When you walk down Gariahat Road, where the pavement eateries force you into the path of other pedestrians, autorickshaws, minibuses, trams, the odd hand-pulled rickshaw rattling persistently behind, and, occasionally, unhurried sheep and goats, the slender, leafy lanes of Hindustan Park nearby feel like the cool cloister of a seashell. The discreet quarter in south Kolkata, where India’s longest-serving chief minister Jyoti Basu once lived, sees a different kind of traffic.
Sunil Subba, a parking attendant on contract with the Kolkata municipal corporation (KMC), thinks he saw a Jaguar the other day. “I checked on my phone and it was a Jaguar. Audis are common. The other day, one of my colleagues said there was a Porsche, but it was not. It was some other fancy car. I am learning the makes and names now,” he says.
Much of this deluxe fleet is headed for the Roastery Coffee House, a coffee-speciality all-day restaurant that opened recently in Kolkata—its second outlet, after Hyderabad. The elegant 60-cover restaurant has leased the ground floor and grounds of the Calcutta South India Club, founded by C.V. Raman and S. Radhakrishnan, among others, in 1926. The building itself will turn 100 next year, according to Unnikrishnan Nayar, general secretary of the club. The café has added a chequerboard floor for outdoor seating and retained the laal mejhe (red oxide flooring) and mosaic, both typical of old Kolkata, inside. The elegant French windows are lined with potted plants and Ikat drapes.
“We saw properties on Park Street, Camac Street, Alipore, Lake Road, but I immediately knew I wanted a place in Hindustan Park when I saw it. It is residential, it is green, it still has graceful old homes like in Banjara Hills (Hyderabad), where we have our first café,” says Roastery founder Nishant Sinha. “I like places where you can see old people living, because older guests are more loyal. If they like your place, they will bring their children and grandchildren. And I got this vibe here that it is a place where people still live, so it won’t be trashed like districts where people come just to eat and shop. I myself love walking around here; even the smallest, cheapest café has such good service.”
The Roastery is the sixth, largest and most popular café in the area. A seventh has opened, while numbers 8 and 9 are being built. There are at least a dozen apparel and crafts boutiques, the most well-known of them Byloom—which stocks the textile label Bailou—all within five lanes connected to each other. Most of these boutiques and cafés are hybrids—they sell handloom apparel as well as natural foods sourced and packaged locally by cooperatives, giving the Hindustan Park paara (neighbourhood) a crafts village identity, distinct from the many café- and restaurant-lined streets of south Kolkata.
The majority of these, say 80%, have set up shop in just the past three years. The first store here was Fabindia, in the early 2000s; Byloom opened in 2011. Since 2016, Hindustan Park seems to be undergoing something akin to the transformation of Hauz Khas Village (HKV) in Delhi in the 1990s, when it became a hub for boutiques and niche eateries.
Malavika Banerjee, one of the founding partners of the Byloom store, says she first noticed the beauty of Hindustan Park when she came to shop at Fabindia. “I always say happenstance. My husband (Jeet Banerjee, a co-founder) and I started thinking of doing something here, we weren’t sure what exactly. We were lucky to be able to buy the three-storeyed house in 2010, lucky the textile designers Bappaditya and Ruma Biswas—the brains behind the label Bailou—were looking for a space to retail from. One thing led to another. And I myself always wanted a boutique with a café, like the beautiful Barefoot boutique store in Sri Lanka. We started in 2011, and I am glad we have so much company now.”
The proximity of Gariahat Road, south Kolkata’s maddening commercial thoroughfare, helps. If you look at the city map, Hindustan Park is one of the quadrants off Gariahat Road, the others being Hindustan Road, Ekdalia and Dover Lane. In 2007, when builder Soumyajit Gupta first started working in the neighbourhood, the residential realty rate was about ₹4,500 per sq. ft. “Now it is ₹10,000-plus for residential, and ₹14,000 and above for commercial properties. This is similar to other areas around Gariahat but I get a lot of queries for studio and boutique businesses here,” says Gupta of the architecture firm SGA Projects & Ventures.
