Did you know there was a board game in the 1850s called ‘Dioramic Game of the Overland Route to India’? Well I didn’t, until I began playing the daily ‘trivia’ quiz posted online on Facebook (also on Instagram) by Heritage Walk Calcutta. In this board game, people had to start from the Southampton Docks (England) and race to Calcutta (former name of Kolkata) via Egypt and the Red Sea, covering 100 spaces. Now part of the collection of Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the board game came with a booklet that had numbered and titled text blocks describing each of the ports of call.
“To make researched academic knowledge about history, heritage and culture accessible to the general public by various means, was the main reason we started Heritage Walk Calcutta,” says Tathagata Neogi (PhD in Archaeology, University of Exeter) who co-founded the organisation three years back with partner Chelsea McGill (MA in Social Sciences, University of Chicago).
But when life came to an almost standstill owing to the lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 or the novel coronavirus, it was not possible to hold these walks. “We were already anticipating this,” said Neogi. “The health and safety of everyone comes first, and in preparing for this, we had already reduced the group size for our walks to 8, which is half the usual number, from early March.”
“The purpose of everything we do, is to make sure we can carry on with our mission of community outreach about history and heritage,” said Neogi. “Since the walks have temporarily stopped and we are all sitting at home, we decided to use our social media channels to reach out to the community and keep on spreading heritage awareness. So that was the idea behind it.”
The quiz is in the format of a daily trivia. Some difficult, some not very difficult. “We post photographs of places in Kolkata, and West Bengal, sometimes, old paintings, and ask our followers to identify these places and some events associated with these places,” explained Neogi.
So one day if it is about a Kali Temple (on Purna Das Road, south Kolkata) founded by a bandit named Manohar, sometime in the 18th century, then another day it is about the St Mark’s Church, a Protestant prayer house in Sankharitola (central Kolkata) built in 1900.
From the old herbarium at the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur (Howrah) to the Spence’s Hotel (the Calcutta hotel established in 1830 and said to be the first European style hotel in Asia), you get to know some fascinating stories about Kolkata.
The post accompanying the latter also mentioned that the building where Spence’s Hotel relocated to – near the north gate of the Government House (now Raj Bhavan) – exists even today and houses the Central Bank of India.
Some of the trivia will also make you worry about the fate of urban heritage. Like one that showed McGill standing in front of a pile of rubble. The answer was enough to break the heart of any heritage lover and conservationist or a student of media history.
The rubble was the remains of the headquarters of the former newspapers Jugantor (Bengali) and Amrita Bazar Patrika (English) in Bagbazar (north Kolkata). One of the major achievements of Amritabazar Patrika was to change into an English newspaper from Bengali overnight to beat the imposition of the Vernacular Press Act promulgated by Lord Lytton in 1878.
One day, participants were asked to identify a painting (from the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum) which turned out to be from a series of illustrations made by Sir Charles D’Oyly for his satirical verse “Tom Raw, the Griffin”, published in 1828. The long poem in 12 cantos, was a satirical take on the life of an English East India Company’s cadet who had freshly arrived in Calcutta from England.
“The idea is to engage people, make them think about our collective heritage, and to have fun. There are no winners, no losers and at the end of the day we all end up learning something,” chipped in McGill.
They are also running a podcast titled ‘The Stupid History Podcast’ which features some “extremely stupid events” from the history of colonial Bengal. For example, when the East India Company brought a ship full of thick woollen cloth to India at the height of summer in 1633 as they tried to access the silk markets of Bengal.