The crumbling glories of Kolkata, "City of Palaces"
June 9, 2016 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Photographer Ritayan Mukherjee documents Kolkata's deteriorating historical mansions in the neighborhoods of Shovabazar, Bagbazar, and old Chitpur, once home to the Bengali economic and culture elite, and the stage for the city's intellectual renaissance of the 19th and early 20th century.
posted by drlith (12 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
19th century inequality is the best inequality.
posted by mikewebkist at 7:44 AM on June 9, 2016

I toured one of these mansions in Kolkata! The Marble Palace. No photos allowed, so I have nothing to share, but it was an interesting experience. I've visited a lot of house museums in the US and abroad, so I have some idea what a 19th century mansion restored for visitors is like. Sadly, not this. The Marble Palace was on its way to being a ruin, leaks in the ceiling and everything dusty and barely enough money to keep a few dim lights on. But then a lot of art and furniture was still in the house, not lost or sold, and there seemed to be some desire to keep it intact. I fear West Bengal doesn't have money to support its history though. Anyway the mansion was clearly once quite grand. Also the owner did not have the best taste, a lot of tacky artworks, it came across more like a Vegas casino than Hearst castle. Still a very beautiful and melancholy place to visit, and a visible monument to Bengali aspirations to global culture.

The Bengali Renaissance was a revelation to me, I had no idea until I visited Kolkata how connected 18th–19th century India was with Europe. We spent a fair amount of time learning about Tagore, the author / artist / architect polymath who was such a giant of Bengali culture in his time.

But what I remember most from our Kolkata visit was our guide, Samik Ray, who we spent two or three days with. He was giving us the intellectual tour of Kolkata, a welcome break from the tourist shopping we'd done in other cities. About halfway through our time together I realized he was saying something quite subtle about linguistics so I asked him his background and he very modestly told us he was a scholar, I think a professor / PhD, and with a lot of published articles and field experience with multiple languages. And here he was hauling us around the well-worn tourist trail of Kolkata.

The whole visit gave me a new-found respect for the intellectual history of Bengal. A nice correction for my American smugness about Western cultural superiority.
posted by Nelson at 7:46 AM on June 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'd love to get to Calcutta/Kolkata; those photos are amazing. And the text has some great anecdotes: "Ramtanu Dutta, the son of a successful businessman and probably one of the most exuberant Babus of the time, had his house cleaned twice a day with pure rose water that came from the city of Mirzapur." Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 9:08 AM on June 9, 2016

Stumbled across more of this photographer's work at his portfolio site, An Observant Owl.
posted by drlith at 9:29 AM on June 9, 2016

His site is definitely worth a visit.

posted by OmieWise at 10:35 AM on June 9, 2016

Previously on one of Calcutta's crumbling glories
posted by infini at 12:21 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

See also, Jalsaghar, my favorite of Satyajit Ray's (also a Calcutta-born Bengali) films. Also has one of the best opening credits sequences of all time.
posted by abrightersummerday at 1:10 PM on June 9, 2016

Nice previously, infini!
posted by drlith at 1:33 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The whole visit gave me a new-found respect for the intellectual history of Bengal

because its my birth city*

Its not just history (Rabindranath Tagore probably needs his own FPP, as do Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo, not to mention the painters, the musicians, the singers, and the playwrights - Cal's pride in its intelligentsia is kept alive in its teashops full of debating college students, and the Writer's building). Here are some Bengali intellectuals, and some names you might recognize on that rather long list include Bose (speakers, headphones), Amartya Sen, Ravi Shanker, Norah Jones, among others.

*I'm not ethnically Bengali but i note that Calcutta doesn't quibble.
posted by infini at 2:14 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

So if you're missing Calcutta: a lament for the chicken roll.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:22 AM on June 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hate you. Deeply.

*weeps inconsolably for a double egg single mutton, hold the kacha lonka please*
posted by infini at 10:17 AM on June 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kati Roll Company, for those in the vicinity. My cousin and I checked it out. Plus a Bengali friend from Long Island also took us there.
posted by infini at 10:21 AM on June 10, 2016

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