Essays

Politics of Transformation in Twin Refugee Neighbourhoods of Kolkata

Within the changing dynamics of Kolkata’s urban form and topography, this essay undertakes a detailed micro-study of the visual, political and cultural metamorphosis of the twin neighbourhoods of Sreebhumi and Lake Town, that have changed from post-Partition refugee settlements into upmarket zones of leisure, pleasure, and pure symbolic mass consumption through government beautification and festive cycles. It also documents the oral accounts of the experiences of existing older generations of refugee settlers in the neighbourhood and the role of local clubs, colony committees, and theatre groups in building social cohesiveness and identity formation, juxtaposing the past and present of a post-Partition city.

VIP Road, Lake-Town, Kolkata.

VIP Road, Lake-Town, Kolkata, 2018. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

Introduction

Kolkata’s urban form and topography, like many other cities have been undergoing a rapid transformation over the last few years, their built fabric shifting in different ways with a specific acceleration of the visual make-over and take-over of public spaces of the city under the present political regime. The modus operandi of the present form of populist politics in Bengal is to turn the entire city into a site of political spectacle and display, radically appropriating and altering everyday neighbourhood spaces, and continuously pressing the public into the role of viewers and spectators. What is interesting to this urban transformation is the process through which several refugee neighbourhoods in Kolkata which represent the painful and expressive accounts of migration, memories, and movements of so many families that crossed the borders during Partition (one of the most tragic historical events), are fast changing into zones and spaces meant for leisure, pleasure and for pure symbolic mass consumption. The fascinating manner in which the transformation of these refugee neighbourhoods takes place overlaps with the political history and successive electoral regimes of the State.

This study shall offer a detailed narrative of how the process operates at the social level through the transformation of particular neighbourhoods which were mostly refugee colonies in the past, wrought by local clubs and backed by the patronage of local party leaders. The areas extend from the North-Eastern fringes of the city to the South-East extension of Kolkata and have undergone the most intensive and visible transformations under the rubric of the government’s programmes. These areas are connected by the VIP Road feeding into the long stretch of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass that extends to Baishnabghata Patuli. This paper1 focuses on the visual transformations of one prime segment within this larger urban zone – the neighbourhood of Sreebhumi2 and the adjacent flanking stretch of VIP Road, Lake Town3 – to map this transformation from a postcolonial refugee settlement to an increasingly upmarket locality over the years and see how the politics of spectacle is played out most intensely in this area under the aegis of the present political party in Bengal. Here, I shall undertake a detailed micro-study of the social, political and cultural metamorphosis of these twin neighbourhoods to study the extent to which this area holds up a mirror to the visual politics of the party at large, and offers itself as a microcosm of the modes and styles of transfiguration of neighbourhoods.

This area acts as an excellent microcosm that has emerged as the significant hallmark of the larger city politics at present. These twin neighbourhoods best illustrate the holding of an endless sequence of events and festivals alongside the recent spate of beautification and image makeover of localities liberally funded and patronized by the ruling party with the display reaching a kind of climax with annual event of Durga puja, when the mass consumption of the fabrication of a fantastic topography acquires gigantic proportions.

Researching the Past of the Twin Neighbourhoods: Sreebhumi and Lake Town

To understand the politics of the visual transformation of the area, it is important to trace the pasts of Sreebhumi and Lake Town through the histories of its residential settlements, inhabitants, social associations and collective public life. When I started my field work in this area, I found the history of this region to be coterminous with the social and political history of post-Partition Bengal. Through a micro-study of this area, I have tracked the social transition of the region from its initial growth as a refugee settlement into its development into a middle-class residential area – to show how the rise of Sreebhumi and Lake Town stands typical in many ways of the changing social life of the post-Partition city.

In this case study, there are two ways through which I am researching and narrating the pasts of these adjacent neighbourhoods – firstly, by looking at the social transformation and the spatial expansion of this area; and secondly by tracking the role and importance of the local clubs as the most powerful social and political unit around which this residential area (like many others in the city which were mostly refugee settlements born out of the event of Partition), acquired its identity. And I have reconstructed this history through the oral narratives of some of the oldest residents of the locality and their writings in local journals, newspapers and local club magazines.

The key informants were a group of some of the oldest residents of these twin neighbourhoods – Dr. Kalyan Dutta4, Utpal Ghosh,5 Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty,6 and Prabir Guha-Thakurta.7 In their narratives, they mentioned four prominent names who, in their view, can not only be called the founding members of Sreebhumi but also the ones who made the most significant contributions towards the development of this area – Late Manikya Ratan Guha-Thakurta,8 Late Prof. Gyanendra Chandra Dutta Majumdar,9 Late Gouranga Banik,10 Late Subhash Chandra Niyogi,11 Rangalal Ghosh Dastidar,12 and others.

The Changing Morphology of the Neighbourhoods

The history of the emergence of the locality and its spatial expansion has been drawn primarily from the writings of Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, one of the earliest inhabitants of this area, in his published work, Purono Patipukur-o-tar Sanskriti (Chakraborty 2005, 9-33), coupled with the narratives of the local residents, most of whom had migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) during Partition. Chakraborty mentions that during the 1949-50s, the present localities of Sreebhumi, Lake Town and its adjacent areas had no independent existence back then. These areas were marshy lowlands and were parts of larger Patipukur. Adjacent areas like Adyanath Pally, Tentultala, S.K Deb Road (named after Raja Shailendra Kumar Deb of Shobhabazar) comprised few houses but most of the lands then lay vacant. These lands mostly belonged to the rich zamindars of north Calcutta – to Shobhabazar’s Shailendra Kumar Deb, to the Dawns of Jorasanko and Ahiritola, and to the Lahas of Thanthania. With the influx of several thousands of people from East Bengal during Partition, these vacant lands were gradually taken over and turned into refugee settlements. Forests and marshlands were cleared, and the initial process of urbanization started with the forming of different colonies – which were named Colony One, Colony Two, Colony Three and Colony Four. Towards the left of S.K Deb Road was what used to be Colony One, (Pallyshree Colony), and towards the right was Colony Three, adjacent to which lay Annapurna Colony13.

