Bengal’s City of Joy

Note: In the pursuit to discover & revive authentic traditional handcrafted clothing, accessories and lifestyle products that I believe to be timelessly fashionable, Advaya Tales is now travelling to different parts of India to source products from their roots. This blog cover the 2nd part of my journey through Bengal . where I lost myself exploring the wonderous City of Joy – Kolkata.

THE LADY & THE CITY

Confronted with today’s generation – the “Kewl” kind, who regard everyone as “dudes” and are overly concerned with being “cool”, seldom do I find the past being credited with fond reminiscence in favour of rushing in to the future. My generation on the other hand, is a transitional one which hangs in the midst of the old and new, most of us misfits to the happenings around us today.

Little did I know that an accidental back-packing tour to Bengal and its City of Joy, would have me discover a place that was stuck in a similar generational time-warp, between the old and new. This mirrored relation of circumstance, helped me form an instant bond with the city and drew me in to explore it in its entirety – by every road, every wall, and every structure – with a growing passion. It was a calling that would reintroduce me to my roots, my tradition and a culture that so many – today – are heedless to.

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Kash Phul – ADVAYA TALES®

DISCOVERING THE CITY OF JOY

Exploring Kolkata or Calcutta (for the undeniable British heritage inhabiting it) is a wondrous experience, which involves wandering along the city’s ghats, cutting through its endless narrow lanes, trudging through its busy streets and finding people gathering up every nook and corner for a cup of tea. It’s no secret – Bengalis love their tea! From official meetings to gossip sessions, it is indispensable for them in any gathering, especially at their “Addas” – meeting spots where intellectual ideas are exchanged (which famous filmmaker Satyajit Ray relates to open dialogues during the times of Socrates or Plato).

Calcutta has a rich history and heritage – partly remembered, partly treasured and partly not cared for. It would take me an entire book to talk about all my discoveries, but containing my excitement – here’s sharing few key explorations of well-known places:

SOUTH PARK CEMETERY

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THE SOUTH PARK CEMETERY – ADVAYA TALES®

Among the oldest colonial (Non-church) cemeteries in the world, founded in 1767, it is now a heritage site preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India. The North Park cemetery was opened by 1840. I was spell bound by the Gothic structures and tombs inside, which mainly also betrayed a strong influence of Greek, European, Pan-Asian architecture. It is the resting place of many notable personalities, the prominent and biggest ones (also the best maintained) included Sir William Jones – the founder of Asiatic Society, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio – pioneer of the Young Bengal Movement and famous poet – Rose Almer.

This necropolis which was built for the East India Company is full of obelisks, sarcophagi and Mausoleums, which hint at a deep Egyptian and Romance influence. While the cemetery is home to many graves, sadly most of these are in ruins and I consider it a sacrilege that the area is misused by modelling shoots or lovers finding solace. Upon closely inspecting the graves I discovered that many had died at an early age, which I speculate was due to the lack of treatment, incurable disease, famine and plague prevalent at the time. Despite being rumoured to be haunted, the place never felt spooky at all, rather it rung with an unworldly silence orchestrated by thousands of stories sung by each grave, to every passer-by. I couldn’t help but feel like here was truly – a place of lost souls (which ghosts are known to be).

I’ll always remember South Park Cemetery as a place that filled me with an unforgettable deep sense of nostalgia and timelessness, which was unlike anything I’ve ever felt.

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THE SOUTH PARK CEMETERY – ADVAYA TALES®

KOLKATA’S NATIONAL LIBRARY

Another great place to unearth the rich history of Calcutta and relive its old memories is the National library, once the centre of administration of Warren Hastings (first Governor of Fort William, Bengal, defacto governor general of India from 1773 – 1785).

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THE NATIONAL LIBRARY – ADVAYA TALES®

The tall pillars and wide corridors still laid some traces of history. I could feel that era like it was yesterday, as the library’s solid wooden doors leading to the interiors excitedly squealed summaries of summers past. Also – for a place that stories have claimed to be haunted, the only thing I found horrific was an otherwise unusual place, having acres of land left unattended and unmaintained.

