Kolkata, the erstwhile capital of colonial India, is home to over 14 million people and is often referred to as the City of Joy. The city is a kaleidoscope where the grandeur of culture and urban impoverishment share the same frame. The following photo essay explores the tales of the city streets, or as Satyajeet Ray would have referred to it, ‘Pather Pachali through the view finder.’
Kolkata is a vibrant city that sits on the banks of the river Hooghly (a distributary of the Ganges). The two millennia old city, formerly known as Calcutta, is characterized by its princely charm and its tranquil pace of life. It is undoubtedly the intellectual and cultural epicenter of the country; while walking along an idyllic and quiet street, one can hear Rabindra Sangeet’s music playing from the windows of the neighboring houses, and there is an excess of theater performances and art exhibitions across the city. Though Kolkata is a maelstrom of culture, you can’t ignore the startling reality of the urban chaos and the pockets of penury that sweep the city roads. Then again, the city has a certain character to itself that cannot be articulated in words. The city’s admiration for art, culture and literature coupled with the feast of colonial era architecture is bound to leave you spell bound. To experience the true soul of Kolkata, apart from visiting the conventional monuments and the gentlemen’s clubs, a traveler should save a day to explore the labyrinths of Kolkata’s lanes.
The above photograph is a snippet of the city’s iconic yellow taxis. You know you have arrived in Kolkata once you witness streets bustling with bright yellow ambassadors which serve as city taxis. Hop onto a yellow taxi and head to the Princep Ghats, an embankment along river Hooghly. It is across this river that the famous Howrah Bridge perches.
Drifting along the Princep ghats are the wooden boats locally known as Nouka, which were the sole method of crossing the Ganges during colonial days and are a signature element of the port city’s heritage. Today these archaic boats are reduced to mere tourist attraction and occasional fishing activities. Seen in the frame above are the boats against the backdrop of factories on one side and a distant Howrah Bridge on the right.
Within the intellectual capital of India people are known for their love for long conversations and this is complemented by their love for tea (locally known as Cha). As a true Bengali would tell you the flavor of tea is accentuated by these earthen cups. Make sure you sip some tea served in the earthen cups at the kiosks by the Ganges.
Running over the ghats is the magnificent Vidyasagar Sethu Bridge, which is often dwarfed in fame by its older cousin, the Howrah Bridge. Running a length of 823 meters across the Ganges, this bridge is India’s longest cable-stayed bridge.
The lack of industrialization in the state and the increasing migration of unskilled labors from the neighboring states has catapulted the rate of urban poverty. The irony of the picture is that it contains both a homeless man and the world’s fourth largest cricket stadium, the colossal Eden Garden, in the same frame.
The city has a mounted police unit that can primarily be seen in the Maidan neighborhood, which houses the Kolkata race course, the Eden Gardens, the Victoria Memorial and the Maidan (the biggest urban park in Kolkata). The mounted cop unit came into existence during the early 20th century and is a living relic of Kolkata’s colonial past.
A 15 minutes drive from Maidan takes you to the 19th century Kalighat temple complex. It is a vibrant and densely populated neighborhood and serves as a citadel of cultural and religious activities for the devotees of the Hindu goddess, Kali. The lanes outside the complex are lined with street shops and are packed with devotees queuing up to offer their prayers to the mother goddess. The shop in the snap is one of many that sell figurines of Hindu gods, charm amulets, and offerings for worship.
Kolkata never fails to intrigue. Parked at a random street corner, you can spot the archaic hand pulled rickshaw. These rickshaws have been plying the city roads since the colonial era, and it’s only in the City of Joy that frames like this bridge the gap between eras. Though they form an eminent part of the city’s heritage, given the increasing number of cars and buses on the roads, these rickshaws are dwindling and can only be seen in select pockets of the city.
Urban slums adjacent to plush neighborhoods is a common sight in Kolkata. The frame captures slum dwellers washing clothes, and the background wall is the hind side of rather imposing palatial mansion. Like most metropolitan cities in India, Kolkata presents contrasting levels of socio-economic differences in the same portrait.
To witness the city in its full fervor, visit the city during the Durga Puja, when Kolkata turns into a center stage of religious and social extravaganza during the five day celebrations.
This picture of an austere tree with the magnificent Victoria Memorial in the background sums up the city as a whole. Kolkata is a city which has witnessed the sands of time and is an amicable amalgam of the old and the new. The rich heritage and the urban chaos together paint an incredible picture called Kolkata – a city beaming with its love for art, culture, literature, food and football.