Gradually, with the socio-economic improvement of these first refugee settlers in this area, four lakes which lay next to the Adyanath Pally14 were covered to build a new town which was initially named as ‘Lady-Preston Town’15 and later re-named as ‘Lake-Town’.16 The present-day Canal Street was not yet a concrete road: it used to be a mud track back then running from the south-east of Adyanath Pally connecting the arterial road. A major new thoroughfare – the VIP road, running parallel to the older Jessore Road, connecting the city from Ultadanga train junction to the entrance of the airport – started to develop in 1962, with the main purpose of providing a faster route to the Dum Dum Airport, the sole airport serving the metropolis. Next to the VIP Road, the embanked water bodies around South Patipukur, where fishing culture was practiced earlier, were covered to build up a new locality. This newly formed locality was named ‘Sreebhumi’ by Prof. Gyanendra Chandra Dutta, who was greatly revered by the residents of the locality. This is the residents’ story of how Sreebhumi and Lake-Town came into being. It allowed me to reconstruct the present map of Sreebhumi in which to its north lies Lake-Town, towards its north-west lays Patipukur, towards the south-west is Dakhindari adjoining Ultadanga, and on the east emerges the V.I.P Road and Salt Lake.

Map of ‘Bengal’ from Pope, G. U. (1880), Text-book of Indian History: Geographical Notes, Genealogical Tables, Examination Questions, London: W. H. Allen & Co. pp. vii, 574. Wikipedia (Public Domain)

In an interview with Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty17 he narrated his pre-Partition and post-Partition accounts concerning his place of origin, his family, hardships and about making and re-making of these refugee neighbourhoods. He said that his family is originally from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and that they used to live in the Faridpur-Madaripur subdivision at their maternal house in Tubiya zilla. His father worked at the Domjur Swastha Kendra under Dr. Bidhan Roy and later opened his own dispensary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). He later shifted to Assam to study medicine and the rest of the family continued to live in Tubiya. He had three elder brothers, two elder sisters and two younger siblings. He mentioned that some of his older siblings had already shifted to Kolkata during the days of undivided Bengal for education and lived in their relatives’ house. While narrating their journey from East Bengal to West Bengal during Partition, he started reminiscing about their old maternal home where they used to live after his father left for Assam to study medicine. He said, “We had a two storey house and most of the families had either personal boats or hired boats for crossing rivers since the major part of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) was mostly covered with water bodies at that point, and boats used to be a common mode of conveyance. The day we had to leave our home and the land during Partition within two days’ notice is still fresh on my mind.”18 Despite the fact that he was quite young at that time, he clearly remembered the evening their entire family with whatever belongings they could bring with them got up in a steamer and the next day they got down at Goalanda Station. Some dacoits of Ansar Bahini took away some of their belongings. The night was rather frightening for all of them. The next morning, they got down at Sealdah Station and Chakraborty still remembers the sight of Sealdah station as a very young boy. He said, “When we got down at Sealdah Station what we saw was hundreds and thousands of people with their deepest and worst fears in their eyes of losing their homeland, their near and dear ones, and their property. The policemen kept surveillance on them and these people were just waiting to be taken into refugee camps. All that these people had in their eyes was the pain of losing so much, and a fear of uncertainty.”19 He remembers the painful sight of young mothers holding their newly born babies tightly in their arms and crying incessantly for the fear of the unknown.

Their family took a tonga (horse chariot) to their relatives’ place at Baghbazar and stayed there initially before shifting to Patipukur. Chakraborty’s elder sister was married to a family near Patipukur and that was the reason why they built their settlement there. He said when they had initially come to see this place, his father and other family members had tears in their eyes because Patipukur and its adjacent areas had very few houses back then and these were mostly swampy marshy lowlands with a close thicket of shrubs and forested areas. It pained them to think how they had to start from scratch after losing almost everything: their home, land, property, close relatives, a sense of belonging, and a lot more. Not only them, but several others who had migrated from East Bengal cleared these vacant marshlands and built their initial settlements and that is how colonies came to be formed. Later with their economic development their family built and extended their house on the same plot of land.

As already mentioned, the story of the emergence of this locality is part of the larger social history of post-Partition Bengal, and of the lives and the experiences of the people of similar refugee settlement colonies in different pockets of Kolkata like Santoshpur, Jadavpur and Baishnabghata Patuli in South-Eastern extension of Kolkata. One such story was narrated to me by Dr. Kalyan Dutta, the youngest brother of Prof. Gyanendra Chandra Dutta, (commonly referred as ‘Gyan Babu’ in the locality), one of the key founders of this area. He recalls those early days during the 1950s when Kolkata was witnessing the worst effects of Partition with the refugee crisis, state apathy, and a series of mass upheavals, how their family had shifted to this area in a desperate search for a place to stay. It was during that time that Dr. Jamini Sarkar, who was a pathologist of the Calcutta Medical College, rented out a part of their house at Adyanath Pally to his elder brother, Gyan Dutta and his family. The Sarkars were not staying in that house, a part of which had already been rented out. Much later, due to a legal feud with the owner, Gyan Dutta had to file litigation against the Sarkars, which he finally won and legally became the proprietor of the house.

