Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Kolkata

The popular perception is that there were two trajectories in the cultural landscape of nineteenth century Kolkata: ‘the Bengal Renaissance’ of Rammohon, Vidyasagar and Bankim, and the ‘Babu culture’ of the nouveau riche displaying vulgar consumerism. There was, however, a third strand which we often overlook: the rich folk culture of Calcutta (Kolkata) which grew out of the daily economic activities and entertainments of the ordinary, poor and marginalized sections of the society.

In the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century a large number of farmers and artisans from rural Bengal migrated to Calcutta seeking jobs and brought with them various folk rituals and forms of popular art (patachitra, for example) and those of entertainment like Torja (a form of folk poetry contest), Panchali (a form of devotional narrative), Kirtan (a form of devotional song) and Jatra gaan (Jatra is a form of popular folk theatre).  Thus, the folk culture of nineteenth century Calcutta was built upon the heritage of rural folk literature and art which the Bengali villager brought with him into the city. Uprooted from their agriculture based community life these workers and artisans were gradually integrated into the cash economy of urban life.

The conflicts, tensions and excitements of this transformation were reflected in their culture much of which was oral.  Divorced from their rural roots their native cultural forms evolved to meet the needs of an urban population reflecting the realities of their lives. Thus the kobi-walas (kobigaan singers), the panchali singers, the jatra performers, the clay modelers of idols, the shawngs, the Kalighat patuas - drew upon a fund of imagery which belonged to a collective source of memories, beliefs and lifestyles shaped both by their past lives in the village and the present life in the city.

The manifestations of this culture could be found in the various genres of folk humour, in the various songs and popular rhymes, poetical contests, theatrical performances (jatra) and street pantomime. Charak and Raasher mela (mela meaning fair) came to the city; urban chouko (square) patachitras churned out by the dozen around Kalighat temple replaced the rural jorano (scrolls) patachitra and the rural Torja evolved into Kobigaan where the themes were no longer only mythological, but also reflected the realities of the contemporary urban life. Entertainment in the form of the jaunty Khemta dance (a dance form popular in jatras and during births, marriages and other festivities) imported from Chinsurah in Hooghly and Jhumur (a form of folk music popular in the districts of Bankura and Purulia which was often accompanied by dances and expressed the sorrows, joys, dreams and frustrations of common people) were extremely popular.

This culture is important not only because it documents the realities of urban life in nineteenth century Kolkata, but also because it shows the spontaneous creativity of folk artists and their earthy sense of humour. Interestingly, most folk artists were anonymous while their popular counterparts in Kolkata were known by their names: Horu Thakur, Bhola Moira, Bhabani Beney, Nitai Bairagi, Dashu Roy and Gopal Urey were some of these Kobiaals.  It is also important to remember that this subaltern culture was not indifferent to the elite culture of the Bengal renaissance or the Babu culture of the nouveau riche. The intellectual discourse of the elite or the vulgarities of the Babus were often subjects of satirical references in the popular rhymes, songs and pata chitras (Kalighat Patas) of the time.

The Kumortuli clay modelers played an important role in the visual folk art of Calcutta. Theirs was a collective effort in creating idols throughout the year. The idols they created too were a reflection of their times. For example, the image of Kartik would often be styled on the fashion prevalent among the foppish babus of Calcutta.

The nineteenth century also saw a phenomenal rise in the number of publishers and printing presses in the vicinity of Battala in North Calcutta. Popular books cheaply produced and cheaply priced catering to the semi literate masses formed an integral part of the early expressions of the new medium and were an important source of subaltern culture. The books were stories of romance, as well as religious texts, biographies, satirical sketches about contemporary topics, farces, mysteries and erotica, and were illustrated mostly with woodcuts. Around 322 titles appeared in 1857 alone.

There were also the shawng pantomimes - faint evidence of which can still be found today. This was the most popular and powerful form of street entertainment which caricatured the manners and customs of the people of Calcutta, often accompanied by special types of songs.