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Calcutta roads

Arterial roads in cities have peculiar ways of acquiring distinct identities. The character of each main road, the lifestyle of its residents, their occupations, their social habits, the architecture of their houses and shops, their cultural tastes (even their mannerisms and ways of speaking) – all these shape every road in different ways.

The three roads that criss-cross the city of Calcutta (Bagbazar, Theatre Road, and Rashbehari Avenue) from the east to the west still retain the distinct signatures from the times when they were born – while also accommodating the changes that are taking place now. A tradition of collective memory has reinforced the continuity of such distinctiveness – which is usually reduced in the minds of Calcutta citizens into three stereotypes:

(i) Bagbazar, as representing the legacy of Bengali Hindu aristocracy, their middle class descendants and orthodox living style of north Calcutta, as well as the birth of the Bengali theatre; (ii) Theatre Road (renamed as Shakespeare Sarani), in the centre of Calcutta, regarded as an Anglicized part of the city – a descendant of the White Town of the early colonial era, when it was carved out by the British bureaucrats and European traders as their exclusive domain. The road still remains alienated from the Bengali socio-cultural mainstream psyche. It is identified in the Bengali public mind today with the cosmopolitan elite, who have replaced the earlier colonial elite, with their new corporate business house offices in multi-storied buildings; (iii) Rashbehari Avenue, on the contrary, continues to be symptomatic of a Bengali middle class living style that reconciles its traditional cultural tastes with those of modern cosmopolitan requirements – the foundations of which were laid by the Bengali residents (lawyers, college teachers, among others) who started settling here back in the early decades of the 20th century.

The three roads that criss-cross the city of Calcutta from the east to the west still retain the distinct signatures from the times when they were born.

The separate identity of each road is captured in the popular sayings and beliefs. One humorous rhyme in early 19th century Calcutta describes Bagbazar as `ganjar adda’ (centre of hemp smoking) – thanks to the peculiar whim of a local grandee Shibchandra Mukhopadhyay who, in his palatial ancestral house, set up a hemp-smoking club. The floor was carpeted with tobacco leaves and the walls were made from hemp leaves! Similarly, Theatre Road was known among the indigenous populace as `Purana Nautchghar-ka-rasta’ (meaning ‘old road of dance-drama performances’), since it was associated in their minds with the entertainments of the British inhabitants who built a hall called the Chowringhee Theatre in 1818, but which was destroyed in a fire in 1839.

Rashbehari Avenue began its journey with a rather disreputable identity. In the early 20th century, the municipal authorities dug an underground sewerage system in the surrounding fields to carry human waste to be disposed of into the Hooghly river. The road which gradually emerged on its surface, was used to be known for many years as Main Sewer Road, both in official records and popular usage, even after respectable middle class Bengali professionals had built houses there. It was under their pressure that this malodorous association was obliterated with the renaming of the road after a well-known Bengali advocate.

But behind such singularly distinct main roads, there are streets, lanes, and by-lanes, where one can come across denizens who may not fit into the socio-cultural model that dominates the thoroughfares in the front. They are the laboring classes who manually serve the civic requirements of the urban municipalities, as well as the daily needs of the upper and middle class citizens. Behind every main road therefore, we find slums or ‘bustees’, built by these laboring classes in fallow lands. The less fortunate live on pavements – setting up temporary shacks every night, after coming back from work. It is this underbelly of the urban system which really keeps Calcutta’s roads going.

Featured image credit: Rashbehari Avenue – Kolkata, 2011, by Biswarup Ganguly. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Eleanor

    This is an wonderful description! Lovely insight!

  2. Prasun Chatterjee

    Where would these roads lead us? There are stories, incidents, events and markers of time which characterize the author’s amazing insights into the history of Kolkata/Calcutta. The book takes us on a fascinating journey; it leads us through the ever changing nature of the city and its neighbourhoods.

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