There are several similar stories of developing social networks of refugee tenancies, and the fall-out of feuds and disputes that determined the social history of these neighbourhoods. Kalyan Dutta also spoke of the residence of Manikya Ratan Guha-Thakurta as the oldest in the area, followed by theirs. Most of the people who had come from East Bengal were initially staying on rent at Guha-Thakurta’s residence, and over time gradually purchased the vacant and filled-up lands to establish their own houses at Sreebhumi. He recalls the presence of Tentultala bus-stand located between S.K Deb Road and Jessore road, from where he along with some of his friends took buses to reach Scottish Church College, where he initially studied. He said “Tentultala bus stand was our adda zone and back then we used to say we are going to Kolkata, as the present Sreebhumi or the erstwhile Patipukur were still considered peripheries of the larger city”20

He mentioned how his brother, Gyan Dutta, besides being a prominent educationist, was also a social-welfare enthusiast, who made an immense contribution towards the development of this area by opening free schools and hospitals. Manikya Ratan Guha-Thakurta and Prof. Gyan Dutta, he recalled, used to be the best of friends and were together referred to as ‘manik-jor’(duo) by the people of the locality. They were the two figures who laid the foundations of today’s Sreebhumi during the 1950s and 60s. Around the same time, the government under the initiative of Chief Minister, Dr. Bidhan Roy, took on the development of the parallel neighbourhood of Lake Town, followed by the development of Bangur, VIP Road, and Green Park. Confronted with the present radical transformations of Sreebhumi and VIP road, Kalyan Dutta says that this place has become unrecognisable now. For those like him, who have seen this area growing from a nascent refugee settlement to this current place of malls, public statues, glitz, lighting and spectacle, there is a strong nostalgia for the place that Sreebhumi was and a strong sense of alienation from the place it has now become.

The Role of Colony Committees in the Refugee Neighbourhoods Post-Partition

The refugees who arrived in the city of Calcutta embarked on a long struggle for respectability and recognition and with regard to that the colony committees played a very significant and an interesting role in several refugee colonies which sprang up during Partition in Kolkata. The activists organized themselves into a colony committee with elected members and sub-committees within each colony. With the allotment of plots, the colony committee has also planned for schools, playing fields, a colony bazaar and also neighbourhood clubs and libraries. More schools came up in every colony each with its own school committee all under the umbrella of the colony committee. “Just as the state government was building planned townships like Salt Lake with their futuristic nomenclatures, identical water tanks and traffic circles, a different kind of planned community was being developed by the squatters in the colony, with its own organisation, its own order, its own logic but none of its initiatives were recognized by the state. On the maps of the government, the colony didn’t exist, its schools didn’t exist, nor its houses.” (Choudhury 2017)

“In 1950, a state-wide refugee coalition was formed by colony committee leaders belonging to the various political parties across the 100-plus squatter colonies. This cross-party organisation, called the United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), had political activists from several leftwing parties, including the Communist Party of India (CPI), as well as the Congress.” (Choudhury 2017)

Several older residents of the locality mentioned about the colony committee too. Some integral members of the colony committee in this area were Late Dinesh Chandra Thakur21, Late Bibhutibhusan Chattopadhayay22, Late Adyanath Saha23, Late Manmohan Das24, Late Bogala Majumdar25, Late Nani Pal26, Late Kalipada Bhattacharya27, and Late Nemai Bhattacharya.28 Several smaller schools and community libraries too opened up in this area during the mid-1950s and early to mid-1960s, and from what I could gather from the interviews and the writings in local journals and newspapers was that the colony committee members, the social welfare enthusiasts and the communist party members in the area played a pivotal role in it. Jana Kalyan Samity formed an important library in the area and Gandhi Seva Sangha too expanded its library collections and it was one of the most important libraries in the area. Mr. Chakraborty too with the help of the local communist party leaders opened a town library in the Patipukur area much later. So far as schools are concerned, there were several smaller schools which opened up for both boys and girls in every colony. Amongst these Adyanath Shiksha Mandir29 in the Adyanath Pally (named after Adyanath Saha) which came up in 1950 immediately after the Partition was an important one in this area because most of the refugee children studied there, and the colony committee members ensured that they initially studied for free and that every refugee child got a refugee grant for their studies. It was co-educational at the beginning because of the lack of space and funds for building a separate wing for girls. Later several girls’ schools too came up in the area.

Adyanath Shiksha Mandir School

Adyanath Shiksha Mandir School which was opened immediately after the Partition in 1950 in the locality, Patipukur, Kolkata.

The existing older generations mentioned the names of several clubs in their oral accounts: Gandhi Seva Sangha, Patipukur Sporting Club, Jagrihi Sangha, Nabin Samity, Kishore Sangha, Jana Kalyan Samity, Swamiji Sangha which came up in this area post-Partition. Amongst these Gandhi Seva Sangha is the oldest and the historic one in this area and it was formed in the pre-independence and pre-Partition era but the rest of the clubs came up post-Partition and all of these helped to instill a sense of recognition, communitarian sensibility, and identity in the refugee settlers. Later Bondhu Mahal came up which got merged with several smaller clubs and associations and much later another important club came up, the Sreebhumi Sporting club which catapulted the neighbourhood into a new height of political limelight and publicity on the larger map of Kolkata.

