Travel: Seeking Jamdanis and nostalgia in Kolkata
As much as the city changes, its soul remains the same
I have come to Kolkata in search of Jamdani saris and a dream. Not my dream, really, but the Bengali dream. In an age when the world appears largely similar, a state that embraces its quirks and history with elan is worth admiring. Indeed, emulating.
I am having delicious food in Weavers Studio, where the irrepressible Darshan Shah is feeding me mishti doi from Mukherjee Sweets and the best dal poori and aloor dum from a neighbourhood dhaba. Surrounded by exquisite textiles, Shah has just returned from Delhi where she has put up a stunning show of Baluchari weaves at the National Museum. As I browse through the saris and stoles by award-winning weavers, a man in her shop walks up to me and asks me to teach him the sari style that I am wearing. I tell him that I learned it from Rta Kapur Chishti’s ‘sari school,’ but the man – Tanmoy – is genuinely interested. He pulls out a sari from the rack and asks me to show him. I do and he follows suit. Soon, there we are, two Indians – a man and a woman – trying on saris. Only in Kolkata, I think.
Raajkutir, a brand new boutique hotel, takes full advantage of this Bengali propensity for nostalgia by recreating in painstaking and imaginary detail, every aspect of what it means to be a Bengali in those wonderful times when music, poetry and the arts flourished in ‘Sonar Bangla.’
Kolkata today is both changed and unchanged. There are new flyovers being built everyday while political parties jostle over seats. “We demand,” is a common slogan here, even if people disagree about what they are demanding. And yet… and yet, there is the other Bengal that is unchanging, even eternal. “Bengal truly accepts you for who you are,” says Trinamool Congress MLA, Mahua Moitra, who went to my alma mater. “There is no stereotype for what a woman or politician should be like. It is liberating.”
Moitra is always in a Bengali sari, and loves Jamdanis. When I ask her why, she sends me Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, The Dacca Gauzes, which describe the weave as “woven air, running water, evening dew.” This is the vision that Sabyasachi loves and pays homage to in his flagship store with its dark corridors, candles and archival photos. Sabyasachi’s version of Bengali style is “women in cotton saris and red lipsticks to match their bold bindi.” His style icons were women like Rekha, who much like Audrey Hepburn, “had a look that didn’t change much.” The same can be applied to the culture that values continuity rather than change. “Bengalis are known for three things: nostalgia, dyspepsia and inertia,” pronounces Iti Misra, a home chef who instagrams under the handle @cheffingtonpost.
The Bengali Renaissance still influences India. The idealism of this movement still feels very real to Bengalis. “Unlike the Renaissance in Europe that dates back to the 16th Century, ours is just about 150 years old. It happened very quickly for us Bengalis,” says Ghoshal.
The values fostered by the movement too envelope the city. Bengalis are not ‘over-ambitious,’ say most people. They are not focused on making money. They bond over adda – stories of food, football and festivals.