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Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal and former capital of British India (1772-1911). It is one of India’s largest cities and one of its oldest operating ports. Spread roughly north-south along the east bank of the Hooghly River, Kolkata sits within the lower Gangetic delta of eastern India. Much of the city was originally a wetland that was reclaimed over the decades to accommodate a burgeoning population. The remaining undeveloped areas, known as East Kolkata Wetlands were designated a “wetland of international importance” by the Ramsar Convention (1975). 

The undoubted turning point of the British East India Company with Eastern India was when in 1686, compelled to leave Hooghly by the Mughals, English merchants,under Job Charnock’s leadership temporarily took refuge down river at Sutanuti, a village on the swampy banks of the Hooghly. They permanently settled here in 1690 and sought to make a habitation for themselves, free from Mughul interference. They received permission to trade and this marked the transition of the British as mere traders to the formidable power that they were to become. In 1696, the British built the original Fort William with the permission of the Nawab of Bengal and in 1698, obtained permission to purchase the right of renting the three villages of Kolikata, Gobindopur and Sutanuti from the zamindars of the area. By degrees, the cluster of neighbouring hamlets grew into the town of Calcutta. 

The chief event in the early history of Calcutta is its capture in 1756 by Siraj-ud-daula, Nawab of Bengal. The native troops deserted and the Europeans were driven into the fort, which was captured. The town was recaptured by the British early in 1757 and the nawab, defeated at the battle of Plassey. The new nawab,  Mir Jafar, gave the English the zamindari of the 24 Parganas, as well as a free gift of the town and some of the adjacent villages. From this date the town began to enjoy uninterrupted prosperity. Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, made it the seat of the supreme courts of justice and the supreme revenue administration, and Calcutta became the capital of British India in 1772. All important offices were subsequently moved from Murshidabad to Calcutta. By 1800 Calcutta had become a busy and flourishing town, the centre of the cultural as well as the political and economic life of Bengal.

Kolkata in the nineteenth century was ‘the second city of the British Empire’, the unquestioned political and economic heart of British India. Fashioned by the colonial British in the manner of a grand European capital, Kolkata has grown into a city of sharp contrasts and contradictions. This large and vibrant city thrives amid seemingly insurmountable economic, social and political problems. As a trading and industrial metropolis, Kolkata was always a city of migrants. It is the magnet for survival-seekers from one of the poorest and most populous segments of the subcontinent. It has absorbed with incredibly meagre resources what is arguably one of the biggest mass migrations in the history of man in the aftermath of the partition of the province (Bengal) into East Pakistan and West Bengal in 1947. Its citizens, however, exhibit a great joie de vivre that is demonstrated in a penchant for art and culture and high level of intellectual vitality and political awareness. Crowds throng to Kolkata’s annual book fair, art exhibitions, concerts, theatres, film festivals, cricket and football matches. Kolkata has also the reputation of political volatility since the early decades of the twentieth century.

According to 2011 census, the population of Kolkata city is 4,486,679 and its metropolitan population is 14,112,536. The  average literacy rate of Kolkata city is 86.31%. Bengali speaking people form the majority of Kolkata’s population while Marwaris and Biharis compose large minorities. Among Kolkata’s smaller communities are Tamils, Nepalis, Oriyas, Telegus, Assamese, Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Armenians, Greeks, Tibetans, Parsis, and Jews. The numbers of Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other foreign-origin groups have declined during the 20th Century. The Jewish population of Kolkata, for example, was 5,000 during World War II, but declined after Indian independence, and the establishment of the state of Israel.

Kolkata is the citadel of education and culture in eastern India. Five Nobel Prize winners have been associated with Kolkata. The University of Calcutta, founded in 1857, is the oldest modern university in South Asia. Calcutta Medical College, established in 1836, is the first institution in Asia to teach modern medicine. The National Library in Kolkata is the leading public library in the country.  The Indian Museum, established in 1814, is the nation’s oldest museum and houses large collections that showcase Indian natural history and Indian art. The Asiatic Society, founded in 1784, is a major centre of Oriental research.

Kolkata has many buildings adorned with Indo-Islamic and Indo-Saracenic architectural motifs. Several have been declared ‘heritage structures’ while many are in various stages of decay. The architecture of the Marble Palace (built in 1835) in north Kolkata is a mixture of Rococo and European neo-classical and contains large collections of Western sculpture and Victorian furniture, paintings by European and Indian artists and many other antiques. 

The Kalighat temple in south Kolkata is inseparable from the life of the city and, as some think, directly or indirectly the source of the city’s name. It drew pilgrims from all over Bengal and India and became a thriving centre of trade in the 19th century. Many patuas, the hereditary scroll painters from different part of Bengal, migrated to the vicinity of the Kalighat to make paintings and icons which pilgrims bought as souvenirs.

Chitpur in north Kolkata, (now Rabindra Sarani) the city’s oldest road, brings the history of old Kolkata to life. It is also the home of jatra or rural theatre companies. Chitpur was the nineteenth century babu’s playground. Babu-culture refers to the lavish and extravagant and nawabi life-style of the city’s nouveaux riche.

The Jorasanko Thakur Bari in Chitpur is the ancestral home of the Tagore family. It is the house in which the poet and first non-European Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (Thakur, in Bengali) was born. The Tagores made an immense contribution to Indian art and culture. They played a collective role in the fields of commerce, politics as well as literature, painting and music. The Thakur Bari which is now a part of the Rabindra Bharati University is a heritage building and houses the Rabindra Bharati Museum. It is rich in the memorabilia of the so called Bengal Rennaissance - a socio-cultural and religious reform movement that started in the 19th century. 

Kumortuli in north Kolkata is a traditional potters` quarters. These potters supply clay idols for various pujas in and around Kolkata. Different workshops in lanes off Chitpur specialise in different parts of the idol, creating the straw frames, adding clay coatings or painting the idols with brilliant colours. In recent times Kumortuli’s clientele has extended to America, Europe and Africa, among Indian communities living there.

The six day autumnal Durga Puja is one of the most popular festivals in Kolkata. In the months leading up to the puja, highly decorated life-size idols of Durga are created by the Kumortuli potters, and in large open spaces elaborate pandals, or temporary temples are built of bamboo and cloth to house the idols. The entire city is adorned with colourful lights. People from all over India and even from abroad visit Kolkata at this time. Traffic comes to a standstill and the city presents a carnivalesque look with thousands of people going `pandal-hopping` by foot with friends and family.

Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Kolkata