A Street Awakes

A Street Awakes

12 March 2007 Last Updated at 5:30 am
Jaideep Mazumdar 

The tick of the clock on Calcutta's Park Street is back amid music, laughter and prawn cocktails

Ebb And Tide

Decline Rise


Foodies, shoppers, aesthetes and lovers of the good life are once again flocking to Calcutta's Park Street. One classy kilometre it used to be, back in the '50s and '60s. Great eateries, bars, India's best parties, all set amid a fine stretch of urban architecture. Then, mirroring the whole city's fate, its lifeblood slowly ebbed away. It hung on limply, living on memories and leftovers. But now, all of a sudden, there's a new spring. Over 25 fine restaurants and pubs, over a hundred saree shops, exclusive retail outlets and even the odd sex shop betoken this revival. Its historic structures, such as the venerable Asiatic Society, Victorian mansions and the atmospheric Park Street Cemetery, are also getting a much-needed face lift.

In over 12 decades of its existence, Park Street has encapsulated, suffered and celebrated all the ups and downs in Calcutta's fortunes. When Calcutta was the second city of the (British) Empire and a prime centre for education, industry and commerce, Park Street was a bustling, throbbing place, the cosmopolitan heart of a vibrant city. When the city became, in Rajiv Gandhi's infamous words, a "dying" metropolis, Park Street declined too, losing its customers and its classy tone. Now, as the ruling CPI(M) aggressively woos capital, and the city rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes, Park Street too has been reborn—albeit in a new avatar. "Park Street is perhaps the best exemplifier of Calcutta's economic revival," says S.S. Kothari, proprietor of Bar-B-Q, one of the prominent restaurants on the street. "Not only have our customers increased, but we get a wider variety of customers now."

The boulevard's heydays were the four decades till the 1960s. "Those were the glorious years when the well-heeled from all over, even as far away as Lahore, would come to Calcutta, and Park Street in particular, for entertainment. This city was then the industrial, commercial, cultural and social capital of India. The best year-end revelries in the entire subcontinent used to take place here," recalls Jit Paul, patriarch of the Apeejay Surrendra group that owns the Park Hotel and a few other properties on Park Street.

a tattoo theme party at Sourav’s

Park Street was where classy evening entertainment was born in India. "We had the first and best cabarets in the entire subcontinent. Crooners used to entertain diners at Mocambo, Trincas and Magnolia," said S.K. Khullar, owner of Amber restaurant and the president of the Hotel & Restaurant Association of Eastern India. Food critic Nondon Bagchi recalls that Usha Uthup and Biddu Appaya debuted at Trincas, and that Marie Samson (now Wilson), voted Australia's best jazz vocalist, once performed at a Park Street restaurant. VJ Luke Kenny's mother was a dancer at one of the restaurants. "At Blue Fox, Louis Banks, Pam Crain and Braz Gonsalves set evenings on fire. Crain debuted at Mocambo, which had a fancy glass dance floor with lights underneath," recalls Bagchi. Her signature song, Fire Down Below, became an international hit. Magnolia and Moulin Rouge were other popular nightspots, the latter boasting sizzling cabarets with Can-Can dancers.

Deepak Puri, one of the owners of Trincas, another legendary Park Street restaurant, also lives on Park Street, and has fond memories of those days when the road used to be washed every morning and gas lamps lit every evening. "The afternoons were for the youngsters flocking to Park Street, giving the place a carefree and exuberant air. Evenings were more stately with gleaming imported cars gliding down the street, carrying elegant and suave men and women to the restaurants. It was all so glorious," reminisces Puri. That was a time when Calcutta itself was a genteel and urbane city, strongly rooted in Raj traditions.

But Puri also recalls the decline caused by large-scale migration of Anglo-Indians, Parsis and other minority communities, the Naxalite violence of the '70s, militant trade unionism, the flight of capital, crippling power cuts and the all-pervasive fear that accompanied all the cataclysmic changes in the life of the city. Park Street's establishments reflected the decline starkly. "Since businesses ran away, so did our regular, affluent customers," says Puri.

Eateries that had once closed down are reopening

"It was a magnificent place until the '60s. Then came the dark period. Calcutta and Park Street lost a lot of what made them truly cosmopolitan—the Parsi, Armenian, Jewish and Anglo-Indian communities," agrees writer and Calcutta lover Bachi Karkaria. Mocambo, Park Street's first soda fountain and the hangout of Allied soldiers during World War II, closed down due to labour troubles. As did Moulin Rouge and Blue Fox.

The revival of Park Street, and Calcutta, began in 2003-04. "In the period from the late 1960s to 2004, just four new restaurants came up in the city. But over the past three years, 86 new restaurants have come up, many of them on Park Street," says Khullar. Customers, the restaurateurs say, are also spending much more. "There has been a sea change in business volumes over the past three years or so," says Puri.

Eagerly awaited is the rebirth of the legendary continental restaurant, Sky Room, after 15 long years with its shutters down. Eminent writer Mani Shankar Mukherjee recalls a time when companies headquartered in Calcutta (and indeed, most of them were, then) refused to hold their board meetings on a Tuesday since the Sky Room used to be closed that day! The new Sky Room promises a more modern look, but continues to dish out the fare that made it famous. Like the prawn cocktails that Indira Gandhi used to have flown to Delhi.

Even the middle-aged are game for an ice cream on Park Street

But, reflecting on the changes that have swept the city, the demographic and social profile of diners will be very different. "Our customers were the executives of big companies and the landed gentry. They formed a nice potpourri of communities and cultures. Today, we get businessmen, traders and a fair sprinkling of marketing executives. Nearly all are Marwaris or Bengalis," says Trincas' Puri. Adds Kothari: "The customers are casual in attire and attitude as compared to our patrons of the past. That's how Calcutta has also changed from the 1960s into a more egalitarian place."

Yet some things have not changed about this street. "Park Street remains the place where you can relax completely, be yourself and party till the small hours, without anyone bothering you," says Bagchi. "No rowdyism and no moral policing like other Indian cities. Show me one place like Someplace Else (the pub at Park Hotel) anywhere in the country that has ten bands performing throughout the week. It's the Mecca for musicians from around the country." Exults Bachi Karkaria, "Park Street is what makes Calcutta a living city. It's iconic. I can't think of any street in any other city that's so completely about the good life." Like the newly rejuvenated Calcutta, Park Street is embracing change without selling its soul.

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