The Role of Theatre Associations/Groups in the Refugee Neighbourhoods Post Partition

The other important instrument which played a significant role in binding the refugee settlers in this area and helped developing and nurturing their creative and collective identity was the formation of the theatre groups and associations. Both Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty and Kalyan Dutta repeatedly mentioned that theatre association was an integral part of this area and it gave these twin neighbourhoods a new cultural identity. Several eminent thespians that later rose to fame resided here in their early lives and played a prominent role in forming these groups and organizing several theatre workshops and functions in the locality. Some names were: Ajitesh Bandopadhyay, Bibhash Chakraborty, Arun Sen, Nemai Bhattacharya, Nibha Bhattacharya, and Ramen Bhadhuri. Bhanu Bandopadhyay too was said to have regularly participated and organized such workshops. The first theatre group came out of Jagrihi Sangha near Adyanath Pally and named after Adyanath Saha who was another important member of the Colony Committee. Ajitesh Bandopadhyay was part of the Communist party and was an integral part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He also formed a new youth theatre club in the locality with some young theatre enthusiasts called the Yuva Sangha Club. Group theatre was taken very seriously in this locality so much so that one of the colonies, Natunpally was commonly called as ‘Theatrebagan’ and people of all ages participated, rehearsed and performed on several occasions. It became the important fulcrum and an anchoring point around which these refugee settlers who after having lost everything got a new sense of creative satisfaction, cultural recognition and identity. Social indicators like the clubs, theatre associations, and libraries tied the refugee settlers and instilled in them a sense of community and belongingness. (Chakraborty 2005, 15)

The Central Role of the Para (Neighbourhood) Clubs

There is a long social history, dating back to different points of time from the late 19th to the mid and later 20th century, of how these informal social associations called ‘clubs’ became an integral part of the quotidian social and cultural life of paras or neighbourhoods in different parts of north, central and south Calcutta, and came to function as the prime units of the sense of collectivity of these paras. Anjan Ghosh writes about the way, “Inhabitants of the para recognized themselves through their daily interactions and through the local clubs set-up to provide community services like sports, reading rooms, TV viewing, and generally as a meeting place for the local people. Young and old men would gather at the para club to play indoor games, read newspapers, watch TV or engage in gossip. Sometimes there were also attached gymnasiums for the fostering of physical culture among the youth.” (Ghosh 2011, 16) It is through the activities of these clubs that the daily interaction of people in a locality acquired an aggregative form and the notion of the para found its definitive boundaries and identities most importantly in the refugee colonies because the local clubs started acting as an adhesive for the refugee settlers to give them a sense of community and belongingness, which they had left behind during Partition. The para was constituted by the “affective life-worlds” in the locality where clubs became the primary social unit which provided a common platform for all the residents, which helped them to develop their communitarian sensibilities and collective identity. (Appadurai 1996, 42)

As Arjun Appadurai explains, “(L)ocalities are life-worlds constituted by relatively stable associations, relatively known and shared histories, and collectively traversed and legible spaces and places. As a dimension of social life, the locality comprises both a ‘structure of feeling and…its material expression in lived “co-presence.” (Appadurai 1996, 42)

Gandhi Seva Sangha and Sreebhumi Sporting Club

It is within this analytical framework of the congealing of the social “life-worlds” of localities that I would like to situate the history and role of an older welfare organization, the Gandhi Seva Sangha, and of newer club – the Sreebhumi Sporting Club, as central to making of the past and present identities of the neighbourhoods of Sreebhumi and Lake Town. Over different periods, from the 1960s into the present, these two associations can be seen to play a crucial role in giving the locality and its residents its social cohesiveness, its sense of collectivity, and its common platform of activity.

The history of the inception of Gandhi Seva Sangha in 1946 – to the turbulent time leading to the trauma of Partition – is traced from the writings of Utpal Ghosh in Sevak, a monthly local journal. The oldest residents of the area all look back on this organisation as the main adhesive body which unified the inhabitants and became a unit of social welfare and cultural activity.

Gandhi Seva Sangha (Welfare Organisation)

Gandhi Seva Sangha (Welfare Organisation), Sreebhumi, Kolkata, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

When Calcutta was witnessing the worst form of religious riots and Gandhi was fasting-unto-death as a mark of protest against the outbreak of violence in Beliaghata, his followers had visited these labour-inhabited mill areas of Dakhindari (Patipukur), because of the presence here of a large number of factories, such as the Eastern Paper Mill and the Calcutta Mineral Supply Company. The welfare-enthusiasts and the older residents: Jashoda Kumar Majumdar, Purna Chandra Ghosh, Durga Charan Dutta and later Manikya Ratan Guha-Thakurta, Prof. Gyanendra Chandra Dutta, Anantalal Dutta and several others, joined hands with Gandhiji’s volunteers to start an open-air school and homeopathy dispensary for the factory workers and their children. The Dawns of Jorasanko had donated land for the setting up of this Gandhi Seva Sangha, and had formed a trustee body for the construction of a building and the running of the unit’s social-welfare activities, closely modelled on Gandhi’s ideals of education-health-care and self-reliance. At present, the organisation still has a well-stocked library, and starting from 2005, it has begun to gradually provide free accommodation for cancer patients who come from rural areas to the city for treatment. The members meet regularly to discuss the activities of the organisation which involves several cultural activities throughout the year. Gandhi Seva Sangha came much before the Sreebhumi Sporting Club and the primary social welfare related activities were initiated by this organisation in this locality.

However, the present history and political identity of the locality lies closely entangled with this later organisation, the Sreebhumi Sporting Club, which was set up in 1968 and grew over the following decades into one of the most prominent clubs of the city, with its renown tied primarily to the mega scale and extravaganza of its annual Durga Puja celebrations.

