The Idea Of Kolkata

This is a tale of two cities, as much about Calcutta as it is about Kolkata. It is about a past that was not always perfect but now restored in sepia glory in our collective nostalgia; it is as much about the present, whose imperfections stare us in our face but whose finer points become visible when we step back a little and look at the city through a drone’s eyes from a few hundred feet above the ground.

Kolkata is about chaos, about violent protests, about taxi refusals, about non-functioning air-conditioners in app-based cabs, about big projects that overshoot deadlines. But Kolkata is also as much about the finer points that make life worth living: the city’s culture-scape, its cinema, its music, its theatre, its art, its literature, its sports, its adda and debates and its blend-with-the-world spirit. It is about the garbage-strewn streets of Mechhua as much as it is about the grand buildings that make Kolkata the City of Palaces. It is about the smogheavy winter air as much as it is about the city’s abundant greenery, the Maidan and the Rabindra and Subhas Sarobars.

Kolkata, even when it was Calcutta, was a city of contradictions. Compassion took the form of Mother Teresa (now venerated as a Saint all over the world) even as ultra-left street fighters killed and, in turn, were “encountered” by cops. Sports took lives, most infamously in August 1980 when 16 people died in football riots, even as it lit up our lives with evergreen football derbies and miraculous Test victories played out at Eden Gardens.
Kolkata still retains its share of contradictions. Rabindrasangeet flows out of the sound-boxes at Prinsep Ghat even as it builds its future in shiny malls in the heart of the city or IT office spaces and start-up hubs that go on expanding the city’s horizon on the east. Trams still chug along at 15 kmph on a few streets even as the East-West Metro burrows furiously under the ground — and under the mighty Hooghly — to give India its first underthe-river transport system.

To celebrate these many cities that exist on about 200 square kilometres of land, The Times of India is launching the ‘I Am Kolkata’ campaign. It will look at the city through your eyes and ears — as well as your taste-buds and other senses — to make sense of this immensely rich synaesthetic experience that is Kolkata. We will listen to you and record what you have to say about our city. The campaign will celebrate, as well as analyse, the myriad ways in which Kolkata stands apart from every other city in the country. We asked some of our more celebrated residents what Kolkata means to them. For actorfilm-maker-singer-songwriter Anjan Dutt, “Kolkata is loitering around in New Market during winters and ending up buying a red rose from there”. For poet and song-writer Srijato, the city is its “twilight hours by the riverfront”, which never fails to give him inner peace. And, for film-maker Srijit Mukherji, Kolkata “is like an old book that I have seen on the shelf since birth. It carries the touch of my ancestors on its ivory-white pages and its smells remind me of familiar stories that leap out from those pages and make my world what it is. ”

These three voices, from three persons whose lives are intertwined with Kolkata’s, show how the same city can mean different things to different people; sometimes, itcan mean different things even to the same person. Encapsulating the spirit of such a diverse city in one line or phrase can be a challenging task just like the city itself seems to challenge us sometimes. The Times of India’s ‘I Am Kolkata’ campaign is meant to be our collective tribute to this city’s cultural diversity. Your contribution –a one-line celebration of what Kolkata means for you, which will appear in these columns over the next few weeks- will help us complete the Kolkata jigsaw.

Kolkata has seen several metamorphoses, its transformation from the three sleepy villages of Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata to being the British empire’s second city being only the first in a long line of such changes.

From being a port and a trading hub to being one of the British empire’s biggest outposts in the East, from being the epicentre of the Bengal Renaissance that lit up many other parts of the country to being the city that has produced the greatest share of India’s Nobel laureates, Kolkata has come a long way. Over the course of the next few weeks, The Times of India’s ‘I Am Kolkata’ campaign will celebrate this continuing evolution of the city. It will look at diverse aspects of Kolkata’s life that that come together to make it our Tilottama. We hope that you will have as much pride and joy in following this campaign and contributing to it as much as we have had in tracking the city’s threecenturies-and-counting journey.

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