Meet Beth Decker and William Nag, the dynamic duo behind Kolkata’s Chaitown Community

This vibrant cultural hub in Lake Gardens that turned two this year, organises open mics, musical gigs, cultural mixers, fitness sessions and more

Vedant Karia Published 29.04.24, 07:09 PM
The most important thing for Beth Decker and William Nag is developing a community of artists, as depicted in this Hall of Fame at Chaitown’s entrance

The most important thing for Beth Decker and William Nag is developing a community of artists, as depicted in this Hall of Fame at Chaitown’s entrance Photos: Soumyajit Dey

For the past two years, a building in Lake Gardens has become a nucleus for writers, musicians, performers, foodies, fitness enthusiasts, and pretty much anyone looking for something interesting to do in the City of Joy. Chaitown Community has become an integral part of Kolkata’s cultural landscape — a one-stop destination for people looking to learn something interesting, express themselves creatively and engage meaningfully with others. As the organisation celebrates its second anniversary on May 5, My Kolkata brings you their story.

Love for Kolkata’s heritage

The idea of Chaitown was first conceived far away from Kolkata. Beth Decker, affectionately known as Aunty Beth, was residing in Washington State, but her heart was firmly set on Kolkata. Born in Darjeeling, Aunty Beth had lived in several countries all her life, but she and her husband found something special in the City of Joy. After his passing, she moved to Landour, Mussoorie for a few years to be closer to nature and work on a few writing projects. It was there that she connected with William Nag and his wife, Rohini, who were also from Kolkata and had come to the mountains to set up some gyms. Soon, the pandemic struck, and she had to move to Washington State.

The building houses a state-of-the-art fitness centre and a music production room-cum-photography studio

The building houses a state-of-the-art fitness centre and a music production room-cum-photography studio

While she was there, she couldn’t shake off this dream about a building that would host different creative activities. “Kolkata has always had writers and poets moving about on foot, artists painting by the river and musicians jamming under the trees. Our Didimas and Dadus, Thakurdas and Thakumas passed this heritage down. I had a crazy idea to form a community here, where people would encourage each other and break down the walls between ethnic groups, nationalities, languages and art forms,” she said.

When people her age started succumbing to the pandemic in large numbers, Aunty Beth feared that this dream would remain unfulfilled. She remembers waking up in the morning with charts and graphs about Chaitown bubbling in her mind. She knew that she couldn’t do this alone, and reached out to William and Rohini. “I recognised my age and limitations, and asked if they would be willing to come back and do this with me. I could never do this without them, because they understand the heart of this city. William is a photographer, coach and a musician. He’s almost like Chaitown in a package,” Aunty Beth added.

Tea, ‘adda’ and more…

The name itself came as a no-brainer, courtesy the city’s obsession with tea. “Chai stalls were the original cafes of Kolkata and that’s where adda would happen in the evenings. We wanted to give the vibe of your para’r cha dokan and hence, chanced upon this name,” shared William.

Chaitown Community was founded by Beth Decker and William Nag in May, 2022

Chaitown Community was founded by Beth Decker and William Nag in May, 2022

After a lot of brainstorming, the trio finally moved back to Kolkata in April 2021. Given William’s background as a fitness trainer and Aunty Beth’s takeaways from crossfit, they wanted to start with fitness. Despite not having a dedicated space, they powered through with what they had. “We started with one of the rooms in my Hindustan Park flat, where William would conduct fitness classes. We would film and share them online. Besides this, we would talk to a young musician from the city about their life and music every Sunday on Instagram live,” she shared. Aunty Beth had a writer’s group on Zoom, and upon returning to the city, she began conducting meet-ups in person.

Connecting to people through social media 

The performing arts were also integral to their vision and they weren’t going to let the absence of a space get in the way. As soon as cafes reopened after the pandemic, Chaitown approached them to conduct open mics. “The pandemic had shut down everyone’s ability to connect and they were hungry to spend time with people without a mask. When we pitched open mics, 8th Day Cafe and Potboiler welcomed us with open arms! We put the word out on social media and things just started to grow,” William beamed.

Meanwhile, the search for a space continued with little success. After inspecting over 40 locations around south Kolkata, William finally found a gem in a run-down building in Lake Gardens. “Initially, I was just looking for a place to stay, and Aunty Beth’s friend showed me this building. When we saw the ground floor, he mentioned that there were rooms available upstairs too, which had been empty for four years. It wasn't in the best shape, but it felt like something we could work with,” added William.

Hitting the right notes 

The place instantly felt like the perfect blend of a residence and business space, where they could have not only open mics, but a music room, a dance hall, and a full-fledged gym! The signs were overwhelmingly positive, and they had their first event even before they fully moved in. “While the place was still being done, we showed it to Sourjyo Sinha, the singer-songwriter for Whale In The Pond. He took one look at the terrace and said, ‘We can’t wait till the end of winter to perform here!’ We decided to take a gamble and advertised for an Original Music Night, not what we were doing. We would have considered ourselves lucky if we had 30 people in the audience,” Aunty Beth chuckled.

