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Sanjoy K. Roy at Jaipur Literature Festival

Outside of the Durga Puja pandal creation, or the murtis being made of rice, gur, narkol and such other things, what are the other avenues for cultural expression in Calcutta?”

As Calcutta returns from five days of razzle-dazzle to its habitual slumber of the rest of the year, this by-the-way remark by a Calcutta lover seemed to bob on the page just like Durga’s decapitated head on the Hooghly on Dashami.

A few weeks back, t2 got chatting with Sanjoy K. Roy, the managing director of Teamwork Productions, which produces the Jaipur Literature Festival, among a whole lot of other things. A St. Stephen’s College graduate, Sanjoy loves and lives in many cities — Delhi, Edinburgh, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg, New York, Chicago... whew!

“But Calcutta continues to be my most favourite city in India,” he insists. He comes back every year, if not for anything then the Christmas lunch at The Tollygunge Club. But all is far from well with his “favourite city”. t2 finds out why.

Gallery groan

When my various grandparents were alive, one used to visit more often. But now I try to come at least for the Christmas lunch at Tolly. I am very keen to bring a property to Calcutta, to combine business with pleasure. I’ve done some television stuff in the early ’80s in Calcutta. But I think in between, the climate was different, both sponsorship climate as well as corporate climate. So we didn’t have an occasion to do that. Now we are very keen.

We’ve seen that whenever we’ve done anything in Calcutta, you never have a lack of people wanting to see it. You have people from all kinds of walks of life in Calcutta who are still engaged in cultural activities in more ways than one, which is fantastic.

But there is a huge need for infrastructure for culture and I don’t know why that doesn’t go into people’s city plans. Why aren’t things like museums or contemporary art galleries or restaurants of a particular kind or libraries or performing arts spaces built into the plan of the city or a new location? You’ve got Rajarhat now... that’s a whole new space but what provisions have been made by the city planners to include any of these... is there a cultural hub, is there a museum, is there a gallery?

Because today, as disposable incomes rise, you need to populate people’s minds, especially young people’s minds, with intellectual thought and opportunity.

Tall talk

Everybody always says that Calcutta is the capital of the arts. I don’t see much that’s been done for that. Everybody gives lip service to it being the capital of the arts but in actuality, how is that being seen in any of the forms?

Calcutta has one of the richest theatrical traditions and this amazing capacity of running theatre shows for profit, be it jatra or a Soumitra [Chatterjee] playing night after night. Those seem to be at a point of decline. Because the infrastructure hasn’t grown. The arts is not being given that kind of an impetus.

On the walls, you have various parties creating amazing political graffiti. How is that being translated into a much more important form of the arts? Outside of the Durga Puja pandal creation, or the murtis being made of rice, gur, narkol and such other things, what are the other avenues for cultural expression?

Calcutta is not just about Bengal, it is a place that is representative of many cultures, of many people. A city can only grow and become international or reclaim its place in the lexicon of world cities by being inclusive, not by being exclusive. Bombay will be in decline if they continue to do the Marathi manoos thing. Calcutta never suffered from something like that.

If you look at the report on Calcutta, by 2050 it is listed to be one of the 10 cities that will be water-sufficient. So as the water wars increase, you will see Calcutta continue to be in a very important position. But I don’t see any planning for that, either infrastructure-wise or in terms of culture spaces.

Yes, it’s important for people outside to engage with Calcutta. But I also think that it’s important for people in Calcutta to realise that it’s just about being Calcutta. You have to become far more inclusive and allow for new ideas, new thoughts.

Silent stories

North Calcutta has tens of thousands of stories to be told. Where are the films that are telling those stories, where are the festivals? What’s happening to the old palaces and havelis? My own aunts and uncles have so many of these old havelis that are now being let out or sold for baraat ghars! These can easily be converted into cultural hubs, museums, galleries....

