Kolkata is a city with an unending lineage of history, culture and literature. Unfortunately, some of these rich heritages are getting lost in the sands of time. The Future of the Past tried to revive and uphold the strong erstwhile printing communities through its Chhapakkhana Trail. According to Paramita Saha, “The Future of the Past is all about how do we make young people think about their past. How to make them a little sort of curious about what our history holds.” Through the Chhapakkhana Trail, the entire team has been very fruitful in instilling the curiosity regarding the history of printing press in Kolkata among not only the youth but also in those who are a generation older. The walk was researched & curated by Priyanka Chatterjee. Walk 3 (the one I attended) was conducted by Sarbajit Mitra & Anirban Mondal. It was an almost two-hour walk stretching for a kilometre and a half; beginning at the Coffee House and ending at the Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Smriti Bhavan.
Before I actually talk about the walk I would give a small introduction regarding the history of press in Kolkata. In 1777, James Augustus Hickey started printing military bills and batta forms for the East India Company on a contract basis from the earliest known printing press in Calcutta. In 1778, to give competition to Hickey, the East India Company appointed one of its writers Charles Wilkinson as the Superintendent of the Honourable Company’s Press. Thereafter in 1778 was published the Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, the first known Indian Newspaper. In 1800 the Baptist Mission Press was set up in Serampore and Fort William, Calcutta. With this historical background on the press of Calcutta, I would now proceed to describe the Chhapakkhana Trail in greater details.
The trail started at the Indian Coffee House. It is one of the classic heritage spots of Kolkata and even after decades, it has an unfazed charm about it which attracts the youth and elders to its doors everyday. The main landmarks visited during this trail are detailed below:
- Boi Chitra: The literal meanings of the words are books and pictures because the place used to be a studio. “This is a studio belonging to Charuchandra Guha and he was one of the earliest photographers who mastered over portraits and group photos. If you take a look at the group photos at Presidency College or Medical College, there are a number of group photos taken by Charuchandra Guha.” Said our guide Sarbojit. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited inside .
- History of the Renaissance Publishing: Today, 15, Bankim Chatterjee St, College Square is synonymous to Coffee House. But years before coffee-house came into existence, the building housed several printing presses of Calcutta, some of these are still functional. Renaissance Press was founded by Manobendranath Ray (he changed his name from Narendranath Bhattacharya in order to escape from the police). During the First World War he went to Germany and smuggled arms for the revolutionaries in Calcutta, then he went to Russia but escaped after Stalin took over and finally ended up in Mexico where he founded the Communist party of Mexico. He came back to Calcutta and “started a publishing house called the Renaissance Publishing which was mostly dedicated to publishing books on revolutionary activities on sociology, history” and the likes.
- History of 15, Bankim Chatterjee St: The original building belonged to Ram Kamal Sen, one of the founding members of Hindu College which later went on to become the Presidency University. His nephew Keshob Chandra Sen founded the Albert Institute in the building. This institute was used for holding political meetings and discussing agendas. Thereafter, it was used as the Town Hall. Legends like Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose had delivered speeches in the building. The erstwhile building was deconstructed in the 1940’s and a new building was constructed. It was acquired by the Coffee Board of India and till date houses the Indian Coffee House. The premises had housed many significant printing presses like Chukraverty and Chatterjee and Rupa and Co.
- Sanskrit College: Just across the Road lies the Sanskrit College. The most famous personality associated with it is Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar , who was primarily a student , then a professor and later on became the principal. When the Hindu College started in 1817, the premises of the present day Sanskrit College was used until it shifted to where it stands now since the year 1850.
- Cygnet Press: “In Bengal, not much attention was given to designing a book, or on designing new forms of fonts or typefaces. So, in this regard Cygnet is very important as one of first publishing institutes of Bengal. It was founded by Dilip Kumar Guha (DKG). He gave special attention in designing books, designing covers, initiating new type faces and also in encouraging poetry books. Satyajit Ray became a known face as a cover/book designer. He used to work for the Cygnet press. His titles are being republished now by Cygnet. Other major designers who worked for Cygnet press were Ananda Munshi, Purnendu Potri . However Cygnet press did not meet commercial success for long and by 70’s or 80’s it was already a dying institution. It ran till 90’s and then they had to shut the shop. Recently, Ananda publishers took over and reopened it.”
- History of Sanjibani Press: While the Kolkata Corporation has named the house to be that of Rishi Aurobindo, it originally belonged to Krishno Kumar Mitra who was a Brahmo reformer. He founded the Sanjibani Press and also the Sanjibani periodical. This periodical became one of the mouth pieces of the Nationalists in the 1890’s and the 1900’s. Aurobindo was his nephew. He was active in politics during the first decade of the 19th century. He took shelter in a lot of houses near the area including the house of Kesto Kumar Mitra.
