Approaching Calcutta


Once great but now peripheral cities are good reminders of globalization’s fickleness. Calcutta is one of these, and the breathtaking completeness of its demotion would be hard to match. The British made Calcutta the capital of the Raj, then left it for Delhi; the 1947 Partition and 1971 Indo-Pakistani War overwhelmed it with East Bengali refugees; and more than three decades under a Communist government made it into an economic backwater.

Now, Calcutta is trying to claim a piece of India’s boom. You see it first on the journey from the airport to the city, which by one route passes through Rajarhat New Town, a peri-urban zone transformed by the construction of new apartment blocks, malls and international hotels. Feeding the demand are IT companies and their workers, as well as middle-class Calcuttans escaping the city’s congestion, and widely resented “NRIs” (Non-Resident Indians) who buy second homes in Rajarhat’s towers. But the boom is also impelled by land speculation, and the rise of new buildings vastly outpaces the infrastructure to support them: some residents complain that without power and water, their new apartments lack even the basic amenities of many slums. 1

The satellite cities on Calcutta’s outskirts began, ironically, as initiatives of the old Left Front government, which violently cleared slums and whole villages to pave the way for new developments, in a bid to compete with Bangalore and India’s other boom towns. “The buildings and offices began to rise in a spurt of brashness and colour,” the novelist Amit Chaudhuri recalls in a new memoir, “and with the swagger of liberalization — a swagger that, like a card sharp’s bravado, promises it can pull off any trick, and does. … But from 2008 onward, I began to feel on my airport journeys that the project had been hastily set aside: that new buildings were coming up, but the card sharp had made an exit.” 2

I made my first photographic exploration of Rajarhat New Town in 2011, returning in 2013 with a 4×5 view camera. Whatever swagger Calcutta may have had before the global recession of 2009 is now gone. There is a tentativeness, a sense that Calcutta remains on the fringes of globalization, that is part of the city’s appeal for me. Development proceeds unevenly, sporadically, and the old village and agricultural life continues in the spaces provisionally left for it. In many new residential zones, there are few demarcated construction sites, but, rather, pockets of construction — some active, some suspended — through which children, animals and passersby come and go. Planning unfolds here as if without a map. Urban studies scholar Ananya Roy calls this mode of development informality, which represents not a lack of planning but rather a different idiom of it. Informal processes, Roy argues, allow the state to claim whatever legal exceptions it wishes in the service of development, while opening the door to competing land claims that can bring development to a halt. 3 As it happens, the pervasive ambiguity gives a photographer room to negotiate a surprising degree of access and to find, with almost every encounter, a spirit of collaboration. (Exceptionally patient collaborators in the accompanying photographs include two teenagers and a water buffalo in Rajarhat, and several security guards.)

Two Boys, Water Buffalo, Rajarhat, 2013.
Two Boys, Water Buffalo, Rajarhat, 2013.

The counterpart to Calcutta’s peripheral development is the vast urban park at its center, the Maidan, home to sporting and other clubs dating to the British era, as well as a training center for the Mounted Police. At the gates one morning in 2012, I met a garrulous man on horseback, a retired officer who was delighted to talk with someone from Chicago, his daughter’s adopted home town, and who secured my permission to photograph inside. This part of the Maidan was lushly green and uncannily quiet, even private. Unhurried young cadets limbered up their horses, put their tack in order, waited. But only a few hundred yards away, at the Maidan’s northern edge, commuters arrived through clouds of exhaust and dust at one of the city’s busiest bus stops, many of them transferring to battered trams. Nearby, I found the tram workers’ building covered in posters depicting five 19th-century Chicagoans: August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and Louis Lingg. They were the Haymarket martyrs, symbols of the international Left, whose visages I would later see towering over a May Day rally on Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Curiously, the posters were printed not by a Leftist party but by the Trinamool Congress, whose leader, Mamata Banerjee, defeated the Communists in the previous year’s elections and now was appropriating the Left’s symbols.

Another figure with a historical connection to Chicago dominated the Maidan this past January, at a youth rally that marked the 150th birthday of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu monk. At the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions, Vivekananda launched his campaign to globalize the teachings of the Bengali mystic Sri Ramakrishna, whose likeness is everywhere in Calcutta. It was dusk by the time I arrived at the rally, and children were lining up to return to their school buses. By the stage, as speeches continued, I made a portrait of one of the organizers. I thanked him, and he handed me a card with a photograph of Vivekananda on one side and a quotation on the other: “Take away my weakness, take away my unmanliness, and make me a man! … On our work depends the coming of the India of the future.”

If Vivekananda’s words now serve a masculine nationalist project, his (notably androgynous) teacher Ramakrishna belonged to a tradition of “self-ruination” — as Leela Gandhi calls it in a forthcoming book — with both anti-colonial and anti-nationalist overtones. Ramakrishna’s discipline of abnegation embraced inconsequentiality as a measure of spiritual health. 4 Could the persistence of that tradition explain Calcutta’s serenity and poise in the face of dereliction? Might it even clarify the politics of Banerjee, now chief minister of West Bengal, whose frugal and unpredictable style mirrors the state’s halting, “informal” approach to urban planning?

On one of my last forays in Calcutta, I visited the potters’ neighborhood of Kumartuli, where artisans in a dense warren of studios manufacture clay idols for Hindu festivals. Even here, economic neoliberalism is at work. The highly competitive, business-savvy potters manufacture wares for export and have learned the advantages of commodifying their caste identity. A Norwegian anthropologist who has studied the district calls it a “hub of modernity and its younger sibling, globalization.” 5 And yet, to all appearances, Kumartuli is one of the most traditional corners of the city and the least susceptible to change — one of the Seven Wonders of Calcutta, according to the Times of India. Appearances are deceptive. Yet the disenchanted scene is seldom less filled with wonder.

  1. Pooja Sarkar, “Few Takers for Rajarhat’s Urban Hell,” Business Standard, 18 November 2011.
  2. Amit Chaudhuri, Calcutta: Two Years in the City (London: Union Books, 2013), 207. I am, by the way, following Chaudhuri’s rationale for referring here to Calcutta rather than Kolkata: “I myself can’t stand calling it any other name but ‘Calcutta’ when speaking in English; just as I’ll always call it ‘Kolkata’ in Bengali conversation. Is this because we — cities and human beings — have contradictory lives that flow in and out of each other? To take away one or the other name is to deprive the city of a dimension that’s coterminous with it, that grew and rose and fell with it.” (96)
  3. Ananya Roy, “Why India Cannot Plan Its Cities: Informality, Insurgence, and the Idiom of Urbanization,” Planning Theory 8:1, 2009, pp 80-81. See also Roy’s City Requiem, Kolkata: Gender and the Politics of Poverty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
  4. Leela Gandhi, The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
  5. Geir Heierstad, Illusions of Tradition: Branding of Caste in Kolkata. Unpublished manuscript, quoted by permission of the author. The commodification of caste identity in Kumartuli is a central insight of this work.
Alan Thomas, “Approaching Calcutta,” Places Journal, June 2013. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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