(Published in Geo India, July 2009, as a photo-essay, with many more photographs. Pictures by Saibal Das, who spent two years trying to understand and capture North Kolkata.)

On some summer days, North Kolkata shimmers before your eyes like a mirage: and often, once the heat has subsided, you look again and see that another small part of it has eroded. Or been briefly hidden behind the relentless surge of the crowds on its narrow streets.

Another one of the ancient Kolkata “baaris”—the mansions of the merchants and the cultural elite—from Putulbari to the whimsical Tagore mini-castle in Jorasanko has been chipped at by the elements, lost a wall to rousing political graffiti or public urinals, been obscured by a maze of electrical wires. Another migrant family from Bihar or Bangladesh loses the struggle and moves back to “desh”, and another six occupy the space they briefly leave vacant.

“I spent two years on this project,” says Saibal Das, the photographer. “It was my attempt to reconstruct the cultural landscape of North Kolkata, the seat of the Bengal renaissance, to capture the songs of the road. It was a personal journey in some ways—after years of travelling and living elsewhere, I wanted to understand my own history better. In North Kolkata, there’s a polarity of symbols, ironic contradictions, and this is a universe always threatened by the ravages of time. But in the middle of this, one also witnesses a zest for life.”

It’s hard to capture North Kolkata, as hard as it is to explain the great divide between North Kolkata and South Calcutta itself—the “native north and the sahib south”, in writer Alka Saraogi’s phrase. South Calcutta is where crumbling old mansions are replaced, in time, with high rises and chic new restaurants; it’s the Calcutta of the Park Street crooners, the ‘koi hai’ clubs, where the adda of the defiantly Anglicised drawing room replaces the adda of the coffeehouses. North Kolkata allows no separation between street and home, claims a sometimes bloody, sometimes harsh, always vital heritage; and Chitpur—a road as bent and curved and studded with spines as a hilsa’s bony backbone—contains much of its spirit.

(Arup Lodh’s watercolour, Afternoon in Chitpur)

To photograph North Kolkata, you must first decide which North Kolkata to capture. There’s the city of the writers, those who lived in one-room shacks and wrote furious denunciations of their times by the light of a naked bulb hanging from a wire that doubled, during the day, as clothesline. Their streetcorner addas—coffee house, tea stall, charpai, gambling den, disused godown—raised the stakes of salon conversation.

There’s the domain of the Tagores, whose family produced artists, poets, and The Writer himself—Rabi Thakur, the families and upheavals he wrote of still living the lives he described in another age, another time. Their mansions capture both whimsy and grace, as out of place today as an ivory letter opener, a vellum manuscript page, would be. Saibal’s camera bears witness, too, to the shrinking terrain of the merchant gentlemen. These stalwarts trod and sometimes crossed the thin line that separates house, museum and godown, stuffing their mansions with art from Paris, chandeliers from Florence, wallpaper from London, opinions from Burrabazaar and Barcelona.

And there’s Chitpur, which still retains the soul of the village it once was—one of the original villages that made up Calcutta—where, according to legend, human sacrifice was practiced 400 years ago in the temples that still stand, alongside the Nakhoda Mosque. In this and other parts of North Kolkata, the façade of a house can conceal a hundred families, each nesting like pigeons, in a tiny allotted corner, the carved balconies begrimed and hung with washing; where homesick labourers live in a permanent state of temporariness, taking comfort in repeating the rituals of home in an alien land.

The press of people, the urgent needs of today, take precedence over the need to preserve the past; they press right up against history, scratching out a life among the ruins no one has the time or energy to protect. “In Kolkata, people thrive as one community, live together peacefully waging a battle against the hardships of life,” says Saibal. “The intensity of the struggle is partly reduced as they fight together socially and politically to establish their identity.”

You might take photographs of North Kolkata’s many neighbourhoods in colour; there’s enough from the dull clay of the idols made at Kumartuli to the fading greens and yellows of mansion walls, the vivid red of a Coca Cola slogan or a young woman’s puja sari to keep a lensman happy. But if you walk through Chitpur, Kumartuli, Pathuria Ghat and other localities for two years, learning and measuring its complexities, you might choose black-and-white, as these images do.

The effect is to make these photographs a record that is both timeless and very much of its time. The collection of clocks in an ancient home that has gone through many avatars, once a chemist’s shop, now an ordinary residence, was brought back by a connoisseur-ancestor from London. Now they convey something peculiar to North Kolkata, the sense that the place exists in the 18th and the 21st century simultaneously.

“Some places are frozen in time,” says Saibal, “some ruined by the passage of time—it’s like pages out of Hutum Paanchar Naksha.” The book he’s referring to, The Sketches of Hutum the Owl, was a celebrated 18th century collection of gossip, scandal and acute portrayals of the people of the age. (The graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee preserves and updates these in his clever The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers.)

Women spread out their sari aanchals and their umbrellas at Madanmohun-tala, to catch the rice given out as prasad at the annual Annakut utsav—literally, festival of grains. “When I looked at the faces of the people here,” says Saibal, “I understood that they were far from hypocrites—they do not mask their true feelings.”

