Text & Photographs: Manjira Majumdar
Indian cities offer a rich fare of old and new hidden delights. They deserve a dekko, whether as a tourist or on an assignment. The City of Joy is one such with an interesting check-list if you are footloose and have time to kill.
Let us rediscover Kolkata, the vintage city; dusted and wiped clean of the pollution. Between catching up on some known landmarks and fine dining in a single day; much can be squeezed in. Even for diehard locals trying to emerge from the confines of their homes but are unable to travel outside the city’s precincts, there is much to re-acquaint themselves with.
There is a certain charm in the city that endures despite its chaotic beauty and eccentric ethos that unfold through its heritage buildings, serpentine alleys/gullies, ferry/tram rides and street food. The ubiquitous puchka, which is said to beat the golgappas and panipuri in taste! A horse-driven buggy ride in front of the stately Victoria Memorial with rhythmic sounds of clip-clop can melt the years away by a century or two.
Summers are harsh and monsoons are wet and muggy. Yet, a boat ride on the River Hooghly on a hot day can soothe frayed nerves as cool breeze blows across. Winters are divine with a number of festive activities; indoors and outdoors. Starting with five-day Durga Puja, it continues up to Christmas and punctuated by colourful art, book and handloom melas or fairs, plays and concerts.
Time was when visitors would enquire about new plays by Utpal Dutt, Shombhu and Tripti Mitra and other theatre stalwarts. Their torch-bearers continue and there is always some play or the other happening at the cultural hub of Nandan, Rabindra Sadan and Academy of Fine Arts. Or a musical programme at Rabindra Sadan and art exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts.
The Ganga ride
Millennium Park is a part of the strand that is River Hooghly promenade. There are several ghats along the banks, like you have in Varanasi. After all, Kolkata is the last city on the banks of the mighty River Ganga that flows from the north and empties out into the Bay of Bengal. A ferry ride operates between the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata that carries commuters across the river. The former was an industrial town but given to neglect over the years. However, with the state administrative headquarters shifting to Nabanno in Howrah, there is a sudden buzz in and around it. The stately Writers Building in Dalhousie is presently under renovation.
Various launch rides float on the river as part of daily cruises. It helps one to identify the city landscape better and because the river was used as a trade route by the European colonizer as they set up outposts in Bandel (Portuguese); Serampore (Danish); Chandannagore (French) and the Englishdominated city of Calcutta, the approach from the river is also a route. There is a cruise operational on select days that helps you see the riverscape dotted with old European architecture.
There is a Kolkata river cruise that sets sail everyday at 6 pm from the Millennium Park. This two-storied steam boat has stairs going up and for people to enjoy the upper deck view. It’s a musical trip where recorded messages mention the city’s heritage sights apart from various important banks, such as the Armenianghat, Nimtalaghat (close to the local crematorium), Chandpalghat and the most beautiful of these – the Prinsep ghat. It glides past the two well-known bridges lit up beautifully at night.
A snacks and beverage bar enables tourists to get refreshments; one of which is the egg chop dimer devil for whatever reason! The famous Dakshineshwar Temple, with its Ma Saradaghat, is also included on which the Ganga aarti takes place after sunset.
At ₹ 40 per ticket, this is the cheapest detour of the city on water, especially in the evenings. The city lights twinkling in the distance present a spectacular backdrop.
(Riding the Ganga at Millennium Park
Weekdays: 1 ½ hour ride. 4 pm and 6 pm
Weekends & Holidays: 2 pm, 4 pm and 6 pm)
Kolkata is the only city where trams existed as part of pollution free transport. Children and adolescents travelled in these short distance routes to schools and colleges while their parents took a tram to work. But now phased away gradually for congesting roads and being economically not feasible, there are plans to convert these into heritage trams plying through certain heritage routes covering buildings like the General Post Office, Government House, St Andrews Church, The Black Pagoda, Rabindra Bharati campus, Jain Temple, Presidency College, Calcutta University, Ashutosh Museum and Coffee House.
There are a few still running. One can disembark at College Street for a quick cuppa at Coffee House, where the adda has a timeless quality about it. Not just a ‘hail fella, well met’ kind over a few drinks. It is never-ending and seamless. It is the perfect spot to meet up old friends with whom you have a lot to catch up on. It probably started with the young students of the colleges nearby, who became freedom fighters and revolutionaries. Add to that list, well-known luminaries. The baton was passed on to the city’s intellectual elite comprising writers, poets, artists and film makers. And it continues.
You step out and survey the book shops in boipara where old second hand books jostle for space. This is a regular haunt for students, scholars and general readers.
To recreate the heritage a swank Coffee House (same franchise of India Coffee House) has opened in the new city of New Town but it is too glitzy for old timers though prices of coffee remain the same. In the same township is an Eco Park that offers a toy tram ride and a boat ride on a man-made lake but the vintage delights of Calcutta stare mutely on till the younger generations totally dismiss nostalgia.
According to a newspaper report, “Twenty-five trams have been renovated out of a total of 269 trams in Kolkata.”A tram car named Victoria was opened as a stationary restaurant but again, according to a tourism spokesperson, “Things are in a flux right now before services on a moving tram restaurant begins again.”
For a few rupees you can take a leisurely tram ride meandering through the lush green stretch of the maidan on which horses and sheep graze.