- Baptist Missions Students Hall: This particular building was founded in 1916. It was founded by the Baptist Mission’s Press as a mace or boarding house for the students who were studying in Colleges around this region. Baptist Mission Church founded one of the oldest printing press in Bengal. It was located in what is now the AJC Bose Road. “The Baptist Mission Church is very much there. But the almost 150 years old press was demolished in the 1880’s to make way for the Jugantar building.The Baptist Mission press has to its credits a lion share of books that were published in the 19th Century Bengal including those from the Asiatic Society or other major institutions.”
- Press 1: Potuatala Lane , Galli Typeset: Potuatala Lane derived its name from the community of painters who originally lived there. This lane is important for two reasons. First, a lot of students boarding houses are located here because this area is located midway from the Sealdah Station and the college Para. Second,this is also the location of a number of the old letter presses. We have identified four such presses. So, here we will visit one of these surviving printing presses. This letter-press made Galli letter type setting. A live demonstration as to how they produce the type setting is given below.
- Press 2: 54/1 Potua Lane Kolkata 700009 , Gold Foil Printing: So if a letter is in gold, then they used to make it via Gold leaves which are rare. This involved minimum contact with air as it can evaporate when exposed to the air for a long time. So now the technology has changed a lot. But they still use Gold plates and coverings to make this type of Gold Foil printings. Interestingly, in the movie Aparajaita Satyajit Ray used this junction to show a visibly confused Appu , new to the city looking for his boarding house. Other than that one of the other houses shown in the background belonged to Taranath Tarka Bachespati, who was a lexicographer. He was the first to file out Sanskrit Dictionary. He was also a close aid of Vidyasagar in the widow remarriage movement.
- The House of Trailokhonath Mukhopadhyay: Trailokhonath Mukhopadhyay introduced fantasy fiction in Bengali. He used to write between 1890’s and 1910. He was famous for characters like Domrudhar and Kankabati. Kankabati was kind of inspired from Alice in Wonderland. But there was more to him, as he was professionally a curator of the International Exhibition that was organised by the British Government or the colonial government in France or Germany. One such exhibition gave way to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was the first to do a lot of survey of cottage industries that existed in India. He was also associated with the gazetteers. So he did a lot of survey works. He visited Europe and published a memoir: ‘My Visit to Europe’. Parimal Goswami, the famous Bengali author translated that book to Bengali.
- Press 3: Narshingha Lane: Etching: Anirban explained that “Etching is a particular procedure where you have to use some kind of metal. They are going to plot a process using different types of chemical powder and acids. So the type face came out of the metal. Then they used ink on it and then just pressed it on the paper. Though all these forms are dying forms of printing but still they have some engagements or assignments. “
- Hindu Academy: The Hindu academy was where Mahendranath Gupta was a teacher. He was a disciple of Ramakrishna and he compiled his Gospels and published it as Ramakrishna KothaAmrito which has been a perennial bestseller here since the 1880’s.
- Residence of Hemendra Mohan Bose: This building was the residence of Hemendra Mohan Bose or H. Bose. He was an investor in the perfumery business. He founded the Kuntalin Press which used to encourage publication of novels and other literary fiction. He also introduced the first Literary Award in India- The Kuntalin Award. One became eligible for the award if the literary fiction has mention of any of his products just like product placement. Notable awardees were Jagadish Chandra Bose, and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee . He encouraged cycling in India and pioneered a cycling club. He was the first Indian to open a car showroom; to promote recording in India even before the Gramaphone Company or the HMV came into existence. His sons were also quite illustrious. Nitin Bose was one of the first famous film directors in Bombay. He was one of the Awardees of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award. Mukul Bose was a pioneer in sound engineering in India. He also became quite an important figure in the Indian Film Industry. Kartik Bose was a legendary cricketer. He played for the Bengal team in 1939 and won the first Ranji Trophy. He closely missed out playing for India as he had surpassed the age. But later became a famous coach for the Cricket Club of India. He had a cricket pitch inside this house which is now being used as the car park. Malati Ghoshal, one of his daughters was a famous Rabindra Sangeet Performer during her time. A nephew of this family was Satyajit Ray.
As the Chhapakkhana Trail came to a conclusion at the Vidyasagar Smriti Bhavan, an array of performances and live demonstrations awaited us. From viewing through a bioscope to playing simple games at the garden; from watching a typesetter at work to seeing wooden impressions hand carved in front of our eyes, from an amazing performance by the veterans and the youth brigadiers of Poetry Paradigm to designing our own block carvings; these activities engaged the guests throughout the evening.
In the end I would like to Congratulate The Future of the Past for presenting such a well researched walk on the lost heritage of Kolkata. True to their motto of creating space to arouse curiosity in young minds regarding their heritage, The Future of the Past has lived up to it till the very end. This post would be incomplete without mentioning the Kolkata Bloggers. They had partnered up for the event and I feel considerably lucky to have been joining the trail as a representative of the blogging community from the Kolkata Bloggers. Most of the members are extremely passionate about the city and of Kolkata’s rich legacy. Thus to be able to partner an event like this would definitely not only professional but also very emotional for this institution. I personally look forward to many such collaborations in future between The Future of the Past and the Kolkata Bloggers to divert the young minds towards the rich heritage of the City of Joy.