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Striking a chord with Kolkata

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12 January 2010

Monica Sarkar, a Wexas India holiday expert, on Kolkata, India, and the Durga Puja festival.

What has always struck me about the capital city of West Bengal and the historical base of the British rule is the exuberant presence of creativity. It is most definitely the arts capital of the whole country. You will be hard pressed to find a single Bengali who doesn’t immerse themselves in singing, playing an instrument, creative writing, art or crafts. Having parents who originate from Kolkata, I can say that this is the absolute truth when it comes to members of my own extended family who reside there and people whom I meet.

If an individual doesn’t happen to be blessed with a creative talent, they will almost certainly be highly appreciative of their fellow Bengalis that do. The Nobel-prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, is a household name and a celebrated icon. His poetry, songs, novels and plays, to name but a few, adorn almost every home. And his regularly rehearsed songs, by children and adults alike, are commonly known as ‘Rabindra sangeeth’. The acclaimed film director, Satyajit Ray, and guru-philosopher, Ramakrishna, are also recalled as heroes of Kolkata.

Religion plays an important part in this city and Hinduism is the main faith that is followed. On my visit last year, I arrived on the second day of Durga Puja – the biggest celebration on the Hindu calendar – celebrating Ma (mother) Durga, which lasts for six days. The main purpose of the festival is the triumph of good over evil.

Arriving during this time meant that a journey from the airport home, which should take 45 minutes, took two hours. But it meant that I was able to observe the lights and colours of the decorated streets and people dressed in vibrant attire ‘pandal-hopping’ – visiting the various pandals created by members of different localities. Pandals are decorated, temporary structures that house beautiful, hand-made effigies of the goddess – another token that is a testament to the inhabitants’ creativity.

On the last day of the Puja, I looked on as the effigy was put on display on horse and carriage and taken on a procession through the streets. Men, women and children danced, sang, laughed and rejoiced. After the parade, the statue was immersed in the local pond, accompanied by loud chanting. My usual perception of Bengalis as being reserved submerged itself with the goddess – I was overwhelmed by the passion and warmth of the peoples’ devotion.

Food is another passion of Kolkata, along with the rest of India and a sweet tooth is usual characteristic of a typical Bengali. Sweetshops are about as common as Starbucks in the UK. Be prepared to feast your eyes on glass-fronted displays of typically milk-based sweets made with a lot of sugar. With regards to savoury food, fish dishes are typical of Bengali cuisine, along with dal (lentils) and rice. But you can find the dishes of many different Indian cities within restaurants in Kolkata. And I have to add, sampling Chinese food is a must – but you need to know where the good restaurants are. The tourist-friendly and affluent Park Street has many good eateries and is also a great place if you need an internet café or want to do a spot of high-street shopping.

Despite the over-crowded streets and snail-paced traffic, Kolkata has developed greatly over the years and a there are numerous sights and attractions. Beautiful Victoria Memorial, put in place by the British, is set on grounds akin to the green-grassed parks of London. There is also the Science City, Eden Gardens and even air-conditioned shopping malls that are easily comparable to those found in the western world.

A visit to Gariahat is essential. It’s the Oxford Street of Kolkata, but teeming with street stalls and markets. The area has become a lot busier and contains more stalls compared to my visit four years prior. There are also great food outlets here. And surprisingly, some of the tastiest food can be found at street vendors, including delicacies such as egg, chicken or mutton rolls. But be careful – food poisoning is a major illness suffered by tourists who eat at unhygienic places and drink tap water!

In general, people are inclined to think of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore or even European Goa when they consider India. And images of poverty, pollution and swarming crowds are usually conjured at the thought of Kolkata, much to the frustration of Bengalis. I’ll be frank – any poverty you do witness is likely to be heart wrenching and the smog that blankets the city will certainly seep into your lungs. But the secret to really appreciating Kolkata is to live and breathe it. Only then will you peer through the haze and see the vibrant colours of the city.

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