That was on November 18, 2021. By December 9, over 100 people were packed into the cosy terrace. “The numbers kept going up, and we weren’t even sure if our terrace could hold so many people. Seeing everyone interested in our vision was very encouraging,” she added with a smile.

While that was the soft launch, the ground floor was still in shambles. It took months to carve out a gym there. The founders envisioned a space with sustainable furniture that would also have rooms for artists to stay in. Chaitown Community formally opened its doors on May 2, 2022. They started with music lessons, open mics, a writer’s group and the MoveStrong Strength and Conditioning Gym.

Since then, the organisation has taken a life of its own. There are open mics every week, in addition to classes in English literature, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and contemporary and ballet dance — truly something for everyone. Over the course of this journey, Chaitown has also encouraged three poets from the city to self-publish their work, and helped Woodstock School conceptualise a book on Haiku. They have become a great space for cultural exchange, with students and professionals from around the world dropping by to teach and learn.

Conducting Kolkata tours, sharing stories and more…

While their activities might seem confusing at first, it is all a part of a larger plan. Chaitown Moves comprises everything related to the gym, dance and physical exercise. Chaitown Stories brings forth the different ways in which they tell Kolkata’s stories, and also their own. Chaitown Sounds is their music wing, where they work with musicians and help them produce their tracks. They are even putting the finishing touches to their very own recording studio. “We are working with an MBBS graduate who also happens to be a rapper, and we’re hoping to produce his first music video too!” exclaims Aunty Beth. Apart from this, Chaitown Culture is their wing that shares Kolkata’s culture with their visitors. Last year, Chaitown organised several tours of the city for business executives and students. They also receive applications from American colleges to send students for their summer and spring breaks. “Interest for Durga Puja has skyrocketed after UNESCO recognised it, and we conducted three tours during last year’s festival for entrepreneurs,” she informed. This global touch extends into their teachers, with Steven Ellis coming down all the way from Montana to teach Jiu-Jitsu.

Uniting over food and entertainment

Chaitown Culture works in close tandem with Chaitown Eats to celebrate the culture of the city, and open it up to different cultures through the biggest unifier: Food! Their Common Table Culture series began a few months ago, with a Laos edition, where cuisine and entertainment from the region was brought to Chaitown, leading to an interesting exchange. This was followed by an Italy edition, with an expansive menu comprising 10 dishes. “It's a highly curated and intimate evening, where we take a small group of 25 people. We have students from the University of Texas visiting in June, and hope to do a Tex-Mex edition next where they teach us Line Dancing!” Aunty Beth says. Chaitown Eats has also launched their own blend of Essential Assam Tea, titled CommuniTea, in partnership with Bronsun’s, as a homage to the city’s tea drinking culture.

Unlocking the creative side through jamming and game nights 

The members have the most glowing things to say about Chaitown. Upasya Bhowal first encountered the community through an open mic in late 2021, and now can’t imagine her life without it. Three years on, the open mics continue to remain her favourite. But she has also found immense joy in informal jamming sessions, game nights, and the Common Table Culture nights. “This place is not only a piece of my heart, but has also brought me back in touch with my creative side. I genuinely believe that our city deserves more spaces that allow people to be whoever they are, lend them a listening ear and help them grow and evolve,” she smiled.

While words were what got Upasya to Chaitown, for Akash Dasgupta, it was music. Akash was initially looking for an open mic to send his students to. When he found out about Chaitown, he decided to check out the open mics for himself. The evening was so enjoyable that he decided to join hands with them and teach music at Chaitown, working primarily with kids. “My favourite thing about Chaitown is the community, where everyone is constantly trying to do something creative and everyone finds appreciation,” he says.

Sreeja Paul is another musical teacher associated with Chaitown, where she has been working as a vocal coach almost since its inception. “While imparting knowledge is normally the sole purpose of an institution, Chaitown has given me the freedom to make my classes more fun and interactive. Besides this, the open mics are a place where every performer is supported, be it a novice or a professional, “ beamed Sreeja.

A butterfly effect has followed this trail of kindness. Sourav Nirwan, a medical student from College of Medicine and Sagore Dutta Hospital, struggled to find a space that would accept his passion for rap music. It was at Chaitown that he found the encouragement to pursue the art form, and also got to learn from other artists. “Coming from a medical college, it was difficult to find people who would appreciate my art, and accept me for who I am. Chaitown has become a family to me, not only giving me a platform to perform, but also to learn,” he said. Sourav is shooting a rap song based on Chaitown, which he intends to launch along with the music video during their second anniversary celebrations, under the alias NIRWAN.

With innovative events and a pool of enthusiastic talent associated with them, Chaitown is growing every day. They have over 300 people on their WhatsApp group, and both William and Aunty Beth have received multiple requests to expand to other parts of the city. For now, they have tied up with cafes in Jodhpur Park, Southern Avenue, AJC Bose Road and Salt Lake for open mics. Despite the expansion, team Chaitown agreed that they aren’t just giving to the city, but taking equal inspiration from it. “Kolkata is a cosmopolitan city and always open to different things. We aren’t just bringing something new, but also borrowing from it. I want my grandkids to be global citizens and have a welcoming approach, and I feel that we have built a space worthy of this perspective at Chaitown,” she signed off.

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