Sreebhumi Sporting Club, Sreebhumi, Kolkata, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

But besides producing the grand seasonal display of the Durga Puja pandal, idol, and lighting that have leaped to gigantic proportions with each passing year, the club now stages every event on the festival calendar of Bengal with equal sumptuousness and ostentation. It becomes apparent from the recollections of the older residents that if the Gandhi Seva Sangha gave the neighbourhood its early foundational base of a moral community and a social collective, it is the later Sreebhumi Sporting Club which catapulted the neighbourhood into a new order of political limelight and a new regime of political patronage. The career of the Sreebhumi Sporting Club and the specific history of Sreebhumi’s Durga Puja can be put together from the writings of the former secretary of the club, Onkar Bhattacharya (aged sixty) who also happens to be a close associate and a childhood friend of Sujit Bose.

Mr. Bhattacharya, currently a businessman, has been a resident of this area since 1957 and recalls the past of this region, from the time when he was a child and too small to remember anything. From what he had heard from his parents, he said that they migrated from Dhaka to West Bengal, having lost almost everything. From their earlier refugee home near Pallyshree colony, the family shifted to Sreebhumi when it developed. Beginning as the Sreebhumi Kalyan Samiti in 1968, the history of the club has been traced from the Sreebhumi club’s Puja annual of 1997, and combined with accounts of Onkar Bhattacharya. The Sreebhumi’s Durga Puja started in 1968 under the initiation of the Sreebhumi Kalyan Samiti, and continued for three years consecutively, when it was held within the club premises. The first President of Sreebhumi Puja was Professor Gyan Dutta and the Vice-President was Santosh Das. From the years 1972 till 1975, the Durga Puja came to a stop due to the political unrest in Bengal. Resumed in 1976, the Durga Puja of Sreebhumi has had since then a continuous and increasingly spectacular run, with 2020 marking the 48th year of the event. Alongside Sreebhumi Kalyan Samiti, several other smaller associations came up in this locality which included Friends Association, Sreebhumi Sporting Club, and Kishore Sangha. Initially the activities of these clubs were limited to Sports and Saraswati Puja. In the 1970s, a young brigade of the neighbourhood: Sadhan Dutta, Khokhon Das, Bikash Roy, Govardhan Dey, and Ashish Bose, came together to form the Sreebhumi Sporting club.

1977 was the first year when in place of the Sreebhumi Kalyan Samiti, the Pujo was held on a small scale by an organisation called the Sreebhumi Adhibasibrinda, when the cost incurred in the Puja was dependent on the limited subscription from the neighbourhood residents. These were the years when the newly set up Sreebhumi Sporting Club, consisting of young members like Sujit Bose, Dipak Guha, Badal Mitra and Mithu Sen, became increasingly active. A landmark cultural event for the club was the organisation of a theatre workshop, involving eminent thespians like Bibhash Chakraborty, Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, Ram Mukhopadhyay, Swaradindu Ray, which brought a new order of cultural prominence to the locality. Around this time, the parallel associations and clubs like Friends Association and Kishore Sangha got dissolved and gradually the Sreebhumi Sporting Club emerged as the most powerful political and cultural unit of this locality under the leadership of the club secretary, Sujit Bose. Besides catering to the needs of the neighbourhood residents, Sujit Bose advocated three important activities for the club -promoting sports, social welfare and organizing cultural programs.

Sreebhumi becomes an exemplary case of how the life of neighbourhoods (paras) and their clubs have been foundational to the shaping of the changing socio-cultural profile of the city’s politics; of how a neighbourhood has transformed in close tandem with the shifts in the political career of a local political figure who began his career as a local CPI(M) leader under the mentorship of veteran left leader Late Subhash Chakraborty, but later joined Trinamool Congress and holds an important position in the State Cabinet Ministry at present. (Bloglog 2014). So, the rise of Sreebhumi on the political map of the city becomes conterminous with the rise of the local political figure, Sujit Bose, who now holds a centre-stage in the current political regime.

The Durga Pujas of Sreebhumi

The scale and grandeur of Sreebhumi Durga Puja was dramatically augmented with this rise in the political profile of Sujit Bose. The new image of the club’s Puja is seen by many to have been born in 1992, when the Sreebhumi Sporting Club’s Puja, along with that of College Square, was jointly awarded by the prestigious Asian Paints Sharad Samman. In an interview with Onkar Bhattacharya, he remarks that, during the 1990s, it was Subhash Chakraborty’s indirect patronage that helped the club’s Puja to get attention in the prominent newspapers like the Ananda Bazaar Patrika and made it easier for the Puja to approach and get corporate sponsors. By the 1990s, corporate sponsorship was becoming an indispensable part of the expanding visual and commercial scale of the city’s Durga Pujas, with the Sreebhumi Sporting Club’s Durga Puja emerging as a trend-setter of this new form of big-budget, corporate-sponsored, high publicity and extravagant Puja. These were also the years when Sreebhumi as a locality became a yearly spectacle and a mega crowd destination during the Durga Pujas, competing with the other big Pujas like those of College Square, Mohammed Ali Park and Lebutala (Santosh Mitra Square) with extravagant illuminations, traditional idol and big-budget pandal to draw the largest footfall of crowds.

Sreebhumi Durga Puja Idol & Lighting, 1997. Photo Credit: Sharodotsav ’97 Puja Magazine

It is within this logic of spectacle that we can place the massive architectural replicas of real and imaginary monuments that would make up Sreebhumi’s Puja pandals, each year, which would draw a huge footfall of festival crowds. This is the site where festival crowds would have encountered over recent years local imitations of Moscow’s Bolshoi theatre, the Paris Opera house in 1992, London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1993, Gujarat’s Akshardham temple in 1994, or the Sacré-Cœur of Paris’ Montmartre in 1995. Also, to be seen were a more eclectic range of remakes of national architectural monuments, whether it is the ornate western railway headquarters of the Victoria Terminus, or famous temples such as Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple, or Puri’s Jagannath temple. Sreebhumi in recent times has been following the trends of popular big-budget Bollywood films like Bahubali or Padmavat and designing pandals (marquees) as depicted in those films.

