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Down memory lane in Chitpur

How much does one know about the road on which one lives? Not just about homes, offices, shops, hospitals, schools, theatres, religious places, bridges and other dots on the map, but about people in all their cultural, social and religious variety, the heritage, memories, concerns and ideas they share.

What if artists from diverse backgrounds like visual art, theatre, architecture, and graphic design, as well government officials, community leaders, local people and students could be involved in site-specific community-driven projects to rejuvenate the locality and establish new bonds?

Well that is what Chitpur Local is all about — a project focusing on Calcutta’s oldest road — Chitpur Road, now called Rabindra Sarani after its most illustrious resident.

A team of artists led by Sumona Chakravarty, who has just completed studies in art and design for civic engagement at the Harvard University, began the Chitpur project with funds she received for Hamdasti, a finalist idea at the Dean’s Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge, 2013. The project has a host of mentors — from the West Bengal Heritage Commission to The Seagull Art Foundation — who support the team in developing public engagement projects at the city’s heritage sites.

Artist and scholar Paula Sengupta gave a fascinating slide presentation at Studio21 on Saturday on how the different communities along Chitpur Road — jewellers, letterpress operators, engravers, lithographers, jatra practitioners, and makers of wooden and bell metal utensils — have all contributed to the multi-layered heritage. Many of these are now being obliterated by modern trends.

Jatra posters are now printed in offset machines while colonial-era treadle printing machines, litho slabs and metal letter types are being sold as junk. The traditional art of engraving was being forsaken for computerised illustrations. And 49 Lower Chitpur Road — once home of Gauhar Jaan, the first classical singer to cut a record — is now converted into Salim Manzil.

Gaganendranath Tagore’s litho cartoon Rival Attraction (from his album Adbhut Lok), about a babu torn between wife and courtesan, provoked a lively discussion on the influence of Chitpur Road on the Tagore household.

The Chitpur Local team has also collaborated with boys of classes VII and VIII from the historic Oriental Seminary School, where Rabindranath was once a student. Working with local residents, craftsmen and shopkeepers, the team has mapped the many facets of Chitpur’s evolving heritage, flagging all landmarks on Google map and marking cultural spaces like thakurdalans, courtyards and forgotten adda rowaks.

The students also took part in a guided and documented interaction with local people, like the brothers in charge of 137-year-old Diamond Library, which sells jatra scripts.

The boys studied a few scripts and identified themes such as Ma, sindoor, kanna (tears) and agni (fire) as popular in marking out the social, historical and mythological jatra-palas. They have even tried to sketch outlines of their own palas with proper doses of melodrama.

The experiences of the students, artists, local residents and mentors will combine into an interactive community exhibition at Chitpur in August that will “showcase the history of this remarkable locality and create a dialogue about its significance today”.