I get very irritated with foreigners who come to Calcutta and immediately fall in love with the city. And it’s not only people from abroad, certain Indian cosmopolitan types, people from Delhi-Bombay-Bangalore, people who’ve never visited the city before, also come here and “become entranced with this place”—this, even before the fumes of the delivering jet-engines have completely evaporated from their clothes. “Oh!” They exclaim. “I just love this town!” When I hear this, I give them a look. “Oh, really? Pray, why do you love this town of which you’ve experienced almost nothing?” These falling-in-love types are only a little more annoying than the visitors who come in with their complain-guns blazing: “Oh my god, the pollution!”, “Oh my god, the chaotic traffic from the airport!”, “Oh my god, the decrepitude, the in-your-face poverty!” I also want to smack these idiots, but less than I do the ones that gush. Even though they have no license to start whining so quickly, the complainers I can sort of tolerate. For Calcutta is, after all, one of the Champion Urban Conglomerations of Complaint, and we do have a lot we can reasonably complain about.
Since my dispatches are going to be about Calcutta—or from the frame it creates—let me explain a bit so that the context becomes a bit clearer for this report and the ones that will follow.
We used to be a great city, ‘great’ in the manner of London, New York, or Amsterdam, but not ‘ancient’ like Rome, Istanbul, or Delhi. Calcutta was birthed only 300 odd years ago, in 1690, by a gang of English carpetbaggers who decided to set up camp on the bank of the Ganga (which they called the Ganges, while the locals called this particular stretch of the river the Hughli) around three small villages, one of which was called Kolikata. Whichever name you choose, Ganga/Ganges/Hughli, in these parts the river passes through land that slopes from west to east; unsurprisingly, in the monsoon the river floods eastward. So habitational common sense would have dictated that one set up shop on the west and left the eastern bank as a floodplain. But the English had come to trade in trouble and their logic was not civil but military. They set up their fort on the eastern side because it was much easier to defend: the river to the west, deltaic swamp to the south, marshes to the east, and thick jungle to the north, through which there ran a single narrow road that was easy to block. From whom were the English defending themselves? Everyone, from the armies of the Nawab of Bengal to the competing forces of the Dutch, the French, and the Portuguese. Even though the other Europeans had arrived much earlier, even though being on the wrong side of the river meant many deaths from malaria and typhoid, the English were the ones who eventually prevailed.
By 1757 the East India Company had control of Bengal; by 1800 they had control over large chunks of the Indian subcontinent, with Calcutta—now a full-fledged city—as the Company’s capital; after the failed Indian War of Independence in 1857, control shifted from the Company’s corporate hands to the British government; across this time, from 1800 to 1911, Calcutta was known as the ‘second city of the British Empire’. The city was the main hub of colonial exploitation in South Asia. It was often the first place outside Britain to receive the contradictory fruits of the Industrial Revolution, the science and the sweatshops, the profits and the pollution. For instance, the engineering for the tunnels of the London underground was apparently first developed while building the sewers of this tropical city. The second professional photographic studio in the world was set up in Calcutta, as was the second football club on the planet. Of course all this happened in the island of ‘white’ Calcutta that was surrounded by a sea of deprivation and disaster, famines, upturned agricultural practices, and social ruptures.
The Industrial Revolution, the wonders of the modern British cities and their great municipal advances of the nineteenth century, were all funded by the labor of extremely poor peasants and workers all over the world—the third or fourth class subjects of British colonial rule. In most places, Empire was a one-way street, the profits and the advantages moving from the colonies to the centre. In India, however, one phenomenon that bubbled up in the cosmopolitan cauldron of Calcutta was the growth of a wealthy and highly sophisticated second-class citizenry—the local merchants and landowners who had grown rich along with their British partners. The second and third generations of these wealthy families were exposed to the best of Enlightenment thought and education alongside a deep study of the subcontinent’s indigenous traditions and languages. This created what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance, with a huge flowering of literature and art, and of social and scientific enquiry. This Renaissance also meant the Bengali intelligentsia were exposed to radical thought and to revolutionary movements taking place elsewhere. In a few decades this lead to Calcutta and Bengal becoming the hotbed of different movements for Indian independence. By 1911, the British rulers felt the change of wind and moved the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi, hoping it would be a less turbulent place from which to rule. The political capital shifted to Delhi but Calcutta remained the cultural capital of India for another fifty years or so, till the mid-1960s.
People say it’s only after someone dies that you can finish the picture, finalize the map of their life. Calcutta is far from dead yet, though, over the last half-century, several people have predicted or declared its demise. The Calcutta in which I grew up was already on the wrong side of the river of history, the refugees were coming in, industries and money were going out, a culture of violence was being assiduously sowed by the different political parties, a sense of being wronged and deprived was being hard-wired into succeeding generations of the Bengali middle-class. By the late 1960s, Calcutta was labeled the planet’s worst example of urban poverty, an ongoing disaster of epic proportions. When the city’s intellectuals tried to unfurl the city’s glorious past for a visiting Gunther Grass he apparently snorted in disgust—what kind of obscene ivory towers do you live in, that you can quote love poetry and talk of T.S Eliot and Picasso while surrounded by this daily tragedy? Imagining that encounter, I want to smack both parties, the gushing local intellectuals trying to show off their sophistication and the pompous, complaining German who clearly understood nothing of what was going on.
A few years after that moment, Bengal and Calcutta began to be ruled by the Stalinist Communist Party of India (Marxist), aka the CPM. Leading a ‘Left Front’ government, these people electorally stayed in power for thirty-four long years before being ejected in 2011 by the Trinamool (TMC), a quasi-fascist party controlled by a combine of underclass thugs and small businessmen. The leader of the TMC, a fiery lower-middle-class woman called Mamata Banerjee, was very effective in organizing the ejection of the CPM but she has been an even worse disaster over the two years she has been in power. If, at its inception, Calcutta was a den of petty thieves who rapidly grew into crass, nouveau riche exploiters then it’s tempting to argue it is now returning to that state, that by filmic logic it will rewind further, splitting up into small villages before returning to some primordial swamp. It would be a neat image but it would be superficial and wrong—people, and cities, don’t work like that.
The story of how this freak of a colonial city lost its cultural primacy is one I will pick up again later. Suffice it to say that those of us now trying to make any kind of serious contemporary art in Calcutta are doing so in a culturally solarized city: the bits that were once prominent are now exactly the ones missing; what was happily in short supply—crassness, lust for money, glitter, amorality, and selfishness—now stands out in hard relief. One could look at this situation in despair, with a hopelessness and pessimism that would undercut any desire for creative work. Or one could imagine this situation as akin to a canvas that’s been painted over, not wiped completely clean, one where you can still see the traces of what was done before, but one on which there is suddenly the possibility of drawing something fresh and new.