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Kolkata, West Bengal, India


India's largest city and once the capital (1772-1912) of British India, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is located on the east bank of the Hooghly, a channel of the Ganges, 154 km upstream from the Bay of Bengal. Growing beyond its British colonial foundations, Kolkata assimilated strong European influences to create an amalgam culture that found early expression in the life and works of the 19th-century Bengali elite and its best known figure, Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkatans are said to possess a rare joie de vivre that manifests itself in their penchant for art and culture and a level of intellectual vitality and political awareness unsurpassed in the rest of the country. No other Indian city can draw the kinds of crowds that throng to Calcutta's book fairs, art exhibitions, and concerts. There is a lively trading of polemics on walls, which has led to Kolkata being dubbed the city of posters. But Kolkata thrives amid seemingly insurmountable economic, social, and political problems. For all its vitality, a large number of its residents live in abject conditions, far removed from the rarefied cultural milieu. Many a visitor remarks on the city's air quality, physical decay, and fetid smells. In short, Kolkata remains an enigma to many Indians as well as to foreigners. It continues to puzzle newcomers and to arouse an abiding nostalgia in the minds of those who have lived there. [— Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica; Oct '05 & Oct '06]

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"Calcutta is a difficult city to be in. With its illustrious past as the one-time heart of the British Empire in India, its seemingly endless roster of lettered luminaries, social activists, freedom fighters, entertainers, and scientists, with lush tropical forests and fields along the Gangetic delta as its backdrop, the city has long since fallen into a sad state of decay, where it stubbornly remains. More than in any other major Indian city, the grind of poverty, pollution, and desperation were front and center at all times during our visit. It felt like a city left behind. But people with close ties to Calcutta maintain that its intellectual life and revolutionary spirit are not dead. Given that its culture and education system still produce a disproportionate number of India's scholars and artists even today, I suppose that must be true. Unfortunately, this isn't evident to the casual visitor. What I saw were the destitute widows of the Calcutta cliché—society's refuse—and sidewalks lined with sleeping families pickling themselves in the thick, black exhaust of autos, cars, and buses.

"We went during Durga Puja, the region's most spectacular festival. At this time, every neighborhood constructs a pandal that depicts Durga, flanked by other gods, slaying a demon. For days these doll-like statues are fussed over, dressed up, prayed at, entered into competitions, and then with great fanfare and emotion, they are foisted into a nearby lake or river to dissolve back into the mud from which they were made. All day long during the week of the puja, loudspeakers all over the city hysterically amplify the beating of drums or sacred recitations—with interludes of film music—for those who somehow manage to retain their hearing. Frankly, to me the whole thing felt like just one arduously long, painfully loud puja, and I did not find it all that charming. Still, the joyful and festive spirit of the participants was frequently evident.

"On the final evening of the puja, as we waited down by the riverside to watch the procession of revelers dunk their idols, a small fishing boat pulled up and deposited a freshly dead human corpse on the bank, then sailed off (perhaps to avoid getting embroiled with the authorities). It was the body of a handsome young man, not more than 20, strong and flush with health, except for being dead. He appeared to have been fished up from the river, perhaps a young fisherman, drowned, wearing nothing but a soggy dhoti, which now was coming undone. Lying face down, the body had gone stiff with rigor mortis; his nose still leaked blood into the dark muddy bank. The body was left directly in the path of the merry-makers who, refusing to let their enthusiasm be tempered, simply chose to dance around the corpse, careful not to step on it. At this moment, the whole spectacle turned surreal for me: the dancing-clapping jubilation of the devout holding up their glossy-painted, ornamented idols built of myth and mud as they surrounded the awkward, still corpse made of real flesh, the boy with a face but without a story. I found it vulgar; it was too severe, too human, too emptying."   [ — Usha Alexander, Oct '05]

Sealdah & College Street

Gariahat

Kalighat

Durga Puja 2005


Santoshpur & Jadavpur


Belur Math


Dakshineshwar


Indian Museum


Victoria Memorial


Kathi roll joint off Park St.


Howrah bridge


Piggybank vendors, Howrah


Excerpts from An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul, pp. 263-265, 1962-64

"Afternoon now, and the train's shadow racing behind us. Sunset, evening, night; station after dimly-lit station. It was an Indian railway journey, but everything that had before seemed pointless was now threatened [by the fast advancing Chinese in the '62 Sino-Indian war] and seemed worth cherishing; and as in the mild sunshine of a winter morning we drew near to green Bengal, which I had longed to see, my mood towards India and her people became soft. I had taken so much for granted. There, among the Bengali passengers who had come on, was a man who wore a long woolen scarf and a brown tweed jacket above his Bengali dhoti. The casual elegance of his dress was matched by his fine features and relaxed posture. Out of all the squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many. Nowhere were people so heightened and rounded and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves so fully and with such assurance. To know Indians was to take delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure. I did not want India to sink; the mere thought was painful." ...

"... Calcutta was dead. Partition had deprived it of half its hinterland and burdened it with a vast dispirited refugee population. Even nature had turned: the Hooghly was silting up. But Calcutta's death was also of the heart. With its thin glitter, its filth and overpopulation, its tainted money, its exhaustion, it held the total Indian tragedy and the terrible British failure. Here the Indo-British encounter had at one time promised to be fruitful. Here the Indian renaissance had begun: so many of the great names of the Indian reform are Bengali. But it was here, too, that the encounter had ended in mutual recoil. The cross-fertilization had not occurred, and Indian energy had turned sour. Once Bengal lead India, in ideas and idealism; now ... even to Indians, [Calcutta] was a word of terror, conveying crowds, cholera and corruption ['nightmare experience' to Nehru]. Its aesthetic impulses had not faded—there was an appealing sensibility in every Bengali souvenir, every over-exploited refugee 'craft'—but they, pathetically, threw into relief the greater decay. Calcutta had no leaders now, and apart from Ray, the film director, and Janah, the photographer, had no great names."

 

 

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