Kolkata City Travel Guide
Kolkata – known as Calcutta till 1991 - is the Capital City of West Bengal State in India. Positioned at 22°33′N 88°20′E coordinates , it is located in the world’s largest River Delta – the ‘Ganges Delta’- also known as the ‘Sunderbans Delta’, the ‘Bengalla Delta’ and the ‘Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta’ which stretches between River Hooghly on the West and River Meghna on the East. River ‘Padma’ – (main tributary of the Himalayan River Ganges); River Jamuna (main tributary of River Brahmaputra – a trans-boundary river originating in Tibet); River Meghna and a host of other smaller rivers zigzag through the Ganges Delta which merge and flow into the Bay of Bengal Sea. The Ganges Delta is one of the most fertile areas of the world of which, Kolkata is a central part. Kolkata is one of the four prime Seaports of the Ganges Delta – the others being Haldia in India and Mongla and Chittagong in Bangladesh.
The city of Kolkata rests on the east bank of River Hooghly as India’s third most populous metropolitan area and the world’s thirteenth most populous urban area with 14.2 million people residing in its urban core and suburbs.
Before the establishment of the city of Calcutta – the Anglicized name of ‘Kolkata’, three villages existed in the same area – Kalikata, Govindapur and Sutanuti. Kolkata derives its name from the Kalikata village – which literally means ‘the land of Goddess Kali’. Post the British Imperial Period in 1947, India embarked upon the process of renaming its cities which had to be approved by the Central Government. And thus Calcutta was renamed Kolkata in 2001.
Kolkata, having been gripped by the British politics and culture for centuries and having also been a seat and hub of Indian culture and art and religion, is a mammoth sized entity of a city that influenced the rest of the country towards political, educational, religious, artistic and general lifestyle reforms which is evident in its history and visible in its vibrant culture and myriad traditions.
Kolkata is a City of Palaces - owing to the numerous palatial mansions dotting the Kolkata cityscape – most constructed during the British colonial era in Bengal when Kolkata was made the Capital of British India. Their architecture is influenced by and emanates a mix of Neo-classical, neo-Gothic, Baroque, Islamic, Oriental and predominantly European (British, French and Portuguese) schools of design. Apart from the colossal and opulent constructions, Kolkata is home to some structural and technological marvels such as the world’s busiest and the 6th longest suspension type balanced Cantilever Bridge – the Howrah Bridge; India’s longest Cable-stayed bridge – the Vidyasagar Setu; a multispan steel bridge – Vivekananda Setu and the Nivedita Setu – another cable-stayed bridge – all on one single river – Hooghly which spines through the city of Kolkata. Nothing short of being glorified, the Howrah Bridge was made the symbol of Kolkata.
Kolkata is also home to or has been a stepping stone for Nobel Prize winning Exponents such as Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (Literature, 1913); Sir Ronald Ross (Medicine, 1902); C. V. Raman (Physics, 1930); Mother Teresa ( Peace, 1979); Amartya Sen (Economics, 1998); the ‘Oscar for Lifetime achievement’ awardee – Satyajit Ray and multi-time Grammy Winner – Pandit Ravi Shankar. Apart from these, there are scrolls of world- renowned and generations of statesmen, freedom fighters, social reformers, poets, scientists, historians, writers, orators, philosophers, linguists, sportsmen, fine artists, theatre artistes, film artistes, musicians, dancers, photographers, magicians, film makers and businessmen.
Call it a passion or obsession or maybe they are just wired that way but the gregarious Bengalis are all about boisterous and deep conversations, soul-stirring music, writing at the drop of a hat and food – both experimenting and eating. Visit the Coffee House at College Street in Kolkata and you can see what I mean. You will be amazed by the ‘Adda’ culture (having long-drawn and hearty conversations over hot cuppa tea) that’s in your face when you enter the Coffee House. Food is central to the Bengalis because of which the popular Bengali saying – ‘machhe y bhate bangali’ (meaning fish and rice make a Bengali) has come into existence. One may not know a Bengali or not know where their sweets come from but the sweets made by the Bengalis are relished by domestic and foreign sweet-toothies all over. Dairy-products based Bengali sweet-meats – called ‘Mishti’ like the ‘roshogollo’ (rasgulla); ‘chomchom’; ‘malpoa’; ‘kalojam’; ‘ras malai’ and ‘pitha’ are world famous and need no introduction. ‘Rezala’ stands testimony of the delicious Bengali Muslim cuisine and ‘Chop and cutlet’ is a common Anglo-Indian cuisine that is common in most Bengali households among others.
