Dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Dr. Alok Ray (March 1937- June 2019)


Calcutta International Exhibition 1883_84

ঔপনিবেশিক কলিকাতায় সাংস্কৃতিক বিনিময়

If we believe that acculturation is an interactive process that brings about changes in lifestyles as well as moral and aesthetic values of two or more autonomous cultural systems, then it was a two-sided process of acculturation that happened in nineteenth-century Calcutta merging interests and identities of the two civilizations in encounter between a technologically superior Western society and a non-Western society inclined toward its empirical traditions. Acculturation in colonial India is generally interpreted as a deliberate process initiated by the British Orientalists and the English-educated enlightened Indians notwithstanding the dominating spirit of the 19th century nationalism in Victorian sense. In fact, on either side, players were products of the 18th-century world of rationalism, classicism, and cosmopolitanism. [Koff] Many Orientalists, notably William Jones, H. T. Colebrooke, William Carey, H. H. Wilson, and James Prinsep, made significant contributions to the fields of Indian philology, archeology, and history. On the other hand, Rammohun, Dwarkanath, Radhakanta, Debendranath, Vidyasagar and so many Indian reformists encouraged their fellowmen to get exposure to western science and literature, on top of vernacular sagacity. They effected in remarkably short time a widespread dissemination of western knowledge through institutionalized means like schools and colleges, printing-press and newspapers. By 1821, the Calcutta School-Book Society, sponsored by a number of public spirited individuals like David Hare, Rammohun, Radhakanta, belonging to different religious denominations, without any backing of Government grant, produced and distributed as many as 126446 copies useful works in different languages; no fewer than 14,792 were books in the English language’. Another interesting feature was the decrease in the demand for books in the Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian languages, ‘being the spoken language of no one’. By 1835, the Society had sold 31,864 books in English. Five year before the Medical College in Calcutta started professional courses in English, it was claimed that Calcutta had in 1830 nearly 200 who wrote English as naturally as their mother tongue. As for Bengali language, long before the coming of the English in Bengal, the mother tongue of the majority had been discounted as simplistic and unworthy of official status. ‘The languages of the superior civil and commercial stations were English, Portuguese, and Persian, and ambitious Hindus made certain that of these they knew at least Persian’. It was Halhed who first urged upon British civil officers the necessity of acquiring knowledge of it for the efficient transaction of their duties. He argued for the Bengali language, before anyone else ever did, specifying its inherent qualities: ‘its plainness, its precision and regularity of construction, than the flowery sentences and modulated periods of Persian.’ His Grammar printed and published in Calcutta, gave practical support to his arguments, by providing British officers with a book from which they could learn the language. [Clark, 1956]

The earliest printed book in Bengali

No sooner Bengali becomes a popular medium of communication it started borrowing words from English and the English from Bengali as well. There have been many familiar words, e.g. coolie, cowrie, cot, curry, godown, pagoda, etc., originated from some other languages, commonly used by the English and the Bengalese. There are also some distinctively of Bengali origin, like babu and bungalow. A glimpse through Hobson-Jobson may reveal many interesting evidences of liberal linguistic behavior of the Colonial Bengal despite the racial bias of which the world is continuing to suffer till today. As we understand from Sarah Ogilvie the author of ‘Words of the World’ that the former OED editor Robert Burchfield found to be an inward-looking anglocentrics who had erased 17 per cent of the ‘loanwords’ and ‘world English words’,  Indic included, that had been added by earlier editor Charles Onions. [Ogilvie]

While all these conscious efforts of magnificent persona of both the camps created a short-lived glorious age of awakening and also a golden opportunity for a giant leap toward a modern society at par with global standards. Around 1880s that opportunity got lost. Western education reached a tiny proportion of the Indian population largely confined to the major urban centres. A chauvinistic nationalism back lashed the progressive movements. The undercurrent of acculturation, however, continued to flow effortlessly as conscious and unconscious acceptance of new ideas, often with the intention of revitalizing Indian cultural practices and institutions. Slowly steadily new things and ideas percolated through layers to the bottom level of society undergoing series of changes through interactions. [Peers] What were those ‘new’ things and ideas? Historically speaking, the things and ideas branded ‘colonial’ are supposed to be grown out of Industrial Revolution directly or indirectly, which may be as big as Indian Rail or as small as a gramophone pin – everything targeted to make living in the colonial society convenient and agreeable.

Nipper, the dog is listening to a wind-up gramophone. New Vector Records September 1905 ad. Courtesy: HMV

It was still an industrial age when the Colonial style of living was being shaped through interactions with native environment. Changes incorporating new things and ideas were taking place faster and in an unprecedented large scale than ever happened in history because of the boon of technology. The Industrial Revolution, however, may not be seen as a movement for achieving speed and volume in industrial sphere. Its ultimate gain for the human society proved to be more an attitudinal change toward accepting values associated with new products than productivity itself. Acculturation during the colonial era may be more meaningfully interpreted, essentially in terms of the attitudinal changes.

Captain Williamson provided immaculate descriptions of the living conditions of late 18th century Calcutta that provides us with significant resource for identifying some down-to-earth relationship between the ‘new products’ of the Industrial Age and the formation of the ‘new society’, which yet to be fully surfaced.

The EIC officers adopting some local customs while remaining distinctly British_doyely

To the gentlemen coming to settle in Calcutta on civil, military, or naval service of the Hon. East India Company, Captain Williamson offered in his Vade Mecum many practical advices along with cautionary against belittling the native sagacity unwittingly while finding the most suitable mode of living for them. During Williamson’s time, between 1787 and 1798, a new Calcutta suburb was being born south of Town Calcutta to meet the craving of the settlers for ‘airy’ life close to Nature in the Gangetic Bengal mingled with the comfort and convenience of European way of living. New townships at Chowringhee-Dhurrumtollah locality were then only at their initial stage. In 1793-94, all over the town there were no fewer than 1114 pucca houses; in 1821 it increased to 14,230. [Oneil] The new suburbs grew faster with masonry houses built by Europeans and deshi well-to-dos as nucleus of new urban experience of ‘airy habitation’.