Today when you go to an Istanbul or a Padua in Italy or Florence, you go and look at the historicity of these cities... they are beautifully laid out, where you can walk from place to place and the infrastructure is there. Calcutta was at the heart of the map of world cities, it was so historic but there’s not enough that’s going in there to be able to convert it into something dynamic.

The Jaipur juggernaut

With the Jaipur Literature Festival, we’ve revived to a large extent the whole heritage-meets-tourism-meets-cultural objectives in that city. We found that between Rs 15 and 20 crore extra spend comes into the city, just in those five days... thousands of hotel rooms booked, transport services booked, eating, shopping, then the investment we put into Jaipur itself, all that included. We’ve done something similar in Israel — in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

We ourselves didn’t have an inkling that it would quite become the monster — in a good sense — that JLF has now. The first year, I remember, we had 7,000 people, the second year 14,000, the third year 21,000, the fourth year 32,000, last year we had 62,000 and this year we had some 122,000! And what it’s done for the book-reading public is also great. The first year I think we sold books worth Rs 150,000 at JLF and this year we sold book worth Rs 48lakh in five days, which is more than what a regular bookstore would sell in a month.

so, the fact that JLF has now birthed so many festivals across the subcontinent is fantastic. Because it’s given a platform to all those voices that you otherwise wouldn’t get to hear... national, regional, even international. Also, festivals like these tap into exciting regional resources and link them with the rest of the country and the world. Premchand, RK Narayan, Sunil Gangopadhyay or Mahasweta Devi are today being rediscovered outside the idiom of their language, which is so exciting for so many people.

Calcutta on celluloid

We also do some films. We’ve line produced a couple of Sandip Ray films, Hitlist and Tintorettor Jishu....

We did a film on Delhi, from 1857 to 1947. We looked at the cultural fabric of the city in that nearly 100-year period. It’s a wonderful documentary and millions of people have watched it. We’ve been so keen to do one on Calcutta for the same period, but nobody in Bengal’s been interested to retell their stories or to preserve their stories. You know, stories of the Marwaris who in British times helped make Calcutta what it is today, or of Chandernagore or of all the warehouses. Those stories will die if we are not able to populate them with images and research. Every home in Calcutta has a hundred stories to be told and Bollywood blockbuster ones! Of betrayal, of passion, of lovers, of jalsaghars, of nationalism, even an international worldview.

Or take something radically different. Like Tolly Club and the Naxalite period. I know an uncle of mine who used to be an IG, he used to do all his encounters in Tolly Club. That lake... so many people were killed and thrown into it! Or the building of the Metro in Calcutta. Or its mills. In fact, we did a documentary for a Scottish company on the mills of Calcutta during the Raj and what effect they had in the city as well as in Britain. But I don’t think that’s ever been shown in Calcutta.

Arts as wealth

At Teamwork, we look at the arts as an activity, not as a not-for-profit thing. We feel that it’s important to invest in the arts, not necessarily in the way that banks create wealth but we feel the arts creates wealth in a completely different way, which has a far more long-term vision. When you are working with young people in the arts you are creating a long-term wealth activity.

We do about 19 festivals across the world — Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, India of course, Israel, South Africa, Egypt, across Europe and now United States and Canada. We look at each of them as an economic activity. In South Africa, for example, the central business district was in decline because of violence and crime. We suggested to put back a cultural festival there to clean up the area, which has become very successful.

Festivals happen for a reason. There is a need for debate, for dialogue... different points of view can co-exist. Mamata Banerjee’s point of view must and should co-exist with the Left Front’s point of view. A Muslim point of view must co-exist with a Hindu view, a Christian, Parsi, Anglo, Scheduled Caste or tribal view. And you can only do this through the arts. You can only bring together people from differing points of view on to a platform like the arts, which is the most non-offensive. So then when you have things like isko bandh karo, woh cartoonist ko arrest karo, this is not a cartoon, this is something else.... all these arguments are CRAP. People have to realise that if they allow people to vent through the arts, you are creating a far more healthy society, which is the wealth the arts brings about in a community.