7 reasons to include Kolkata in your photography bucket list

Photography in Kolkata is an enigma for many in America and the West. First-time visitors to India typically choose Delhi and the Golden Triangle, to admire fine Mughal and Rajput monuments. Business folks and urban revelers congregate in Mumbai and Bangalore, whilst adventure lovers and hipsters soak up the sun (and certain yummies) in Goa, or venture out to the Himalayas in the north. The spiritual soul or yogi may land up in Varanasi and Rishikesh, but few would deliberately include a stop in Kolkata.

Yet, none of these cities have shaped the West as profoundly as pivotal events in Kolkata’s history have.

The story unfolds something like this. Kolkata was prime real estate in the British Empire and headquarters of the East India Company, whose shares made many an Englishman rich in addition to funding England’s wars against the French, Dutch, and Portuguese for naval trade supremacy. In 1757, Robert Clive, the Company’s top boss, bribed Mir Jafer, the Commander General of Siraj-ud-Daulah (Bengal’s then Nawab) and deviously defeated a 50,000-strong Bengal-French army with a mere 3,500 men. In under 12 hours.

Decisively winning the Battle of Plassey, Clive promptly appointed Jafar as the new Nawab and assumed all tax collection rights for the supremely fertile Bengal delta, fed by the mighty Brahmaputra and the divine Ganges. Clive’s and the Company Financiers’ uncontrollable greed to deepen their own pockets first, led to massive tax increases and an utter collapse of Bengal’s economy — an unmitigated financial crisis for the Company. The powers that be in London, pumped in vast amounts to “bail out” the East India Company in Kolkata, deeming it to be “too big to fail.” These funds were in turn replenished by taxing American colonies, irate as it is under British occupancy. Fuel led to fire and protests ensued, leading up to the Boston Tea Party events of 1773, ultimately culminating in America’s independence from Britain in 1776. By the way, “too big to fail” and “bailout” sound familiar?

Anyway, back to Kolkata. Today, for most people, there is little money to make here as recent ruling governments have systematically wiped out manufacturing and other industries. The alarming number of hawkers and street establishments combined with an outrageous volume of vehicular traffic make this an unfriendly city for pedestrians. The city can shut down on a whim. Nobel laureate Gurudev Tagore’s second cousin’s 70th death anniversary, local favorite Mohun Bagan’s faltering soccer form, or one union leader’s debate loss to another over tea are all perfectly valid reasons to call a city-wide strike.

“Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi. You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.” — Vir Sanghvi (columnist, print and television journalist)

Kolkata may not be for everyone but it has a place for everybody. I haven’t spent much time here other than the annual trips to meet my family. I was born there at the peak of the Communist rule, and unlike the besotted Bengali’s unflinching loyalty to anything Kolkata, my love affair with this city found its early roots as a teenager through Desmond Doig’s sketches. These roots have now firmed up as I’ve seen Kolkata through a photographer’s lens.

And here are seven reasons, why you should too.

1. It’s age-old markets stimulate your core senses.

Kolkata’s wholesale markets run much of eastern India’s trade, attracting migrant workers in large numbers from neighboring states and a much porous border shared with Bangladesh. A 24/7 influx of goods from all over India — poultry, fruits, vegetables, fish, metalware, flowers and more — are sold in ancient ways involving human chains of laborers, manual weighing stations, open bartering, and negotiations. These markets, some over 200 years old, are a live movie broadcasting how trade happened back in the day. One senses a reluctance to enter the 21st century (despite mobile phones being common), yet these markets run and support the largest trade engine in eastern India, sustaining some 20 million people. For street photographers, the action is relentless; there are little details everywhere, mini plots occurring by the minute and a distinctive light filtered through centuries of crumbling infrastructure.

© Ayash Basu. Kolay Market is the largest wholesale market in the city providing livelihood to over 10,000 migrant workers. Activity begins as early as 3am and gets chaotic by the hour, yet massive volume of goods get unloaded, organized, negotiated and sold every single day.
© Shamik Ganguly. The Sunday market at Galiff Street draws pet lovers and sellers of exotic fishes, birds, dogs, rabbits, goat and numerous varieties of plants.

