Pandemic makes curated trails around the city go virtual
The city of joy is sprinkled with stories all around. Not all of those make it to the pages of a book. While some are tucked away in the nooks and corners of the city, waiting to be explored, some of it stays with the people dwelling in the city. And, these stories are perhaps best unravelled through walks and talks. It demands to be felt, heard, and witnessed. This is exactly what various walking tour organisations of Calcutta offer. While keeping in mind education and conservation, these groups also curate trails around the city in a manner where one gets to experience diverse aspects of the city life while imbibing knowledge about the same. They allow their guests to explore and experience it first-hand while knowing about the city and its people. The pandemic, however, has made it impossible to continue this discovering and rediscovering. That, however, hasn’t deterred the curators. Like every other industry, they too are learning the ropes anew, bringing new experiences on the plate and making all of it accessible from the safety and comfort of your homes.
Calcutta has no doubt always attracted tourists — be it for its history, heritage, traditions, festivals, cultural diversity, or the wide variety of food. In the last five years, however, the mushrooming of various walking tour organisations around the city changed the concept of touring the city quite a bit. Rather than focussing on the predictable like a Victoria Memorial or an Indian Museum, these curated trails focus on specific aspects of the city or diverse themes, while informing people of the past alongside giving them a chance to understand the present.
Sukti Sarkar, 61, an avid traveller and a retired assistant manager of Reserve Bank of India, has been participating in walks conducted by Immersive Trails (formerly Heritage Walk Calcutta) since 2017. “I have participated in walking city tours in cities like Berlin and Copenhagen earlier. In 2017, when I came across an ad on Facebook featuring Heritage Walk Calcutta’s Other Colonies Day Tour, the name sounded intriguing and I participated in it. The stories I got to know during the walk were fascinating. Last year, during my daughter’s wedding reception a programme was arranged by her to take her foreigner friends and others who came from outside Calcutta to a customised walking tour with HWC. The guests enjoyed it a lot,” she says.
Navpreet Arora left her job at a mutual fund company when she realised that she was keen on showing people the Calcutta as she saw it and started her tour company FunOnStreets in September 2016. She has curated around 15-17 specialised theme-based walks. From food trails and cultural trails to historical trails, she weaves her stories on various aspects of the city on her walks “with a focus on history”.
Immersive Trails started their journey in February 2017 and has nine theme-based trails across the city like the World War II Walk, the China Town Walk, Chitpore Walk and the Dalhousie Square Walk. “We connect places with the stories based on archival and ethnographical research,” said Tathagata Neogi, co-founder.
Soham Chakrabarty quit his IT job with a desire to do something new. After interacting with guests at the Airbnb homestay owned by his parents, he found that people wanted to see Calcutta from a local perspective. Thus started Calcutta Capsule in March 2017, offering three unique ways to discover the city. The Magic Hour Tour allows people to experience the early morning Calcutta, just at the break of dawn, by going around the city in various local transports like the ferry, tram and bus. Breakfast by the river and a walk through Kumartuli wraps it up. There is a food tour through the alleys of North Calcutta while stopping at famous eateries to taste their renowned dishes. The Calcutta Contrast tour is based on Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya or The Middleman. Two ways of life that are a complete contrast to each other— the busy lanes of Burrabazar and the laid-back vibe of College Street’s Coffee House are juxtaposed. The tourists can sample Bengali and Marwari cuisines. Jenn Smith, who visited Calcutta during the Durga Puja last year from the US after winning a trip to India from her participation in a special programme, said: “I was hoping to learn more about the city that I was born in (Calcutta) and found Soham’s tours on Airbnb. It was my first trip to Calcutta and Soham was marketing himself as a guy from this city. What better than to know about the city from someone who is so passionate about it. Participating in his tours opened my heart to the city. His tours were interesting because of the secret spots, the food and the interactive session with the locals. The virtual tours will surely deprive one of the sensory aspects involved in his tours. But since he is a good storyteller, it could be interesting too”.