Left: Architectural replicas in the form of Puja Pandals, Sreebhumi Sporting Club, Sreebhumi, Kolkata. Photo Credit: Sharodotsav’97 Puja Magazine.
Middle: Sreebhumi Puja Pandal themed after Bahubali, Sreebhumi Sporting, Sreebhumi, Kolkata, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee
Right: Sreebhumi Puja Illuminations/Lighting, Sreebhumi Sporting Club, Sreebhumi, Kolkata, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

Apart from organising the central event of the Durgotsav, the neighbourhood clubs also have a long history of keeping going the social life of the locality through a series of round-the-year community events, such as musical programmes, sit and draw competitions for children, blood donation camps or sporting events, and through the maintenance of local medical dispensaries or ambulance services. Following the same template, the Sreebhumi Sporting Club have also been known in the locality for its facilities, for instance, for cricket, tennis and karate coaching, all of which hold annual tournaments, and for its organisation of an annual sports event as well a day-long intra-club neighbourhood football tournament that would be held each year on Independence Day. From the 1990s and 2000s, it also began holding extended evenings in the state’s holiday week between 23rd to 26th January. On the occasion of Netaji Subhash Bose’s birthday and Republic Day celebrations, besides the usual flag-hoisting and singing of the national anthem by the guests and club members, popular singers of national repute would be invited by Sujit Bose to perform at Sreebhumi. It is from this larger round of club-centred social and cultural activities, that had begun to develop over the last two to three decades, that we can draw the threads of the present premium of the club and the neighbourhood in hosting a continuous spurt of anniversary celebrations and festivals all through the year, with newer and newer forms of public rituals, pomp, and pageantry being introduced into each event.

A Year-round Cycle of Festive Spectacles at Sreebhumi and Lake Town

In a continuation and intensification of a practice that marked some of the Congress patronized Durga Pujas of the 1970s and 80s, there is now a ubiquitous trend of every large Durga Puja, the organizing club and even the neighbourhoods being identified by the name of the local political patron and councilor. The organisation of ‘festivals’ around Bengal’s vast pantheon of divine and human deities (where the series of pujas run from those of Ganesh, Viswakarma, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi or Saraswati, to the anniversary Pujas devoted to Netaji, Vivekananda or Rabindranath), to the Rakhshabandhan, to Independence Day, and Christmas celebrations becomes the most important of these indirect modes of the staging of political patronage, munificence and philanthropy.

Hoarding depicting the political regime of the year-round cycle of festivities, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

In particular, it turns to the way the organisation of festivals and celebrations becomes the prime political activity of these clubs at these neighbourhood levels, deflecting the ‘political’ into these spaces of cultural affect and social congregation. Through the Chief Minister’s huge monetary assistance, the clubs are the key units that sustain the city’s never ending spate of festivity, saturating each locality with stages, decorations, loudspeakers, festival signage and tableaux, blurring the boundary between the real and festive spaces in the city.

The blaze of illuminations and glitz of tableaux that had once marked out this area only during the season of the Durga Pujas is now permanently embedded into the appearance of this locality all through the year, and reaches a new crescendo in the year-end celebrations of Christmas which turns the whole neighbourhood into an extended fairground and fantasy land, blurring the boundaries between the real and the representational.

Left: The spectacle of Christmas carnival organised by Sreebhumi Sporting Club along a stretch of VIP Road, Lake Town, Kolkata. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee
Right: A hoarding of Poush Utsav and Christmas carnival, Sreebhumi Sporting Club, Sreebhumi, Kolkata, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

What used to be the closely confined neighbourhood events which was mostly marked by community participation in the past, are fast turning into spectacular events being hosted in spaces which can draw more footfalls. What is interesting to note here is that the spectacle that the series of festivities generate, merges with the coming up in this zone of large over-illuminated shopping malls, arcades, and banquet halls, like Alcove Gloria and Gokul Banquets which involves the showcasing of capital and the transformation of these refugee squatter settlements into an upmarket locality. These appearances merge with the visual scape of the festivals, rendering the neighbourhood into a spectacle of capital and consumption.

Politics of Beautification in the Recent Times

Replica of the Big-Ben Clock Tower

Replica of the Big-Ben Clock Tower, VIP Road, Lake-Town, Kolkata, 2018. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

There is a close connecting thread that ties the annual round of festivities to the spurt of municipal beautification schemes – of creating leisure parks, public art and statues, architectural replicas and theme parks by the government – that can be seen as another indirect site of the play of populist politics. The ‘political’ in this case gets even more diffused and disassociated from its overt functions of electoral mobilisation, of the delivery of social welfare, or of social and cultural patronage. Politics locates itself in the interstices of these governmental projects of the large-scale image makeover of the city, where more specifically the refugee neighbourhoods are becoming an important unit. Its transformation into an upmarket locality, both in terms of ‘visual’ and ‘spatial’ markers are becoming significant cultural and political processes. It can be seen to function through the creation of newer and newer venues of leisure and recreation, entertainment and spectacle that are intimately bound up with popular spectatorial practices. The overload of illuminations, signage, displays and public decor become the markers of the new political public culture of the state, and offers up a new mode of the continuous production and consumption of images. The process of government-led beautification started in the area of Lake Town and Sreebhumi with the construction of this 135-foot replica of the world-famous Big-Ben clock tower. Despite its monumental aspirations, Kolkata’s Big Ben is markedly small compared to the soaring 316 feet height of the original and is named as the Kolkata Time-Zone. This scaled-down version of London’s clock tower was constructed under the Public Works Department of the South Dumdum Municipality.

