. On many occasions, thousands of supporters were addressed by party officials on the Maidan.
The Maidan, a tree flanked common, between the Hooghly River and the city, is home to one of the most imposing buildings from the colonial era in India, the Victoria Memorial. There is no better sight than watching the winter sunrise over the memorial. The Maidan, in addition to the public gatherings, is home to spontaneous cricket matches along with prayer meetings and yoga groups.
On most mornings that I have visited Kolkata, I aimed to be out at first light, usually to see the sunrise at the Victoria Memorial before either walking or taking a taxi to the Howrah Bridge. The Howrah Bridge opened in 1943 and with a span of 705 metres, is the busiest in the world with over 150,00 vehicles crossing daily and almost as many foot passengers.
Immediately beneath the Howrah Bridge is the wonderful and entertaining Flower Market. My visits were always timed to be there as early as possible when the market is busiest—the many porters with baskets delivering purchases to the surrounding area and to awaiting cars and vans. The market is best viewed from the bridge but to savour it’s intensity and atmosphere a walk through the narrow lanes is essential.
I normally take a short walk to Mullick Ghat from the flower market, one of the many bathing ghats along the river. From first light, the many bathers perform their rituals in the Hooghly’s sacred water and wash their clothes. Mullick Ghat is also home to some of Kolkata’s wrestling clubs, and the wrestlers are often seen in contests in their wrestling pits (of sand).
Immediately adjacent and across a footbridge spanning the Flower Market is the junction of Strand and MG Roads, once a busy junction for the city’s trams. But these battered conveyances are now rapidly disappearing. An hour or two here offers many interesting picture opportunities and is a street photography paradise. The many bicycles and tricycles crossing this busiest of junctions along with the occasional tram and a constant stream of the yellow and battered taxis.
I have frequent;y visited Kumar Tuli which lies to the north of the city and is home to many workshops sculpting effigies of deities and goddesses from the mud extracted from the Hooghly River. This is at its busiest in the months leading up to September when many of the idols are committed again to the river during the Durga Puja: A must for any visit to this exuberant city and truly unique.
One of the most significant religious sites is the Kali Temple in Kalighat, a Hindu temple dedicated to goddess Kali and built in 1809, replacing an earlier temple site. It is said that human sacrifices were made up until 1835, now it is just the odd goat at the rear of the temple. A few yards from the temple is Mother House where Mother Teresa cared for the dying and where nuns of the same order continue their work.
I hope that this may encourage some of you to make the journey to this most extraordinary city where its cultured and friendly citizens will extend a very warm welcome. It is home to some excellent Bengali cuisine, and there is none better than that served at Kewpies in Elgin Lane. On the corner of Park Street, it is essential to visit the Kathi roll stall—a paratha filled with egg and chicken and a bit of Bengali heat.
Of course, there is very much more to this city, which is a must for street photography and home to film director Satyajit Ray and photographers Ragu Rai and Ragubhir Singh. Both Don McCullin and Steve McCurry have photographed extensively here. To sum, it is best left to one of the city’s most famous residents, the poet Rabindranath Tagore:
“So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.”