Owing to its rich cultural heritage and diversity, Kolkata is also a city of festivals. Among the other Festivals, The ‘Durga Puja’ (also known as the Durgotsava); the ‘Kali Puja’ (also known as the Shyama Puja) are festivals that celebrated in Kolkata on a grand scale with the involvement and movement of the whole city and the city is decorated and lit up in colourful lights. During autumn when these festivals are celebrated the whole city of Kolkata emanates the fragrance of the ‘Shiuli’ flowers (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) which are used to decorate the several temples and deities of the city. Other festivals such as the Rath Yatra, Saraswati Puja, Dolyatra, Poila Baisakh, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha and Christmas are also big festivals of Kolkata. Drama, theatre and Music being of paramount importance to the Bengalis, The Dover Lane Music Festival; Kolkata International Film Festival; National Theatre Festival; National Children’s Theatre Festival; Kolkata International Music Festival; Calcutta Book Fair are central events of Kolkata which cause a huge influx of participants and visitors from other parts of the country and from abroad as well. ‘Belur Math’ - the Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, a 40-acre campus, celebrates the diversity of Indian religions and is visited by millions every year especially to catch the 4-am ‘Mangal Aarti’ at the Math.
In all this action-packed scenario, quietly going about their work of nurturing and caring for the dying and the destitute are the sisters and volunteers of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at the ‘Kalighat Home for the Dying’ (also known as ‘Kalighat Nirmal Hriday’) – a hospice for the unwanted, the homeless, the lepers, the crippled and the blind with the objective of providing a dignified life (of what’s left of it) and a dignified death to those who are breathing their last. Kolkata city is proud and grateful for homing the Missionaries of Charity.
The local transport of Kolkata is a wonderful mix of old and new which lends a distinctly Bengal ambience like no other city in the country. South Asia’s first Underground Metro Railway in Kolkata, the yellow taxis, yellow and blue buses, minibuses, and auto rickshaws ply alongside hundreds of man-pulled rickshaws and century old Trams and ferries.
Whether it’s for performing religious ceremonies, religious rituals, for leisure or for embarking the ferries, the Ghats of Kolkata are of paramount importance to the Bengalis. Cruising in a ferry on River Hooghly, one can visit the Ghats of Kolkata – and see the vibrant and typically Bengali life on the Ghats. The Ghats are huge pavilions attached to stairways that descend to the river and on the Ghats you will find river-side flea-markets selling flowers, fruits, foods, drinks and small handicrafts. The Ghats are also where the ferry rides commence. The famous Ghats of Kolkata are Princep, Babughat, Outram. Some of the others being the Annapurna Ghat, the Armenian Ghat, and so on. Ferries are an integral part of Bengalis’ lives even if they don’t travel on them daily. They would romanticize them and write or rhyme about the ferry ride on River Hooghly. Ferry-ride figures on itineraries of all who visit Kolkata. The best time to visit the Ghats or to take a leisurely ride in a ferry on the river is either at break of dawn or at dusk. The high point of the ferry ride would be the part when it is on the centre on the river from where you can view the whole 180 degrees of the Howrah Bridge. It’s an awesome sight and overwhelming feeling and don’t forget to click pictures. They are worth a thousand words and more!