Opened to the public on the eve of the Durga Pujas of 2015, Kolkata’s Big-Ben proudly proclaims the Chief Minister’s vision of transforming ‘Kolkata into London’ and making Bengal global. This structure seemed to merge quite easily into the season’s transient topography of grand architectural fabrication, thereby leaving the spectators confused between the ephemeral festival constructions and the emerging permanent replicas on the face of the city. This in turn marks a shift from the ephemeral display of simulations to the permanent display of simulations where it is hard to distinguish where the representational world of the festival ends and the real city space begins.

The construction of Big-Ben prototype was followed soon by the coming up of another miniaturized illuminated replica of ‘London Bridge’ over the neighbourhood canal adjoining Lake Town, which looks more like a imitation of the Walton Bridge over river Surrey in South London.

Replica of Walton Bridge

Replica of Walton Bridge over the neighbourhood canal, VIP Road, Lake-Town, Kolkata, 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

Soon after the installations of the replicas of the Big-Ben clock tower and the Walton Bridge, this V.I.P road stretch witnessed the coming up of a permanent structure of Vivekananda seated on a horse chariot. Alongside came up recreational sites like a children’s park, a leisure park, pedestrians walk-ways, food stalls, along the canal, each embellished with a blaze of blue and white illuminations. There is an increasing trend everywhere to enhance the recreational capacity of the city. It is here that the miniaturized Big-Ben and Walton Bridge meets the disneyized30 images of local cartoon figures. (Zukin 1996).

The statue of Vivekananda seated on a chariot, popular cartoon characters of Doraemon, Chota Bheem, Vivekananda Children’s park (Clockwise from left top corner), VIP Road, Lake Town, Kolkata 2017. Photo Credit: Sounita Mukherjee

It is these inverted, disjunctive spectacles placed alongside which in turn creates heterotopic spaces which are seen to best captivate the imagination of the populace – even as there is no more than a sense of thin illusion and surface-ness that sustains these zones of popular recreation. (Foucault 1967, 3-8) The temptations of such urban spaces of leisure, display and recreation are designed to generate pleasure and excitement in the heart of the consumer public and fuel its visual and sensory perceptions.

The residents of Sreebhumi and Lake Town have a mixed and contrary view of these intrusions into a neighbourhood that is now becoming less and less of their own. Contrarily, what also becomes important is that many residents take pride in the fact their old neighbourhood has transformed in an upmarket locality and clearly equates the concept of beautification with development.

Conclusion

All of these and especially the rise and prominence of Sreebhumi Puja projected these neighbourhoods in the new order of political limelight and placed a peripheral refugee neighbourhood on the central map of the city. Under the present political regime, the recent modes of governance and mobilization have moved away from the delivery of public goods and services in the traditional sense of the welfare state. Instead, they keenly focus on controlling perception and affective management of the masses with systematic programs of aesthetic renovation of several such neighbourhoods in Kolkata, mainly through drives of beautification and embellishment, and organization of festivals throughout the year as well as creating new zones and spaces of recreation in the city. This process generates a sense of popular urban public culture which is in turn shaping the current political culture of the city.

Here, one finds a critical intersection of the governmental strategy of populism on the one hand and what can be fundamentally seen as image politics on the other hand. What is common in Sreebhumi, Lake Town in the north-eastern fringes of the city and other such neighbourhoods-like Baishnabghata Patuli, Santoshpur, Jadavpur in the south-east extension of the city is that they are all closely tied with the Partition history and refugee-influx in the city. “These localities thus house the history of a postcolonial Kolkata, one which used to fall outside the city proper and struggled to be integrated within its urban geography until the late years of the twentieth century.” (Dasgupta 2020, 194) Parallels can be easily drawn between ‘Gandhi Seva Sangha’ of Sreebhumi with that of South Kolkata neighbourhood clubs like the ‘Baisakhi Club’ in Gangulybagan or the ‘Jatra Shuru Sangha’ in Baishnabghata, which functioned precisely to create a sense of collective moral community and cohesiveness among the refugee settlers of the newly occupied area around the middle of the twentieth century. Also, the five-idol feature of ‘Panchadurga’ organized by the Jatra Shuru Sangha quickly became a crowd-puller and gave the locality a new respectability in the early 1980s, (Dasgupta 2020, 195) which is quite similar to that of the role played by Sreebhumi Sporting Club’s Puja in projecting the peripheral north-eastern zones on the larger map of Kolkata.

What I gathered from my interviews with the older residents who viewed the transformation of Sreebhumi, Lake Town and the larger Patipukur area from close quarters are of the opinion (which can be taken as the microcosm for other refugee pockets of Kolkata) that the club activities in the past corresponded to the creation of a different nature of neighbourhoods which maintained a distance from exhibitionism and extravagant display of capital. The interesting part of this politics of spatial and visual transformation of these neighbourhoods lies in the fact that these spaces which were refugee colonies in the past and where the refugee settlers who after having lost almost everything struggled for a sense of citizenship, identity, recognition, and belongingness are interestingly transforming into upmarket localities and disneyized sites customized for people who want to consume citizenship by becoming part of these beautified spaces and spectacles in ways that are enjoyable and ephemeral at the same time.

