Part #3: Disappointments
When I heard of the Tipu Sultan Masjid in Kolkata, my first doubt was as to how a Masjid in Kolkata was named after a ruler from the south of the sub-continent who – despite all his heroics – lies somewhere in the margins of mainstream Indian historical narrative. As it turned out, after Tipu fell in the battle of Srirangapatnam against the combined forces of the British, Marathas and the Nizams of Hyderabad, in 1799, his family was exiled to Kolkata (then Calcutta). Years later, the late Sultan’s youngest son Ghulam Muhammed built this mosque and named it after his father.
I couldn’t wait to visit the Masjid. The day I finally did however, I wished I hadn’t. As I stepped into the courtyard, I saw a few men in their loin clothes bathing near a water tank; definitely not a sight you expect right in front of a Masjid. I decided to ignore it and climbed the stairs. As I reached the top, I could see that the doors to the original structure were bolted and locked, adding to my disappointment. I looked around and found more people bathing on the other side of the structure and realized that my patience was wearing thin.
That was when a question was thrown at me ‘Kis’se milne aaye ho?’ I looked at the old man who threw that at me. Sitting in a Masjid, a structure built to prostrate before the Almighty, this man was asking me who I wanted to meet. As much as my blood boiled at the pointlessness of that question, the lack of cleanliness around there and a total disdain for history that these people were showing; all I could come up with was that I was there to see the Masjid. I did not wait to listen to what he muttered after that. Having had enough, I turned around and walked out.
My friend sensed the disappointment and took me to a tea shop right opposite the Masjid. This was a tidy place (which, unfortunately, is a big thing in a city Like Kolkata). The walls were glass panes and luckily for me there was an empty table that overlooked the Masjid. Yes, the view also included a couple of cable posts and a row of shops that lined the footpath in front of the Masjid. I usually avoid such details when I sketch a structure. Somehow, this time I felt like all these had to be included. And thus, as you can see, the posts as well as the rafter rooftops of the shops made their way through to the frame.
Part #4: The Dead and their Tales
Here is a city that is buzzing and almost brimming with people; that almost takes pride in its crowded street life. And my favourite spot amidst all this, turned out to be a desolate cemetery. Can you really blame me though? I mean I would honestly pick a desolate graveyard or a tomb over a crowded street any day. In my opinion, one of the best sketches that I have ever done is that of a tomb (Safdarjung Tomb, New Delhi). What does that say about me? I don’t really know; morbid, maybe? But I do believe that the dead have a lot of interesting stories to say. And the best part is that they give you the peace of mind to think those tales through.
There are a few sketches that I never did, that still haunt me. One of the most striking ones is the graveyard near the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. There was a pattern to the tomb stones there; a hierarchy even in death. And as much as it is problematic, the aesthetics of those patterns and decorated tombstones were’nt lost on me. But back then I wasn’t really familiar with the idea of live sketching and therefore it still remains a regret. Imagine my excitement then, of finding another interesting cemetery.
Yes, the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata is quite interesting on its own. Holding about 1600 graves, the cemetery was in use from 1767 to 1790. For me, the most striking feature of the cemetery is the varied architectural styles visible on the tombs. While one would expect gothic structures for most things European, here there were tombs designed in Indo-Saracenic style as well. So, as much as there were gothic pillars marking the graves here, there were also domes and even pyramidal tombs. And while the graves are not laid in parallel or any conceivable formation, these structures are quite imposing. The cemetery in itself is kept clean and tidy, though many tombs are crumbling and cracking due to the tree roots that run through their foundations. There were several that were thus marked as vulnerable.
Tombstones are what give life to the stories in any graveyard. And fortunately, the ones at this cemetery were mostly quite detailed – narrating the life, travails and eventually the death of people from various facets of the colonial public in Kolkata. Kids who were ‘taken too soon,’ mothers who were ‘greatly mourned,’ officers who exhibited ‘great valour and courage,’ stories keep unravelling around you. My only regret at the end of it was that we could not spend more time there.
The biggest challenge for me was to pick out one single frame from this myriad of interesting, even fascinating structures. I finally settled down for one that I think brings together different styles, just as the whole cemetery does. Large and small, plain and ornate, flat and domed, all in a single frame – not to mention the tree that probably witnessed all this and still lives.
Part #5: Finale
I am aware that the general vibe I have given out regarding the Kolkata journey has been of a certain distinct disappointment by and large. This might have been what inspired a friend of mine to send me an article on Kolkata to help in my trip. I don’t blame him, but honestly, I think it’s quite beyond redemption at this point. And I believe I am within my right to be so.
It is not that there weren’t beautiful things to see or experience in the city. Rather on the one hand, such experiences were very rare and on the other, those were accompanied with a background so poor that it overpowered the other.
The city has a lot to show from its colonial past, I get it. But it won’t just stay glorious and fascinating if they are not maintained or there is no respect towards it from the people. You can’t speak about the fantastic collection at the Indian Museum, when the exhibits there are mostly one inch deep in dust (if not more); or the China Street, when the whole street cohabits with an open drainage (just like the rest of the city). There is a certain sense of civility and responsibility that citizens need to have towards their streets and society.
I am pretty positive that if I had gone into the city with no expectations, my whole perception would have been better. But unfortunately for me and those poor souls who end up reading these notes, I read quite a few blogs and travel notes before I made the journey – and all those adjectives in superlatives did not help. One of the striking ones was ‘the street food capital of India.’ I don’t really know what to tell those people.
The Victoria Memorial was not really that different. The view from outside is brilliant, yes – albeit the benches in the front that – for some reason beyond my comprehension – faced away from the structure (sketching the structure, sitting backwards on that bench, while trying to avoid the back rest was quite an adventure). Inside, the building is very dimly lit, in spite of all the wires and cables that are jutting out of the once fine walls. There is a good collection of paintings that are basically lying in darkness as the halls are not lit, making you wonder why they are being wasted away there.
This brings me to my concluding remarks – the two things I am happy about after this journey. One, I started loving Dilli even more since the trip. And two, I don’t really regret the fact that the colonial rulers stole many of our arts and artefacts to exhibit in their galleries and museums (because that way, at least someone gets to see it).