Kolkata, City of Furious Creative Energy
British writer TOM SYKES explores the ancient city of Kolkata, known for its literary, artistic and revolutionary heritage
IN SOME WAYS, Kolkata (Calcutta) is like any other big Indian city with the same problems of pollution, gridlock and overcrowding. Aged Ambassador taxis, merrily coloured auto-rickshaws and trucks with engines salvaged from farm machinery zoom in every direction, honking their horns as a matter of course rather than as a warning to others. A three-wheeler almost collides head-on with a twelve-year-old on a motorbike, but both parties brake just before the moment of impact. There are too many people everywhere, 15 million to be exact. They hang off the sides of lorries, sprint across roads without the aid of traffic lights and bounce against each other on the pavements at rush hour. If you didn’t already understand the phrase “the world population problem” then you will after a day in Kolkata.
Then again, Kolkata is very different from the rest of India. The proverb “may you live in interesting times” could apply to the whole of its eventful past. Good and bad things have happened of course; the City of Joy, as Roland Joffe’s 1987 film styled it, has also been the city of pain. Kolkata spearheaded the Bengal Renaissance, gave birth to the independence movement in the 1850s, and saw its economy galvanised by Information Technology in the 1990s. But at other times it has been cursed with famine, colonial repression, communal violence and terrorism. Nowhere are these contrasts better explored than in Kolkata Panorama, based in the Historic Town Hall (open from Tuesday to Sunday at 11am-5pm). This state-of-the-art museum uses animations and sound shows to relate almost 500 years of local history.
Radical politics are inseparable from Kolkata history. In the late 1960s, students combined with rural guerillas to pursue a revolutionary campaign against politicians, academics and landowners. Ever since that time a democratically elected communist government has ruled West Bengal—another national anomaly. Head to Park Street and you’ll find a surreal sight indeed: red hammer-and-sickle flags flying from neoclassical buildings erected by the British Raj.
Kolkata is the arts capital of South Asia, home to a thriving film industry, dozens of galleries and the third largest book fair in the world. If a competition was held to find the city that had produced the largest number of great writers, Kolkata would be a hot contender. Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Amitav Ghosh, founder of the Writers Workshop P. Lal, Satyajit Ray (a world renowned film director), Bankim Chattopadhyay and Joy Goswami all came from the City of Palaces. The most famous of them all, 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was born at Joransanko Mansion, now part of Rabindra Bharati University. A small museum here (open from Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 10am-5.30pm) displays original manuscripts, notebooks and photographs that give you the lowdown on the national poet.
Of course, culture is about much more than epic poems and objets d’art. It happens at street-level too. The first thing many visitors to Kolkata notice is the plethora of traditional jobs and practices that still go on here. This is the last city in India where brawny men in loincloths pull rickshaws by hand. Craftsmen kneel on the pavement, carving figurines into lengths of wood. Horse-drawn carts lug carcasses swarming with flies. Cyclists somehow balance drums of milk as big as their own bodies on their backs. You don’t need to go anywhere in particular to see all this—it’s part of the fabric of everyday life.
The historian P. Sinha has called Kolkata “a city of furious creative energy”. It’s true that while Kolkata exhibits an energy of the streets that can overawe visitors, there is an energy that drives it forward in a social, cultural and artistic sense. The old Raj maxim, “What Calcutta (as it was then spelt) does today, India does tomorrow” has remained true for centuries. For this reason alone, Kolkata should be on everyone’s itinerary.
Reproduced from the 2011 Annual Issue of Quill magazine