The growth of Hindustan Park, and indeed south Kolkata’s café and hospitality segments, has coincided with the change in Bengal’s political regime. Byloom opened in April 2011 and on 13 May that year, Mamata Banerjee defeated the Left Front, which had been in power in Bengal for 34 years. The going was good, the economy was cruising, though state government policies did little to encourage the shift from a clump of drab umbrella businesses, stodgy sari stores and unchanging biryani and Chinese outlets that made up south Kolkata to a hip downtown where people shop with craft paper bags and eat in cafés that serve more salad than cooked food.
Although Kolkata has a reputation for chaos, many parts of it are “severely planned”, writes Partho Datta in his book Planning The City (2012). In 1911-12, the British administration set up the Calcutta Improvement Trust to make the city more beautiful and “sanitary”. This was meant to prevent epidemics like the plague outbreak of 1898, and wrest back some control from the then Calcutta municipal corporation (which had increasing Indian representation), Datta writes. Hindustan Park, and indeed much of south Kolkata around the Rabindra Sarovar lake, is part of that planned, beautified city. The lake was created in the 1920s, and the most expensive real estate areas were those that came up around it. The Hindustan Park area, which developed in the 1930s, was close to the lake but not right next to it.
Doctors, lawyers, engineers, college lecturers—the professionals of the 20th century—bought plots here, which explains the affluence, beauty and architectural style of the neighbourhood. The homes in Hindustan Park, and in several neighbourhoods extending from the historic Bhowanipore area to the lake, were built by British engineering firms.
In some ways, Hindustan Park today is reminiscent of Singapore’s Tiong Bahru neighbourhood—public housing built by the British-administered Singapore Improvement Trust in the art deco style in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, it is Singapore’s most hipster neighbourhood, with craft breweries, cafés and a superb book store. Kolkata’s story is much more of its people though—individual houses commissioned by its residents to British engineering firms.
The south Kolkata architectural idiom is stereotyped as art deco. But in fact these houses just portray certain features of the style—the typically rounded edges of balconies, and window grilles with vertical designs. But many do not have the geometric windows seen in the classic art deco form of American institutional buildings; most, in fact, have the slatted windows that have been the city’s signature look ever since film-maker Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964). The writer Amit Chaudhuri has coined the phrase “Calcutta architectural legacy” to describe this unique hybrid style.
“The old joke is that residents of south Kolkata are so poor that they have to go to work every day to earn a salary,” says Jawhar Sircar, chairman of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, a former Prasar Bharati CEO and a writer. “North Kolkata is where the obscenely rich lived, the zamindars who did business with the British and became caricatures, babus who threw feasts for the weddings of their cats. You see this in the architecture: the rajbaris of north Kolkata have Corinthian columns, arches, stucco, all these European features, and the majestic thakur dalaans (ceremonial platforms) that are a more Bengali feature. They are grand, while the houses of south Kolkata have a compact form; the art deco movement is inspired by the opulence of luxury liners, and the general impression is compact but aesthetically pleasing houses built by salary-earning professionals.”
“Although we are so close to Gariahat, these lanes were so quiet that we could play cricket whenever we liked,” says Nayar, who has been coming to Hindustan Park since 1970, when the club purchased the building. “The only car that entered these lanes was chief minister Jyoti Basu’s (who lived there from the 1940s to 1977). A couple of times, our ball hit his car too. But he never responded, neither smiled, nor reacted in anger.” Basu’s father Nishikanta Basu was a doctor, in keeping with the profile of the paara.
The educated, upper-middle class residents of Hindustan Park and other south Kolkata neighbourhoods had it good in the post-independence decades. They were unaffected by the privations of the zamindari abolition Act. They thrived in the 1960s when Kolkata was the city of professionals. Many Tamil Brahmins who left Tamil Nadu after the anti-Brahmin movement came to work in the city. And they held on through the turbulence of the Naxalite movement in the 1970s, the influx of four million refugees after the 1971 war and the long Communist rule that led to a flight of capital from the state.
Most of the generation that stepped into adulthood around liberalization in the 1990s, however, left the city—as other metropolises appeared to offer better opportunities. But the owners of several of these houses held on to their homes because of their relative affluence. Equally, the city did not see the kind of stratospheric realty escalation that visited Delhi and Mumbai, giving them little incentive to sell. If Kolkata retains more “character” today, it is because of this, rather than an awareness of its unique “architectural legacy”.