Only a year old, Walk Calcutta Walk founded in 2019 and run by the two-man team of Ayon Mandal and Deep Bhattacharya, conducts a 12 series theme-based walk on history, culture, literature, mystery, tradition, festivals and food of Calcutta such as Bonedi Barir Pujo, Europe On Ganges, Graveyard Hunting, Tram Kotha and Museum Walk.
Their shorter tours are three-four hours long and the longer ones comprise breakfast and lunch, as food plays an important role in their curated walks. Knowing and relishing goes hand in hand for them.
The scorching summer and monsoons are generally considered off-season, but due to the pandemic, the virtual platform made a lean season quite busy for many of these organisations.
Immersive Trails had stopped their physical walks a week before the lockdown. “We were deciding on how to negotiate the situation. So we took Covid as an opportunity to reach out to the audience worldwide with our endeavour,” says Neogi. Many of their physical walks are already being conducted virtually on Zoom with a maximum of 30 people. Each walk is 1.5-2 hours long. You can pay and register. “We are interspersing our storytelling with audio-visuals, archival videos, and walkthrough videos along with an interactive session because, in our physical walks, interactive sessions played an important role,” says Neogi. Since the time they started their virtual walks, the agency has witnessed participation from “95 cities and 12 countries worldwide”.
“I am a heritage enthusiast. My hobby is reading about Calcutta and taking photographs. I have attended around 30-40 heritage walks in the last two years and have attended almost all the walks by Immersive Trails including the virtual ones too that they started during the lockdown. It is a good experience but is also a setback for people like us who love to go around exploring the city,” says Priyodorshi Mustafi, a software professional and a regular participant of Immersive Trails.
For Navpreet Arora of FunOnStreets, conducting these virtual walks is more of a “brand-building exercise”. “During these unprecedented times, we have to keep creating. I started a series called Treasure Trails. It was a creative buzz. So my friends suggested why not do a virtual walk. So, we did a trial walk in June with a few of my clients. From July onwards we planned walks every week with a maximum of 30 people. While conducting our physical walks we try to connect people to the history through pictures also while walking. We are conducting our pre-booked, paid virtual walks the same way,” says Arora.
Entrepreneur Vineeta Gupta, owner of the brand Earthwear and one of Arora’s tour loyalists, says: “I have been associated with her physical walks for a long time and I had a wonderful experience. When she, however, started her virtual tours, I was in two minds. When I finally made up my mind to participate, I didn’t realise where one-and-a-half hours had swept by. Her Park Street walk, North Calcutta and Kumartuli walk are some of my favourites. The pandemic has opened up new areas of exploration for all of us. I would have not gone for the virtual walk otherwise. The pandemic showed how we can do interesting things sitting at home also.”
The idea of doing virtual walks came to Ayon and Deep of Walk Calcutta Walk when their scheduled popular Finding Felu Tour on Satyajit Ray’s birthday, May 2, got postponed due to the pandemic. “We thought we should not give up. We should improvise. Despite the technical difficulties that we faced initially, we had many people joining in from Europe and America. As we had so many people wanting to participate, we made it invite-only. More than 200-300 people joined. Srijit Mukherji and Biswajit Chatterjee joined us for a special live session too. We are conducting our virtual walks on Skype and Facebook. We narrate the story along with audio and pictures and videos. It is interactive. We are also trying to come up with new stories for our virtual walks,” they say.
Covid has brought about a sea change in the participation. It is no longer restricted to small groups of people, present in Calcutta, who can go around the city on foot. Taking it on virtual platforms made it accessible to people all around the globe from the comfort of their homes.
Immersive Trails is usually approached by both locals and tourists for booking their walking tours. “Seventy per cent of our participants are from Calcutta but the ratio changed significantly after we introduced virtual walks from June onwards. We are now getting a lot of global participation,” says Neogi, who started the virtual walks after conducting a Facebook poll to understand the interest of people in such walks.
Navpreet Arora conducts private tours as well as group tours and takes around 15 participants for her scheduled walks about which she posts on FB. “From Pujas to winter, a lot of people come to our city. My clientele comprises tourists as well as local people. From students, corporate professionals, and various groups like Ladies Study Group, the participants belong to diverse backgrounds. But in the virtual walk, we are witnessing participation by a global audience. We are also adjusting the timing of our virtual walks in such a manner so that people belonging to different time zones can participate and we are mostly keeping it for the weekends so that people are free to join,” says Arora.