Shopping is a great delight in Kolkata with a big variety of handicrafts and textiles to choose from. Bengal cotton sarees are a big hit among domestic travellers and the handicrafts such as Sandalwood carvings, Dhokra Crafts, Leather crafts; Pottery, Cotton Weaves, Clay Dolls, Kantha Embroidery, Conch Shell Art, Sholapith Crafts, Stone Carvings, Wood Carvings, Jute Crafts, Ceramic Crafts, Scroll Paintings, Cane and Bamboo Crafts and Paper Mache have an immense international presence and market. The stretches between Salt Lake City to Esplanade; from Howrah to Gariya; and from Ballygunj to Dum Dum; specifically, Shakespeare Sarani, Russel Street and Camac Street are uptown shopping areas of Kolkata with both national and international brands for sale here. If its books you exclusively seek then College Street is the place for you with its big cluster of bookshops. The Hogg market, also known as the new market, is where one buys flowers, fabric and fruits among a host of others. It is an open-air market which is populated with numerous vendors and buyers and makes for an interesting sight to watch and a great place to spend time soaking up the city.
‘Chowringhee’ – Kolkata’s business district and a shopper’s paradise deserves a special mention in the cityscape of Kolkata. This locality of Kolkata is home to the open parkland called the ‘Maidan’; the British citadel – Fort William; the British memorial building – Victoria Memorial; world’s second largest planetarium – Birla Planetarium; India’s largest museum – Indian Museum; the Raj Bhavan; the Town Hall etc.
‘Nandan’ – the government sponsored West Bengal Film Centre and culture hub of Kolkata was set up to feel the pulse of the art and the culture-scape of the State and to also screen, among the regulars, certain off-beat films. Bengalis love to spend time here and would drag you too when you visit them. Nandan is also referred as the culture capital of India. Kolkata is also home to a dozen Art Galleries which exhibit some of the most sought after art in the world.
Bengalis have a voracious appetite for reading which must explain the world’s largest Non-Trade Book Fair which is held in Kolkata since 1976 – the sales of which exceeds millions each year. The fair starts at the end of January and closes in the first week of February. On the first day of the Fair you can see West Bengal’s intellectuals and literati showing up.
Asia’s largest Stadium - Yuva Bharati Krirangan (also known as the Salt Lake Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium) and the Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium (India’s largest cricket stadium) are the biggest crowd pullers with sports-fans visiting from all over the world.
Almost every building in Kolkata is a Heritage building built in Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Oriental, and Indo-Islamic Architecture which can be seen on the Victoria Memorial, Fort William, National Library, Marble Palace, St. John’s Church, General Post Office, Writer’s Building, Shahid Minar, Raj Bhavan, Asiatic Society, Shovabazar Rajbari and Jorasanko Thakurbari.
Bengalis are passionate about music and choose this medium to express their daily lifestyle-emotions as well as spiritual emotions. The vast open lands, the long, gushing meandering rivers, the dense forests which are home to myriad beautiful birds and animals all inspire the local rural bards into lyrical and musical compositions.
Sanskrit Chants dominated influenced the earliest music in Bengal which over time evolved into ‘Gitagovindam’ by Jayadeva under the influence of Vishnu Poetry. The Middle Ages saw the hindu and Islamic music trends merge under the patronage of the ‘Baro-bhuyans’ - Bengali warrior chiefs and landlords and the ‘Nawabs’ – much like the ‘Subedar’ who is a provincial Governor or a Viceroy - of the Mughal Empire.
The cultural and historical legacy of the ancient times of West Bengal is represented by their folk songs of rural Bengal. Known for their melody, simplicity, yet philosophical lyrics, Bengali folks songs can easily take you into a pleasurable trance. Baul, Kirtan, Bhatiyali and Sari are four distinctly different styles of Bengali Music with compositions that are unique to each style.
Typical Bengali folk music is played with bamboo flutes, one stringed lyre (ektara which is carved out of a gourd and is attached to a bamboo and goatskin), two stringed lyre (dotara) and percussion instruments like the ‘dhal and khol’, and small-sized cymbals – ‘khartal’ and ‘manjira’. Bengali folk music such as the ‘Baul Sangeet’ is performed by a mystic group of singers who comprise both syncretic religious sect as well as traditional musicians. This group predominantly comprises Sufi Muslims and Vaishnava Hindus and they are identified by their distinctly different apparel and musical instruments. The Baul Sangeet is a kind of a folk song which has been influenced by the Hindu Bhakthi Movements as well as the Sufi music – one of the promoters being Kabir – the Punjabi mystic poet and Saint. The sects like ‘Shahebdhoni’ and ‘Bolahadi’ also use music to preach mysticism. Fakir Lalon Shah – 18th Century philosopher poet of Bangladesh is heralded as the greatest of all Bauls.
