Sylvain Savolainen

Reporter / Photographer


The great living circus

“The most beautiful city East of Suez”, “the city of dreadful nights”, “the city of joy”, “the armpit of the world”, “the jewel of the royal crown”, these and other contradictory epithets are all used to describe one and the same city : Calcutta. For more than 300 years, this megalopolis has spawned a wide variety of commentaries, most of them based on passion rather than reason. The reason behind the emotional ties which draw people to Calcutta lies within the depths of this Great Living Circus! Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Calcutta!

Certain parts of the world have stymied men living on the various continents over the centuries. Handicapped by the speed of reason which isn't equal to the speed of light, some have occasionally attributed the complexity of such sites to extraterrestrial forces. The mysteries of places such as Nazca, Stonehenge and Easter Island have nonetheless been elucidated through rational discourse in recent years.

Yet there exists to this day a corner of the earth which defies all rational explanation.

Where is it ? Almost on the moon, or at least, on what seems to be the last stopover on Earth. Populated by 15 million Homo Sapiens (maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less) situated at 88°21’ East longitude, 22°35’ North latitude, the mystery site is the city of Calcutta! Located on the world map between the Gulf of Bengal and the Himalayas, at the extreme tip of the Indian subcontinent, Calcutta faces Bangladesh and Burma.

The sheer madness of Calcutta in particular and India in general might be more accurately reflected by a few statistics: the national electoral list includes 604,445,809 registered voters, the Indian Railways employs 1,624,121 persons, and over 3,600 babies are born every hour, which makes it 86,400 in a twenty four hour period. Over a million and a half pedestrians walk across the Calcutta Bridge each day, making it the most highly trafficked bridge in the world.

Calcutta has been the object of countless commentaries, the image most reproduced being that of a shanty town, repeated by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Churchill, Dominique Lapierre, and more recently, Gunter Grass. These disparaging and simplistic attitudes discourage potential visitors, which is unfortunate, since Calcutta offers endless vistas to curious and open-minded adventurers.

Calcutta overflows with an infinite variety of human characters, situations, sensations and surprises. A powerful storehouse of emotion impregnates every aspect of life in the city. A brimful source of inspiration, a kind of artistic concoction.

One often forgets Calcutta is the cradle of the largest figures of art and intellect in India. Examples? Tagore, litterature Nobel Prize in 1913, Ravi Shankar, the musician, Uday Shakar, the dancer, Satyajit Ray, the film maker, Amartya Sen, Economy Nobel Prize in 1998, Raman in physics and Ross in medicine, also Nobel Prizes, Amitav Gosh, star writer and todays representative of India's new generation of authors, Ramakrishna, the thinker, Sri Aurobindo, Auroville's founder, all are natives of Calcutta. The list could be endless. The city is, without any doubt, the epicentre for culture in India. Not to mention the number of journalists breeded by Calcutta who are colonizing the largest newspapers and television editorials in the country. How can one be impervious to this little bit of land? Mrinal Sen, a famous Indian film maker, explains: «{Calcutta is} agitated, nervous, unpredictable, intimidating, infernal...I grew up in this chaos, this confusion. Calcutta stimulates me, Calcutta provokes me, Calcutta irritates me, Calcutta depresses me, but above all, Calcutta inspires me.»

A few moments spent arbitrarily walking through the city streets are sufficient to discover this mine of raw emotion. The city expresses its soul openly in the decrepit but bubbling labyrinth of streets. None of the evils or suffering is concealed, nor are the humanity and vitality diminished by a sense of modesty or morals. Nothing has been polished, and a complete palette of human situations and sensations are presented to the naked eye on the sidewalk itself.

Calcutta is also the theatre of a burlesque and surrealistic sense of humour. The following example may illustrate this; the address of the monumental United States consulate: 1-5 Ho Chi Minh Sarani! Ho Chi Minh Street! One may easily imagine the diplomatic personnel of the consulate and the consul of the United States himself distributing, during their cocktail parties, their business cards on which the address mentioned above is printed...

A city of surprises, Calcutta recycles itself constantly. The former capital of India, birthplace of the Hindu religion and the concept of Karma, reincarnations and cremations, Calcutta is also the last bastion of the Ganges in which ashes of cremated bodies are scattered. The Ganges, river of two thousand names, adored by 800 million faithful worshippers, is an infinite flux in which even the refuse of the city is thrown and recycled. A local watchword exclaims: “Nothing thrown away, nothing lost”. Recycling, gathering refuse, taking things apart, restoring, repairing, reselling are all part of an essential process by which many families stay alive. Thus the children are fed, the family progresses economically and the cycle of life perpetuates itself.

Beyond the anecdotes, the city can reveal a much deeper dimension. All of a sudden, one morning, on a day where your mood is more reflective, you walk out of your hotel, past a street corner, and there you see it: human condition. These two words echoe in your mind and for good reason. The struggle between Life and Death, God and mankind manifest themselves and seem to cohabit with excessive familiarity in this strange city. Logical minds such as government planners and economists of the communist administration of Bengal are cut short by the reality of the metropolis. Predictions and regulations often fall short of goals set by government offices. To be able to comprehend Calcutta in its entirety, one must claim the ability to understand the realities of an entire world. This is not about planning, this is about survival.

Among the varied populations of sidewalk professions, the coolies strike the eye of foreign visitors. These workers often carry sixty to eighty kilos at a time; transporting goods provides their daily bread. As soon as a load is delivered, the coolie returns to the home base, renewing the carrying process almost immediately. Coolies work seven days a week, 365 days each year, leaving their job only when their bodies refuse to work any longer. But despite all appearances, it is a principle of life that governs Calcutta: a life that is nevertheless more than rough.

A disconcerting city. But what could be more surprising? To reach the depth of Calcutta is to approach the complexity of the world, of mankind and of our history. For the past three centuries, Calcutta has been the incarnation of European and part of Asia’s history. Calcutta has seen it all: colonization and its dreams of trade, the emergence of capitalism, World War II, decolonization, communism, displaced populations, religions and missionaries, arts and science, charity and the first steps of humanitarian work. Calcutta has been both a witness and a protagonist of the battle of man against himself, the world and what is happening around him. This city has seen the birth of the philosophical, religious, political or artistic concepts men created to come to terms with the world. In other words, Calcutta is a mirror held up to our humanity, reflecting the plain, unvarnished truth.