Walk Calcutta Walk conducts walks throughout the year in groups of six-eight people and a maximum of 10. Their food walks, however, sometimes have over 25 participants. You can book a tour through Facebook, web portals, website, and WhatsApp. “Ninety per cent of our participants are from Calcutta. During winter, we have participants from foreign countries as well. While conducting our walks, we tell the stories in both English and Bengali. The participants in our virtual walks have increased. The best part is that aged people who couldn’t go out, are getting a glimpse of the city through these virtual walks,” say Ayon and Deep.
Neogi agrees that the experience of virtual walks would never match that of physical walks. “When you are out on the street, smelling, seeing things for yourself, is obviously more rewarding, but we have to think of ways of how we can deliver best during the pandemic. All our tickets for the virtual walk were sold out within 48 hours and it was purchased by people all over the world. We did not expect that. Covid is a problem in the travel industry but we have to innovate as much as we can. We took it as an opportunity,” he says.
For Arora, it is a challenge to recreate the interactive sessions of her physical walks for her guests on the virtual medium. “When you walk around the city, you feel the pulse of the city. My foreign guests like to interact with people on the street. People can witness the rock-er adda, but in the virtual walk, all of these experiences can’t be felt. Many new stories come up out of such interactions. The most crucial aspect is that people won’t be able to feel the pulse of the city. In Calcutta, witnessing that warmth of the people is important. In the near future too it won’t be possible to conduct physical walks. The stories and tales can be shared through virtual walks. So far the response has been great. We conducted FB live sessions too,” she says.
“There are few advantages of the virtual walk as it is open to a huge number of people. They can join by the click of a button. But it depends on how much is being offered to them. I am thinking about how to infuse both virtually — the facts and the experiences,” says Soham Chakrabarty of Calcutta Capsule.
For Ayon and Deep of Walk Calcutta Walk, technical dependence was a problem initially that they are gradually overcoming. “Amphan affected the Internet connection. There are technical issues that we face at times. But even a physical walk has its challenges. People arrive late, places don’t open on some days. So, now we are facing new kinds of challenges. Virtually people are not being able to feel things. The real fun is definitely on the road, but we don’t know when we will be able to hit the roads again. Until then, this is the way forward for us,” say the founders.
Subhra Kanti Chatterjee, who is presently on a career break, said: “I have often participated in WCW’s walks with friends and colleagues. One of my friends from outside Calcutta came to visit the city and was very interested to know about it, but unfortunately because of the pandemic he couldn’t go out. He is very keen to go out whenever they host their next physical walk. I liked the group’s virtual Felu live session very much.”
Kajori Ray, an IT consultant and a WCW tour loyalist, specially recalled the taste of an authentic Parsi lunch that was a part of one of the walks. “We interacted with the Parsi people too. I have not been able to attend any virtual walks till now, but I am looking forward to it.”
Virtual is surely the #newnormal, connecting people worldwide, allowing us to experience life differently and from the safety of the four walls of our rooms. It is perhaps only wise to take a shot rather than sit back and sulk, and keep seeing your travel bucket list get longer!
Great Yarmouth Heritage Walks: The walks on this page are on diverse subjects like road names, history, or a stroll along the seafront, and are all centred around the resort town of England’s Great Yarmouth.
Walhalla: The historic township nestled in the valley of the Victorian Alps in Australia can be explored virtually on its community page. What is interesting is along with the tour guide, a dog named Tilly accompanies you on the virtual tour across the township.
Roobaroo Walks: On this page, you can participate in virtual walks of various Indian cities like Delhi and Varanasi.
1066 Harolds Way: This page gives access to historical walks around various places in England like Winchelsea, Rye, Hastings Castle. The page conducts different kinds of walks like castle walks, pub walks among many others.
Virtual Tour — Live: From Japan to Paris, from Scottish highlands to the Amalfi coast of Italy, this FB page hosts and updates users on various virtual tours around the globe. Happy globetrotting sitting at home!