A bit further down was the new building of the national library, perfect for people who could dive into books for hours, days or months, or for people pursuing further education, scholars & researchers. I could have easily spent an entire day reading the rare collection of books available here, and I silently thanked my parents for not restricting me to one language, as I appreciated and identified many great Bangla books, which may never translate to English.

THE MARBLE PALACE

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THE MARBLE PALACE – ADVAYA TALES®

An 18th century white marble palatial mansion standing, as a forgotten treasure house, amidst the dingy lanes of North Calcutta. Raja Rajendra Mullick, the contemporary of Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, had built this palatial mansion in 1835 by commissioning a French architect. Lord Minto, a British appointed Viceroy, gave the palace its name for its grandeur and fame, now – 180 years later – nearly faded into obliviousness. Though I found the Marble Palace sadly side-lined by a lot of Kolkatians, many foreign tourists throng to it to fully comprehend Kolkata’s celebrated past.

The name Marble palace sounds more apt when you come to know that 126 different types of imported Italian marbles were used to build the mansion, its floors and the walls. The gigantic engraved façade and tall Corinthian pillars of the building stands the test of the highest standards of neo-classical architectural structures of Europe. As you enter the subsequent rooms, the sheer number of artefacts, statues, furniture and paintings will leave you overwhelmed, especially considering that it all belongs to a personal collection.

The Raja’s taste for art and sculpture pegs him as a 19th century – rich and eccentric – art connoisseur. The statues and other sculptures here are a fine medley of Greek, Roman and Indian mythology, many of which are imported from beyond the seas and some which the Raja probably received as gift. In particular, one room stands out containing an awe-inspiring, larger than life statue of Queen Victoria, carved out of a single tree trunk.

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THE MARBLE PALACE – ADVAYA TALES®

A winding wooden staircase leads to the upper stories of the building where the descendants of the Raja still continue to live. This quarter is off-limits to the common visitors but the rest of the section of the three storied building has been converted to a museum. There is also one private Jagganath Temple inside where visitors are not allowed.

Large halls and corridors bursting with busts of historical and mythological figures, with a lavish spread of Chinese and Japanese porcelain vases, stand impressively. Wall sized mirrors in some of the rooms and many other original Belgian glass mirrors baroquely enclosed in gold polished frame, dazzle the eye. The palace contains a collection of some rare original paintings of European stalwarts like Rubens, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Titian, Murillo, and John Opie and our own Ravi Raj Verma.

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THE MARBLE PALACE – ADVAYA TALES®

From the surrounding verandahs, the wide courtyard in the middle of the house is visible. It comprises of a traditional Bengali Thakur dalan (corridor) – which is a curious blend of Indian culture and Western style. The sloping roofs are indicative of Chinese influence. A lawn in the exteriors contains a pond with a beautifully engraved stone fountain in the middle, which unfortunately does not spout water anymore. The entire garden is inhabited with stone statues of lions, fallen angels, Buddha etc. interspersed with marble top tables and benches.

The palace also boasts of hosting the first private zoo in India started by Raja Rajendra Mullick. Sadly not much of the zoo now remains, except a few exotic birds brought from all over the world like – Toucan, pelican, Hornbills, peacock, pheasants etc. singing of past glories. There is also a dilapidated rock garden beside the zoo, sadly desolate. With a little renovation and maintenance, the Marble Palace can shake off its dust and be a golden testimony to Calcutta’s ‘marvellous’ past.

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THE MARBLE PALACE – ADVAYA TALES®

THE DOLL’S HOUSE

One of the most talked about places in Kolkata, the “Ahiritola Putul Bari” (Doll’s House) is heavily rumoured to be haunted, just as were my visits to – South Park Cemetery, the National Library and Jorasankho. Nonetheless, the Ghostbuster in me entered it with all the more determination, to discover if the rumours were indeed unsubstantiated in the case of the Putul Bari as well.

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AHIRITOLA PUTUL BARI – ADVAYA TALES®

The ‘Doll’s House’ is owned by the Natta Family or Natta Jatra Company, pioneers of most successful Jatra (Bengali Folk Theatre) of West Bengal. Founded since the 19th century Barishal, Bangladesh, it started off as extremely popular with the poor literal rural audience. Yet, it was in the 60s and 70s that their plays became extremely popular.

