Calcutta Then Kolkata NowCalcutta Then/Kolkata Now

Roli Books’ Then and Now series features rare and never-before-seen vintage photographs from some of the finest collections across the world. Cities in India have lived over many centuries. The vibrant and ever-changing cultural landscape of these cities is featured in a series of photographs, showcasing the multifaceted, kaleidoscopic present. The timeless past lives amidst fast-paced, cutting-edge change. Modernity and tradition co-exist in the most endearing and surprising of places. The latest in our Then and Now series is Calcutta Then/Kolkata Now.

Calcutta Then

From the air, Calcutta often looked grander than on the ground. This picture shows Government House, which Lord Wellesley built in 1804 at a cost of two million rupees, modelling it on Lord Curzon’s family home. Across Old Court House Street is Esplanade Mansion. In the distance rears the massive white dome and semicircle of Corinthian pillars of the General Post Office on the western side of Dalhousie Square, which was opened to the public in 1868. The old fort stood here and a brass inlay on the floor outlines a part of its borders. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Calcutta is where it all began. The city symbolized India’s transformation from medievalism to modernity. The British created the framework. The prophets and pioneers who operated within it were Indian. Raja Rammohan Roy linked past and present. After him came the poets, patriots and politicians. They made banian, boxwallah, bhadralok and biplab – trader, company executive, gentleman and revolutionary – the four props of the new metropolitan culture that inspired Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s memorable comment, ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.’

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was arrested at 12.45 a.m. at Karadi near Dandi on 5 May 1930 for violating the Salt Law and imprisoned without trial. Although he was released unconditionally in January 1931, the eight months he spent in jail saw protests and processions all over India like the above demonstration. As news of these protests reached England, public opinion was deeply concerned about the threat to continued British rule. (Photo from Getty Images)

Much water has flown down the Hooghly since then. But the lifestyle that evolved in the city is still the hallmark of success throughout the country. Calcutta was modern India’s first capital, from 1772 to 1931. Announcing the shift to Delhi during his visit to Calcutta, King George V declared, ‘Calcutta must always remain the premier city of India. Its population, its importance as a commercial centre and great emporium of trade, its splendid historical traditions, all continue to invest Calcutta with a unique character which should preserve to it a pre-eminent position.’

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 customized carriage. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Kolkata Now

Crowdsourcing: Once in power, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee picked up where her predecessors in the Left Front had left off. A Trinamool Congress rally here chokes the arteries of Chowringhee in January 2014, as Banerjee kicks off her 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. Poribortan (change), which was her slogan leading up to the historic 2011 West Bengal state assembly elections, also found the deification of ‘Didi’, seen in this (above) multi-armed avatar idol of the chief minister at the same mega-rally. (Photo by Subhendu Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Love it, endure it, call it what you will, Kolkata is Life as ‘kháos’ as no other city is. Once a bubble, holding out the rest of Bengal – and, indeed, India – it is today a city that contains a multitude of cities: Kolkata, Calcutta, Kalkatta…. Its cosmopolitanism and liberal values are clichés because they are true, even as they stand witness to its past insurrections and present anomalies as much as to its genius to enjoy life – through pujo, mishti, Culture (always with a capital ‘C’), neighbourhood addas, fajlami (innocent naughtiness), football and fish. For visitors and those who once left the city, it can be a walk through time, a ride on a tram, or a constant return to the scene of old happy crimes on Park Street, in its colonial-style clubs, or its sprawling mansions that exist cheek-by-jowl with malls and multiplexes.

Jehovah is Witness: Along with the Magen David Synagogue (est. 1884), the Beth El Synagogue (est. 1856) remains one of the two standing synagogues in Kolkata. They bear witness to the city’s melting-pot culture – even as there remain some 24-odd Jews in the city, down from about 3,000 in the 1940s. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

For the Kolkatan, Kolkata Now keeps its own beat and time, where everyday struggles and quibbles unerringly give way to the ability to live Life – both peripatetic and sedentary, bustling and empty, noisy and gone-quiet, Technicolor and Noir – in the 21st-century mahanagar as it moves, always pretending to succumb, to the future.

Pandals make up for the pujo’s most competitive streak, with each community pujo vyin with each other to be the biggest, brightest, most talked about structure erected during the five days. (Photograph from Alamy)

About the Authors

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray’s first essay on Calcutta appeared in the Observer magazine, London, in October 1970. He was editor of the Statesman, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and editor in-residence at the East-West Centre, Honolulu, before moving to Singapore, where he spent more than a decade in journalistic research and academic positions. His books include Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, Bihar Shows the Way, and Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India.

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the novels The Burnt Forehead of Max Saul (2000), The Garden of Earthly Delights (2003), and The Bioscope Man (2008), the last two set in the Kolkata of different eras. His Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata was published in 2013. He was co-author of the Roli Indian edition of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies (2014). He writes the fortnightly column, ‘Red Herring’, in the Economic Times, and the weekly column, ‘Indi Pop’, in the Bengali daily Ei Samay. He lives in New Delhi.

About the Photo Editors

Born in the Jorasanko area, north Calcutta, and brought up in Banaras, Pramod Kapoor is the founder and publisher of Roli Books. A sepia aficionado, he has over the course of his illustrious career conceived and
produced award-winning books that have proven to be game changers in the publishing world. Be it the hit ‘Then & Now’ series and the seminal Made for Maharajas, or the internationally acclaimed New Delhi: The Making of a Capital. His first book as an author, Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography, is published in several international editions. In 2016, he was conferred with the prestigious Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour), the highest civil award in France, for his contribution towards producing books that have changed the landscape of Indian publishing.

Anshika Varma is an artist, editor and curator for lens-based media. Working in multi-media, her practice questions our sense of identity in an ever-changing world. She has curated for Contemporary Arts Week (2014), Obscura Photo (2016), Ffotogallery, Cardiff (2017), Angkor Photo Festival (2017), Goa Photo (2017) and Photo Kathmandu (2018). Her personal photographic works have been exhibited in India, Europe and the USA. She has also worked on book projects documenting social and cultural landscapes of the country.

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