From Calcutta to Kolkata

Last Updated : 18 September 2010, 13:28 IST
Last Updated : 18 September 2010, 13:28 IST

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There is this thing about great cities of the modern world. People have varied, often sharply polarised, views about their greatness or the lack of it. While some wax eloquent on their very individual character, others find them despicably unsuitable for human habitation. But everybody will have their reasons, valid ones at that, to justify their views. There’s perhaps just one test for the greatness of city: most people would have opinions about it.
Take Kolkata, for instance. When youth Congress president Rahul Gandhi, on a recent visit to Kolkata, called it a “beautiful city,” he may or may not have been aware  of the irony that about a quarter of a century back, his father, the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, had called the same metropolis, a “dying” one.
In 25 years’ time, had the city swivelled around and turned gorgeous instead of taking a few more steps towards inexorable death?

Dying or surviving?
Rajiv Gandhi’s pronouncement predictably did not go down well with the city’s inhabitants at the time. But even as it threw “insulted” Kolkatans into a flurry of debate, some began to perceive an inkling of truth in the argument. They discerned the chinks in the armour of the erstwhile unique and intellectually fertile realm. “Kolkata had once throbbed with vitality. Even when it ceased to be the capital of British India in 1911, it continued to be the country’s commercial hub. Many European business houses preferred to remain here even after New Delhi gained primacy. But with the 1960s came the beginnings of degeneration in every field of activity, whether art, culture, heritage or business,” rues GM Kapur, state convener for the NGO, Intach, that is committed to the preservation of cultural heritage in the country.
Indeed, the glorious backlight of history throws much of Kolkata’s present into darkness. For the past is truly magnificent and difficult to live up to. Between the 19th and early 20th centuries, Calcutta (as it was then called and as it is still referred to by many not willing to ignore the city’s strong colonial link) was regarded as a city of strong artistic, literary, cultural and revolutionary heritage. It was the city of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel laureate, and that of modern scholarly thought in the country.
Tagore led a generation of intellectuals, earning Kolkata the epithet of India’s “cultural capital,”  a soubriquet that stuck to it through the 20th century, growing upon it much like the creepers that cling to the walls of some of its old houses displaying splendid architectural finesse. Whichever way you turned,  the city sparkled. It was where filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen breathed and worked.
It was where sahibs and their admirers, the Bengali sahib-wannabes, played polo and football and kowtowed in the exclusive clubs set up by the Europeans.
It was where musicians and dancers from the rest of India came in search of informed audiences at classical music conferences. It swung to the beats of Western music through the ‘60s and ‘70s as Park Street swayed and throbbed. It buzzed with talent, literary, musical, theatrical, artistic and rhetorical, in its major arteries and narrow alleys.
Like in many of its crumbling colonial mansions, decay had already begun to set in by the politically explosive ’60s and ’70s, culminating in the Left Front’s coming to power in 1977. “The erosion has led to colossal talent drain from Kolkata. Nothing seems to be happening here anymore. The action has shifted to other cities while ours stagnates,” says Kapur.
Contemporary dancer-choreographer Sudarshan Chakraborty of Sapphire Creations Dance Workshop feels that the city is burdened by the legacy of its icons. “Tagore and Uday Shankar have given birth to legions of followers who do not have it in them to take forward the bequest of the visionaries. As a result, the city’s population of performing artists — probably a bigger community than in any other metro  — remains, at best, mediocre,” he says.
Chakraborty laments the lack of a spirit of experiment and adventure among practitioners of dance in the city, attributing the attitude to Kolkata’s fixation with the past. The reluctance to move on is perhaps symptomatic of a deep-seated inertia in the collective  psyche. After all, innovation and experiment involve initiative and labour while the intellectuals would much rather engage in heated debates about everything in the world from Derrida to Diderot over endless cups of tea.
Which probably leads to Kolkatan’s predilection for striking work at the drop of a hat. Bandhs, tools acquired and honed to perfection by the Left Front in the 1960s and used against them by the Opposition, plague the city every once in a while.
Says Ashis Chakraborty, a software professional who has moved into Kolkata from Bangalore, “The city does not qualify as a business hub anymore. There is practically no infrastructure. People are always waiting for opportunities to stay away from work. It is quite disgusting. My stint here is beginning to appear like a punishment posting.”

A “viable” city of warm people
But for many, the city is where it’s at. Redoubtable pop singer Usha Uthup,
a Tamilian born and bred in Mumbai, married to a Keralite, who has
made Kolkata her home, the city embodies love. “Kolkata is all about its charming people. They are warm and caring. It is one place where you can get away with atrociously wrong pronunciation of words in the local language. Anywhere else people would laugh at you,” she twinkles.
Uthup ought to know, given that she has sung in 16 Indian languages and taken her music to different parts of the country. Chef Shaun Kenworthy who has his fingers in many a pie across the country, finds Kolkata, his chosen home, one of the most “viable” cities in India. “It has its own charm based on heritage and definitely understands food better than Delhi and Mumbai. It believes in value-for-money. A sound policy, I think,” says the restaurateur.
Mention traffic jams and the lack of infrastructure and Kenworthy is quick to retort, “But tell me, which major city in India is free from such troubles? On account of being smaller, I think Kolkata
is better off on those counts than other metros. And it can only improve from here.”
It is that hope that keeps many
others going. Chakravorty’s dance
outfit, which organises a biennial contemporary dance festival in the city called Interface, feels that he is better off mounting the show here. The 2010 episode of it has run into a seven-day event with an opening in Delhi and another in Kolkata, followed by four days of intense activity including seminars, discourses and performances.
“Venues are far more affordable here than in other metros. I don’t think we would have been able to organise an event like this within our limited means in another city,” he says. He feels committed to creating informed audiences for his genre and working towards the spread of dance education in future so that there is greater interest in contemporary forms of expression.
The conviction that the future is bound to be greener is also reflected in the words of industrialist Harshvardhan Neotia, “I am organically attached to Kolkata
and see it as a city that is growing phenomenally like the rest of India.
Along with its cultural heritage, there
is increasing economic activity. A lot
of young people are turning to business and there is considerable buoyancy
and animation in the atmosphere.”
Political upheavals do not seem to
bother Neotia. He asks pertinently,
“Which part of India is not experiencing them?’’
 Once a metro that put mind over matter, sincerity over hypocrisy and the pursuit of art over chasing filthy lucre, has Kolkata discovered a new charm in materialism then? Is this the “change” we’ve been looking for?
Filmmaker Aparna Sen begs to differ. She feels that it is the one metro that is unspoilt by senseless greed. “People are not as de-sensitised here as they are in Delhi and Mumbai. I find that they have a taste for art and meaningful cinema,” she maintains.
The opinions are clearly sharply divided. But didn’t we say at the outset that you could love or hate a great city, but could never ignore it? Didn’t we also say that this was what the “greatness” of a modern city was all about?

Published 18 September 2010, 13:28 IST

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