Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, in his book The Midnight Palace (1994) explores the Calcutta of 1932 through a dark mystery. In it, he is able to pick up on the emotions of the city then, and says, “It is as if the people who inhabit the streets, inspired by some mysterious wisdom, realise that the true history of Calcutta has always been written in the invisible tales of its spirits and unspoken curses.”
Now Kolkata, is an accumulation of vast spaces of history, people, and the intermixing of cultures. From pre-independence to modern India, it has been both a witness and a host to transitions in power, nature, and traditions. How the Kolkata of now came to be from the Calcutta of then remains a process to marvel at - and we can only do that through an account of its history.
What better way to delve into this bright and heavy history, than through pictures?
At the Adi Ganga river, this is how natives bathed in the 1880s.
When the British Crown was passed to Queen Victoria from the East India Company, a ceremony took place where a crowd gathered to witness it.
Circa 1856, several Hindu Bengali women were captured on camera in the Alipur prison, which is now in West Bengal.
Nearing the 1900s, women had begun going to school. At the Bramho Balika Shikshalaya, a group of girls were photographed studying in a classroom in 1897.
While coolies these days often carry luggage on carts, in the 1920s, Bengali coolies carried a makeshift basket in which they carried people’s belongings.
In 1957, a bus service from Calcutta to London was established. The route followed Belgium, Yugoslvia, and North-West India. Also referred to as the Hippie Route, it was the longest bus route in the world, and was shut in 1976.
The Grand Hotel’s Prince Nightclub facilitated dance and entertainment performances where English women would dress up in costumes.
As seen even today in several rural areas, women travel vast distances to collect water and woodfire for their respective households. Here, we see Bengali girls and women walking through flooded routes to collect drinking water in 1959.
The markets in Calcutta have always been bustling. In 1962, photographer Allen Ginsberg captured a bird merchant at a marketplace, carrying various birds in cages attached to a beam balancing on his shoulder.
1964 saw a shortage of food, and residents of Calcutta would line up in front of offices to procure ration cards, that would enable them to buy small amount of grains at government-controlled ‘fair price’ shops.
Many in Calcutta would not receive drinking water in their homes, forcing them to line up at sidewalks to be able to drink from hand-pumps. The scene was captured in 1965.
in 1970, a family of pavement dwellers was captured resting in a makeshift shelter structure, made with tarpaulin, rags, and dry leaves resting on cardboad boxes.
In 1971, many families travelled across borders of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and the neighbouring Indian states. Many would seek shelter wherever in possible, including concrete pipes.
Images sourced from Old Indian Photos and Kolkata’s Illusion.
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