It is worth noting that the English inhabitants were still chiefly to be found ‘where their fathers had lived before them’ in the year 1810, Colonel Sleeman spoke of the residences of the Europeans as lying mainly between Dhurrumtollah and China Bazar; and the Tank Square was in the middle of the posh ‘Belgravia of his day’. [Cotton] This happens to coincide with the timeframe Williamson depicted in his Vade Mecum pinpointing some cultural issues involved in modeling ‘airy’ homes to live in comfy liberal style, which European settlers aspired to attain once they crossed Cossitollah toward further south. And so they did achieve their ‘model home’ through an intricate acculturation, after more than three decades of trials and errors, by coming into terms with indigenous methods and means of house building that the settlers initially tended to neglect. [Williamson 1810]

Williamson was one who believed that taking the general outline of indigenous customs should be considered an axiom for the settlers in exploring a new possibility of improving their quality of life. All the European settlers remained anxious to see airy habitations, through which the wind could pass freely in every direction. When the English first visited India, they adopted a mode of building by no means consistent with common sense, and displaying a total ignorance of the most simple of nature’s laws. For instance, they wasted much time to ‘become convinced that the most insupportable heats are derived from the glare of light objects’ and were to be judiciously used in designing habitats. Williamson’s advice to the settlers was ‘to coincide with the habits of the natives, to a certain extent if they mean to retain health or to acquire comfort’.
Upon arrival, travelers learnt from local doctors that nine out of ten of the advices prescribed by doctors at London, would infallibly have sent them to ‘kingdom come!’ but readily approve the homie piece of good sense that ‘do as one should find the old inhabitants do’.
Travelers, he observed, often suffer extreme inconvenience, and expose themselves to much danger because of the fact that they “bent on the refutation of the most reasonable assertions, and influenced by a ridiculous determination to support some equally ridiculous hypotheses”. Williamson tipped them with a piece of his mind: however absurd many indigenous practices may at first appear, it will ordinarily result that ‘necessity was their parent’.

British Styled Bungalow. Photographer: James Kerr (pumpparkphotos.com) c1880

All the buildings forty to sixty years old were, “like the celebrated Black-Hole, constructed more like ovens, than like the habitations of enlightened beings”. The doors were very small; the windows still less, in proportion, while the roofs were carried up many feet above both. Those roofs were in themselves calculated to retain heat to an extreme, being built of solid tarras, at least a foot thick, lying horizontally upon immense timbers, chiefly of teak, or of saul wood. Until around 1790s, the whole of the family resided in the first floor; leaving the whole of the ground floor as basements for reception of palanquins, gigs, cellars, pantries, and even stables. Since around 1780s their preferences changed in many ways. Living in single-floored thatched houses, styled as bungalows, became the way of European life. The settlers remained engaged indefatigably to improve upon the habitability of bungalow. They closed up all the intervals between the thatch, and the walls, on which it rested; so as to exclude the external air, as well as the dust: a practice religiously observed even to the present date. They improved upon the arrangement by installing a tin ventilator near the summits of the thatches. [Williamson 1810]

The shape and size of bungalows changed further having their apartments surrounded by a veranda, of full fourteen feet in width; with apertures, of a good size, in the exterior wall, corresponding with those of the interior. This arrangement renders the generality of bungalows remarkably pleasant; but, it must be noticed, that there was a very wide difference in the expense incurred in rendering them so, both as relating to the labor, and to the materials.

As we discussed, Europeans modeled their new home and styled a new way of living for themselves through a continuous process of interactions between their own perceptions and desi sagacity. The model was generally found most comfortable and highly adaptable for living in changing Gangetic Bengal climate, and therefore the overall cost of a complete bungalow in tune of Rs 40,000, found quite acceptable by the well-to-do families of different cultural origin. Besides Europeans, there were quite a few desi families moved to Chowringhee-Dhurrumtollah to their newly owned bungalows. The natives of the land, on the other hand, increasingly appreciated whatever the settlers fashioned for their everyday use including bungalows, furniture fixture utensils wearable, as wonderful user-friendly amenities.

The spread of English education might have a partial role in changing people mindset toward western culture – the way of life and the things they use every day. The ‘new products’ we talk about, however, more often than not, were made of old familiar things into new design; like a folding umbrella, for example. The settlers learnt by experience that it should be a madness to use a European umbrella, like a parapluie or a parasol, against a heavy Indian shower or a blazing sun. So they designed a new tough umbrella employing seasoned bamboos and heavy canvas to stand Indian weather best, and then add a collapsible holder inside to turn the old chattah into a surprisingly convenient ‘folding umbrella’. This novelty item was expected to be on high demand in Chandney shops, and the shops were expected to store umbrella and its parts as well to promote use of umbrella to all communities of Calcutta society.

A Fakir with umbrella. Details not known. Source: ebay

Bengalese Babu. Courtesy: Mary Evans.

Like the umbrella, there happen to be a innumerable new products originally designed and developed by the European settlers out of local ingredients generally employing local tools and technology to facilitate their living a decent comfortable life in India as they were used to. Such products of Colonial origin not anymore sensed as foreign to local habits and practice, and the locals feel at ease in using those, hand in hand with things they use traditionally in everyday life. Today, after a lapse of two centuries, Indian populace in general, have converted their mode of living so completely that rarely a dhoti-clad babu can be spotted on road unless he was to attend a special festive occasion. Desi dresses, Desi dishes ending with a bouquet of Benaresi pan will be soon things of forgotten past together with many essential items that remained parts of our heritage so long. The way the tune of Senhai is giving way to the resounding Rock music, every single item of our traditional pieces of life and art will be replaced with newer kinds in course of never-ending societal change.

Colonial-inspired house and interior design Courtesy: @myLusciousLife

Colonial Scenario:
In all parts of the country houses are let with bare walls. Rent was expensive; some two hundred rupees a month for small house; which was then equal to three hundred pounds yearly. [Williamson 1813] Terrace-work is substituted for plank; and, being covered with a fine kind of matting, made of very hard reeds, about the thickness of a crow-quill, worked in stripes of perhaps a foot or more in breadth each gives a very remarkable neatness to the apartments; many of which, however, are laid with ‘satringes’ (সতরঞ্চি), or striped carpets, made of wool, or cotton, during the cold season. Carpets, in imitation of those manufactured at Wilton and Brussels, are now made in India; some of which are of incomparable excellence and beauty.
The necessity which exists for keeping the doors and many windows open at all times renders it expedient to guard the candles, which are invariably of wax, from the gusts of wind that would speedily blow out every light. Shades, made of glass, are put over such candles as stand on tables.

Present-day Scenario
Majority lives in rented accommodation; mostly unfurnished. Few have preference to ethnic furnishing with satringes’ (সতরঞ্চি), or striped carpets, sitalpapties, madoors, chics, ctc., while the generality love showy interiors with sofas, chairs centre table, side tables and so on. Urban folks keep doors closed, windows open all seasons except when gusty wind blows. Even then there was no need to guard candles as no candle was there any more, but modern homes still need shades for cutting the glare of electric lamps. As it appears, the mode and style of living in Calcutta now and then in many respects alike outwardly, yet an attitudinal difference remains much to explain why the homes of today so ill-kept in contrast with the spic and span Colonial home. The other notable difference is that the modern families ‘sacrifice comfort to appearance’ contradicting the principle of the Colonial Style as we have already discussed at length.
Colonial Scenario:

Major-General Charles Stuart (circa 1758 – 1828), wrote  his first article in 1798 about military clothing and there he professed the use of Indian clothing and accessories, as they are convenient and appropriate, attacking European prejudices. Better known as ‘Hindu Stuart’, Charles was not just an admirer of the Indian religions but also an enthusiastic devotee of Indian fashions. In a series of disputed articles in the Calcutta Telegraph he tried to persuade the European women of Calcutta to adopt the sari on the grounds that it was so much more attractive than contemporary European fashions. Because of his Hindu craze, Charles Stuart was certified as ‘gone native’.  [Dalrymple]

The friends of the English young men, who are sent to the East Indies, generally fit them out with a great variety of apparel, and other articles, enumerated in the slop-merchant’s list under the head of “Necessaries” that basically include quantities of the followings: Calico Shirts, Stockings, Trousers, Drawers, Jackets, Waistcoats, Night Caps, Hats, Handkerchiefs, Neck Kerchiefs Or Bandana, etc. “Of these a large portion is entirely useless.” Among the indispensables, according to Williamson, should be a good stock of wearing apparel; generally speaking, white cotton, manufactured into various cloths; such as dimity, calico, if not made of nankeen. The beauty of some fabrics of this description was considered ‘very striking’. Thirty suits will not be found too many for a European in Calcutta society. [Williamson 1813]


A European, probably Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825), in Indian dress, smoking a hookah and watching a nautch in his house at Delhi. Artist: unknown. c.1820. Courtesy: BL

Present-day Scenario
Inside home, Calcutta men commonly wear pajama kurta (পাঞ্জাবী), and the ladies stuck to sari (শাড়ি) wherever they go, inside or outside, till around 1980s when a wave of Anglo-American fashion maxi midi mini dresses became choices of convenience for the young ladies that ultimately gave way to oriental varities of salwar kamiz. Outside, almost all men folks and children of both sexes appear in western attire – but with no caps on head. The corporate or institutional dress codes in Calcutta do not insist to wear a headdress – a useful accessory for resisting weather bite, but a necktie around the neck to look smarter at the cost of agonizing physical discomfort. There were quite a few things Europeans invented for tropical climate that become obsolete now in spite of their latent advantages. The Sola-topee or topi, may serve a good example of such things. Topi is made of lightweight sholapith covered with khaki or white cloth. The reason for using sola is its lightness and its heat-resistant capacity for protecting head from the scorching tropical sun, cleverly fitted with two tiny holes at both sides for ventilation. Colonial men and women loved to wear it for convenience and comfort, Indians rejected it possibly because of its prosaic appearance on the first place.

Colonial Scenario:
The favourable oriental dejeuner usually consisted of tea, coffee, eggs, toast, and fish, (either fresh or slightly powdered with salt, rice, &c.). Many gentlemen, especially those from North Britain, add sweetmeats and soogee; the latter corresponding with porridge, oats, which were not cultivated in India. Of all things of European liking Hilsa might be the foremost. The fish tasted ‘remarkably fine’ especially when baked in vinegar, or preserved in tamarinds worcestersauce.

The knives and forks were all of European manufacture, though, within few years, some excellent imitations appeared in market. The greater part of the plate, used throughout the country, was made by native smiths, who, in some instances, might be seen to tread very close on the heels of English jewelers. Table cloths and napkins were manufactured in several parts of the country, where ‘piece goods’ were made, especially at Patna.

Present-day Scenario
Not for breakfast alone, tables for lunch and dinner (or supper as it was called then) resemble by and large what commonly Calcuttans having these days. Although, Bengalese still prefer to use hands in dining at home, cutlery are being used increasingly along with a large number of local variety of tableware like Tea Cups and Plates, Tea Cozy, Pepper Grinder, Salt Shakers, Napkins, and Pickles, Vinegar & Sauce as for instance. The English, as we all know, is basically a highly traditional race who still calls their lamb cutlet a ‘mutton cutlet’ retaining the French legacy of the product they had borrowed. Following the same tradition they call many products of Indian origin with vernacular appellations. On the contrary, in case of the colonial products, which they designed and developed using local ingredients and technology, reference to the source of origin is rarely provided. The story of the world famous Worcestershire Sauce and the theme British Curry may exemplify my view point adequately.

LEA & PERRINS® .The story of Lea & Perrins® famous Worcestershire Sauce begins in the early 1800s, in the county of Worcester. Returning home from his travels in Bengal, Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the area, was eager to duplicate a recipe he’d acquired. On Lord Sandys’ request, two chemists, John Lea and William Perrins, made up the first batch of the sauce but were not impressed with their initial results. They needed few years more to find right kind of aging process to turn the ingredients into a delicious savoury sauce. Without any kind of advertising, in just a few short years, it was known and coveted in kitchens throughout Europe.

Portrait of William Fullerton of Rosemont, Dip Chand, Murshidabad, India, 1760-1763. Opaque watercolour on paper. Company Painting. Courtesy: VAM

In the space of a few years Duncan, a New York entrepreneur, was importing large shipments to keep up with demand. Lea & Perrins was the only commercially bottled condiment in the U.S., and Americans loved it right away. Almost 170 years later, Lea & Perrins sauce remains a favorite in households across the U S.

BRITISH CURRY. “The idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture. Indians referred to their different dishes by specific names … But the British lumped all these together under the heading of curry.” [Collingham] In fact, there are many varieties of dishes called ‘curries’. In original traditional cuisines, the precise selection of spices for each dish is a matter of national or regional cultural tradition, religious practice, and, to some extent, family preference. Such dishes are called by specific names that refer to their ingredients, spicing, and cooking methods. Curry, which becomes now Britain’s adapted national dish, is largely viewed as an Anglo-Indian theme. Luke Honey, a columnist, writes “how fond I was of Anglo-Indian curry powders; the sort of thing I chuck into stews and then have the nerve to call ‘curry’”. He made his own version of Dr Kitchener’s curry powder, as described by Mrs Beeton. He slightly adapted it for the modern kitchen and added cardamom and black pepper. [Honey] Wyvern’s recipe for basic powders reveals a large number of similar ingredients, hinting at very similar flavour profiles. They all include turmeric, cumin seed, fenugreek, mustard seed, black peppercorns, coriander seed, poppy seed and dried ginger and chilies.