The Baul tradition of music has been listed among the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2005. Baul music is known to have inspired the poetry of the Bengali Nobel Laureate in Literature Rabindranath Tagore also known as ‘Gurudev’, and his music – ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ as well. Rabindra Sangeet is referred to as the Cultural Treasure of Bengal and Bangladesh and has paramount influence on Bengali culture.
Rabindra Sangeet is classified into four sub-genres:
(i) Puja Porjai – Devotional Songs
(ii) Prem Porjai – Love Songs
(iii) Bichitra Porjai – Assortment of Songs
(iv) Swadesh Porjai – Potriotic Songs
Some of the popular singers of Rabindra Sangeet are Amiya Tagore, Papia Sarwar, Sanjeeda Khatun, Banani Ghosh, Asha Bhosle, Zahidur Rahim, Chanchal Khan, Kadri Kibria, Srabani Sen, Kalim Sharafi, Debabrata Biswas, Kishore Kumar, Kavitha Krishnamurthy and Lily Islam.
The ‘Kirtans’ are devotional songs that are sung in praise and worship of God Almighty. The mystical saint Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu popularized these Bengali devotionals.
The Boatmen of rural Bengal have richly contributed to the music portfolio of West Bengal. Being a sea-city and the economy majorly driven by sea-businesses, a big population of Bengalis was away at sea for prolonged periods of time. Music was a result of their solitude which reflects in some of their melancholic yet rhythmic compositions. ‘Sari Gaan’ is one such style that was created by the Boatmen in order to keep them occupied and entertained. Associated with boat races, the Sari folk songs are group songs sung in a rhythmic fashion by the oarsmen while rowing the boat which kind of provides a rhythm to which they vigorously but gracefully row the boats. These songs are full of energy and talk of various lifestyle themes of these boatmen. It helps them survive the otherwise dull and boring and tiring job of rowing boats endlessly for days on end.
Another folk dialect of Bengali music that was created by the boatmen of the Brahmaputra River is Bhatiyali Music. These compositions have wonderful philosophical lyrics and pleasant melodies and reflect the lives and lifestyles of the boatmen and are sung as they row their boats slowly downstream – usually at the end of the day. These compositions are known to have originated in the Mymensingh and Sylhet Districts of Bengal (which currently are in Bangladesh).
Similar musical contribution has been pooled in by the coachmen who drove cow drawn carts and created a new genre of Bengali folk music called the ‘Bhawaiya’.
Depicting the common lives and woes of these coachmen – Bhawaiya’s popularity spread rapidly to the rest of Bengal having originated at Rangpur, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri Districts of North Bengal. ‘Garial Bhai’ is a popular Bhawaiya song which is in vogue in rural Bengal even today having survived centuries.
Originating in Chapai Nawabgunj (northern region of present day Bangladesh) and popularized by the 5th largest city of West Bengal – Malda, is ‘Gambhira’ which is a type of song with distinctive rhythm and dance performed by two – personifying a man and his grandfather who discuss social issues in a musical manner. This type of song is known to have begun with the idea to create social awareness among the masses in an interesting way so as to keep the audience engaged as well as informed of the prevalent social issues.
‘Kabigaan’ is one style of Bengali music that demonstrates the sharp competitiveness and instant creativity of the Bengalis. To be able to compose lyrics and music from the scratch and sing it on the spot in response to a competitor in a Music Competition takes nothing short of a genius. And that is what Kabigaan is all about. In the rural areas of Bengal the folk poets decided to add some spice to their lives and added an edge to their own song-composing capabilities by setting a timeline to the composition. The fact that Kabigaan - an ancient musical art is still prevalent in West Bengal shows just how much the people enjoy and relish it that they kept it alive over Centuries of evolving histories.