How do you give a neighbourhood with burgeoning retail prospects, like much of south Kolkata, a distinct identity? Architect Abin Chaudhuri’s firm Abin Design Studio (which also handles community works under the aegis of the Kolkata Architecture Foundation), located in Hindustan Park, has proposed the trendy neighbourhood be turned into something of a crafts paara. “There are lovely old trees here. My team has suggested that we put up the names of the trees, set up guards around the tree trunks to prevent them from falling, and these guards can double up as modular seating areas. There are some famous roll, phuchka and muri hawkers in south Kolkata who have a dedicated clientele. What if we invite them, and insist on waste disposal and hygiene? Then, small visual things like marking the corners with road graffiti, with the materials used for painting zebra crossings, little things that invite people to have a relationship with the trees and the area here.” The KMC has approved the ₹25 crore plan and the firm is in the process of organizing funding. “We will scale down if we fall short of the sum,” says Chaudhuri, who hopes to tap corporate entities, the government and residents.
Chaudhuri lives in the area, and speaks with the sense of investment that comes from belonging. He wants this to be a good place to live and do business in—distinct from the norm of a clear demarcation of business districts and suburban areas.
“Our urban design courses are shaped by the West,” says Sohomdeep Sinha Roy, an architect in Chaudhuri’s practice. “If we look at Indian towns like Raipur, even today the main bazaar, which has the shops, is also a residential area. People live above their shops, they have shop-houses.”
A three-and-a-half-minute walk from Chaudhuri’s office is Art Rickshaw, an art school which has upscaled the old Bengali tradition of art lessons with gym-style packages for skills like sketching, pottery and fine arts. For two years, Devanshi Rungta, the creative head of the business, has been organizing a day-long art festival in the cooler months of January-February, inviting local businesses to set up kiosks and pop-ups and inviting residents to participate in sketching contests and drawing alpona (rangoli) patterns on the road—the equivalent of a college fest for a paara. “We went door-to-door to more than 100 families. Some residents did draw, but many came down and sat and chatted,” says Rungta.
From the design point of view, there is a reason why cafés and boutique businesses like to set up in Hindustan Park, says Chaudhuri. The typical plot is deep but has a narrow frontage. This means rooms lead into one another, perfect for clothes studios and restaurants which can utilize different rooms for different purposes—a coffee bar in one room, two rooms of stand-alone tables, a pantry and a kitchen. A developer would have to pool four-five such plots to build a low-rise block with flats, given present-day municipality norms that necessitate leaving space around buildings, which isn’t ideal for construction.
The Kolkata-born, Mumbai-based conservation architect Kamalika Bose doesn’t see the term gentrification as fully encompassing what is happening in Hindustan Park—for gentrification refers to an area, historic or not, which has seen an economic decline, opening up to a new segment that boosts its economy and aesthetics and makes the area desirable and trendy again. “Additionally, I would attribute it to a socio-economic need, with migration and ageing citizens living in large homes built for joint families. They have not entirely abandoned the place but are exploring ways to monetize their built assets. As a conservationist, (I think) this is a good thing because the money helps revive and retrofit an ageing building. But the other side is also true—it does tend to drive out original residents as values rise.”
“Certainly, there is a lot of interest in Hindustan Park, both for residential properties and businesses,” says Gupta. “Of late, mishti (sweet) businesses are keen on an outlet here, a ground-floor store. They offer in the range of ₹1.5 lakh a month, which is a decent income if you are a retired person. Clients tell me they have seen houses where lights are switched on only on one floor, and few people appear to stay. Prospective clients, who want to rent or buy, appear to have done good recces of the area. I prefer not to approach directly, because residents in these paaras often have deep emotional ties with their homes, built by their parents or grandparents.”
The neighbourhood presswalla, one source of information, is easy to spot. Yogindar, who didn’t want to divulge his full name, also works as a night watchman in a low-rise. I ask him whether his income is rising. “Not really,” he says, “none of the shops give me any linen.”
What about brokers who ask you for information? “Fifty people will stop and ask me for information on any given day. How would I know if they are brokers or what?” he responds curtly.
People gather—drivers and domestic staff who hang around the lanes. The conversation is over.
