What do you think of first when you hear Kolkata? Bhetki fry? Aparna Sen? Rasgullas? HMV? Trams? The Metro? Tagore? Satyajit Ray? Egg rolls? Byomkesh Bakshi?
What stands out for me is coexistence. Between the old and the new. Between the rich and the poor. Between the urban and the not-so-urban. Between people. Even between different foods. Whether you call it Kolkata or Calcutta, you cannot deny that India’s third largest metropolis is a veritable festival of human existence, a place that you feel, not simply visit.
I travel to Kolkata at least four times a year for work. And do I look forward to every visit here? You bet. There are many things I look forward to on my trips. Cycle rickshaws, handcarts laden with goods, the tram line – candy for a photographer with an itchy index finger.
Everything about this city brings back vintage nostalgia. Where else will you find the good ole ‘Amby’ alongside the latest luxury sedan? And not the modern take on the Ambassador, I’m referring to the genuine article. I have a special fondness for these cars as our first car at home was a 1964 Amby we purchased in the late 70s. It is also the first car I drove as a teenager.
While I always look forward to catching up with friends at The Belvedere, discerning glutton that I am, I would be remiss if I didn’t give the city’s varied culinary delights a well-deserved shout out. Kolkata dishes out some of the best street food anywhere serves up the most delicious continental fare and the local Bengali cuisine, I believe, is par none.
Kolkata has not only been home to Nobel laureates, poets, actors, economists, Mother Teresa, but is also a city with a storied criminal history – indeed Kolkata is where we first saw professional goondas in the 20th century. A city where you can go back in time and also live in the present simultaneously.
Rich in intellectual, artistic, and cultural history, Kolkata is a sensory experience chamber presented as a city. This former capital of the British colonial era retains its old world glamour of colonial era architecture. Though some buildings are now quite dilapidated, they are still a treat for the senses – there is so much to admire. The thickness of the walls, the architectural detail, large doors and windows styled in an inimitable British style are imposing. This stunning architecture together with the grand old colonial era clubs frequented by the city’s elite is a startling contrast to its urban slums and new town suburbs and air-conditioned malls.
On my last trip to Kolkata, I decided to shoot one such historical landmark – The Victoria Memorial. The building was commissioned by Curzon, the Viceroy of India in 1901 as a fitting memorial to Queen Victoria, who had just passed on. He envisioned a grand building with a museum and gardens, stately and spacious that everyone would want to visit whether they were residents of Calcutta or just visiting.
The Prince of Wales, later King George V, laid the foundation stone on 4 January 1906, and it opened to the public in 1921. The sprawling campus with its beautiful gardens is spread over 64 acres, with lakes at all four corners that the memorial in their calm waters. A fitting memorial for a Queen indeed.
An entry ticket to the gardens costs a princely Rs. 10, but most locals opt for a monthly pass. They come here every morning to walk, jog or just stroll around. Most of them dressed in the finest sports attire, many indulging in the most favourite of all Bengali pastimes – a discussion on solutions to all the world’s problems.
The sun wakes Kolkata up well before the rest of India. I had decided already decided to get my photographs at sunrise. I was very worried about light – the weather gods had decided to send gloom and clouds my way. And to add to my misery it rained every single day. Not very favourable conditions for a photographer. But then, one has to make do with whatever is available when on a short visit.
I made a total of three trips here – two in the morning and one in the evening, though the sun refused to step out from behind the clouds, trying to get a different perspective each time.
I did want to capture street life on this trip, but the unseasonal rains made short work of my efforts. C’est la vie.
But then again, I wouldn’t want to devour this nostalgic city all in one take. Another trip, another post awaits.