Written and composed by the ‘Kobials’- the folk poets, this composition comprises verses spun around metaphorical riddles, teasers, questions and symbolic embellishments emoting romanticism, humour, wit and wisdom inspired by events in their daily lives – all on the spot in front of a live and eager audience. Rivals attack each other with unique lyrical masterpieces until such time that one of them concedes to the other. The Kabigaan folks have been an immense source of wisdom, pleasure, wit and entertainment for centuries.
The foundation for the intense repertoire of Bengali music in the 19th and 20th Centuries has also been laid by other poets and composers such as Atul Prasad Sen, Dwijendrala Ray, Rajanikanta Sen and Ramnidhi Gupta – also known as Nidhu Babu.
‘Nazrul Geethi’ which literally means the musical compositions of Kazi Nazrul Islam is also an integral part of Bengali Music. Kazi Nazrul – fondly called ‘Bidrohi Kobi’ was a 19th Century Bengali revolutionary, musician, poet who was titled the National Poet of Bangladesh. By virtue of being a revolutionary, his poetry majorly exudes revolutionary notions apart from philosophical, spiritual and romantic themes. Dhirendra Chandra Mitra, Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Adhir Bagchi, Suprova Sircar, Dr. Anjali Mukhopadhyay, Anup Ghoshal, Dhiren Bose, Purabi Dutta,Firoza Begum and Bangaladeshi singer Sohrab Hossain are the popular Nazrulgeethi singers.
Apart from the numerous short stories, novels, plays and essays Nazrul has penned, the songs and poetic works are:
1. Sanchita (1925 Collected poems).
2. Phanimanasa (The Cactus) - 1927, poems.
3. Chakrabak (The Flamingo) - 1929, poems.
4. Satbhai Champa (The Seven Brothers of Champa) – 1933, juvenile poems.
5. Nirjhar (Fountain) – 1939, poems.
6. Natun Chand (The New Moon) – 1939, poems.
7. Marubhaskar (The Sun in the Desert) – 1951, poems.
8. Sanchayan – 1955, collected poems.
9. Nazrul Islam: Islami Kobita – 1982, A Collection of Islamic Poems; Dhaka, Bangladesh: Islamic Foundation.
10. Agni Bina (The Fiery Flute) – 1992, poems.
11. Dolan Champa (name of a faintly fragrant monsoon flower) – 1923, poems and songs.
12. Bisher Banshi (The Poison Flute) – 1924, poems and songs.
13. Bhangar Gan (The Song of Destruction) – 1924, songs and poems.
14. Chhayanat (The Raga of Chhayanat) – 1925, poems and songs.
15. Chittanama (On Chittaranjan) – 1925, poems and songs.
16. Samyabadi (The Proclaimer of Equality) – 1926, poems and songs.
17. Puber Hawa (The Eastern Wind) – 1926, poems and songs.
18. Sarbahara (The Proletariat) – 1926, poems and songs.
19. Sindhu Hindol (The Undulation of the Sea) – 1927 poems and songs.
20. Jinjir (Chain) – 1928, poems and songs.
21. Pralaya Shikha (Doomsday Flame) – 1930 poems and songs.
22. Shesh Saogat (The Last Offerings) – 1958, poems and songs.
Developed during the 12th - 13th century is the devotional genre of Bengali Music - ‘Shyama Sangeet’ which is dedicated to Goddess Kali – the Goddess of Power who is known as ‘Shyama’. A common man identifies better with the Shyama Sangeet as it is relatively simpler to comprehend and learn and theme is more common-man-oriented.
A patron of Drupad Gharana of Music – Bahadur Shah established the ‘Vishnupur School of Music’ which derived its name from Vishnupur – a district in West Bengal. Incidentally, Vishnupur is home to several prominent musicians who were promoted by the feudal chiefs as they were very interested in Hindustani Classical Music. Till date, Vishnupur is a name to reckon with in the Indian Classical Music World.
Bengali Nationalist Music was introduced by the pro-independence stalwarts such as Dwijendralal Ray, Atul Prasad Sen and Rajanikantha Sen. A Bengali playwright, poet and musician –also known as D. L. Ray, Dwinjendralal Ray composed over 500 Bengali songs called the ‘‘Dwijendrageeti’ which were predominantly patriotic – ‘Dhana Dhanya Pushpa Bhara’ and ‘Bangla Amar Janani Amar’ being two of his most popular songs.
