The City Reminiscent Of The Past In The Present

The City Reminiscent Of The Past In The Present
Thakur Bari complex in Pathuriaghata, north Kolkata, Photo Credit: Karam Puri

The more Kolkata changes, the more it remains the same. In this extract from Roli Books' "Calcutta, then/ Kolkata Now", get lost in affectionate description of this most urbane of Indian cities.

Indrajit Hazra
December 11 , 2018
05 Min Read

Kolkata defies change. This is not to say that over the decades, especially over the 2000s–2010s, Kolkata has not changed. It is simply a city that is defiant to change even as it changes one stretch at a time. It has changed both physically and mentally. The flyovers that continue to sprout like the branches of a giant banyan tree eating into the old façades of rajbaris in north Kolkata may be an eyesore for old-timers. But even in a city where shops close for extended and undefineable lunch breaks, the existence of time is being slowly acknowledged—in dribbles, in data plans, in the opening and closing times of bars and the countless restaurants and eateries, and in the ‘one-way traffic’ timings that seem Tropical Prussian for visitors.

Advertising makes the world go round. Billboards and posters proclaim the virtues of films, medicines, holiday destinations, even cut-price revolution. The profusion of claims suggests there’s a grain of truth in the saying that ‘There is a great deal of advertising that is much better than the product.’ Advertising is business as well as creativity. Satyajit Ray started his career as an accounts executive in a Calcutta advertising agency. Revealingly, most of the advertisements are in Bengali. They aim at the mass market rather than the English-speaking minority at the top.

Nostalgia is one weapon in its quiver that Kolkata uses to make way for change. Many a Kolkatan and past visitor look back misty-eyed and gin-drenched at a time when the city was a livewire nightlife destination. Park Street and adjoining areas were the venues of fab cabaret shows in the same decade that poets like Shakti Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Malay Roy Choudhury and Sunil Gangopadhyay were burning up another floor with their words.

The poet Dom Moraes once described as not having seen a better floorshow artiste than ‘Luscious Lola’, aka Lauren Swinton. Swinton lived in Creek Lane, less than ten minutes from Sealdah Station—a couple of houses away from where Mother Teresa first started her Missionaries of Charity order in a house that still has ‘Gomes’s Retreat 1904’ on the marble plaque outside.

And there was Pam Crain. Singer Usha Uthup—Usha Iyer, when she performed regularly at the legendary Trincas on Park Street—recalled, “The year was 1969. My first trip to Calcutta, my first walk down Park Street.

The Bengali Babu—to use the term in its correct sense of a gentleman of wealth and rank—cultivated eccentricity as diligently as any Regency buck in England or veteran member of Bertie Wooster’s Drones Club. And so it was quite in order for the Mullicks of Shovabazar to ask the Chevalier Federico Peliti of the eponymous Italian restaurant to import a zebra to be harnessed to their customised carriage.

In Calcutta, I heard there was this beautiful blonde with the most amazing figure, unbelievable style and more than anything else, a great voice. My first memory of Pam Crain was her coming down the steps of Blue Fox in her devastating hairstyle and black and silver shimmering gown.… Then I heard her sing. It just blew me away. I was in complete jaw-dropping awe of her.” Singing at the Mocambo restaurant off Park Street since it opened in 1956, and then with the band Louis Banks Brotherhood, at the Blue Fox, Crain’s name is still synonymous with this vanished, gregarious Calcutta.

This aspect to Kolkata life may not have been a complete ‘Western’ import enjoyed by only the city’s much visible babalog. The Bengali aesthetic for furti—fun and frolic, entertainment shimmering into middlebrow culture—has its antecedents in jatra and babu theatre, as well as in mujras, of which Kolkata has a rich, under-appreciated history. It was the advent of a moral police brigade in the ’80s under the Communist government—where matters ‘Western’ were frowned upon as stringently, if not more, than the ‘Hindu right’ in other parts of India decades later—that Calcutta’s firefly lights were all-too-swiftly snuffed out.

Influenced by contemporary European architecture of the time, Kolkata’s 19th-century mansions now stand, partially in decay, as a testament of a past city and its lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. The Octagon House (above) on Central Avenue, characterised by its eight-sided plan and verandas circling around a centre, was based on an architectural style briefly popular in North America during the 1850s. Two such houses exist in Kolkata.

Miss Shefali, aka Arati Das, was probably—in Usha Uthup’s description—‘the last of the Mohicans’. The youngest of three sisters of a refugee family from East Pakistan, she shot to fame as the first Bengali cabaret dancer in the legendary Lido Room at Firpo’s Hotel on Chowringhee. In the late-’60s, she even managed to catch the eye of the relatively dowdy Satyajit Ray, who cast her as herself in an iconic cabaret scene in the 1971 film, Seemabaddha (Company Limited). By the time she stopped performing at the Oberoi Grand in the ’80s, I was still in high school and had missed this last real Calcutta shimmer.

In the summer of 2018, while dipping into that dimly lit cove drinking passage called Ming’s Room next to today’s Trincas, I overhear a member of a group of middle-aged men tell the others, “Let’s go and catch some cabree.” By the goings-on in Trincas that evening—a lady in a rather raucous sari singing Hindi film songs sings way too loud into the microphone to the accompaniment of a bored band and smattered audience—I doubted they were going to catch any cabaret as understood by an earlier generation of Kolkatans.

The Chinese New Year—between 21 January and 20 February—at the original Chinatown, Tiretti Bazar in central Kolkata. Despite the exodus of Kolkata’s Chinese people, both Chinatowns—including Tangra in the east—celebrate it, with the non-Chinese, furiously. Statutory warning: Much has to do with Kolkata gorging on Chinese food the year-round.

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