Notes
    1. This paper is a part of my MPhil Thesis “The City as Political Exhibitionary Space: Kolkata, 2011-2018” submitted in the year 2018 to the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, affiliated to Jadavpur University Kolkata.
    2. Sreebhumi is a neighbourhood, located in the north-eastern fringe of Kolkata beside VIP Road, Lake Town and closer to Ultadanga, Kolkata.
    3. Lake Town is a locality in South Dumdum Municipality of North 24 Parganas district in the Indian state of West Bengal. It is a part of the area covered by Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA). Lake Town is surrounded by Bangur Avenue, Dum Dum Park and Kestopur in the north, Salt Lake in the east, Belgachia, Ultadanga in the South and Patipukur, Paikpara in the West. Kalidaha (Kalindi) is situated to the west of Lake Town, on the other side of Jessore Road. The Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport is at a distance of about 7 kilometres from Lake Town.
    4. Kalyan Dutta, Personal Interview by author, September 5, 2017.
      (Dr. Kalyan Dutta is a retired medical practitioner of the age of eighty, and the youngest brother of late Prof. Gyanendra Chandra Dutta Majumdar.)
    5. Utpal Ghosh, Personal Interview by author, August 20, 2017. (Mr. Ghosh is a retired bank employee of the age of seventy-three.)
    6. Mr. Chakraborty is a retired Government education officer of the age of eighty. I have gathered the information about the spatial expansion and other historical details of this area from his local publication Patipukur-o-tar Sanskriti, where he has accounted the history of the old Patipukur.
    7. Prabir Guha-Thakurta, Personal Interview by author, August 24, 2017. (Mr. Prabir Guha-Thakurta is one of the senior members living in this area. An Engineer by profession and son of late Manikya Ratan Guha-Thakurta.)
    8. Prabir Guha-Thakurta, Personal Interview by author, August 24, 2017. (Late Manikkya Ratan Guha-Thakurta used to work in the Life Insurance Corporation of India. Mr. Prabir Guha-Thakurta mentioned about his father’s contribution towards the development of this area in his narrative when I (author) interviewed him.
    9. Kalyan Dutta, Personal Interview by author, September 5, 2017. (Prof. Gyanendra Chandra Dutta Majumdar was the erstwhile Vice-Chancellor of Women’s College, Calcutta. His youngest brother Dr. Kalyan Dutta provided this information to the author.)
    10. Utpal Ghosh, Personal Interview by author, August 20, 2017. (Mr. Banik was the owner of the Jaya Cinema, Lake Town, a popular Cinema hall/movie theatre, now known as Jaya multiplex in Lake Town, Kolkata. Mr. Ghosh provided this information to the author.)
    11. Utpal Ghosh, Personal Interview by author, August 20, 2017. (Late Mr. Neogi was a contributor towards the development of this area. He was one of the oldest residents of the locality. Mr. Ghosh provided this information to the author.)
    12. Utpal Ghosh, Personal Interview by author, August 20, 2017. (Mr. Dastidar is one of the oldest residents of the locality who contributed towards the development of this area. Mr. Ghosh provided this information to the author.)
    13. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic interview by author, October 30, 2020. (Annapurna Saha was the wife of Adyanath Saha. Both the husband and wife and the rest of the family members had played a pivotal role in developing this area with their vision and also monetarily. Hence, these colonies were named after them. So, Annapurna colony was named after Annapurna Saha.) Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, October 30, 2020. (Adyanath Pally was named after an important member of the colony committee Adyanath Saha who also happened to be an important contributor in this area’s development with his vision for opening schools and community libraries. Hence this colony was named after him.)
    14. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic interview by author, October 30, 2020.
    15. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic interview by author, October 30, 2020. Kalyan Dutta, Personal Interview by author, September 5, 2017.
    16. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic interview by author, October 30, 2020.
    17. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic interview by author, October 30, 2020.
    18. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic interview by author, October 30, 2020.
    19. Kalyan Dutta, Personal Interview by the author, September 5, 2017.
    20. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Late Dinesh Chandra Thakur was the head of the Colony Committee and a member of the UCRC too. He was also a CPI member.)
    21. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Bibhutibhushan Chattopodhayay was a teacher at the Victoria Institution and also a member of the Hindu Mahasabha.)
    22. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Late Adyanath Saha was an integral member of the Colony committee who has otherwise contributions in the area and especially the Adyanath Shiksha Mandir school was the initiative of Adyanath Saha and his family members. So after he died the school was named after him.)
    23. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Manmohan Das was a sweet shop-owner.)
    24. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Bogala Majumder was a Postmaster.)
    25. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Nani Pal was a school teacher.)
    26. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Kalipada Bhattacharya was a CPI (M) member who also worked at the Airport Authority of Kolkata.)
    27. Shibendu Shekhar Chakraborty, Telephonic Interview by author, November 1, 2020. (Nemai Bhattacharya was a theatre personality and was part of the local theatre group in the area. He too was a CPI (M) member.)
    28. Adyanath Shiksha Mandir school was the initiative of Adyanath Saha (an integral member of the colony committee and an important contributor in the development of this area) and his family members. After he passed away, the school was named after him.
    29. In the field of sociology, the terms Disneyfication and Disneyisation describe the commercial transformation of a society to resemble Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, based upon rapid Western-style globalization and consumerist lifestyles. See Zukin, Sharon. “The Cultures of Cities” 1996, and The Disneyization of Society (2004), by Alan Bryman. (See Sharon 1996 and Bryman 2004).
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Citation:

Mukherjee, Sounita (2020). “Politics of Transformation in Twin Refugee Neighbourhoods of Kolkata.” Partition Studies Quarterly, Issue 03: [Link]

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