About Kolkata

Kolkata - the city of joy, extremes and paradox

A land of bewildering array of diversity and contrasts, Kolkata conjures up different images to people depending on the experience they felt while visiting this ancient city.

The cultural and intellectual capital of India sits gently on the east bank of the Hooghly River which is a silent but dominant character in the long, roller-coaster journey of the city from the colonial times.

Formerly Calcutta, the city is not just the capital of West Bengal, but a commercial and cultural gateway to the north-eastern parts of India.

A knowledge hub with a host of top educational institutions and traditional centres, Kolkata has been the chief torch bearer of intellectual ascendancy of India over the decades.

Kolkata Port is the oldest in the country offering riverine link to neighbouring countries like Myanmar and SE Asian nations.

Kolkata city spread over 205 sq. km has nearly 5 million residents.

But the urban agglomeration (1,887 sq.km) which comprises the city and its vast suburbs is one of the fastest growing clusters in the world having a population of 14 million.

Kolkata Metropolitan area is the third most populous one in India after Delhi and Mumbai.

As of 2008, its GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) was estimated to be US$104 billion, which is third highest after Mumbai and Delhi in the country.

Teeming with people drawn from different parts of India, Kolkata is a veritable melting pot of humanity.

While Bengali is native language of the people, Hindi, Urdu, Assamese and others are also spoken in public spaces because of large presence of linguistic and ethnic minorities.

At present, Kolkata is at a crossroads facing a number of challenges like urban pollution, traffic congestion, extreme poverty, logistics bottlenecks and other socio-economic problems.

Capital of British India

In the late 17th century, the three villages that predated Kolkata were ruled by the Nawab of Bengal under Mughal suzerainty.

After the Nawab granted the East India Company a trading licence in 1690, the area was developed by the company into a fortified mercantile base.

Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah recaptured the fort in 1756 after the company started evading taxes and began to increase the military might of its fort.

With deft manoeuvres, East India Company regained the trading post in thenext year itself.

In 1793, the British extended its full sovereignty after Mughal governorship (Nizamat) was abolished.

Under the East India Company and later after the British Crown took over the administration, Kolkata served as the capital of colonial India until 1911.....More

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But its geographical location in the northeast and the growing Bengali nationalism made the British to shift the capital to New Delhi in 1911.

The city was the centre of the Independence movement and remains the most happening spot in Indian politics.

Following the Independence in 1947, Kolkata which was once the centre of modern education, science, culture, and politics had to undergo stagnation for decades with the focus having shifted to New Delhi.

However, from the beginning of 2000, there has been a marked change in the political and social discourse in Kolkata leading to economic revival.

City of intellectuals, debates

A city that takes immense pride in owning up Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the 19th Century poet, dramatist and towering Bengali litterateur, has never ceased to amaze outsiders in consistently shaping up larger-than-life personalities across various disciplines.

Some popularfigures who have become 'ready reckoners' in India are Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna, Aurobindo Ghosh, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Mother Teresa, Satyajit Ray, Ashok Kumar, Manna Dey, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Jyoti Basu, Bimal Roy, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee.

Kolkata became the fulcrum of Bengal renaissance in late 19th-early 20th century and contributed much to the cultural growth of the Indian subcontinent in terms of literary output, fine arts, dramas, theatre, films and theological discourses.

Many people from Kolkata including Nobel laureates have contributed to the arts, the sciences, and other specialised disciplines, while the Kolkata culture features idiosyncrasies that include distinctively close-knit neighbourhoods (paras) and freestyle intellectual exchanges (adda).

Bengali films are known for their realistic portrayals that have won global awards over decades. Films directed by Satyajit Ray, Sandip Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Rituparno Ghosh and Buddhadeb Dasgupta have deep interplay of human emotions with realistic plots that have worldwide audience.

The scientific institutes like Agri Horticultural Society of India, Geological Survey of India, Botanical Survey of India, Calcutta Mathematical Society, Indian Science Congress Association, Zoological Survey of India, Institution of Engineers, the Anthropological Survey of India and Indian Public Health Association have done seminal research that contributed to the national growth.

Though home to major cricketing venue Eden Gardens and franchises, Kolkata differs from other cities as it gives prime importance to football and other sports.

The rich legacy of the British Raj

The recorded history of Kolkata began in 1690 with the arrival of East India Company which was consolidating its trade business in Bengal.