In 1810, the entrepreneur Sake Dean Mahomed, from the Bengal Presidency, opened the first Indian curry house in England: the Hindoostanee Coffee House in London. The theme of British Curry, as distinguished from Proto-Curry and Anglo-Indian Curry, presumes that Curry is the result of over four hundred years of British interaction with India. As the findings of a recent British academic research suggests, Curry is a way that the British made Indian cuisine understandable in their minds and on their palates. It is more than a mixture of Indian spices, an idea or a symbol of the success of British imperial endeavors in possessing, converting and incorporating an object of other i.e. of India, into their world. [Waldrop]


British Tea
Tea Culture of India, Calcutta in particular, tells a fascinating story of social dynamics involving the ways of life of the British and the Indian people. The British gifted Tea Culture to India where they cultivated tea plants of native origin as well as the Camellia sinensis variety that Robert Fortune smuggled from China in 1849 for the East India Company. In Britain initially it was a luxury of the high society under the spell of Braganza the Queen Consort of Charles II during 1662 -1685, who happened to be the primary motivator behind the emerging British tea culture. Because the British East India Company had a monopoly over the tea industry in England, tea became more and more popular; and as its prices slowly fell, the luxury of drinking tea became middle-class habit. At the close of the 18th century tea – a cheaper drink than bear – turned out to be the drink of Britons of every class. There have been, nonetheless, the ways of making tea and taking tea remain distinctive of every class conforming nuances of tea culture. The popularity of tea, its respectability and domestic rituals, supported the rise of the British Empire, and “contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution by supplying both the capital for factories and calories for labourers” . Tea became the national drink of Britain. [Mintz]

Colonial India
In late 1870s the drinking of tea was in fashion all over India and commonly a part of everyday informal social meets. [Mandelslo] We can see from contemporary writers that ladies and gentlemen had occasions to socialize themselves many a time a day – at breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, supper, dinner, and after-dinner – and never without cups and shimmering teapots to induce sharing of minds. Calcutta was then a city of ceremonials and carnivals. Tea-parties were enlivened with spirit of sociability where anything could be discussed, less the delicate subjects like tea growing and its politics and economics. Tea and the Britain have a shady history. ‘The British brought tea to England by way of monopolistic trade, smuggling, drug dealing, and thievery’ as modern research admits [Petras]. The Colonial India produced highest bid tea in auction markets by employing bonded labourers from Assam and North Bengal. From Calcutta, troops of hair-dressers and shoe-makers of Chinese origin were also called to join on the presumption that every Chinese a good tea-plucker. The plight of these hapless slaves was first known when Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Dwarkanath Ganguly reported in Sanjibani (সঞ্জিবনী) aroud 1886 [Ganguly] long before Mulk Raj Anand portrayed their misery in his famous Two leaves and a bird appeared in 1937. [Anad]

Recent Scenario
The Tea Culture in India virtually started with the Tea Cess Bill of 1903 provided for levying a cess on tea exports – the proceeds of which were to be used for the promotion of Indian tea both within and outside India. Large hoardings and posters for tea recipes were put up in Indian languages, on several railway platforms; at Calcutta tram terminals they distributed free cups of tea, added with milk and sugar to make the drink agreeable to uninitiated tongues, and the like promotional plans put into operation to convert the teetotaler Indian public, especially the Bengalese, into a tea-addict race to whom ‘every time a tea time’. The plans, however, failed to meet their goal so long the aggressive opposition from the Swadeshi camp was in force. Gandhi called tea ‘an intoxicant’, in the same class of avoidable substances as tobacco and cacao. In the early 1920s, Acharya Prafulla Ray, an eminent chemist and a passionate nationalist, published cartoons equating tea with poison [Sanyal], in contrast of the British outlook that drinking tea is good for health of every family member including the dog. “Young dogs are frequently kept in health by a cup of tea being given to them every day.”[Roberts]

Tea Set. Oil on canvas. Artist: Jean-Étienne Liotard. 1781-83. Courtesy:Getty Center

Rabindranath Tagore, to whom the spirit of nationalist was never chauvinistic, welcomed tea cordially not only as a refreshing drink but an engaging Culture as he had experienced in Japan in 1916. He also established at Santiniketan a unique café exclusively for tea, ‘Cha-Chawkro’ (চা চক্র) in around 1929 – an addaa for the চা-স্পৃহ চঞ্চল চাতক দল tea lovers, [Chakraborty 2019]. Cha-Chawkro probably was the third stand-alone Tea Room in India, the first being The Favourite a typical vernacular tea joint set up in1918, and the second, a typical well-groomed Anglican tea-shop that the Swish Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Flury opened in 1927 under the banner “Flurys”.

Today’s Flurys is no more a tea-room – but surely a brazen joint best known for its exquisite breakfast meals. The décor has given away its colonial vibe for a fusion of cultural trends of no character of its own. [Majumdar,2009]

The old Favourite Cabin, however, still continuing with its inimitable tea-culture indigenously developed since 1918. Excepting the tea tables, crockery and the style of tea making, Nutan Barua, and his elder brother Gaur, borrowed nothing from the English to steer this first stand-alone tea room making a history contributed by generations of regular customers, many of them were firebrand writers, political activists, and young intellectuals. The tea-table manners were guided by the unwritten codes the customers formed themselves over the years that surely helped the cafe in continuing with its esprit de corps so long. [Bhaduri]

Other than the three pioneering tea shops we discussed Calcutta had quite a few local bistros famous for their addictive teas, often with some fried specialties. Basanta Cabin, Jnanbau’s tea stall, in North, Radhubabu’s stall, Sangu Valley, Bonoful in South, and Café de Monico at the city centre had been then crowdie hangouts of different social groups who were largely responsible for hauling an independent tea culture of this colonial city. Although the tea industry is still looking optimistically for the prospect of India’s National Drink status, the culture of Tea is seemingly dying a silent death. Already assaulted by coffee and the American soft-drink lobbyists, it may not stand the shock of being robbed its very identity in recent time. The good name of ‘tea’ is now being abused to mean some novelty refreshments that have little or no tea content, but mostly made of heady spices often with large proportion of milk and sugar. Such brands of desi teas sound like new versions of Gandhian tea now being marketed as Tulsi tea, Masala tea, Malai tea, Rhododendron tea, and the like. The Kahwa tea, is however different being the soul-warming drink of the Kashmiris and a part of their culture. All these refreshment drinks, of dissimilar taste and flavour, meant for people of different mind-sets than those who enjoyed tea the way Tagore’s Gora did, or a Nazrul did in Favourite Café, or someone, not necessarily an intellectual like Sydney Smith [Smith], who thanks God for tea, wondering “What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”


It is highly interesting to note, all these ‘new things’ created by the Europeans for themselves proved in no time to be equally good for Indian homes. Those products actually gave indigenous people an exposure to alternative styles of living and an opportunity to preview their relative merits that instigated necessary attitudinal change to tolerate differences in socio-cultural values and accept what found ‘best’ for them objectively. This attitudinal change we may consider as an indispensable condition for bringing about the ‘Awakening of Bengal’ and its recurrences around 1880s and 1930s.



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Bhaduri, Arka. 2019. “ফেবারিট কেবিন.” Indian Express, May 9, 2019. https://bengali.indianexpress.com/west-bengal/favourite-cabin-a-century-old-kolkata-cafe-college-street-100180/.

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Cotton, H E A. 1907. Calcutta: Old and New; a Historical and Descriptive Handbook of the City. Calcutta: Newman.https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog/page/n3

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Gandhi, Arun. 2014. Grandfather Gandhi. NY: Atheneum Books. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=wduwz6-DapAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Honey, Luke. 2008. “Dr Kitchener’s Curry Powder.” The Greasy Spoon. 2008. https://lukehoney.typepad.com/the_greasy_spoon/2008/11/dr- kitcheners-curry-powder.html.

