|Pictures by Sayantan Ghosh and Bhubaneswarananda Halder
Usha Uthup lifted her sari just a little bit and stuck out a foot. The Darrrling singer had slipped into a pair of kanjeevaram sneakers just for the walk! She burst into the tune of These boots are made for walking and we knew we were ready, feet first, to rediscover Calcutta’s dine and dance corridor — Park Street.
It was 8am on Friday and around 20 of us had gathered outside The Asiatic Society, the oldest building on Park Street, for The Telegraph Explore Calcutta Walks, in association with Calcutta Walks. Presented by the Prabha Khaitan Foundation, it was an adventure inspired by American-Canadian urban activist Jane Jacobs, who observed city life through walks.
It was strange… Park Street has always been about St. Xavier’s College, Someplace Else, Bar-B-Q, McDonald’s or waiting for someone outside Music World or Flurys. But here was a Park Street I hadn’t seen!
For example, few from my generation know that departmental store Hall & Anderson used to be at the corner of Park Street. “After marriage, this is where I bought my first carpet, for which I remember paying Rs 1,100, to be exact,” said Usha.
From The Asiatic Society, founded in 1784, we walked into Apeejay House, towards what was the highlight of the day for many — the Flurys factory. “You can go in only if you promise not to touch anything!” warned Iftekhar Ahsan of Calcutta Walks. We giggled but once inside we tried really hard to keep our hands off those cakes being layered with chocolate sauce. Finally, we succumbed to sweetness when a bag of cookies was passed around.
“Flurys and Trincas opened up around the same time and Mr Flurys and Mr Trincas were great friends,” said Vikas Kumar, the executive chef of the iconic tea room. “Is it true that the wife of one ran away with the other?” asked a curious walker. A nonchalant Vikas said, “So goes the legend!”
With that thought for food (Psst: we couldn’t resist dropping into Flurys later for some real food!), we moved on to Trincas, where Usha had earned her “first salary” of Rs 750 for three sessions in a month. Meanwhile, the majestic Queens Mansion stood across the road. “Did you know that the owner lost and won back this building thrice in the races,” said Iftekhar. We gasped!
I also learnt that the auction houses came up because the British had to get rid of their furniture when they were leaving Calcutta. And that the average lifespan of a Britisher in Calcutta was two monsoons — hence the South Park Street cemetery — and those who lived past the rains would have a Survivor’s Party.
But the funniest learning of the day was up ahead. After Usha Uthup had left, we were looking at Stephen Court, rekindling memories of the fire tragedy. Suddenly, an office-goer annoyed by our unintentional occupation of the pavement yelled at us, “Please stand on one side and stop inconveniencing passers-by.” We knew he had a point so we made space but not without an underhand comment from a smart Alec, “Till Usha Uthup was with us, no one said anything about blocking the way. Now the whole world has a problem!”
Well, guess it’s all about exploring Calcutta — and what makes a city, apart from its history, is after all, its people.
Karo Christine Kumar
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in having new eyes! — Marcel Proust
I had set the alarm for a groggy 5am on Saturday and woke up after exactly nine shrill rings not just from the timepiece but the wife as well. I have never recalled getting up this early except for catching an early morning flight and was almost tempted to hit the pillow again. Exactly then, something tugged at my heart. Cycling: my first love. Calcutta’s heritage: my enduring love. Combination of the two: I was wide awake.
Riding furiously through sleepy and near-deserted roads, I was half wondering whether this was the city I knew for 30 long years. I was soon to find out. Reaching the front gates of the Victoria Memorial just as the first rays of sunlight shone on Calcutta’s most famous landmark, I was introduced to the feisty Gautam Shroff, our ‘guide’ for the morning, inspecting his Firefoxes. It seemed quite amusing that we would spot heritage riding on these new-age technological marvels!
With his first command of “Mount your horses, folks”, we set out to on our real voyage of discovery, cycling through the calm roads with the fresh breeze soothing our senses and a steady stream of fascinating heritage-related anecdotes invigorating our minds.
What would you call someone who has driven through BBD Bag all his life and was only partly aware of the treasure trove that is alive in its womb? What would you call someone who would easily pinpoint the direction of the GPO to a harried passer-by but did not know of the ‘black hole’ episode? What would you call someone who only knew of the CBD as a concrete jungle but did not know that one of the quietest corners of the city lies in its very heart? What would you call someone who is just focused on the traffic lights turning green…. Well, you get the drift.
What Gautam did was actually transport us back in time as we heard the Brits making merry over glasses of wine served by specially ‘imported’ British barmaids at the Great Grand Hotel, in what was perhaps India’s first pub. We could hear the nonstop chatter of traders and merchants from all over the world as they exchanged currencies and friendly banter at the Old Mint with the massive old iron gates made of ship ballast clanging shut at the end of each day. We could feel the emotions of the letters of lovers, wives, friends and relatives passing through the Dead Man’s Post Office, back to the senders only to announce that their recipients could not survive the horrible bout of malaria. We could hear the babies screaming for their mothers working in the adjoining buildings and their anxious baby-sitters pacifying them in perhaps India’s first creche at the visually-astounding Vansittart Row.
