One of the four great urban centres of India, Kolkata is, to its proud citizens, the equal of any city in the country in charm, variety and interest. As the showpiece capital of the British Raj, it was the greatest colonial city of the Orient, and descendants of the fortune-seekers who flocked from across the globe to participate in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trading boom remain conspicuous in its cosmopolitan blend of communities. Despite this, there has been a rise in Bengali nationalism over the last twenty years, and in 2001 the city was officially renamed as Kolkata (its precolonial Bengali name). This is not universally embraced – leading English-language paper The Telegraph continues to use Calcutta, as do many of its citizens.
Since Indian Independence, mass migrations of dispossessed refugees caused by twentieth-century upheavals within the Subcontinent have tested the city’s infrastructure to the limit. The resultant suffering – and the work of Mother Teresa in drawing attention to its most helpless victims – has given Kolkata a reputation for poverty that sells the city short. Although it undoubtedly faces huge challenges, they are no greater than in other cities of comparable size in India and around the world. In fact, though Kolkata’s mighty Victorian buildings stand peeling and decaying, and its central avenues are choked by traffic, the city exudes a warmth and buoyancy that leaves few visitors unmoved. Kolkata is expanding rapidly, with shopping malls, hip cafés and restaurants, and satellite towns springing up all around the city. The downside of all this development, however, partly resulting from the huge increase in traffic, is some of the worst air pollution in the world, with one of the most chaotic road systems in the country.
In terms of the city’s cultural life, Kolkata’s Bengalis exude a pride in their artistic heritage and like to see themselves as the intelligentsia of India. The city is home to a multitude of galleries and huge Indian classical music festivals, with a thriving Bengali-language theatre scene and a cinematic tradition brought world renown by director Satyajit Ray. It also has an enviable literary tradition, hosting a world-famous book fair and producing a string of award-winning authors.
Visitors still experience Kolkata first and foremost as a colonial city with the chief bastion of imperialism at its heart – the Writers’ Building, the seat of state government – little changed over the decades. Grand edifices in a profusion of styles litter the old city and several venerable Raj institutions continue to survive, such as the racecourse, the reverence for cricket and several exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Kolkata’s crumbling, weather-beaten buildings and slightly anarchic streets can create an intimidating first impression. With time and patience, though, this huge metropolis unravels its secrets, providing a fascinating conglomerate of styles and influences. The River Hooghly, spanned by the remarkable cantilever Howrah Bridge, is not all that prominent in the life of the city. Instead its heart is the green expanse of the Maidan, which attracts locals from all walks of life for recreation, sports, exhibitions and political rallies. At its southern end stands the white marble Victoria Memorial, and close by rise the tall Gothic spires of St Paul’s Cathedral. Next to the busy New Market area looms the eclectic Indian Museum housing one of the largest collections in Asia, ranging from natural history to art and archeology. Further north, the district centred on BBD Bagh is filled with reminders of the heyday of the East India Company, dominated by the bulk of the Writers’ Building, built in 1780 to replace the original structure that housed the clerks or “writers” of the East India Company; nearby stand St Andrew’s Kirk and the pillared immensity of the GPO. The city’s old Chinatown, a short walk north of BBD Bagh, is a sad reminder of a once flourishing community, while on the edge of the frenetic, labyrinthine markets of Barabazaar, synagogues and the Armenian church are remnants of a once thriving cosmopolitan trade. The renowned temple of Kalighat is away to the south. Across the river, south of the marvellous Howrah railway station, lies the tranquillity of the Botanical Gardens.