Koff, David. 1969. No TitleBritish Orientalism And The Bengal Renaissance 1773-1835. Calcutta: Firma KL. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.98306/page/n7.

Mahomet, Sake Deen. 1794. The Travels of Dean Mahomet : A Native of Patna in Bengal, through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of the Honourable the East India Company. [Ireland]: Cork. https://archive.org/details/b28742898/page/n5.

Majumdar, Rakhi. 2009. “Into the Future: Apeejay Surrendra Group Post Jit Paul.” ET :Jun 04, 2009, 2009. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/into-the-future-apeejay-surrendra-group-post-jit-paul/articleshow/4617853.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.

Mandelslo, Johann Albrecht von. 1669. Voyages Celebres & Remarquables, Faits de Perse Aux Indes Orientales. London: John Starkey, and Thomas Basset. https://archive.org/details/voyagescelebresr00mand/page/n8.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1993. “The Changing Roles of Food in the Study of Consumption.” In Consumption and the World of Goods; Ed. by Brewer, John; Porter, Roy. NY: Routledge. https://www.amazon.com/Consumption-World-Goods-Culture-Centuries/dp/0415114780.

Ogilvie, S. (2012). Frontmatter. In Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary (pp. I-Vi). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139129046″>https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139129046

Peers, Douglas M. 2006. No TitlIndia under Colonial Rule: 1700-1885. NY: Routledge. https://books.google.co.in/books? id=dyQuAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_book_other_v ersions_r&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false%0A%0A.

Petras, Claire. 2013. “British Tea 17th-19th Century.” Clairepetras.Com. 2013. http://clairepetras.com/history/ .
Roberts, Emma. 1837. Scenes and Characteristics Hindostan,with Sketches Of Anglo-Indian Society. Vol. 1 (2). London: Allen. https://archive.org/details/scenesandcharac04robegoog.

Sanyal, Amitava. 2012. “Mahatma Gandhi and His Anti-Tea Campaign.” BBC News Magazine, May 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17905975.
Shastri, Shibanath. 1909. রামতনু লাহিড়ি ও তৎকালীন বঙ্গসমাজ. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Calcutta: SK Lahiri. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.111.479.1009-a.

Smith, Sidney. 1855. A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith. By His Daughter, Lady Holland. With a Selection from His Letters. NY: Harper. https://archive.org/details/memoirofreverend02smituoft/page/n6.

Waldrop, Darlene Michelle. 2007. “A Curried Gaze: The British Ownership Of Curry.” Univ. Georgia.

Williamson, Thomas. 1810. East India Vade Mecum; or, Complete Guide to Gentlemen Intended for the Civil, Military,or Naval Service of the Hon. East India Company; Vol. 2 (2). London: Black, Parry. https://www.scribd.com/document/305022589/The-East-India-Vade-Mecum-Volume-2-of-2-by-Thomas-Williamson.

Williamson, Thomas. 1813. Costume and Customs of Modern India from Collection of Drawings by Charles Doyley… Ed. by Thomas Williamson. Oxford University. Vol. XXX. London: Edward Omre. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=VNFbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP7&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false.

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CALCUTTA MAIDAN in 18th and 19th Centuries

Pavilion at edge of Monohur Doss’s Tank, Maidan. Photographer: Unknown. Dated c1900-1914. Courtesey: RCAHMS


কলকাতা ময়দানঃ অষ্টাদশ/ ঊনবিংশ শতাব্দী


The Beginning

After winning back Calcutta, finally defeating Siraj at Plassey, the English East India Company decided upon two things: (1) Replacement of the their old fort with a new one – mightier and better-planned, and (2) Expansion of Calcutta southward.

The onslaught of Nabob’s army wrecked the already overcrowded settlement. The situation called for immediate renovation and expansion of the town toward pastoral Govindpore where the new Fort William was to be erected. ‘Govindpore village, surrounded as it was by waste lands formed a natural esplanade.’ [4] The old Fort had no esplanade for guns, which happened to be one of the reasons for its fall. [10] About a mile away from the old Fort the construction of the second Fort William set off in 1758. The new Fort, essentially a military establishment, and not a fortified factory of English traders as the old Fort was styled, costed the EEIC some two million sterling [5]. The chosen site of the Fort was on the river-bank of village Govindpore, considerably south of the old Mint.


Calcutta from the Old Course. Artist : Chartles D’Oyly. c1838

Formerly, the village was the primary seat of the Sheths and the Bysaks. In early 16th century, four families of Bysaks and one of Sheths founded the village of Govindpore, after the name of their tutelary deity, Govindaji. They built a shrine of the Vaisnav deity on the site where the New Fort William now stands, not far from the old Kalighat temple. [17].   Govindpore had only 57 bighas of inhabited land out of 1,178 bighas. The entire population of the flourishing village was removed to make room for the new Fort with its unobstructed field of gun fire that completed in 1773. The inhabitants were  compensated by providing lands elsewhere, expending restitution-money – the fund Siraj-ud-Dowlah recompensed for the damage he did. The Sheths moved to Cotton Bale Market, (Bengali: সুতানটি হাট ), in Burrabazar. The jungle that cut off the village of Chowringhee from the river was cleared giving way to the wide grassy stretch of ‘Maidan of which Calcutta is so proud’.

Expansion of Town Calcutta

The denizens of town Calcutta never before felt like going further than  Respondentia Walk, lying beyond Chandpal Ghat, or the fish-pond near Lal Dighi as ‘there was too wholesome a dread of thieves and tigers, to induce them to wander into the grounds of the neighboring zemindars who were the Robin Hoods of those days.’[13] In 1756, when Seraj-o-dowlah took the place, only seventy houses were inhabited by Englishmen.  The sudden development activities at Govindpore encouraged them to look forward for a change in lifestyle. The prospect of living lavishly in countryside bungalows in the neighborhood of the New Fort site attracted the white population. Gradually they moved out to settle in village Chowringhee adjacent to Govindpore separated only by the ancient pathway from Chitreswari temple at extreme North to Kalighat at South. As already we noticed, Esplanade and Maidan both are being used indiscriminately for the sprawling green square around the New Fort William.