2. The maze of North Kolkata is an architectural delight.

Time stands still here, shrouded under two centuries of dust and putrefaction. Shyambazar, Baghbazar, Shobhabazar, and Kumartuli once showed off mansions of Bengal’s rich and elite. Walking through these neighborhoods is a visual masterclass in the architectural trends of 19th century Bengal. Unlike the Victorian style of Central Kolkata built by the British in red brick and sandstone, North Kolkata parades classical Doric and neo-classical styles, fluted Corinthian columns, and murals in lime and plaster. The crumbling facades — many still inhabited — conceal the borderline hauteur of yesteryear’s Bengali aristocrat (vividly depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar) and offer a visual treat not seen perhaps in any corner of India. These streets delight architecture and history buffs, providing countless abstracts, facade details, and interplays of light and shadow. North Kolkata is a mandatory case study on urban decay and exploration, much like Cuba and other communist clusters around the world.

© Ayash Basu. Corinthian columns showcase strong Greco Roman influences, which even the English adopted. Motifs in wrought iron railings remind viewers of the French presence in Bengal back in the day, as Kolkata was a prize many armies wanted to secure with the British eventually succeeding.
© Pritam Dutta. Tree roots growing through residential walls are commonly seen in such old houses. Many trees have religious significance and are left untouched.
© Pritam Dutta. Many aristocratic Bengali families have moved out of Kolkata to greener pastures. But some remain amidst derelict infrastructure, as ancestral money runs out and the aging population unable to keep up with today’s lifestyle.

3. Kolkata’s festivals are celebrations of epic proportions.

There is a Bengali saying “Baro maashe tero parbon,” which translates to thirteen festivals in twelve months. More than religion, festivals in Kolkata are a celebration of its cultural diversity, creativity, culinary delights, music, and any set of beliefs that one can lose themselves in. Festivals transcend this city to an overdose of gossip (“adda”), food, shopping and bonding with friends and family. There is something on every month, some more religious than others, but each with a strong human element and a story to share.

© Niladri Adhikary. Women and sometimes even children, lie face down on Kolkata’s sweltering streets each April and wriggle their bodies for long distances to seek protection against diseases and obstacles. Dondi, a ritual of rigor and hardship sees worshippers get purified by fire, presenting interesting frames and moments at every step.
© Niladri Adhikary. Gajan is more of a rural festival, celebrating the union of Shiva and Dharma with their female consorts. Tantric rituals of penance are heavily incorporated, stimulating senses in more ways than one.
© Niladri Adhikary. Kolkata’s Holi, while not quite the experience of Vrindavan has its own draw for quality over quantity. What you lack in the large numbers of north Indian cities, is made up for by the personal touch full of camaraderie in the streets.
© Niladri Adhikary. Devotees flock to collect grains of rice during Annakut, a festival to celebrate the harvest that coincides around Diwali. Young and old women gather to collect grain, symbolic of holy blessings.

4. Life along the Hooghly shows you a different world.

The river served as a major artery for jute and textile trade back in the day and the lifeblood of the East India Company, and the Mughal Empire before them. Today, these banks exude a sense of the tranquil days, ancient temples, rituals and a visual archive of four hundred years of British rule. The banks are a mini river civilization of sorts, preserving a fraction of the past. Every morning starts with prayers, bathing, commerce and ceremonies of birth and death. Banyan and peepul trees dot the length of the ghats supporting micro-communities, small temples, and markets. Under the belly of the towering Howrah bridge is the Mullick Ghat flower market; no amount of description can truly explain what this place is unless one goes there. Just north of the flower market borders Posta, a market trading in spices, garlic, salts, oils, and sugar. An early morning photo walk along the Hooghly is extremely rewarding for any visual artist as is evident from the growing number of local and visiting photographers from around the world.