A lavish palace which was once witness to carnivals and festivities, Putul Bari is home to a 150 year old art form, currently in its fifth generation.  The mere resonation of the once oozing grandeur of Putul Bari is what I believe to be the charm of the place. This of course has been blatantly misunderstood as paranormal and the human addiction to drama is all that substantiates the rumours. Currently in a dilapidated state and barely maintained, it is still declared a Heritage site which attracts a lot of visitors on the basis of its so-called “hauntings”.

THE SHOBHA BAZAR RAJBARI

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SHOBHA BAZAR RAJBARI – ADVAYA TALES®

Shobha Bazar Rajbari, North Calcutta, known for its grandeur in celebrating the Durga Puja every year, was built by Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb matching much to his taste for pomp and grandeur. He started the Durga Puja in 1757, to set a fashion and status symbol amongst the elite class of society. The number of Englishmen visiting the Family Durga Puja, particularly made it a prestigious affair, or so it seemed…In truth – religious scruples fell by the wayside, as Englishmen attending the dance-parties dined on beef and ham and drank till heart’s content.

The Shobhabazar Durga Puja is split into two houses opposite to each other, but both the Pujas continue with their characteristic distinctions. The deity Kartik is dressed in breaches worn by Englishmen and as in most Bengali pujas Ganesh wears the traditional “dhuti’. But at Shobhabazar he is an idol worshipped by Marwari ancestors, while the Goddess Durga wears jewellery designed by the Mughals or the Nawabs.  In earlier days Famous “Kabials” (religious Singers) like Anthony Firingee (Hensmen Anthony) and Bhola Moira contested for attention with the nautch girls here.

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ADVAYA TALES®

For the past 250 years, generations of traditional confectioners from Bardhaman come down to the here and make lip-smacking delicacies. To my dismay the heritage mansion and its legacy is in a sad state of non-maintenance, though the interiors speaks volumes about the grandeur and sophistication of people visiting and staying back in history.

KUMORTULI

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KUMORTULI – ADVAYA TALES®

A journey through the narrow lanes of North Calcutta, led to a place commonly known as the potter’s area, where every year the Goddess Durga begins her journey to every part of the world for the annual Durga Puja. It started around 300 years back when the potters migrated from a place called Krishnanagar.

Kumortuli is situated on the banks of Bagbazar Ghat, where the clay from the nearing river can be procured easily for the potters that stay there weeks before the Durga Puja festival, to create idols for the Zamindars at their thakurdalans (demarcated areas for religious festivals inside the zamindar’s residence). During the partition of Bengal in 1905, highly skilled artisans from Bangladesh from Dhaka, Birkampur, Faridpur – made their way to Kumartuli. Post-Independence the abolishment of Zamindari System made the sarbojonin, or community puja, popular. This is when the Goddess moved out of the cramped thakurdalans to the wide pandals on the roads.

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KUMORTULI – ADVAYA TALES®

CONTEMPLATING CALCUTTA

Sitting on the banks of the Hooghly near the Shobha Bazar Jetty in the afternoon, with a soothing breeze to give me respite from the sweltering heat, I remember being lost in a pleasant yet melancholic contemplation which summarized my explorations. I couldn’t help but wonder how today with changing times the glorious history of this place has been misinterpreted and ignored, I deeply pondered on how a place which was once the most celebrated places that burned so brightly, now stood with its glory so dimmed. A strange sense of similarity which struck me in all the places I visited was how history had become history, with glorious years of the past written off as hauntings of the present.

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A HAPPY BEGINNING

I do fondly recall that my trip to the “city of Joy” ended on a joyous note, as I transitioned from history explorer to girlishly wandering into the crowded streets of Gariahat market & Dakshinapan Shopping Centre, any tourist or locals’ delight for shopping, where many handicraft and textiles emporiums of government can also be seen. A huge number of jewellery (imitation or precious) shops are also located here. With some last minute tidbit shopping and hogging – my Calcutta escapade came to an end, as a journey worth cherishing and remembering, at this place which I’ll keep wishing to come back to in order to explore and discover more of its forgotten history.

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