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Treasure trove lost and found

- CMC set to unveil its riches

A photograph of a pensive Mahatma Gandhi seated at Keoratala to oversee Chittaranjan Das’s cremation, a recording of Ho Chi Minh’s speech during his visit to Calcutta, a report on how not a single house in town lit a Diwali lamp in 1930 to protest Netaji’s arrest.

Snatches of history captured in never-before-released pictures, reports and recordings are set to be revealed to the public by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation after decades of keeping the treasure stashed away where nobody cared to look.

Over the years, anyone who had approached the CMC for access to its archival material invariably got a blunt “no” for an answer. It wasn’t as if the civic body feared for its treasure. Nobody seemed to know where and how to look for something specific that a researcher might have asked for.

“The CMC has in its store hundreds of rare pictures and other documents. Had we not created an archive of these documents, they would have been lost,” mayor Sovan Chatterjee said.

The material being archived for display includes the earliest ad films, one for a brand of hair oil and another for a syrup that claimed to be a cure for malaria! Both commercials were directed by Hiralal Sen, the first for “CK Sen-er Jaba Kusum” and the other one for “Edward tonic”.

Some documentaries on Calcutta have also been salvaged from the storerooms.

Editions of the Calcutta Municipal Gazette, published as a weekly from 1924 till 1995, are the underrated stars of the archive. The gazette write-ups may not have been literature but faithfully documented the times.

A retrieved issue from October 1947 features a piece on the withdrawal of the 2nd Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, the last British troops to walk out of Fort William.

“The gazette will help reconstruct the history of Calcutta from that era,” said mayoral council member Atin Ghosh, who is overseeing the compilation of the archive.

The gazette used to also carry the weekly prices of all essential food items and other goods sold in Maniktala, College Street and New Market.

“All this information would be of great use to someone interested in knowing the price of items at the time or a person who is studying the economy of the period,” Ghosh said.

Among the more fascinating pieces of information culled from the gazette is that the money you need to buy a basic mobile phone today was enough to bring home a car — and a foreign-made one at that — in 1936. An ad in an issue from that year mentions Rs 4,500 as the price of a car manufactured by Dodge, the Michigan-based company. The average price of a 2014 Dodge Durango is around $35,000 (Rs 21 lakh).

Back then, French Motor Company Ltd, which is still in business, was the Dodge dealer for the city.

Amal Home, who had edited the CMC gazette from its inception till 1949, is acknowledged as the man who mooted the idea of celebrating Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary while he was still alive. The first Tagore birth anniversary was held at Town Hall in 1931 with the Nobel laureate attending the event.

Most of the gazette issues and other reports that document these events were found amid sheaves of carelessly strewn papers, some of them damaged by rainwater. Pages of some of the older issues of the gazette had become so brittle that digitising them posed a challenge.

The CMC has selected 2,000sq ft of space on the third floor of the building housing the landmark Nizam’s restaurant near New Market for the archive. Documents till 1910 have already been digitised.

A recording of Ho Chi Minh’s speech at the CMC headquarters after a reception there in 1956 has been transferred to digital format. Anyone interested in it can copy the recording on a blank CD and take it home.

Tagore and Sri Ramakrishna’s death certificates have also been digitised. The civic body has already spent Rs 70 lakh on the project and plans to invest another Rs 1 crore.