I was born and spent my early childhood in the city of Kolkata in West Bengal, India, and naturally, I have always been fascinated by the stories of this vibrant and historic city, fondly called “The City of Joy”. Therefore, today I choose to write a little bit about the captivating history of the city of my birth.
Calcutta, as it was known earlier, was the former capital of British India, and at one point, the Empire’s “Second City” after London. In its zenith, it was home to not just the British officials and Indians, but also to numerous communities from different parts of the world, such as Armenians, Jews, Burmese, Afghans, Iranians, East Africans, Chinese, and many more, all of whom added to the city’s vibrant culture and atmosphere of cosmopolitanism. Indeed, it is sometimes even called the “Cultural Capital of India”. Many of these communities continue to live in the city to this day, and the city is strewn with inns, homes, places of worship, and eateries frequented by them: the city has many sights to offer which are not usually to be found in other parts of India, such as Armenian churches, Jewish synagogues, Buddhist temples, and of course, Chinese restaurants—“Chinese” food, or at least the Indian version of it, is very popular all over the country (and one of my favourites too) but Calcutta’s China Town is perhaps the only place in India where one can savour authentic Chinese cuisine from the hands of real Chinese chefs!
Now to the real thing: Calcutta is not particularly old, considering how old Indian history is, but it is an important character in the country’s modern history. In the seventeenth century, the location of the present-day city had three villages, Sutanuti, Gobindapur, and Kalikata, possibly derived from the word Kalighat, the name of a major temple in the area, which gave the city its name, Calcutta. These villages were part of a zemindari, a system of landownership similar to the feudalism of Europe. This feudal system existed to some extent under the Muslim rulers of India, but was properly cemented only in the British rule. In the eighteenth century, the three villages became incorporated into one settlement, governed by the British through a fortified enclave by the river, called Fort William. The British consolidated this settlement and the rest of Bengal in 1757, after the Battle of Plassey, after which Calcutta only grew and grew.
The 19th Century brought with it the golden age for Calcutta and Bengal—a new cultural movement, the Bengal Renaissance, brought about by the interaction of Indian culture with Western Ideals, set Calcutta on the path to becoming one of the most enlightened Indian cities of the age. Reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy crusaded against the bigotry and malpractices prevalent in Hindu society, such as the sati, and were instrumental in the establishment of the secular, modern Indian educational system. Others, like Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, worked towards reforms like the legalization of widow remarriage, and the establishment of the first girls’ schools and colleges in Asia. After the Revolt of 1857, the city, along with the rest of the country, passed from Company rule to the direct rule of the Crown. Around this time, an English educated class of upper-caste Indians appeared, who held administrative and scholarly positions in the British Raj’s establishments, and they formed the new Indian middle-class, who were at the very forefront of literary, artistic and social development in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Many aspiring Indians achieved new levels of excellence and emerged as celebrated figures of a new India, among them figures like Rabindranath Tagore, a literary and artistic polymath who became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
The British had taken a select few Indians, educated them in English, and given them some administrative positions in the government, with hopes that they would give rise to a new class of people who would be, as a British official, Lord Macaulay, once put it, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect…”, and that this new class of people would serve as role models to the rest of the country to be loyal to their British masters.
Alas, these plans only backfired! This new Indian middle-class was put off soon enough by British double-standards: Indian culture was deemed by them to be barbaric and tyrannical, while the English gentlefolk were refined, educated, and believed in the dignity and equality of the entire human race. The British failed to live up to their own high standards of equality, indulging in discrimination, racism, segregation and exploitation of the colonized masses. Soon, the very class of Indians the British had created brought about the beginning of the Indian freedom movement that began in the early 20th century. Calcutta was no longer a secure seat for the empire due to the growing dissent against the British Government, and the capital of British India had to be shifted to Delhi in 1911. In the nascent stages of the upheaval, Calcutta was the hotspot of the Freedom Movement, and continued to be an important centre of the movement through the later stages as well.
In 1943, just four years prior to the Independence of India, Bengal was racked by a monstrous and horrifying famine, which killed anywhere between 1.5 to 4 million people, and vastly affected Calcutta too. Moreover, throughout the Second World War, Calcutta was a strategic target for Axis Powers, being an important hub for the Allies, and was bombed multiple times by the Japanese. Affected by years of struggle and war, the city noted a considerable decline economically in the post-Independence era, but has continued to remain a cultural hub and an iconic Indian city to this day—a centre of art, music, literature, scholarly pursuits, intellectual thought and cultural wealth.
The history of this city is so vast and intricate that one could keep writing on and on. This is merely a tiny tip of a huge iceberg. I look forward to bringing more stories about the things I love.