Ami Kolkata: A museum housed within Metcalfe Hall re-imagines the City of Joy, reflects its democratic spirit
Ami Kolkata has its mandatory Tagore and Ray, but it also has a stairwell lined with quirky posters – old movie classics as well as vintage ads for Horlicks malted milk, Lily barley biscuits, and Firpo’s machine-made bread. It celebrates Kolkata biryani and Chinatown breakfasts as much as it honours its pioneers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Begum Roqeya.
Ami Kolkata goes beyond clichés, re-imagining the tropes of the city. In a sense it mirrors Metcalfe Hall, which has also been re-imagined.
It has its mandatory Tagore and Ray, but it also has a stairwell lined with quirky posters – old movie classics as well as vintage ads for Horlicks malted milk, Lily barley biscuits, and Firpo’s machine-made bread.
It celebrates Kolkata biryani and Chinatown breakfasts as much as it honours its pioneers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Begum Roqeya.
“There’s no City of Joy,” says Kritika Malhotra with a laugh.
When Malhotra and her firm, 100 Watts Design Studio, were hired to put together a “museum on the culture of Kolkata”, she came up with a few ideas to capture the essence of the metropolis — City of Surprises, City of Memories, City of Influence, City of Confluence. Just no City of Joy. Ami Kolkata needed to go beyond that particular cliché.
Instead she took a puchkawala’s stand and turned it into a stand for a comment box. The comment box itself is a tea seller’s aluminum kettle, the kind you see in roadside tea stalls all over Kolkata. Speaking of clichés, there is a rickshaw but it is painted white and visitors can leave love notes to the city on it. “People said, 'How can you glamourise something so inhuman?'” says Malhotra. But it’s cheekily subverted, whitewashed as it were. This rickshaw comes with quotes from Mirza Ghalib and Amit Chaudhuri, and others less famous. Someone has written 'A city where I want to live forever even after I die.' Another sneakily advertises his own YouTube channel. (Who says Kolkata is short of entrepreneurial spirit?)
In a way, re-imagining the tropes of the city makes perfect sense, because Ami Kolkata is housed in a building that itself has been reimagined. Metcalfe Hall was built in the 1840s to honour Sir Charles Metcalfe, the Governor-General of India who had championed the freedom of the press. It’s a grand old building with majestic Corinthian pillars, overlooking the Strand, the river silvery in the distance. Before the National Library came into being, this was the Calcutta Public Library. Dwarkanath Tagore was its first proprietor, according to the blog Wanderlust. But like many other stately colonial buildings in Kolkata, it had fallen into a state of disrepair. One entrance was closed off. The Asiatic Society had offices in the ground floor. Few accessed the building anymore.
The Archaelogical Society of India restored it recently. “But the intent was to reclaim it for the city,” says Malhotra. “I wanted to bring Calcutta inside. I wanted a marriage between a grand space and the city.” The result is not so much a museum as an experience, an art installation, a valentine to the city, rather than an encyclopedia of its history. The building becomes part of the story. There’s a sense of playfulness that’s usually missing in an Indian museum. The alpona/rangoli drawn at the entrance has all the usual traditional floral and paisley motifs, but also babus being fanned and boys playing football. Ami Kolkata has its mandatory Tagore and Ray, but it also has a stairwell lined with quirky posters – old movie classics as well as vintage ads for Horlicks malted milk, Lily barley biscuits, Firpo’s machine-made bread and a 1962 production of a Tagore dance drama. This is a museum which wears its “museum-ness” with a light touch.
It celebrates Kolkata biryani and Chinatown breakfasts as much as it honours its pioneers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Begum Roqeya. It highlights not just the sights of a city but also its chaotic sounds – its trundling trams and honking taxis, its muezzin’s calls and temple bells, and the splash of a little boy diving into the swirling, muddy river.
Of course there is the danger that this celebration of Kolkata could inevitably tip over into nostalgia, an affliction the city is particularly prone to. “I did start looking at everything with rose-tinted glasses,” admits Malhotra who remembers coming into Metcalfe Hall late at night, all alone in the vast space, during the time she worked on the project. “I would feel energised,” she says and then adds with a chuckle that there were stories of ghosts too.
The ghosts of a long gone Kolkata tend to haunt every project like this. In the end, however, all those classic book covers, film posters, and old typewriters do not have to be as much about nostalgia for a vanished city as about a far more intriguing question: Can a city reuse its past to reimagine its future?
In one room, for example, there’s a huge dinghy boat, the kind that plies the Hooghly. But the old-fashioned boat comes with a state-of-the-art touch screen panel that shows the history of Kolkata — from the infamous Black Hole to the 1757 Durga Puja. In another room, the City of Influence, a jute screen made by one of the oldest jute mills around the city becomes a projection screen for those who made Kolkata unique – Roland Ross, Jagadish Bose, Toru Dutt, Raja Ram Mohun Roy and even those who merely passed through, like filmmakers Louis Malle and Roberto Rossellini. “People who visited the city also had a sense of belonging to it and were changed by it,” says Malhotra. “That’s what’s unique to Calcutta.”
Malhotra herself grew up in Kolkata, close to the Victoria Memorial, the staid marble monument that is iconic to the city. Like many Kolkatans, she left – to pursue a degree at National Institute of Design (NID). Unlike many Kolkatans, she came back. She confesses it’s not always easy to get an ambitious project off the ground here. She had to hear the constant “Hobe na” (Not possible) refrain when she would float a new idea. “Anything you need done, you need to do it yourself,” she says, even getting the giant terracotta planters for the banana plants at the entrance. She wanted huge classic Ahmed Ali photographs of the city from decades ago on the landing, but had to figure out how to blow them up to 22’ x 10’ from tiny bromides. When she went to a shop that rented out old furniture, she says the men behind the desks seemed as old as the pieces available to rent. “The rent may be Rs 300, but the process and its forms were long and complicated,” she says with a laugh. But one thing she learned growing up in Kolkata was that she could not fake it. She says in this city “Culture kisiki jaagir nahin hain, culture is no one’s fiefdom.”
In a sense, Ami Kolkata tries to reflect that democratic spirit. Though Metcalfe Hall might be imposing, the city it celebrates has room for everyone. It belongs to Chinese dragon dancers as much as it does to the Chatterjees sipping tea in the mosaic room of their 150-year-old house, a photograph that has been blown up and set into the window in trompe l’oeil style. Ami Kolkata salutes Uday Shankar’s sinuous dance as well as Miss Shefali’s cabaret. The old booksellers of College Street selling second-hand Common Entrance Test textbooks alongside rare Bengali first editions find pride of place, as does Chhat puja and the Jewish synagogue. There is 60s Calcutta's glamorous nightlife as well as the humbler neighbourhood paara clubs with their carom boards. There’s even a photograph of Favourite Cabin in North Kolkata, where firebrands once plotted revolution over tea and deep-fried food secure in the knowledge that a secret exit through the roof would let them escape if the police showed up.
Inevitably, there are things missing. “This is a glimpse of Kolkata, it’s not exhaustive,” says Malhotra. Where are the Marwaris, I ask? Kolkata would not be Kolkata without them. “I totally agree,” she says. “But I am looking for a very specific image – of a really nice gaddi.”
If you know of one, there’s a spot left for it in Ami Kolkata in Metcalfe Hall.
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