The City of Joy, though largely inhabited by Bengalis, has also been the home for several sections of originally foreign people for several centuries now. More popularly referred to as ethnic communities, the dwindling state of affairs for minorities in this metropolis is alarming. Communities such as the Parsis, Anglo-Indians, Jews, Chinese and Armenians are fast vanishing from Kolkata.
The port of Kolkata being one of the most easily accessible ports of the British Empire in Asia, attracted many trading communities, Jews being one of the first ones. One of the earliest traders, Shalom Aharon Obadiah Cohen who set foot in Bengal in 1798, established the Jewish community in Kolkata. The once prosperous community of 3,000 has now shrunk to a mere 27 today. Although Jews have always shared an intimate connection with the city and felt at home no matter what the political environment was, a major shift in numbers took place owing to the creation of Israel.
Among the most famous examples of Jewish architecture in the city is the Manasseh Meyer Building, currently occupied by the police department. Maghen David Synagogue, declared a protected monument by ASI, is one of the two still functional synagogues; it was built in the memory of David Joseph Ezra. Beth El synagogue, the other functional synagogue, is equally famous. The famous confectioner, Nahoum and Sons, run by David Nahoum and his family, is a Jewish legacy. The Jewish cemetery in Narkeldanga is one of the most serene places to take a stroll in.
Even though the Judaeo-Arabic settlers in this metropolis have found a home here, their rapidly dwindling numbers are a threat to the survival of the community. The Jewish girls’ school no more has Jewísh students, the synagogues are maintained by Muslims and their traditional food has been replaced by local food. But despite the overall bleak image of the community, the last few do not hesitate to call this city their home.
The community admired for its fun-loving and merry-making characteristics is now a fading part of the society. A clan 300,000-strong strong at the time of the departure of the British, it is now reduced to a figure of less than half of that. Amidst all the revelry, not only has this minority charmed its way through the heart of the city, it has also managed to reserve two seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament. This move was imperative to ensure the well-being of this diminishing community.
An Anglo-Indian bride (Photographer: Arindam Mukherjee, BBC)
The newer generations not only want call-centre or hotel management jobs but are opting for something more secure and stable as a livelihood, which will help them pull up their marginal status quo. To feel part of the society as much as other communities is their main concern. An inclusive and dynamic representation in the government will pave its way to fulfilling this.
Recorded as the first Parsi who had come to Kolkata (then Calcutta), from Surat in 1767, Dadabhoy Behramji Banaji seized the opportunity in the brimming trade and commerce in the city. The community, which is an extension of the Zoroastrian fraternity, is fast declining in count in this city. During the time when Kolkata was under colonial British rule, this hub of the Eastern Triangular Trade between India, East Asia and Europe was a prime centre for the import and export of opium, Chinese tea and food supplies. Parsis were mainly in this city to broker or trans-ship these freights. What the clan lacks in numbers they make up in spirit. The first fire temple or ‘agiari’ was also built by the Banaji family, which is now decrepit and encroached on. This street is commonly known as Parsee Church Street. Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India has proposed that this temple be made a monument of national importance. Kolkata’s only functional fire temple on Metcalfe Street witnessed centenary celebrations in 2012.
The community, although now has emerged as progressive and liberal, is witnessing tough days to keep their numbers intact, especially in the City of Joy. Mumbai and other parts of the country are more densely populated with this coterie as compared to here. The Parsis are known for being the owners of some of the biggest business houses of the country (and incidentally, in Pakistan as well). The population of Parsis in Kolkata is about one hundred individuals, out of the 69,601 recorded in the 2001 census. Both Kolkata and India continue to preserve a resplendent heritage.
A community that once followed the Bactrian route to India in order to make the most of the booming trade, settled down in the then capital of India, Kolkarta (then, Calcutta). The community of notable Armenian businessmen like Apcar Alexander Apcar, who the chairman of Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is now reduced to a mere thousand residents, who are also difficult to trace.
Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth (LiveMint)
Armenian Street, which once bustled with its natives, now merely boasts of owning the name. The city testifies to having five Armenian cemeteries, and an equal number of Armenian churches. Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, which has been subservient to hosting the city’s rugby games, was initially built by gift money. The landmark office building, Stephen Court was also built by an Armenian. The churches which were once the centres of all social activities are now mostly opened up only during the time of the Annual Pilgrimage and the Grape Festival of the Armenians.
Another Armenian contribution that must be mentioned is in sports. Some of the best rugby players in Kolkata over the years have been Armenians, often those who came to study in Armenian College, all the way from Armenia. However, that is no longer true, with the drastic decline in their number. Talking about sports, Anglo-Indians too have been big contributors to the sporting culture of Kolkata, especially in football, hockey and rugby.
The 2012 Centenary Plate-winning Armenian College & Philanthropic
Academy rugby squad (The Armenian Reporter)
Looked upon mainly as a community of immigrants, the Chinese have come to settle down in this city as a meek part of the society. The Chinese today work as tannery-owners, sauce manufacturers, shoe-shop owners, beauty salon-owners and restaurateurs, and occupy mostly a humble section of eastern Kolkata known as Tangra, popularly referred to as ‘China Town’. The original China Town, though, is the Tiretti Bazar area in the central part of the city. Other business areas of the Chinese include Bentinck Street, Esplanade and New Market. A famous aspect of the Chinese community is their celebration of their Lunar New Year with the traditional dragon dance. In terms of religion, the Chinese in Kolkata mostly belong to Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism.
A Chinese woman selling delicacies at a roadside Chinese breakfast market (The Hindu)
The famous Chinese breakfast spread at Tiretti Bazaar is another rare availability in this cosmopolitan city. Although two-thirds of the younger generation has opted to move to the west for better opportunities, the rest of the citizenry are comfortably settled in the city. Even though the Chinese opt for endogamous way of procreating, they have picked up the Bengali culture and tongue flawlessly.
Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations (The Hindu)
Written by Ankita Bose for Team M3.tv