Decline and fall of the Bengali bhodrolok and Calcutta: field notes from my travel to the city – Part IV of many parts

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This morning I travelled by Kolkata’s part underground part on street metro light railway system to a neighbourhood. The metro carriages are rickety, quite clearly poorly maintained and dirty, shoddy and unkempt much like the rest of the city. As I came out of the train station, my attention was directed to a shop sign outside the station. It was a place, er, where they sell food – say a take away joint. Part in Bengali and part in English, on the sign board, they wrote the name of the shop – a Hindi phrase, “Aao Ji Khao ji”, essentially meaning “Sir, come and eat”. The place wasn’t inviting at all and I’d not go there to buy anything, the reason I mention this is not about their food, but to point the way they named the place. Traditionally, most people would name their shops in Bengali or even English. But here, they chose to go with Hindi-ised names. A culture of Hindi would be alien to the way bhodrolok (gentry from urban Bengal) would do their business, name shops and establishments, and for that matter even would decorate the city. Traditional Bengali design aesthetic is with subtle colour tones yet carefully, aesthetically crafted signs. At least that used to be the norm even a few years ago. That subtlety has now given way to garish, loud, multicoloured hoardings that assault your senses. Even a few decades ago it would be unthinkable to have the garish loud “in your face” type of design and typography in Kolkata.

You would associate that crudeness in urban design aesthetics with cities like Delhi or in small towns in neighbouring states of Bihar. The Bengali art designer would prefer subtle tones, neat typography, empty spaces. Not anymore.

Curiously, that exuberant loudness and rejection of the traditional aesthetics is manifest, somewhat sadly, in traditions such as marriage festivals as well. Yesterday I attended a marriage ceremony of a relative. The marriage took place at a community centre in a posh neighbourhood; the groom’s and the bride’s families are upscale rich urban educated Bengali, fitting the description of “Bhodrolok”.

Traditionally, in a Bengali marriage, the colour tones are yellow on white, pink has never the colour of marriage ceremony in Bengal; the symbol of marriage and love for the Bengali is a colourful butterfly (প্রজাপতি); Ganesha has not much (if at all) to do with a traditional Bengali marriage festivity (but Ganesha is invoked in any auspicious occasion in Hindi tradition, but this is not the point). I reckon (I may be wrong) that Ganesha for marriage is more of a tradition with the North Indian Hindi belt – Ganesha idol at the door was never part of Bengali marriage festivals. On this occasion though you can see the Ganesha idol right at the entrance. It is of course beautiful, colourful, garish in its own light but that is not the point here. What jars the senses is that, this isn’t quite what a traditional bhodrolok would like to post at the entrance of a marriage hall. Er, not quite bhodrolok-Esque, :-)

I was not surprised therefore that the dinner for the marriage had very little dessert for choice. Whereas in a traditional Bengali marriage, a melodious strain of shehnais waft in the air, as do the aroma of specially cooked fish curries, and choicest desserts are staple. I could see this was another deviation from the traditional marriage traditions in an otherwise typical traditional Bengali arranged marriage.

Nothing is forever. As much as we reconcile that change is the only constant in life, when it comes to shaping a city and traditions, some traditions may still be preserved for their aesthete. Rather sad to see a city whose people were even recently looked upon in India for their nuanced expression of art and unique aesthetic expressions in art, a city that could boast the legacy of young Bengal, of Tagore and Satyajit Ray, has slipped into an unaesthetic, crude expression of desire that puts at its centre a senseless blatant display of garish colours and reek of money.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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