Many have made the journey from Bankura, exporter of the trademark terracotta horses and a less celebrated but equally permanent poverty; the belief is that retaining even one of the blessed grains will ensure that no one in the household will starve over the year to come. Their faces show eagerness, anticipation and hope, but thankfully not the desperation in the faces of the victims of famine in a photograph taken decades ago, where an uncanny similarity is created by the folds of the saris, held out in just such a way as receptacles.

Except for a slight shift in the style of their carefully pleated dhotis, the members of the Badan Roy family could have stepped out of a 19th century photograph. The larger and more venerable mansions, many of them with family ghats leading off the Chitpur road, still hold the “baarir puja” at home during Durga Puja, instead of the more public pandal pujas, and the gentlemen of this erstwhile royal family now make an annual pilgrimage to ensure that custom continues. “Social distinctions are obliterated during the festivals,” says Saibal, indicating the dhaki in one photograph, who, caught up in the atmosphere, has joined in with his patrons and their families in the festivities.

The Mallik Barir Pujo, where the hosts are chronicled in another photograph, is one of the most famous, and rival mansions once competed to be the most open-handed, the most austerely religious, the most spectacular of the pujas. In many families, the tradition of welcoming Ma Durga to the home rather than to the pandal goes back in an unbroken line for over two centuries. “Faith widens the hearts of people,” says Saibal, who has witnessed and silently captured festivals from Id to the pujas to smaller, more humble days of celebration. “And there’s an unfailing bond of respect between old and new generations—that’s special to Kolkata.”

The area explodes in a frenzy during the Pujas, marrying tradition and spectacle in a fashion found in few other places in Kolkata. Take Kumartuli, named for the potters, or kumars, in the same manner as nearby Kasitola was named for the butchers, or kasais. The idol makers of Kumartuli work the year around to make statues of Ma Durga, Ma Lakshmi, Ma Saraswati, Ganesha and other gods and demons. For about two months of the year, tourists, photographers, pandal organizers and the curious descend on them; but for the rest of the year, they ply their trade next door to other shops, garages, the gods within spitting distance of a well-frequented public toilet.

For dhakis and sari weavers, this is a hopeful season—many of them, like this man, accompanied by his young daughter, have journeyed from villages embedded far away in rural Bengal in the hopes of making enough money for a few months. A star dhaki, one who might be summoned by the Kalighat priests or the better pandals, will literally set the rhythm for puja; a lesser dhaki might barely earn enough to see the week out.

There are few solitary figures on the Chitpur Road itself, as these photographs indicate. UP and Bihari Muslims, workers at various sites and factories by day, slot themselves into tiny sleeping spaces like fish in a basket, beedis in a packet. Many of them will find the time in the day’s labours to pray at the Nakhoda Mosque—here seen as the cadences of the Id azaan rise above the heads of the faithful. This mosque, one of the oldest in Kolkata and certainly the largest, is said to be able to hold up to 10,000 worshippers. Elsewhere, chhat puja migrates from the villages along with the workers, providing one day of rest and happiness in an otherwise harsh calendar; the women take centrestage, offering their prayers to the river gods.

In Pathuria Ghat Street, clusters of families from north India live in one ancient mansion, their entwined lives creating a beehive hum of activity. This was once the business heart of Kolkata, situated at its cultural crossroads—the phaeton of the playwright Girish Ghosh might have crossed the carriage of one of the leading jewelers of the day as both of them set out to meet Binodini, the great diva of the Bengali stage. In his novel, First Light, Sunil Gangopadhyay attempted to capture the surging energy of the Bengal Renaissance—a young Rabindranath Tagore finding first love, tragedy and the first draft of his novels, while Naren Datta embraces a new identity as Swami Vivekananda and the scientist Jagadish Bose takes Bengal into the 20th century.

The paths of the “new” Bengali thinkers, writers and reformers ran in parallel and often intersected—most paras, or local neighourhoods, in North Kolkata retain an impress of their lives. The printmakers of the area do a thriving trade in Rabindranath posters, much as a previous generation of sculptors did in Rabi Thakur busts, offering the great poet in a series of poses that change according to the popular taste of the decade. His image is to contemporary Calcutta what Che’s poster is to the rest of the world.

Ambassadors rust, mansions fade, as some of the photographs show, decaying for lack of money or interest; the present jostles the past, with no obvious frontier between the two, as in the image of the impossibly baroque Mallick Palace and the ramshackle but busy street in front of it. The Prayer Hall of the old Brahmo Samaj is now a marble warehouse, and as the years go by, fewer descendants of the venerable Kolkata families will be able to come back in specially starched dhotis and flowing Dhakai kurtas to protect their heritage.

But the life of the streets has ebbed and flowed unceasingly here for over three centuries, and what these photographs tell you is simple: in the crowded alleys of North Kolkata, there’s room for everyone. The dhaki losing himself in the driving beat of the drums, the recalcitrant worshipper beside the truly devout at the mosque, the men in their starched dhotis guarding their sliver of history and tradition, the boys who nod briefly in the direction of the gods before going about their far more mundane business, the exhausted workers finding just enough room to breathe.

There’s history, and there’s the unglamorous everyday world, and they collide on every turn of the Chitpur Road, every adda and streetcorner of North Kolkata. Ask Saibal what his time here, in the midst of crumbling ruins, a great heritage, and sometimes abject poverty, showed him, and he says, “That there is hope in this trouble-torn universe. The people here live as one community, and they have a capacity for contentment, in whatever little they have.”