Rich with photographs, Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now is a lovely juxtaposition of the old and the new.
Once it swept to power in Bengal in the late 70s, the Left Front first hit around the markets and companies with a sledgehammer in the cash-strapped state. And once the mayhem was over and loads of companies shut shops and factories downed shutters, the Red Brigade coined an interesting line: There is life in Calcutta.
It jelled very well in Kolkata, where walls were painted with a two word slogan that meant dissent: Cholbe Na that translates into “It Wont Work” in Bengali.
But the other slogan, There is life in Calcutta, stuck around. No one actually knew what it meant, but everyone happily went along. A seasoned editor, known for his Monte Cristo cigars and Blue Mountain Coffee, even told the Far Eastern Economic Review that Calcutta was like Paris and he was happy not to talk in Hindi. In the eastern Indian metropolis, even deaths of roadside beggars in the dead of the night by a killer called Stoneman was considered life. In many ways, Calcutta, which eventually turned into Kolkata, was defying predictions and inspiring generations.
Lowly clerks in government offices were writing plays, boisterous students took on state governments for not offering hostel facilities, filmmakers worked on low budgets but ensured their work got sardine-packed halls and the nuns of Missionaries of Charity worked silently without their biggest support, Mother Teresa. Jack Preger, the genial doctor from Manchester, continued to work on the pavements with the poorest of the poor. And across the great Hooghly river, a frail Shyam Bandhopadhyay, fondly called Shyam Pagla by his friends, researched on beggars. No wonder, Mrinal Sen called the city the El Dorado of the East, the late Satyajit Ray called Calcutta his Mother.
And one day, probably a year and a half back, the genial publisher, Pramod Kapoor, landed in the city with Indrajit “Indy” Hazra and Sunanda K Dutta-Ray and a young camerawoman, Anshika Varma, to plan a coffee table book with an interesting reverse printing mode. One would talk about the present, one would talk about the past. Kapoor teamed up with Dutta-Ray, Hazra with Varma. If the news had trickled to the Maidan, home to numerous soccer clubs, someone would have said Habib-Akbar and Prasanta-Prasun have returned to regale the crowds with their magical dribbling.
Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now is a brilliant effort that explains why people living in the eastern city continue to inspire generations past and future. It was once a purely English city as Kapoor and Dutta-Ray explained in the tome, an unique city with an unique character, even though lack of business and lack of jobs scrapped its lustre as one of India’s premier cities.
But Kolkata continues to inspire, and it will for decades to come because there will be fresh images, fresh ideas and fresh ways to revolt. It will continue to be a photographers delight, choices ranging from walking through ancient homes of joint families to the sculptors of Kumartuli to the bank run by sex workers of Sonagachi.
Rich with photographs, Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now is a lovely juxtaposition of the old and the new, the then and the now, helping many to refresh their blurred memories about the rise and fall of the Left Front, the heady and bloody days of Naxalite movement, the days of reigning superstar Uttam Kumar, the actor with charms, and of course, the ubiquitous Durga Puja idols. The book, surprisingly, also has images of Jules and Jean Tick, the two brothers who shipped their planes from faraway Europe to become the first aviators to fly in India, barely seven years after the historic flight of the Wright Brothers. Everything in Kolkata, as the writers explained and Varma shot, is very, very, eternal to the city, an unique character of modern India’s first capital.
What did I miss, my favourite East Bengal? Why did Indy drop the club? Is it because he is a die hard Mohun Bagan fan? We will surely have an argument on the Facebook where we are friends.