I wonder if his agitation was a performance, a code to ask for money. As a journalist, it is against the rules to pay for information, but I can see where Yogindar is coming from. In a neighbourhood with prospects, everyone has a stake and everything has a price.
The Kolkata guide to buying handloom, eating natural
Sienna: When Sulagna Ghosh extended her mother’s Santiniketan pottery brand Confetti to a natural fabrics and wholesome food store-café called Sienna in Hindustan Park, Kolkata got a slice of hipsterdom. The dresses—clean lines, flowing silhouettes, natural fabrics and chic motifs—are priced at ₹1,800-5,000. My favourite, though, is the line of Ikat motif ties.
The apparel is designed by Ghosh. The Confetti brand of pottery is by the senior Ghosh, Shanta, and her sculptor partner Prabhash Sen.
The store also retails bags from The Burlap People, ethnic footwear from Vrajbhoomi, and incense and essential oils from the Auroville ashram. The café at the back works with Shanta Ghosh’s home recipes and does the term hipster café justice—avocado, microgreens, frittatas, gluten-free treats, and pumpkin soup are all on the menu. And you are served in Confetti ceramics.
Made in Bengal: Next door to Sienna, Miranda Chatterjee’s store showcases the memories of Bengal she carried with her as a probashi (non-resident)—natural-dye scarves printed with the face of Baantul the Great (a Bengali cartoon character), handloom saris made by select weavers from six districts of the state, dresses with motifs of fish, owls and Batik prints native to the region, magnets with images of the Itachuna Rajbari (Sonakshi Sinha’s zamindari home in the Hindi film Lootera) and ghee and boris (dal fritters) made by a brand called Home-Made, embroidery frames of the sort Charulata spent her afternoons on, and taal misri (palm candy lozenges). The floor above has Kaarkhana, Chatterjee’s workshop and tailoring outfit, where you can get fabrics tailored after a consultation, or do a block-printing session where you make your own natural-dye printed shirt or scarf. Chatterjee’s business also has an online presence (Madeinbengal.in).
Bhumisuta, close by, stocks a refrigerator full of popsicles made of natural fruit pulp and no added sugar—I can personally vouch for the daab (green coconut) and watermelon. Other seasonal favourites are aam panna, jamun (Java plum) and custard apple. There are also unusual Bengali flavours like bael (wood apple). There’s a superb aam shotto (mango bar) made and packaged in Malda, Bengal’s main mango district, with a wholly non-synthetic mango and jaggery flavour. The store also stocks handloom saris from various districts of Bengal and Varanasi, cotton clutch bags, costume jewellery, and a whole range of natural food products from districts all over the state, including cornflakes and oatmeal.
Attire Zone, a 5-minute walk from Bhumisuta, has a line of satchel-like sling bags made of printed fabric designed by owner Suparna Purkayastha. Suparna is one half of the couple that runs Kolkata’s oldest south Indian non-vegetarian restaurant, Tamarind. She also retails handloom saris in cotton, linen and silk from Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Varanasi, scarves, kurtas, tops and costume jewellery—some of them are designed by Purkayastha herself. There is also a small range of woodwork, ceramics and dokra ware.
Shunyaa is run by Sharbari Datta, who is known for her pioneering work in menswear. The store stocks designs both for men and women, and marks Hindustan Park as a serious fashion destination where you buy clothes by appointment. The store itself is done up in her signature ornate style, evoking the European baroque and rococo styles, as well as the extravagance of Bengal’s rajbaris.
Byloomis perhaps among the most talked about handloom stores of the past 10 years, yet its fabric room is still worth a visit. Artsy cats, solemn owls, campy yellow cabs, blue mobile phones and formidable oxen are among the block prints that adorn the rolls of Bailou’s fabrics. They also have the more conventional flowers and paisley prints, but the tongue-in-cheek motifs invoke the famous Kolkata irreverence. They also stock a wide range of handloom saris, costume jewellery, ethnic footwear, scarves and ready-made shirts.
Whether you buy anything or not, definitely head to the Canteen café for mutton chop or prawn cutlets, or a full-fledged meal of mangsho or maach bhaat. Their food, like their apparel, is unpretentious and satisfying.