Maidan looking beyond Esplanade Row. Dhurrumtollah Tank at right corner, criss-cross pathways, and tents are visible. No details available. Courtesy: Alamy

Maria Graham in her, Journal of a residence in India, penned a picturesque description of Maidan as she found in 1810.  The road which leads past Fort William, con­necting Garden Reach with Calcutta, is called the Esplanade. It is shaded, by umbrageous trees, and forms a very pleasant drive in the evening. The light air coming off the water is cool and grateful to the multitudes in search of air, change, or exercise. This esplanade is terminated by a very handsome colonnade ghat, which forms a most classical and pleasing object to the eye, as well as a most con­venient and useful accommodation to the natives for the performance of ablutions in the river, to which the bathers descend by a flight of steps. It was built solely for this object by a pious and opulent Hindoo. [9]

The snow-white paddy bird, with elegant and outstretched neck and stork-like dignity, walks care­lessly, unheeded, undisturbed, unscared he pursues his watchful employment of fishing in the shallows, with an almost domestic familiarity and fearlessness of the presence of man. [12]


Maidan, the chief open space in Calcutta between Government House and Garden Reach, is also called the Esplanade (Bengali: গড়ের মাঠ), that is, plain ground in front of a fort, in which attackers are exposed to the defenders’ fire. Calcutta Maidan, or the Esplanade of the New Fort, never had an occasion to partake defense task but acts as a fulfilling centre of entertainment and refreshment ever since its formation.

Maidan virtually covers, besides small portions of Birjee and of Chowringhee, the entire area of Govindpore, which began at the Northern boundary of Dhee Calcutta and ended at Baboo Ghat, and then went up to the Govindpore Creek, or Tolly’s Nullah at the extreme end of the English zamindari. It was ‘immediately to the South of Surman’s Gardens, next to the General Hospital building.  At West, Maidan includes King’s Bench Walk with a row of trees separating it from the riverbank between Chandpaul Ghaut  and  Colvin’s Ghaut, or Cucha-goody Ghaut, as it was called then.  At North, Esplanade Row, from Chandpaul Ghaut, runs into Dhurumtollah in a straight line past the Council House and the old Government House standing side by side.

The borings made in the Fort, in 1836-40, under the superintendence of Dr. Strong and James Prinsep, have shown that the ocean rolled its waves 500 feet beneath the surface of the present fort, and in 1682 an ancient forest existed in that locality. [1] Early 1789, Government resolved on filling up the excavations and leveling its ground. The plan was prepared for the benefit of Calcutta in general, and of the houses fronting the Esplanade in particular. The plan extended to drain the marsh land, in expectation that the digging a few tanks will furnish sufficient earth and thus save the project cost and time. A new tank was made in 1791 at the corner of Chowringhee and Esplanade, which existed till the dawn of the twentieth century.

Calcutta: David Rumsey Historical Map (cropped). London: Chapman & Hall. 1842 Courtesy: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (GB)


Talaos or Tanks

The City of Calcutta is supplied with good drinking water, from a considerable number of large ponds mostly situated towards the Chowringhee quarter. Those facing Chowringhee Road were construct­ed by Monohur Dass, the chief member of the Shah Nowputee Muhajun of Benares in Lord Cornwallis’s time. [2]

A series of artificial lakes (tanks) stretched down the length of Chowringhee Road: the Dhurrumtolah Tank at the northern limit; the Manohardoss or Colinga Tank with its corner pavilions opposite Lindsay Street; the General’s tank opposite Park Street; Elliott’s Tank facing Harington Street previously ‘Graham Street’; and at south-end the Birjee Tank.

Dhurrumtollah Tank


Photograph of Dhurrumtollah Tank on Maidan from Chowringhee Road. Creator: Samuel Bourne. 1865. Courtesy: British Library

This is a view from the north end of Chowringhee Road, beside the carriage stand, looking north-west across the Dhurrumtollah Tank, towards the façades of the houses along Esplanade Row, with Government House at the extreme left. The flat-fronted, verandahed building behind the premises of William Coish & Co is the Adjutant-General’s offices. Among the commercial premises on Esplanade Row are Mountain’s Hotel, Madame Nielly (French milliner), Payne & Co’s Belatee Bungalow and Thomson & Company.

The view looks south along Chowringhee Road with impressive array of private and public buildings on the far side of Maidan.

Monohurdass’ Tank

Monohur Dass Tank. Creator: Samuel Bourne. 1868 Courtesy: British LibraryThe view looks south along Chowringhee Road, with the Monohurdass Tank in the foreground and General’s Tank beyond. The spire of St Paul’s Cathedral can by seen on the skyline at the extreme right.


General’s Tank on Maidan. Creator William Wood. 1833. Courtesy: British Library


The General’s Tank

 The General’s Tank was one of the three large artificial reservoirs in the Chowringhee district of Calcutta. It was just south of the junction with Park Street. This print also shows the house of Thomas Babington Macauley, who was a Law Member of the Supreme Council of India, and worked on the reorganisation of the Indian legal system necessitated by the New India Act of 1834. He lived at number 33, Chowringhee Road, from 1834 to 1838. Thereafter the building became the headquarters of the Bengal Club.This lithograph is taken from plate 21 from ‘Views of Calcutta’ an album of paintings by William Wood.

Elliott’s Tank


Elliott’s Tank. Creator: William Wood. 1833. Courtesy: British Library

 Elliott’s Tank facing Harington Street, previously ‘Graham Street’, situated between the General Tank and Birjee Talao. The tank was named after Sir Charles Elliott, Lieutenant-Governor, 1890-1893.



The Fort occupied a large chunk of Maidan around the centre with as many as seven gates, each having its own approach road across Maidan, namely, the Calcutta Gate leading out to the Eden Gardens, the Plassey Gate facing south of Government House; the Chowringhee Entrance Gate leading out of the road entering Park Street; the Chowringhee Exit Gate leading out of the road entering Park Street; The Hospital Gate leading out of the Race Course; the St. George’s Gate facing north of Hastings; and the Water Gate facing the river near the Gwalior Monument. It is only in recent years we have had any road outside the fort. Pathways thread their way across the Maidan which has been cleared of the jungle. The oldest among them is the ‘Course’ made to take the air in’. The road was, however, full of dust, yet considered one of the airiest and pleasantest drives in Calcutta, extending from the Cocked Hat on the north to the Kidderpore Bridge. The Course, so called as being a coss or two miles in length, is described in 1768, as being ‘out of town’ in a sort of angle. [13]


The broad gravelled walk on the west side of that portion, known as the Red Road, then called Secretary’s Walk, constructed in 1820. To the south of the Fort ran the Ellenborough Course. The Vice-Roy Lord Northbrook led the grand procession this way taking the Prince of Wales from the Prinsep’s Ghaut to the Government House. It was a fine raised and turfed ride for horse exercise; and towards the cast, the Race Course, commenced in 1819.[6]

Strand Road with Indians with bullock carts and horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships and other boats on river in Calcutta. Creator: Samuel Bourne. c1860s Photograph by Bourne and Shephard



Another avenue of trees was planted, about the time of the Lottery Committee, on the river-bank from Chandpal Ghaut to the New Fort. Its position was indicated by the row of fine trees which stood south of Baboo Ghat.  This was known as Respondentia Walk – the resort of those fond of moonlight rambles, and of children, with their train of servants. ‘Calcutta society, alighting from carriages and palanquins, promenaded in the cool of the evening’. Dogs and horses were not allowed to disturb the harmony of polite conversation, by an order of the Governor-General in Council forbidding persons accompanied by dogs to enter Respondentia Walk.  [4] The Esplanade on the banks of the Hooghly, thus provided the fashionable promenade of Calcutta a Hygeian Walk, as William Jones called. [1] Where the Bank of Bengal stands on the bank of the old Creek, at Cutcha- goody Ghaut, an avenue of trees ran along the river-bank to the Supreme Court, as King’s Bench Walk. The Walk was exclusively reserved for the English inhabitants from 5 to 8 o’clock every evening, sentries being posted **near the sluice-bridge” to prevent the entrance of natives.