We could feel the ‘writers’ of the Writers’ Buildings lounging by the Laldighi and feeling the soothing breeze flowing from the adjacent Hooghly. We could hear the horses thundering up and down the ramps at the Royal Insurance Building, perhaps India’s only highrise with a ramp for horses. We could experience the anguish of Peter Pan’s wife as she painstakingly poured her heart out on his epitaph.
Honk, honk, honk! The reverie broke, the reality dawned.
As I exchanged goodbyes and headed home, I vowed twice over: one, cherish the amazing amount of heritage coexisting in our city and two, take to cycling more often!
I had read about Dinabandhu Mitra’s play Nil Darpan in school, about how it caused a furore among the British rulers for criticising the atrocities on Indian farmers by British indigo planters. But never did I imagine I would see the place where it was first staged in 1897. Until Saturday morning, when along with a motley group of 11 — guided by theatre director Shuktara Lal and Calcutta Walks volunteers Sohail and Krish — we hit the north Calcutta streets to explore Calcutta’s theatre story.
“This is the house that hosted the first public commercial theatre in the city. In those times, tickets used to cost Re 1 for the first-class audience and 8 annas for the second,” said Mahendra Mullick, the present owner of Ghariwala Mullickbari on Rabindra Sarani.
We had started the walk from Jorasanko Thakurbari, where Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother Jyotirindranath used to organise private theatre shows in the courtyard. “There used to be script-writing contests and the winning one used to be staged here. Rabindranath’s play Dakghar was first staged in 1917 here,” said Shuktara.
The Pathuriaghata Thakurbari was quite a revelation. The baithak-khana (at 13B Prasanna Kumar Street) and the now dilapidated Tagore Castle, built on the model of Windsor Castle, were where Banga Natyalaya started. The baithak-khana with its chandeliers, oil paintings, intricately designed sofas, a grand piano and ornate Corinthian pillars is a jaw-dropping piece of history.
Those who say theatre came to Calcutta with the Brits need to take a walk along Rabindra Sarani towards Nimtala Ghat Street to experience the Jatra Para. The jatra (travelling theatre) culture began much before the Europeans came to India and is alive and kicking, as was obvious from the posters... Mahajoner Putrabodhu, Bhanga Bashore Ranga Bou, Rajbhikharir Patita Bou. “These names suggest the social stereotyping of gender corrupting the otherwise devotional storylines of jatras,” said Shuktara.
We also visited The Oriental Seminary on Beadon Street. This is where European plays were produced for the first time under the initiative of only Indians. It was called Oriental Theatre, we were told.
Outside Minerva theatre, a round of chocolate sandesh, shingara and chilled water rejuvenated the walkers, even as Shuktara narrated how the British had implemented the Dramatic Performances Act in 1876 to censor “seditious Indian theatre” being staged in the city, especially at Minerva, the seat of the Great National Theatre under the patronage of Girish Chandra Ghosh.
The walk ended at the Sovabazar Rajbari thakurdalan, where some of the earliest productions of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota and Krishna Kumari were staged. On the way, we also touched upon the Beadon Street post office, where once the Bengali Theatre, a public showhouse, used to stand. This is where for the first time women join the act and most of them were nautch-girls from Sonagachhi.
I knew I would learn a lot about the city’s theatrical past from this walk. What I didn’t know was that I would fall in love with north Calcutta once more. At each of the places we visited, we were greeted by the owners and the residents, creating a rare emotional connect among strangers in the city — and that is what I will take back home and feel proud to be a Calcuttan. Again.
EAST CALCUTTA WETLANDS
“If the Maidan is the lungs of Calcutta, the East Calcutta Wetlands would be the kidney!” With these words started the early morning journey of a group of Calcuttans rediscovering a treasure trove in the city.
Led by environment activist Bonani Kakkar of the NGO People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC), the walk started from Bantala Dock, a quaint little spot around 3km from Science City. We explored the different areas around that place where fish cultivation is the most common profession. Managed by the local inhabitants and the fisheries department, these were the first to come under the Wetlands Act and then designated a Ramsar site in 2002.
The inhabitants employ natural methods of purification of water with this being one of the best natural sewage disposal systems of its kind. The state bird of Bengal — the kingfisher — can be found here although their numbers are scarily dwindling. People follow ingenious methods like growing water hyacinths to prevent embankments from collapsing and planting branches to prevent thieves from casting nets in the middle of the night to steal fish. The water hyacinth is also a natural cleanser for the water, ridding it of metals like lead. In the monsoon, the marsh mongoose, a rare endemic animal, can be found here.
With talk of a flyover connecting the Bypass to Rajarhat through the wetlands, the city’s precious kidneys could come under strain, we were told.
Which part of Calcutta would you like to explore? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org