Job Charnock, an administrator who worked for the company, is credited as the founder of the city.

However, in response to a public petition, the Calcutta High Court ruled in 2003 that the city does not have a founder.

The area occupied by the present-day city has had three villages: Kalikata, Gobindapur, and Sutanuti.

They were part of an estate belonging to the Mughal emperor; the jagirdari (a land grant bestowed by a king on his noblemen) taxation rights to the villages were held by the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family of landowners (zamindars).

These land owning rights were transferred to the East India Company in 1698.

In 1712, the British built Fort William on the east bank of the Hooghly River to safeguard their trading post.

Following the skirmishes with French forces, the British began to upgrade their fortifications in 1756.

The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, warned the East India Company against the militarisation of its fort and avoiding to pay tax from the villages they were holding then.

His warning went unheeded, and the Nawab attacked and recaptured Fort William in 1756.

The Nawab captured Fort William which led to the killings of several British officials in an incident called the "Black Hole of Calcutta".

A force of company soldiers (sepoys) and British troops led by Robert Clive recaptured the city the following year (1757).

As per the 1765 Treaty of Allahabad following the battle of Buxar, East India Company was appointed imperial tax collector of the Mughal emperor in the combined province of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

However, the Mughal-appointed Nawabs continued to rule the province.

After Calcutta was made a presidency city, it became the headquarters of the East India Company by 1772.

In 1793, ruling power of the Nawabs was abolished and East India Company took complete control of the Calcutta and the larger province.

In the early 19th century, the marshes near the city were drained and an official lay-out was developed on the banks of the Hooghly River.

Richard Wellesley, Governor-General of East India Company from 1797 to 1805, was largely responsible for the development of the city and its public architecture.

Throughout the late 18th and 19th century, the city was a centre of the East India Company's opium trade.

By 1850s, Calcutta had been segregated into two areas: White Town, for the British centred on Chowringhee and Dalhousie Square, and Black Town for Indians located in the north.

Reawakening of Bengali's pride

The city underwent rapid industrial growth in the early 1850s, especially in the textile and jute industries.

With an eye on the city's vast resources including mineral wealth, the British companies invested in infrastructure projects which included telegraph and Howrah railway station.

The confluence of British and Indian culture resulted in the emergence of a new 'babu' class of urbane Indians whose members were often bureaucrats, professionals, accountants and Anglophiles.

They usually belonged to upper-caste Hindu communities.

In the 19th century, the Bengal Renaissance brought about a big progressive change in the attitude of Bengalis with a socio-cultural sophistication among the city denizens.

In 1883, Calcutta was host to the first national conference of the Indian National Association, the first avowed nationalist organisation in India.

Gradually, Calcutta became a centre for revolutionary organisations associated with the Indian independence movement.

The temporary 1905 partition of Bengal along communal lines resulted in widespread public agitation and a boycott of British goods by the Swadeshi movement.

These violent social movements along with the disadvantageous location of Calcutta on the eastern fringes of India, prompted the British to move the capital to New Delhi in 1911.

Industrial decline in Kolkata

Kolkata is the major producer of jute and related products in the country.

The jute industry was established in the 1870s, and mills now extend north and south of the city centre on both banks of the Hooghly River.

Engineering was once the key sector offering employment and producing a number of utility products in the city.

At present, factories in Kolkata produce a variety of consumer goods-foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, and textiles, electrical manufacturing and chemicals.

However, there is steep decline in the industrial productivity of Kolkata since Independence.

Some of the factors leading to social and economic stagnation are the rise of communist ideology in West Bengal, neglect by the state governments and the loss of the eastern part of Bengal during Partition (which led to creation of East Pakistan).

Origin of the word 'Kolkata'

The imperial name Calcutta is an Anglicised version of the Bengali name Kalikata.

It is said that Kalikata is derived from the Bengali word Kalikshetra, meaning "the land of Goddess Kali".

However, according to some, the city got its name from the location of its original settlement on the bank of a canal (khal).

There is a third opinion which traces the city name to the Bengali words for lime (calcium oxide; kali) and burnt shell (kata)as the area was noted for the manufacture of shell lime.

In line with the popular sentiments of the majority, the Bengal government officially changed the name of the city to Kolkata, thus resonating with the original roots of this historic city.