[6] In 1823 the Strand road was formed, which led to a great sanitary improvement. This road has been widened at the expense of the river, so that where the western railing of the Metcalfe Hall stands, there were, in 1820s, nine fathoms of water. [13]




View of Eden Gardens Calcutta. Creator: Samuel Bourne. 1865. Courtesy: British Library


The site was initially named Auckland Circus Gardens, which stands at the northern-end of Maidan toward Calcutta Gate. The Gardens came into being when the Governor General, Lord Auckland, desired to create a circus and a garden. A pleasure ground with an oblong tank in center was laid out on this site generally resorted to for riding and recreation. The in­habitants are indebted to the liberality and taste of the Misses Eden, sisters of Lord Auckland. There was a Band-stand, where the Town Band or the Band of the European Regiment stationed in the Port, discourses sweet music every evening. Of late years the Gardens have been greatly enlarged, and laid out with winding paths and artificial water, interspersed with a profusion of beautiful flowering trees, and shrubs —a pleasant place for a morning or evening stroll. In the Gardens is a Burmese Pagoda, removed after the last war in 1851. and re-erected there in 1856.



In the green of Maidan there had been several installations of statues of Governor-Generals, and Heroes of the British Raj. While each statue was a perfect specimen of Western art, not all the personalities were found equally adorable; few were hated by the native subjects. The statues remained scattered all over Maidan till the end of colonial era, and thereafter replaced by figures of Indian national leaders. The old ones are now archived at the Flagstaff House in Barrackpore. Some nice photographs of the statues curated by DBH Ker in recent time can be seen in Flickr.[12] The details of the statues are available in Raj Bhavan(WB) Occasional Paper-4.[15]

Unveiling of Statue of Outram on Horseback, modelled by John Foley. Bourne and Shephard. 1874


The statue of Outram on horseback set in Calcutta Maidan was one the finest sculptural specimens modeled by John Foley in 1874. The statue inspired Barbara Groseclose, the art historian, to remark that ‘doubts and anxieties, as well as assumptions about their own place in Indian life, bear strongly on the roles and achievements for which the British sought or received commemoration ..’ See Outram Institute Puronokolkata



The Maidan has come into existence when the Company built the second Fort William in Govindpore in 1773. The General Hospital was already constructed at the outskirt in 1770 near the old Jail, which was demolished to make room for construction of the Cathedral in 1839. The Race Corse Stadium and Ochterlony Monument followed in 1809 and 1863 respectively. Victoria Memorial and the Curzon Park – the two integral constituents of Maidan created in 20th century – are outside the scope of the present discussion.



The works of the Fort were planned by an engineer named Boyer. Undoubtedly it is the 2nd Fort William, the regular architecture and commanding position of which are equally conspicuous.  This fortress completely commands the town. Evidently, it was designed to hold the inhabitants of Calcutta, in case of another siege, as permission was originally given to every inhabitant of the settlement to build a house within the fort. But entertaining views of the comfort of living in garden houses discouraged the people to accept this privilege. They preferred living in developing Chowringhee neighbourhood. In 1756 the plain were occupied by native huts, and by salt marshes, which afforded fine sport to buffalo hunters. [1]


Fort William, Govindpore. Chowringhee Gate. Creator: Unidentified. 1880’s Source: eBay,


The first hospital was erected in 1707 for soldiers and sailors, was located in the present Gerstein’s Place, near St. John’s Church, and lasted for nearly half a
century until the sack of Calcutta in 1756. The Company’s second hospital was a make-shift structure in the Old Fort, and was used for about thirteen or fourteen years till 1770. The project was mooted at a Consultation of the Board over which he presided on the 29th September, 1766. The hospital that stood in 1707 beside the old graveyard in a most insanitary site at Gerstein Place was removed ‘into the country’ at the far end of Maidan. The house was initially purchased in 1768 from a native gentleman for the purpose.



The East India Company (Calcutta Council) purchased the plot of land with a garden house from Rev. John Zacharias Kiernander at a cost of Rs. 98900.00 along with an adjoining plot belonging to a Bengali Gentleman. Gourchurn Tarsor (Tagore?) was the only Bengali among those who offered their property on sale, the others being James Dollas and Domingo de Rosario. After various alterations and additions including two other buildings erected in 1770 on the-then Lower Circular Road. The hospital renamed as the Presidency General Hospital was open for admission of general public. In 1795 two new wings and some other additions and alterations were made to equip the hospital with latest medical technology. [14]




View of Eden Gardens Calcutta. Creator: Samuel Bourne. Sig.date:1902.


The St Paul’s Cathedral was designed in the Indo-Gothic style by William F Forbes. Forbes, a military engineer who was later promoted to Major General, was also responsible for the design of the old Calcutta Mint where he held the post of Mint Master for a time. It was through a long course of discussions the site for its construction was decided. In favor of the site finally selected, a plebiscite of the most representative bodies and organizations in Calcutta voted overwhelmingly. The Cathedral has been erected on the site of the hideous and obsolete structure of the old Jail that was demolished by the Government at its own cost. [7] Construction of the cathedral began in 1839, when the foundation stone was laid by Daniel Wilson, Bishop of Calcutta, and completed in 1847. The tall central spire and square tower beneath were inspired by a similar feature at the twelfth century cathedral in Canterbury, England. The upper portion of the tower, which originally reached a height of sixty-one meters, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1934.
Source: ‘Photographs of India and Overland Route’ by Oscar Mallitte in 1865.



The Race Course, which originated as the Course or promenade of Calcutta is one of the finest in the country. Racing was started at the Akra farm at the foot of Garden Reach from 1780, if not earlier. There at that time, the Nabob of Oudh, deposed by the British, and his descendents lived in their palatial garden houses. In 1812, the new course was laid out in Calcutta roughly where it is located today.


