OH CALCUTTA!

From a zebra-drawn buggy to Chinatown, rare photos offer a new look at Kolkata

Who needs a car?
Who needs a car?
Image: Photo by Imagno/Getty Images
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Sometime in 1930, a wealthy family living in Calcutta (now Kolkata) decided that using a horse to pull its carriage would be too conventional. So it got a zebra instead.

A black and white photo shows the spectacular sight—a man with glossy, perfectly parted hair, dressed in crisp whites, sits besides the carriage driver, seemingly unaffected by the curious stares from the cars nearby. This photo of the quintessential “Bengali Babu” is just one of the many fascinating images found in Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now, a two-part book published by Roli. It’s a sweeping book that tells the story of modern India’s first capital through its past and its present.

This is the fifth book in a series that began with New Delhi, followed by India, Mumbai, and Chennai. And the structure of the book captures the dramatic transformation of the eastern city, from a colonial capital to a modern-day metropolis.

In Calcutta Then, Sunanda K Datta-Ray and Pramod Kapoor dive into the rich history of the city using rare images of its iconic monuments, including the Victoria Memorial under construction and the legendary Howrah bridge that crosses the Hooghly river, as well as the people who made it what it is today. There are street scenes and garden parties that all together paint a picture of the multicultural city that was the capital of British India from 1772 to 1930.

And many of these photos have never been seen before.

“The speciality of this Calcutta book is that while there are some brilliant pictures from overseas collections…almost 50% of the photos are from family albums,” Kapoor, who is also the founder and publisher of Roli Books, told Quartz. He met around 40 old families living in the city, some who were formerly zamindars (landlords) or linked to the maharajas, and some who had settled in Calcutta hundreds of years ago to do business.

“There was a disappointment at some places and unexpected successes at some places,” he said. “Not everybody had kept their albums well, some of them didn’t care.” But in the end, he added, the photos in the book are just a fraction of what they found. 

In Kolkata Now, Indrajit Hazra and Anshika Varma shift the perspective towards the people that are key to the city’s identity and the unique Kolkata culture they continue to preserve—from mahjong games in Chinatown and the quintessential Bengali adda session to the spectacular celebrations of Durga Pujo. The Kolkata of today that they present is a fascinating mix of old and new, with tall new towers of glass and steel that loom over monuments over a hundred years old.

Here’s a selection of photos from the book:

Calcutta then

A view of River Hoogly in the 1890s by Bourne and Shepherd, the famous Calcutta photographers, from the Elgin Collection.
A view of River Hoogly in the 1890s by Bourne and Shepherd, the famous Calcutta photographers, from the Elgin Collection.
Image: British Library
The Howrah bridge.
The Howrah bridge.
Image: Clyde Waddell/Upenn MS Coll. 802
Designed in Indo-Saracenic Revivalist architectural style, the construction of the Victoria Memorial was done by a Calcutta-based Indian firm, Martin & Co.
Designed in Indo-Saracenic Revivalist architectural style, the construction of the Victoria Memorial was done by a Calcutta-based Indian firm, Martin & Co.
Image: The Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
The Howrah station.
The Howrah station.
Image: Clyde Waddell/UPenn MS. Coll. 802

Kolkata now

Kolkata’s tallest residential building looms above the city today.
Kolkata’s tallest residential building looms above the city today.
Image: Karam Puri
Roofs still form an integral part of not just Kolkata’s skyline but also its social lifeline.
Roofs still form an integral part of not just Kolkata’s skyline but also its social lifeline.
Image: Soumya Shankar Ghosal
A round of Mahjong in full swing in the two-roomed Gee Hing Church at Tiretta Bazar in central Kolkata, the city’s older Chinatown.
A round of Mahjong in full swing in the two-roomed Gee Hing Church at Tiretta Bazar in central Kolkata, the city’s older Chinatown.
Image: Shilbhadra Datta
A typical morning adda gathering in Kolkata.
A typical morning adda gathering in Kolkata.
Image: Saumalya Ghosh