- Chitpur Local and the Rip Van Winkles of Calcutta
The field in north Calcutta where Minerva theatre stands today had been bustling with spectators from early morning. There is a nip in the air and the grass, a fiery green, is being ruffled by a mild breeze blowing from the river. The two babus in their red bordered dhotis, shirt, collar, and lightly worn chador had arrived early with their troops of sycophants, servants, and the curious and were now settled down in facing tents. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the bird fight to begin. The fighting bulbuls, perched on the arm of their European trainer, watched their opponents through a daze of intoxicants, ready to tear them apart. The excitement was palpable, no less than an Indo-Pak cricket match.
Bird fight is not what has brought us here, so we amble on westward towards Chitpur Road, perhaps the oldest of Calcutta streets. We are somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century and the Chitpur area is already booming with activity. It is a busy street with its grand mansions displaying an eclectic mix of Palladian and Indian styles. There are customers haggling with shopkeepers at the vegetable stalls, wandering bullocks and stationary cows, gimlet-eyed goldsmiths behind their counters, the stench of cow dung in the air, print shops churning out grammars and religious texts, the rattle of phaetons carrying the well-heeled to their destinations and a stream of pedestrians. This is the heart of Calcutta’s “Black Town.” In the printing presses along the north south thoroughfare and elsewhere in the city, European printers have already been running a thriving business for more than half a century. Among them are bassoon player turned engraver and mapmaker of Calcutta, Aaron Upjohn in Bowbazar, Englishman Charles Wilkins working for the East India Company, who with Panchanan Karmakar, would later cut the first Bengali typeface at Andrews press in Hooghly, Irishman James Augustus Hicky who set up the earliest known (1777) press in Calcutta and others.
Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper printed in India (January 1780), ran into trouble quite quickly. What is more interesting to us about these European printers of old Calcutta is that they employed goldsmiths, coppersmiths, metal engravers, carpenters, and other traditional artisans in their workshops, who in turn picked up techniques that would later on find artistic expression in the indigenous Bot-tola printing, engraving, and woodcut skills that flourished around the Chitpur area of Calcutta. Thus, we find Panchanan Karmakar, blacksmith by profession and co-creator of the first Bengali typeface, later in life engraving illustrations used in bot-tola books while also training his son-in-law in this craft.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the small presses of Chitpur were doing quite well. Bot-tola books and the distinctive art born out of that milieu, with themes spanning from the mythological to the secular, occupy an important position in the cultural ferment of those times.
Today in the twenty-first century, walking down Chitpur road, the rumble of the few remaining letterpress machines still reaches our ears, one of the last links to a tradition that produced Bengali almanacs (panjika), folk literature, art prints and more. But in between the printers churning out posters, the manual litho artists gradually fading away, the brightly made up prostitutes of Sonagachhi with their glazed looks and goldsmiths in their cage-like boxes, often painted a bright blue, a particular storefront catches our attention—Diamond Library.
Against the walls are glass fronted wooden almirahs stacked with gaudy-covered booklets. These are jatra scripts published by Diamond Library. Jatra (also called “opera”), or folk theatre, which involves an exaggerated acting style and a stage open on all sides, has its beginnings in religious processions which were accompanied by singing and dancing to celebrate the glory of the gods. From there to its present secular avatar, encompassing everything from family drama to crime and politics, jatra has come a long way. And Chitpur had always been a hot bed of this folk theatre tradition.
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