The Indian Museum may be a grand bit of architecture with rare collections. But today two modern museums in the Dalhousie area give a wrap of the city’s heritage and legacy of culture, craft and communities. Metcalfe Hall with its commanding open doors and windows, the wooden floors and staircases that resound with footsteps remind us that the Hall has sprung back to life with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). In order to attract footfalls, an exhibition titled Ami Kolkata (I am Kolkata) has been mounted inside Metcalfe Hall. Very well curated, with exhibits that capture the quintessential spirit of the city, a sense of nostalgia grips you the moment you enter. The museum is a welcome addition to the city space to remind you of things that are fast vanishing or indeed vanished from the cityscape.
From the alpana at the entrance depicting certain motifs of gas lights, stained-glass type windows to stylized Bankura horses and dholak, images collide to put forth the spirit of the city that chance found.
The three-storey interiors are sparsely spread out which give a sense of not only space but time as well. There is an interactive installation, placed inside a boat. Visitors can get a brief blurb on some aspects of Kolkata’s history, such as the rise of babu culture, the Bengali renaissance, Bengali sweets and so on by the touch screen method. Posters of well-known films – art-house and commercials; covers of books and three-dimensional rare photographs besides artefacts are exhibited in a way that is not cluttered. The craft of shola which plays a very big part in Bengali rituals is explained with exhibits. The Calcutta life and culture, which included several communities who came from outside the country, are depicted through photographs.
The 19th century Old Currency Building has also gone through a makeover and now conserved by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and ASI holds within precincts the exhibition titled: Ghare Baire – Outside and the World – which again bring alive the art and culture of the land through rare paintings by well-known artists and photographers,who have captured unusual portraits of people and palaces.
The Heritage Walks covering every aspect of city life from haunted houses at night, stories of murder and mayhem to the cluster of heritage buildings in Central Calcutta can be done in a couple of hours, with a break for lunch or breakfast in one of the numerous options that exist.
Both museums are open to public free of cost and because they are located close to each other, a day doing heritage buildings on foot makes perfect sense. Or take one of the Heritage Walks covering certain sections of the city such as the old North.
Central Kolkata: Food Street
This is an area which offers a veritable feast, literally! Whether you want a Parsi meal at the Parsi dharamshala adjacent to the Parsi Fire Temple or a Chinese breakfast of fish ball soup or shop for bokchoy near Tiretti Bazaar!
All these places are closely located or even if you travel a bit north to Chitpore, you will get poori-sabzi and jalebis at Jorashanko; this is where the grand mansion of the Tagore family stands.
If you take a tram or move towards the south, you come close to the New Market area. This region is a shopper’s paradise. It is a breather from the swanky malls. The area has various shops selling jewellery, Tibetan artefacts, Kashmiri shawls, sandalwood craft, beautiful handloom saris and much more. The Chinese shoe shops (though slowly downing shutters) were once the attractions besides good street food. Nahoum’s the only Jewish bakery plodswith its home baked breads and pastries, inside the market. A short hand pulled rickshaw ride can take you through the busy thoroughfare to Park Street. The entire locality is known for its Mughlai fare, which is a fusion of Oudh and Lucknow cuisine comprising biryani, kebabs, rezala and chaap.
Extremely resourceful, the Chinese also flourish in their Chinatown, only existing in Kolkata, in India. This is a place called Tangra. Once noted for tanneries for handcrafted shoes, there are more restaurants here today because the Government’s pollution control notified them to relocate the tanneries to an outskirt. Several tannery owners shut shoe shops to open restaurants.
In hybridised forms, Indo-Chinese cuisine is the community’s legacy – sold from roadside kiosk and multi cuisine restaurants across the country incorporating the use of rice, noodles, stir fried vegetables and crispy meat.
From pure vegetarian fare like puchka, chaat, paubhaji, vada dunked in sambar,the cuisine that is available in Central Kolkata roadside is mindboggling in its variety. Forget the new age restaurant and cafes, at modest prices, the roadside kathi rolls and fruit juices, invigorate you in minutes.
Metro ride ending at Bawali Rajbari
After all, Kolkata had the very first metro, now extending from north to south and east to west. If you travel to Tollygunj Metro station from Esplanade, a 45-minutes drive from there towards Raichak via Thakurpukur can take you to the country side. After walking, braving the crowds and sampling kiosk food, you can relax in a heritage boutique property known as Bawali Rajbari that can be considered to be located within the city. It showcases the best of Bengal’s mansion architecture.
Make sure you book in advance for what can be day tripping or check in for a couple of days stay in one of the Rajbari’s beautifully appointed rooms. You reach by noon and spend the entire day before heading back. You can stroll around the property after being welcomed with a soft drink and snacks.
It is serene and luxurious. In front, lies the thakurdalan,(a courtyard surrounded by pillars), whereinDurga Puja was usually held in aristocratic homes. This 300-year old boutique has beautiful rooms, a very well-maintained sprawling garden and even a swimming pool. Lunch is usually set in a huge dining hall. It is the Bengali zamindarithali containing local delicacies of vegetable preparations, fish, chicken and mutton dishes cooked to perfection and desserts of a variety of Bengali sweets.
There are wide balconies opening out to terrace gardens and a library room. A guide let out that the basement was where arms and ammunition were once stacked. The Rajbari was once the property of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Nripendra Narayan. Raised on a basement of 1.5 meters in height, this double-storey brick building covers an area of 4768 square meters.
You leave the property as dusk settles in, satisfied with the best that Bengal has to offer in an understated way.