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‘What are you doing in New York?’

Gaston Stronck and wife Monika on a cruise on the Hooghly

Recently I had, together with my wife Monika and our host, Rajat Dalmia, the honorary consul of the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, and his wife Pinky the privilege to take a riverboat for a sunset cruise on the Hooghly.

We expected to see an evening sky with a beautiful sunset in a hundred shades of red, orange and yellow. While sailing up the river to Belur Math we were surprised by a heavy thunderstorm. The evening sky did not turn red but a variety of greys and whites that were even more amazing than a sunset. The scenery was spectacular and mystical and we very much enjoyed our trip.

iPhones and their fancy applications today make it possible to send photos instantly to your family and friends. So I took a beautiful and colourful picture of the Howrah bridge, the iconic landmark and symbol of Calcutta and sent it to my sister… she immediately replied asking me, “What are you doing in New York?” And her remark was not absurd at all because there is some resemblance with the Williamsburg Bridge that connects the Lower East Side of Manhattan with Brooklyn.

Drink daab outside St. John’s Church on Kiran Shankar Roy Road

Rudyard Kipling came to my mind: he mentioned the Howrah bridge in his poem The City of Dreadful Night. “Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!”

Two days later, we had a wonderful early morning walk through the White City of Calcutta. The temperature was ideal, the streets were almost empty and we enjoyed an instructive tour around central Calcutta. Our guide Iftekar Ahsan was excellent, well-informed and a repository of stories and anecdotes about the glorious history of Calcutta.

We saw a number of impressive buildings and palaces reminiscent of past grandeur. The Great Eastern Hotel, for example, built in 1840, was one of the oldest hotels in India. It has played host to lords, barons and foreign guests, as also to rajas and nawabs during the British Raj. This classic heritage hotel is currently being renovated and it would deserve to host again the dignitaries of today.

Passing by the Secretariat and the Post Office, we visited St. John’s Church, a large square structure built with a combination of brick and stone in the neoclassical architectural style inspired also by London’s St. Martins in the Field. On the walls of St. John’s Church we admired Johann Zoffany’s Last Supper with a gentle Indian touch. Yes, Zoffany put a common peon’s talwar and a water-filled veesty bag in the scenery! The John of Zoffany’s Last Supper has, like Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, a feminine look and the person on the right side of Jesus Christ looks like a beautiful woman. It is definitely an additional argument to believe in the theses of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel and movie The Da Vinci Code, where the author argued that Christ was married.

Located inside the church complex is the circular temple-like tomb of Francis Johnson, a grand old lady of Calcutta, who lived to be 89 and married four times. The epitaph makes for interesting reading, as it describes her entire life, with details of her four husbands and their respective children. It became clear, through this example, that the British paid a high price for their presence in Calcutta. A lot of British men died young in India, sometimes after a few years only. Only a few of them were successful and went back to England.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure to travel to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and other parts of Bengal. From the Himalayas’ breathtaking skyline to the tea garden’s charm and beauty to the pilgrimage and heritage sites to the Victorian streets and squares of Calcutta down to the Sunderbans, Bengal offers a variety of landscapes and cultures.

All over the world, Calcutta has long been known for its literary, artistic and revolutionary heritage, as the birthplace of modern Indian literary, artistic and scholastic thought. The people of Calcutta tend to have a special appreciation for art and literature. Its tradition of welcoming new talent has made it a “city of furious creative energy”.

I had the privilege to meet Shuvaprasanna, who is the perfect representative of the Bengali and Calcutta art scene. In his oeuvre, Shuvaprasanna has depicted varying moods of the city and its people, its places, and all its facets that make the city distinctive. As he states, “There isn’t another city like Calcutta anywhere in the world. In the heart of it, I find innumerable themes, subjects.”

Stroll down the road opposite General Post Office near Laldighi. Pictures by Pabitra Das

And with his new project Arts Acre, Shuvaprasanna links Calcutta’s old traditions with the idea of creating an international meeting and working place for young artists coming from all over the world.

I definitely wish that more international visitors come to Calcutta and Bengal and discover the fascination of the state and its capital. Yes, Bengal is one of the most beautiful states of India. Awash in the memory of that rich history and heritage, Bengal boasts of different cultures, religions, people and languages, which add to beautiful landscapes.

And that is why Deshbandhu Chittaranjan once said: “There is an eternal truth in the soil of Bengal… It is that eternal truth that has been expressed through innumerable changes, evolution and revolutions in Bengal. It is that truth which has proclaimed itself in literature, philosophy, poetry, war, revolution, religion and karma, in ignorance, in unrighteousness, in freedom and in subjection. That is Bengal’s life — Bengal’s soil and Bengal’s water are the external forms of that life.”