The City Reminiscent Of The Past In The Present

The more Kolkata changes, the more it remains the same. In this extract from Roli Books' "Calcutta, then/ Kolkata Now", get lost in affectionate description of this most urbane of Indian cities.
Thakur Bari complex in Pathuriaghata, north Kolkata
Thakur Bari complex in Pathuriaghata, north Kolkata

Kolkata defies change. This is not to say that over the decades, especially over the 2000s&ndash2010s, Kolkata has not changed. It is simply a city that is defiant to change even as it changes one stretch at a time. It has changed both physically and mentally. The flyovers that continue to sprout like the branches of a giant banyan tree eating into the old fa&ccedilades of rajbaris in north Kolkata may be an eyesore for old-timers. But even in a city where shops close for extended and undefineable lunch breaks, the existence of time is being slowly acknowledged&mdashin dribbles, in data plans, in the opening and closing times of bars and the countless restaurants and eateries, and in the &lsquoone-way traffic&rsquo timings that seem Tropical Prussian for visitors.

Nostalgia is one weapon in its quiver that Kolkata uses to make way for change. Many a Kolkatan and past visitor look back misty-eyed and gin-drenched at a time when the city was a livewire nightlife destination. Park Street and adjoining areas were the venues of fab cabaret shows in the same decade that poets like Shakti Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Malay Roy Choudhury and Sunil Gangopadhyay were burning up another floor with their words.

The poet Dom Moraes once described as not having seen a better floorshow artiste than &lsquoLuscious Lola&rsquo, aka Lauren Swinton. Swinton lived in Creek Lane, less than ten minutes from Sealdah Station&mdasha couple of houses away from where Mother Teresa first started her Missionaries of Charity order in a house that still has &lsquoGomes&rsquos Retreat 1904&rsquo on the marble plaque outside.

And there was Pam Crain. Singer Usha Uthup&mdashUsha Iyer, when she performed regularly at the legendary Trincas on Park Street&mdashrecalled, &ldquoThe year was 1969. My first trip to Calcutta, my first walk down Park Street.

In Calcutta, I heard there was this beautiful blonde with the most amazing figure, unbelievable style and more than anything else, a great voice. My first memory of Pam Crain was her coming down the steps of Blue Fox in her devastating hairstyle and black and silver shimmering gown.&hellip Then I heard her sing. It just blew me away. I was in complete jaw-dropping awe of her.&rdquo Singing at the Mocambo restaurant off Park Street since it opened in 1956, and then with the band Louis Banks Brotherhood, at the Blue Fox, Crain&rsquos name is still synonymous with this vanished, gregarious Calcutta.

This aspect to Kolkata life may not have been a complete &lsquoWestern&rsquo import enjoyed by only the city&rsquos much visible babalog. The Bengali aesthetic for furti&mdashfun and frolic, entertainment shimmering into middlebrow culture&mdashhas its antecedents in jatra and babu theatre, as well as in mujras, of which Kolkata has a rich, under-appreciated history. It was the advent of a moral police brigade in the &rsquo80s under the Communist government&mdashwhere matters &lsquoWestern&rsquo were frowned upon as stringently, if not more, than the &lsquoHindu right&rsquo in other parts of India decades later&mdashthat Calcutta&rsquos firefly lights were all-too-swiftly snuffed out.

Miss Shefali, aka Arati Das, was probably&mdashin Usha Uthup&rsquos description&mdash&lsquothe last of the Mohicans&rsquo. The youngest of three sisters of a refugee family from East Pakistan, she shot to fame as the first Bengali cabaret dancer in the legendary Lido Room at Firpo&rsquos Hotel on Chowringhee. In the late-&rsquo60s, she even managed to catch the eye of the relatively dowdy Satyajit Ray, who cast her as herself in an iconic cabaret scene in the 1971 film, Seemabaddha (Company Limited). By the time she stopped performing at the Oberoi Grand in the &rsquo80s, I was still in high school and had missed this last real Calcutta shimmer.

In the summer of 2018, while dipping into that dimly lit cove drinking passage called Ming&rsquos Room next to today&rsquos Trincas, I overhear a member of a group of middle-aged men tell the others, &ldquoLet&rsquos go and catch some cabree.&rdquo By the goings-on in Trincas that evening&mdasha lady in a rather raucous sari singing Hindi film songs sings way too loud into the microphone to the accompaniment of a bored band and smattered audience&mdashI doubted they were going to catch any cabaret as understood by an earlier generation of Kolkatans.

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