Kolkata's timekeeper: Meet Swapan Dutta, a fourth generation supervisor of the city's clocks

"It feels like the swinging of the pendulum is governing the rhythm of my heartbeats. That's how attuned I am to the tick-tocking of the clocks," says 70-year-old Swapan Dutta. Such an intense relationship with clocks is rare, but in this case, it may be the most natural thing. Swapan is a fourth generation descendant of the Dutta family from Kolkata, who are famously known as the 'timekeepers' of the city.

Passed down through generations like heirloom, Swapan Dutta's job is that of a mechanic, manager, and supervisor of all the biggest and oldest clock towers in Kolkata, as well some of the most famous clock towers across the country.

Dutta's great-grandfather Dharanidhar Dutta was a piece worker (who would work on an assignment basis) with the famous Cooke and Kelvey. Good work and immense talent brought Dharanidhar in contact with a number of influential British officials. As soon as clock towers began being built in the city (today Kolkata is the city with the most number of heritage clocks), the responsibility of looking after them was awarded to Dharanidhar. This is how each and every clock tower of Kolkata was looked after by the Duttas.

Swapan Dutta at the Manicktala Bazar clock tower, which is the most unique clock in the city. The minute hand of this German clock doesn't move for 59 seconds and jumps every time the second hand ticks for the 60th time

Swapan Dutta at the Manicktala Bazar clock tower, which is the most unique clock in the city. The minute hand of this German clock doesn't move for 59 seconds and jumps every time the second hand ticks for the 60th time

Reluctance seems to be in Kolkata's genes, and no attention was ever given to this family. But the Duttas, specifically Swapan Dutta, shot to fame when West Bengal's CM Mamata Banerjee created a replica of London's Big Ben in Kolkata's Lake Town, in a bid to transform the City of Joy into London.

"People know Steve Jaggs (the clock keeper of London's Big Ben) but there's hardly any reason for them to know me," Swapan Dutta says, as he laughs it off. Though Kolkata's 135 feet-tall Big Ben is fairly smaller than the original, Swapan Dutta's talent is, by no means, less than that of Jaggs. In fact, when the lack of resources and modern aides are considered, Dutta can actually be given a little more credit.

The Dutta family have been residents of Kolkata's College Street for 300 years now. Four generations later, Swapan is the only member with a passion for clocks in his joint family, which consists of nine brothers. "I live with my wife, two sons, two daughters-in-law and two of my granddaughters. Only my older son Satyajit was interested in the trade, and after me, he will take care of the tradition and the business," says Swapan, as he sits in his six-by-four-feet workstation which has hundreds of clocks, of all sorts, lying around.

Swapan and his son Satyajit Dutta at the clock room of Big Ben Kolkata

Swapan and his son Satyajit Dutta at the clock room of Big Ben Kolkata

Swapan Dutta's love affair with clocks began in his childhood. He recalls, "I used to sit by my father and see him working on the most critical clocks. I developed a knack for working with the most complex clocks. My father later taught me the ABCs of the clock mechanism." Neither Dutta nor his son have undergone a formal technical or mechanical courses. "It has to be in the genes. Even my 3-year-old granddaughter wants to try her hand at the wall clocks of my house. That is the kind of love and passion that you must have in your blood for these clocks."

55 years of an intense love-hate relationship with clocks has rewarded the Duttas in different ways. He talks about how he learnt to be confident and punctual because of his profession. It was in his early 20s that he first visited a clock tower — the St Paul's Cathedral clock tower. Though the Father at the Cathedral did not have faith in him initially, Dutta did leave all of them impressed at the end of his job.

The St Paul's Cathedral clock tower, which was the first one

The St Paul's Cathedral clock tower, which was the first one Dutta ever visited

Swapan and his son Satyajit can tell countless tales about putting the oldest, rarest, most complex clocks in order. Whether it is the clock tower of Har Ki Pauri, Goa's Vasco clock tower, Bihar's Gidhaur Maharaja tower or the clock tower of the King's Palace in Kathmandu. The duo is also responsible for the flawless working of Punjab's Kapurthala clock tower, Shimla Malls' BSNL clock tower, and Darjeeling Mall's Bhanu Bhavan's clock tower.

"The chimes of these clocks have a place in our hearts. No matter how involved my father is in a conversation with you, his ears will still be attuned to the bell of the clock — that's just how he is," says Satyajit, as he paints a portrait of his father.

"I don't know what should I call this. Words such as 'love' and 'passion' are not enough to describe how I feel about my job. Clients give me the most difficult work to do in a day's time, but I act swiftly and make sure it is right on track in two hours!" says Swapan. His eyes gleamed when he spoke about his work.

Kolkata's Big Ben is currently the biggest clock in the city, with a dial of almost 13.5 feet

Kolkata's Big Ben is currently the biggest clock in the city, with a dial of almost 13.5 feet

In order to keep the city on time, Dutta has often run out of time for his own personal life, but he doesn't seem to have regrets about it. "I have barely gone on family vacations. I had to even leave behind my newly-wedded wife of a few days to attend to urgent work," Swapan shares.

"Money cannot buy you the things that I have received from people. So much love, respect and affection," Dutta says, "The watchman of my building says, 'I have never seen a human being like you in my life' and that is where I derive my satisfaction from."


Updated Date: Mar 08, 2018 19:05 PM

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