Favourite Cabin, Calcutta

From the mid-70’s, I can remember so many days when after buying a few books from College Street, my school-teacher father would take me to this tea shop on Surya Sen Street to have buttered toast sprinkled with sugar and an excellent cup of  tea. My father would tell me that it used to be a favourite meeting place of many of the Bengali litterateurs and intellectuals of another era. This decrepit, old tea shop, located a stone’s throw away from the bookshops at College Street, the campuses of the University of Calcutta and of the Presidency College, retains a part of my childhood.
Later as a student of Presidency College and Calcutta University, I often visited Favourite Cabin and tried to recreate, if only in my imagination,  the extraordinary past of this place of otherwise shoddy appearance. The list of items served was sparse too: tea, toast, muffin and sliced cake. My father told me long ago that the appearance of the place was deceptive!
line and wash sketch of favourite cabin, calcutta

Entrance to the Favourite Cabin

Favourite Cabin is best known for its association with the writers linked with the Bengali magazine Kallol. Situated on what was then known as Mirzapur Street (now Surya Sen Street), the tea shop was a favourite haunt of those writers. In his memoir entitled Kallol Jug,  Achintya Kumar Sengupta writes: “Sitting in a circle over the marble-top tables in the cabin, the adda used to continue well after the tea sessions were over… it gave rise to many a debate and helped to form future strategies. Kallol would have been incomplete without Favourite Cabin…”
line and wash sketch of a tea shop

Inside the tea shop

During the days of India’s freedom struggle, Swadeshi meetings would take place in the inner chamber of the shop and the freedom fighters would escape through the backdoor as soon as the owner of the shop, who sat near the door manning his cash counter, would signal to the freedom fighters that a police raid is imminent. It is no wonder that the road on which this tea shop is located has been named after Surya Sen.
Sketching tools: Uni-ball Click Gel Pen (Black) and water colour.
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Fruit juice vendors

As the summer sets in, the fruit juice vendors do brisk business in the Indian cities. Those who have to move or work outside in hot and humid conditions drink fruit juices to keep them hydrated. Grapefruit, pomegranate, orange, mango and pineapple juices remain in great demand. Health-conscious people also appreciate the juice of bitter gourd, beetroot and carrot.  As the temperature rises, so does the profit of the fruit juice shops!

line and wash sketch of a fruit juice vendor

There are hygienic and environmental concerns though and peeled fruits are often seen kept uncovered under the open sky. Those who prepare the juice in these shops do not wear gloves and aprons. Since most of these stalls are on the roads, there is no protection from dust and flies.

line and wash sketch of fruit juice sellers

Drinking sugarcane juice helps to beat dehydration and heat stroke during the summer.Loaded with glucose and electrolytes, sugarcane juice acts as an instant energy booster. Add to it the goodness of lemon and  ginger and you have the perfect summer drink! So, people throng around these sugarcane crushing carts all day long. The drinks are served in plastic glasses or, better still, in those nature-friendly earthen pots. Then you have the smell of the mother earth in your cool drink.

line and wash sketch of sugarcane juice seller

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Scenes from a Hindu marriage….

Rich or relatively well-off Indians who live in the north of the country arrange for Shehnai players to play during the marriage ceremonies. Usually a dais is built near the entrance of the house for the shehnai players.

line and wash sketch of shehnai players

Below is a sketch of a ritual that the Bengalis usually perform during their marriages. It is known in Bengali as সাত পাকে বাঁধা…The bride enters the pavillion where the actual marriage will take place. The groom is already there along with the priests. The bride seats on a wooden stool called a pidi. Her brothers and close male relatives then hold the pidi and lift the bride to carry her around the groom seven times in a row. The groom remains in front of the wedding pyre.

All along, the bride covers her eyes with a pair of betel leaves. Only after she is carried around the groom seven times  will she take the betel leaves off her eyes.

line and wash sketch of marriage

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This morning’s fish market…

It is said that the Bengalis can’t live (or have a proper meal) without fish. Fish is everywhere in the life and language of the Bengalis. To mean somebody who does not know which side of the bread is buttered, a Bengali would say “ভাজা মাছটি উল্টে খেতে জানে না”, that is ‘someone who doesn’t know how to turn over a fried fish while eating it’.  Here’s my first sketch of this morning’s fish market…

line and wash sketch of a fish market

In Tagore’s নৌকাডুবি (Nouka Dubi), Ramesh Kabiraj, while having a meal is so ecstatic to find the head of a Rohu fish on his plate that he takes it tenderly in his hand and says, “This is the head of the Rohu fish! This is not a dream, neither an illusion or a delusion, but the real head of a fish — truly, the crown of the Rohu fish.” Here’s my second sketch of the fish market….

line and wash watercolour sketch of a fish market

 

Making payments at the fish market after buying fish!

The fish sellers will only accept cash payments despite fish being an expensive item. So much for a ‘less cash’ India!

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Days long gone…

Even a few decades ago, the Bengalis had no hopes of owning houses and cars. The only resource they owned had been a few abjectly poor fathers-elder brothers-uncles, who knew how to keep their spine erect and how to apply that weapon-of-all-weapons — the ability to say NO. The only pomp and splendour in their life was their sense of self-respect.

Those Bengalis are no more. The only heirloom they handed over to us — namely, a sense of dignity — is almost extinct now (in an environment of overwhelming worldly prosperity compared to those earlier times)….

sketch of a dhoti-clad bengali walking the streets of old Kolkata (Calcutta)

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