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Calcutta: a city of contrasts

Walking through the narrow and dusty streets of Calcutta, the former capital of British India. Story and photos by Dane Halpin.

Saturday 22 September 2012, 03:39PM

It’s been more than a month since I left India, yet that song is still stuck in my head.
It’s not even that the song itself was memorable – quite the opposite – but the circumstances of its delivery go some way to summing up the whole crazy experience that was Kolkata (Calcutta).

With its rich heritage and at times brutal history, the only way to truly describe Calcutta is that, like India as a whole, it is a place of contrasts – inspiring yet heartbreaking, vibrant yet chaotic, fascinating yet at times incredibly frustrating.

But this also creates a distinct challenge: In a city of more than five million unique stories, capturing a single image that can portray the essence of Calcutta is an overwhelming task.

Luckily, there is some local knowledge at hand.

Manjit Singh Hoonjan runs Calcutta Photo Tours, which, as the name suggests, encourages tourists, and even locals, to peer through the lens at the overwhelming architectural and social beauty of the city.

“Calcutta is a magical city, and to really understand the magic one has to live in it,” Manjit says. “The history, architecture, people, heritage even the climate do make up a city, but there is something deeper than all this that really makes Calcutta different from anything elsewhere.”

Manjit, 39, said starting up the tours was a logical way to express his passion for the city and photography. Going on a tour with him, that passion for history and for his home city is infectious, and his knowledge of British colonial history in particular quite astounding.

“For me, it’s heritage, history, the magic of this city and photography all rolled into one,” he says.

It’s not hard to see why Manjit draws such strong inspiration from the city’s narrow, dusty streets. Beneath the chaotic surface lies a living, breathing history that overwhelms and doesn’t let go. If you can look past that decrepit façade, there exists a city full of heart and history, from fire temples to the former British Bow Barracks.

Old, disused canons are used as street posts, spicy curries simmer away by the roadside, people straighten and recycle nails from old pallets, and a chaotic maze of streets can transform dramatically into a place of tranquility.

Even after walking the same streets for so many years, Manjit says he never gets bored, and it’s easy to understand why.

“The routes might be the same, but it is never the same tour. Because even if it’s the route that I have walked for years – so much so that the natives know about what is happening in my life – no tours are the same.”

JW Marriott Phuket

Manjit says the main vision behind starting the tours was to give the people who come to Calcutta a slice of what this city really is. It can be a difficult place to really break into as a tourist, and he says even locals, who are often complacent about their history, can learn a lot from simply taking a walk.

“I have had numerous locals come on these tours. And every single one of them has said: ‘Hey I did not know this existed in my city.’ They have all gone back pleasantly surprised.”

And while branded as photography tours, at their core these are just journeys into the heart of one of the world’s most vibrant cities, suitable for people who shoot on their cell phone cameras, point-and-shoots to the top end SLRs, or even don’t shoot at all.
If you are absolutely new to photography, Manjit can teach you the basics. If you’re an enthusiast, semi-pro or even pro, the tour is all about exposing you to sights that are conducive to shooting.

“I really love photography, and since I love shooting this city,” Manjit says. “I felt people who love photography should experience the magic. The history, the heritage and the stories; they captivate me, so I had this urge to share it with the others, and Calcutta Photo Tours was born.”

Of course, at the end of the day, the camera is just a medium to record the experience and capture what you see. If you don’t have a camera, Manjit still encourages people to “experience things and etch them on your soul... whether it’s your SD card or your mind.”

In my mind, the song still sticks. There we were, deep in the heart of India’s seventh largest city, standing in a Chinese temple, listening to a woefully off-key cover of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’, delivered by a smiling, toothless, elderly Chinese man, in perfect English, with a thick Indian accent.

Needless to say, the rendition wasn’t quite up there with King’s or John Lennon’s, but the sheer strangeness of the scenario gives at least some idea of the unique flair and the massive confluence of cultures that exists in the former capital of British India.

Okay, it probably doesn’t really do it justice, but in a city like Calcutta, it’s still probably never really possible to capture a single image that sums it all up, that can tell all those different stories and those wildly contrasting mix of influences. Still, trying is all the fun. 

Calcutta Photo Tours run six ‘regular’ tours, each with its own distinct focus, though these are easily customisable if you have particular areas of interest.

Group sizes are generally limited to bookings of 8-10, but larger groups can be arranged on an individual basis.

A shared tour (others can join the tour) costs INR1,500 (B850) per person, or INR2,000 (B1,100) including pickup and drop off. Private tours cost INR2,500 (B1,400) per person, or INR3,000 (B1,700) with pickup and drop off. Kids below 12 pay half price.

For more information visit CalcuttaPhotoTours.com; facebook.com/CalcuttaPhotoTours; email info@calcuttaphototours.com; or call +919831163482.

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