© Sandy Gennrich. The river Hooghly has shaped Kolkata’s evolution for centuries and fosters a local ecosystem along its banks. The imposing Howrah bridge is the busiest cantilever bridge in the world and transports 1 million vehicles and 1.5 million pedestrians daily.
© Shamik Ganguly. The flower market on the banks of the Hooghly is a riot of colors and human interest. Over a hundred years old and the largest flower market in Asia, this place attracts a lot of photographers in its own right.
© Ayash Basu. Sadhus or religious men, often transplants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh live modestly on alms and donations along the river bank in makeshift quarters.
© Ayash Basu. Worshippers of Lord Hanuman, pehlwans (body builders) keep the ancient sport of kushti (Indian wrestling) alive right along the river.

5. Chitpur road and its centuries-old lifestyle.

This is the oldest road in Kolkata — some say 400 years old — and is home to a varied range of businesses that take you back as long ago. The Bengali almanac (panjika), traditional eateries, road theaters (jatra), music shops, cotton merchants, tailors, block printers, metal workers, carpenters, potters, jewelers, perfumeries, sex trade, and pretty much any old school commerce that can be imagined, will be found here. It is also a validation of the ethnic diversity in Kolkata, as different cultures hold sway over specific sections of Chitpur — Muslims, Marwaris, Sikhs and Bengalis all have their distinct buildings, street decor, odor, eateries and heritage well reflected in their surroundings. Chitpur Road is a magnet for street and documentary photographers with many global photography grants and projects getting commissioned in recent years.

© Shamik Ganguly. A tailor at work in his little shop in Chitpur; hand-stitched clothes are pretty common and cheaper than factory made garments. Tailoring as a profession is passed down through generations in many parts of India, particularly in old neighborhoods like Chitpur.
© Ayash Basu. Chitpur houses one of the largest metal works stretches in the city. Buckets, utensils, frames, grills and anything involving metal rods, sheets and plates are worked upon here.

6. It’s eclectic street art scene.

Kolkata is the intellectual, cultural and creative capital of India, colloquially at least. Much of present-day Bollywood’s early genesis traces back to Bengal — Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tapan Sinha, and Ritwik Ghatak to name a few — the most eminent being Oscar-winning Satyajit Ray. Same with music — Sachin and Rahul Dev Burman, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hemant Mukherjee, and the legendary Kishore Kumar. So, the land of Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose having creative clout ought to be a trivial matter. Yet Kolkata has not been a hotbed for street art until recently, primarily because much of its walls were a canvas for political advertising. A new genre of urban artists is changing that throughout the city with murals, abstracts, caricatures, quotes, and satirical commentaries, which are particularly inviting to street art and street photography aficionados.

© Pritam Dutta. A street scene painted on a wall. There are some traits that are more typical in the north versus south of Kolkata, this being more traditional in the lanes of Kumartuli.
© Pritam Dutta. Colors, patterns and textures abound on many side streets, they just need to be seen and some street activity will invariably present an interesting moment for shutterbugs.
© Pritam Dutta. Hand-pulled rickshaws are still a thing in Kolkata, seen against the backdrop of some contemporary street graffiti on a College Street compound wall.

7. It’s a gateway to the splendor of the eastern Himalayas.

Mountain and landscape lovers find a healthy share of hiking and photography options in the Garwhal and Kumaon ranges of the north. The magnificence of the eastern Himalayas is only recently unwrapping itself in a meaningful way, i.e., beyond the locals and hardcore adventurers who’ve traversed these parts for decades. Sandakphu for instance, is probably one of the best hikes in all of India, offering views to four of the world’s tallest peaks. There is Everest itself in all its resplendent glory, with deputies Lhotse and Makalu (fourth and fifth tallest in the world) and on the other side is the majestic Kanchenjunga (third highest in the world). In addition, marvel at the Annapurna ranges spanning Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Kolkata acts as an effective gateway to this region, ideal for nature and landscape photographers, but also for bird and wildlife lovers.

© Niladri Adhikary. The Kanchenjunga range along with Makalu and Pandim peaks seen from Tonglu.
© Niladri Adhikary. At Sandakphu, the highest peak in Bengal.