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Calcutta Diary

While other metros are in the throes of a gastronomic tsunami, Calcutta scores in street food.

Calcutta Diary
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
Calcutta Diary
A socially savvy new Left

One of the most distinctive and endearing features of elections in Bengal used to be pol­itical graffiti. Wit and satire poured over the walls in the form of limericks, cartoons and caricature. It was acerbic wit and caustic creativity at its sharpest. Party workers painted walls and drew posters on old newspapers. Loudspeakers belted out parodies and spoofs. But, not any more—flex-printed giant hoardings have replaced artwork stuck to palm leaf billboards on bamboo polls. Party anthems are now more sophisticated—composed and sung by professional artists, they play at traffic junctions and go viral on you-tube.

Although late to join the party, social media has changed the paradigm of electioneering in Bengal and become the new tool of buzz creation. Memes of politicians have pushed over cartoons. Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter are the virtual platforms for political sparring in place of the traditional para-r rock adda. Of course, the advantage of social media is that it lends itself to crowdsourcing, not to mention that it is dynamic. With elections held in five or six phases stretched over nearly two months, it helps to maintain momentum and currency by continuously updating messages. It also allows for timely course corrections.

On a side note, it was interesting to note how the Left got off to a better start here than TMC, for whom Twitter was mainly a weapon against the Delhi-based English media.

Tiffin time

The Boxwallahs took with them not only the industries of Bengal but also Calcutta’s finest restaurants. While other metros are in the throes of a gastronomic tsunami, Calcutta scores in street food. A lunch-time walk thr­ough any of the major office areas (it is still too British to have a downtown) of Dalhousie, High Court, Camac Street and Theatre Road can be a virtual feast. First, there is the traditional Bengali lunch from maach-bhaat (fish curry rice) to omelettes, khichudi and ghugni. Then come the fish fry, mutton chops and cutlets. In winters the favourite is “ishtew”—an Anglo-Indian derivative of the Irish stew. Chowmien and biriyani have long been a steady presence along with the patented kathi rolls. But now, frontiers are being crossed with litti-chokha, chole bhature, dosa and pav bhaji.

The high-end culinary explosion in other cities happened by migration of white-collared populations. Expats have added to the food scene there. With economic power shifting to those cities—people have greater exposure to the global trends. Calcutta, on other hand, had the influx of workers from the neighbouring states in eastern India, who have added variety at the base of the pyramid, as it were.

Bengali “Kaal-char Shal-char”

May 8th: Tagore’s birth anniversary celebrations have assumed the proportion of a festival under the current political regime. Earlier, a few weeks before Satyajit Ray’s birth anniversary, it upturned the name of the road adjoining his apartment to ‘Satyajit Ray Dharani’, lighting up pole kiosks with Ray’s movie posters.

Yet, music and cinema are two fields where Bengal has made a comeback. Digital technology has brought down the cost of movie-making (the total outlay on a Bengali film is less than the budget of an ‘item number’ in Bollywood) and multiplexes have made distribution easy, allowing talented young directors to experiment with more contemporary themes.

Meanwhile, with Vishwabharati’s monopoly on Tagore’s works gone, there is more experimentation with his songs—something that would have got legends like the late Debabrata Biswas into trouble. With that has come the rise of  Bangla Rock and Jeeban Mukhi gaan (New Age songs) breaking the century-old stranglehold of cliched Rabindrasangeet renditions.

Modern Bengali cinema, however, steers clear of politics. That still remains the domain of theatre. And the Group Theatre movement is still alive though not kicking. Penury ­ensures it is surviving purely on passion and commitment and shoestring budgets. Bengali theatre is unable to attract the kind of well-heeled ­audience that alternative theatre gets in Bombay, Bangalore, and Delhi. The Academy of Fine Arts, near Victoria Memorial—that long preceded Prithvi and NCPA in Mumbai or Kamani and IHC in Delhi—is in poor shape. The state of other public auditoriums is as pathetic and the single-screen halls are languishing.

The theatre fraternity had openly come out in support of Poriborton. Now they are a disillusioned lot. In future, the plays of Badal Sircar will probably be watched more in translations outside Bengal than in Calcutta.

Last Month

Calcutta Biriyani—arguably the best—is a favourite of political ­workers. Last month, there was a long queue at the Royal India Hotel in Chitpore, as they were packing biriyani boxes for local party offices.

Sandip Ghose is a roving marketing maven who lives on trivia, current affairs and Scotch, and tweets at

E-mail your diarist: sandip.ghose [AT] gmail [DOT] com


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