Racecourse Calcutta. Viceroy’s Cup Day. Creator: Johnston & Hoffmann in 1845

Lord Wellesley, during his administration, set his face decidedly against horse-racing and every other species of gambling. His influence threw a damp on it for many years, though last century a high value was attached to English jockeys, and the races were favorite subjects of expectation with the ladies. With the amusement of the turf came the spirit of betting. [13] One of the most significant events in the history of Calcutta racing took place in 1847 when the Calcutta Turf Club was officially born. [See: Royal Calcutta Turf Club  https://puronokolkata.com/2014/01/06/royal-calcutta-turf-club-calcutta-1845/%5D




The Ochterlony Monument is an iconic landmark of Calcutta. It was designed by J. P. Parker and erected by Burn & Company in 1828, on the north-eastern side of Calcutta Maidan. The Monument was dedicated to the memory of Major-general Sir David Ochterlony, a commander of the British East India Company. He was commemorated for his successful defense of Delhi against the attack of the Maratha Yaswantrao Holkar in 1804, and also for the victory of the East India Company in the Anglo- Nepalese War of 1814 to 1816. The expenditure regarding the construction and the foundation of the monument was paid from the public fund. The ‘Cloud kissing Monument’ as Mark Twain called it, is 48 metres (157 ft) high.

It has a foundation based on the Egyptian style.  The column is a combination of styles with a classical fluted column, a Syrian upper portion, and a Turkish dome. It has two balconies at the top. The top floor is accessible by a serpentine staircase of 223 steps.




Maidan is so many things to so many people. Apart from army parades, and drills of mounting police, there are washermen who wash clothes and themselves in its ponds (see Dhopa Pukur in Mark Wood’s map), shepherds who tend their flocks, citizens taking their morning walks, and the last vestiges of the horse-drawn hackney carriages plying its fringes entertaining merrymakers and businessmen to make money. When Jamshedji Framji Madan entered the ‘bioscope’ scene in 1902, he began to screen films in tents, one of which was set up on the Maidan.

 Chowringhee, the new township next to Maidan, is a place of modern creation. In 1768 there were a few European families enjoyed ‘out of town’ living. They always looked for opportunities of entertainment and recreation – including the out-door varieties held at Maidan, like Ballooning, Circus, Bicycle Race, Horse Race, Polo, Cricket and such exciting sports of the day. A large stretch of the Maidan is dotted with small greenish tents belonging to sports clubs.


Charak Puja procession in Maidan – coloured lithograph. Creator: Charles D’Oyly. 1848.



Balloon ascent was indeed a novelty in India. On 30th July, 1785, a balloon, measuring six feet in diameter, and filled with rarefied air was let off from the Maidan. Mr. M’intle. the young gentleman who constructed the balloon, favoured the settlement with another exhibition next evening. The first ascent of a large balloon from the plains of Bengal took place on the 21st March, 1836.


“Every now and then some adventurous ‘entertainer’ makes a tour of the country; but seldom, I fancy, with satisfactory results; and travelling circuses appear to meet with no better success”. An Opera Company which has been lately enlivening Calcutta, seems to be an exception to the general rule, being the best thing of the kind that has ever been seen in India. [3]. Chiarini’s Italian Circus performed in Calcutta in August 1880.

Around 1880, the cited playbill advertised Wilson’s Circus in Calcutta, featuring Edwin Moxon, who appeared with his Magic Tom-Tom act, and with the Moxon Brothers in their ‘wonderful balancing act’ with a pyramid of chairs. Around that time Royal Italian Circus where Chiarini, an Italian director performed in Calcutta. Professor Bose’s great Bengal Circus exhibited its shows at the Maidan in January 1900 in which Bir Badal Chand wrestled with a Royal Bengal Tiger.


Polo has been played in the Maidan since 1861. The modern game of polo, though formalised and popularised by the British, is derived from Manipur where the game is known as  ‘Pulu’. In 1862 the Calcutta Polo Club was established by two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and (later Major General) Joe Sherer. They were inspired by the game in Manipur and later they spread the game to their peers in England. The club runs the oldest and first ever Polo Trophy, the Ezra Cup (1880).


Cricket & Football



Ground of the Calcutta Cricket Club, 15th July 1861. Creator: Percy Carpentier. 1861. Courtesy: MCC Museum at Lords


Calcutta Cricket & Football Club, founded in 1792, is one of the oldest sports clubs in the world. The first formal cricket match played between the Etonians and the rest of the Civil Servants of the Company was played for two consecutive days on the green before the Government House in January 1804.

In the absence of a permanent venue, the Calcutta Cricket Club played its games on the esplanade between Fort William and Government House. By the 1820s, the members felt the need for a permanent ground. In 1825, the Calcutta Cricket Club managed to obtain the use of a plot of land on the Maidan. In 1841 the Club was relocated to the eastern boundary of the Auckland Circus Gardens. [See: Calcutta Cricket https://puronokolkata.com/2014/06/18/calcutta-cricket-maidan-calcutta-1792/%5D




The Maidan is deeply embedded in the Bengali psyche as well. It was fashionable for the Babus of old Calcutta to go for fresh air in the esplanade, or গড়ের মাঠ. Carey described the great show of fashionables in evenings at the Eaden Gardens out for the purpose of enjoying a drive—“eating the air (howa-khana) as the Indians express it.” [5] Rabindranath , in his reminiscences  mentioned about the sports-loving public rushing to playground in Maidan riding on crowded tramcar footboards; how his elder brother, Jyotirindranath took his wife, Kadambari, on horse-back to Maidan for a promenade defying social taboos. Maidan has stood a mute witness to the unfolding history of the city until the beginning of the 20th century, when the Maidan spread out its huge stage to voice against British rule, supporting national agenda for freedom movements. In connection with the founding of Victoria Memorial Hall upon the Maidan, some anxiously felt that “…it needs but the smallest acquaintance with that great city to know that its inhabitants regard the Maidan as a virtuous woman regards her honour, any assault upon which must be repelled as the deadliest form of insult.” [7]



    1. Anonymous. 1816. “Sketches of India ; Or,observations Descriptive of the Scenery, &c. in Bengal; Chapter 13.” London: Black, Purbury and Allen. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=tEcVAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=“+Setting+aside+the+pleasure+one+natu-+“+rally+feels+at+the+termination+of+a+long+“+voyage,+and&source=bl&ots=RMNhJRJxhm&sig=woJs5KFQwm85BUFHXzP199w35-k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi3gfnAqtv).
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    4. Blechynden, Kathleen. 1905. Calcutta Past and Present. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttapastand02blecgoog).
    5. Carey, William H. 1907. The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company, Being Curious Reminiscences … during the Rules of the East India Company, from 1800 to 1858; vol.2. Calcutta: Cambray. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.116087).
    6. Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook of the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog).
    7. Curzon, Murquis of Keddleston. 1905. British Government in India: The Story of the Viceroys and Government Houses; Vol. 1. Retrieved (https://dl.wdl.org/16800/service/16800_1.pdf).
    8. Kerr, D B. n.d. Forgotten Statuary of the British Raj; A gallery curated by DBHKer (https://www.flickr.com/photos/23268776@N03/galleries/72157631880613097/?rb=1#photo_169640291
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