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Calcutta Revisited – 1990 / 2010

ravel Notes by Yogendra
(April 2010)

A stinking, uncontrollably sprawling moloch full of slums and garbage, with people living and dying on the sidewalk amongst rats and vermin - that was about Calcutta's image until the turn of the millennium. Bengali artists and intellectuals tried in vain to subtend this with Calcutta's throbbing cultural life. Mother Theresa's asylum for the dying, the slum movie "City of Joy" and Guenter Grass's travelogue "Show Your Tongue" left a much deeper impression in Central Europe.

My own experiences during the 1990 were ambivalent. As a music student I was a frequent guest of my friend and teacher Partha Chatterjee and was regularly staying in his family's house in a relatively wealthy and quiet suburb called Saltlake City. I was mainly interested in the musical life, and that was indeed impressing. Regular concerts with leading artists were taken for granted. Moreover there was lot of informal exchange amongst musicians by means of house concerts, joint practice or teaching. For a young music student with access to these circles it was paradise.

However, my visits were overshadowed by the enormous problems that Calcutta was facing. The division of Bengal at Indian independence had cut the city off its back-country and flooded it with civil war refugees. The socialist Indian economic policy during the decades of the cold war failed to reduce mass poverty in rural areas and growth of the population. Millions of uneducated and penniless people kept streaming into Calcutta in search for a better life. Infrastructure and public utilities had been laid out in the 19th centuiry and could not keep up with the ever growing population. The result was an extremely dense urban sprawl, permanently clogged roads made up of potholes, slum settlements, rubbish piles and air full of stink, fumes and dirt. My coping strategy was to stay inside my host's house as much as possible in order to avoid burning eyes, dry cough and headache.

When I visited Calcutta again this February after a 10-year break my impressions were completely different. The fully developed road from the airport to Saltlake City went past a newly constructed ultra modern hi-tech suburb. This IT-hub of West Bengal attracts highly qualified specialists from all over India and competes worldwide with well-established Indian IT-centres like Bangalore. As far as the eye can see the borders of the town are covered with huge bountiful appartement complexes and shopping malls. Protected by fences and guards they offer quiet and comfortable living and shopping opportunities with Western standard - complete with recreation areas and independent power supply. The demand of the growing wealthy middle-class is increasing permanently and construction work is going on continuously all over the city - obviously Calcutta is booming. Whether the poor people benefit from the boom as well, or whether they are just pushed to the periphery, is hard to judge. But at least pavement dwellers and large slum areas are a rare view today.

The number of cars has increased so much that it has become virtually impossible to get parking space in the historic centre. A specialised kind of parking space mafia controls the few free spots and demands high charges for its service. Many roads have been fully developed in order to avoid a complete collapse of traffic. At the moment the subway network is being extended considerably, too. One might expect that air pollution has worsened even more in proportion to the increased traffic, like in so many other mega cities. To my amazement the opposite is true: I can breathe freely and survive the expeditions to instrument makers in the historic centre without any afflictions. The quick private motorisation seems to take place largely with modern low-emission cars. The formerly terribly stinking three-wheeler motor-rikshaws for short-distance travel have been converted to gas-fuelled operation and have received a symbolic new green painting. And the fleet of busses is currently renewed and changed over to alternative fuels.

Cultural life seems to flourish as well. An ambitious music and dance festival is advertised on huge billboards and many busses - a publicity campaign that formerly only large corporates could afford. Whether the trend towards larger cultural events with a more pronounced show character is good for artistic quality remains an open question, though. In any case there is a dynamic development, which opens up enormous creative possibilities for young artists keen on experiments beyond traditional limitations of style and genre. And the informal networks of Bengali raga musicians are still very much alife. Little has changed with our suppliers, the traditional instrument makers. They keep on producing individual instruments in highly sophisticated handicraft. And the discussions about meeting our specific quality standards remain arduous as ever...