Centred on patriotism, devotion and love are songs called ‘Atulprasadi’ – the compositions of the Bengali composer, lyricist and singer - Atul Prasad Sen. ‘Atulprasadi’ is unique in the sense that through this genre, Atul Prasad introduced a new musical style called ‘Thumri’ to Bengali music. ‘Thumri’ is a light classical genre of classical music of North India which originated in Lucknow and Varanasi in the 19th Century in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The texts of Thumri are of a romantic theme inspired by Lord Krishna and his amorous pranks. ‘Shringar Rasa’ – the emotion of romantic love (which also bears a mention in Sage Bharata’s 200 B.C. ancient Indian treatise on performing arts – the ‘Natya Shastra’ – as one of the emotions that governs human lives) is the essence of Thumri. The lyrics of Thumri are in ‘Poorbi’ and ‘Brij Bhasha’ – the Hindi language dialects of Uttar Pradesh.
It is a short segment of a composition consisting of a ‘sthai’ and an ‘anthara’ and is usually sung at the conclusion of a music concert. Much like a climax in a film – a Thumri is used to drumroll a composition to a peak. Within this piece of composition, there are sub-sections which are completely musical and the instruments takeover to create a pure musical rapture. The ‘Taal’ (the beat of the score) of the Thumri can be ‘Dadra’ (8 counts), ‘Kaharva’ (8 counts, ‘Dipchandi’ (14 counts), ‘Jat’ (16 counts) and ‘Panjabi’ (16 counts). The ‘laggi’ sub-section of Thumri is when the percussionist – the Tabla player takes over and doubles and quadruples the speed – gradually accelerating to a furious climax – an equally audible and visual delight. A Thumri-ensemble comprises a vocalist, harmonium, tabla, tambura and a sarangi. The allied forms of Thumri are ‘Dadra’, ‘Kajri’, ‘Jhoolaa’, ‘Sawan’, ‘Hori’ and ‘Chaiti’. Begum Akhtar, Shobha Gurtu, Noor Jehan, Prabha Atre and Gauhar Jan are famous ‘Classical Thumri’ singers – Shobha being regarded as the Thumri queen. Pandit Channulal Mishra, Badi Motibai, Rasoolan Bai, Sidddheshwari Devi, and Girija Devi are famous artistes of ‘Purab Ang Thumri’ of the ‘Banaras Gharana’.
A Bengali composer-poet – Rajanikanta Sen is known for his devotional and patriotic compositions from the early 19th century.
The folk harvest festivals of West Bengal culminated the ‘Tushu’ songs sung in chariots racing across rice fields. This genre of folk music is named after the goddess of fertility – Tushu. The themes of Tushu songs include daily lives of farmers, their weddings, happiness, prosperity among others. Infact, such is the reach of this type of music in Bengal that political parties have adopted this genre into the propaganda of their political parties. Tushu music is majorly influenced by Hindu mythology and Sanskrit terminology.
Post Indian Independence from the British Raj, a new genre of Bengali Music took birth, termed as ‘Adhunik Sangeet’. It was a new wave of music which was majorly influenced by and catered to the contemporary Bengali youth, contemporary western music and Bengali cinema which gained a thumping popularity in the State as well abroad.
Some of the most gifted and accomplished Bengali classical musicians are Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Manas Chakraborty, Ustad Ayet Ali Khan, Ustad Abed Hossain Khan, Ustad Allauddin Khan and Sangeetacharya Tarapada Chakraborty.
The impact of the western influence on Bengali music resulted in the emergence of the Bengali Bands or Bengali Rock Bands in Bangla and Dhaka which used western music with Bengali language. These compositions usually spun around a common man’s life and were called ‘Jibonmukhi’. Even their band-names became westernized – Miles, Ark Warfaze, Nova, Obscure, Renaissance, Souls, Cryptic Fate, Chime, Insomnia of Kolkata to name a few.