The evolution of book clubs in Kolkata

The evolution of book clubs in Kolkata

May 5, 2015

Kolkata is well-known as a city of book-lovers. And book-lovers love to talk, of what else but books. Hence the city is also a place where literary addas, be they in homes or book shops, are a part and parcel of the culture.

Traditionally, addas were an organic part of the close-knit communities, or paras, as they are called in Bengali, found all over the city. Now, though, in many areas, even neighbours hardly know each other, let alone be a part of a community. A casualty of this has been the traditional book addas or book clubs, if you like. Now, there are the growing number of curated book gatherings. A sort of structured formality is replacing the informal nature of book addas.

However, author and Stanford University teacher Saikat Majumdar, who recently read out a portion of his forthcoming novel, The Firebird, at the Readers' and Writers' Club, one of the growing number of modern book gatherings, is positive about this trend. He feels that curated book club events reflect today's changing community needs. Nowadays, when often even neighbours are strangers, there is a need to bring people together, and this is what curated gatherings do – they create a platform for addas.

Tradition and modernity, though, have continued to thrive together. There are the age-old addas, and there are the curated book discussion events.  

Coffee House on College Street, the traditional mecca of the literary types (Crazy For Wanderlust blog)

Consider the scenes.

It's your average mid-week evening. A group of people are sitting in the cafe inside Yoga Mystic Studio on Camac Street, having banana-walnut cake and canapes. A young girl is reading out a poem she has written. Next up is a middle-aged man. It's a session of the Kolkata chapter of the poetry-lovers' group, Poetry Couture.

Some distance away, in the cramped basement of Gariahat market, another group has gathered over tea, sitting on two rickety benches to discuss the history, the art, the food and the writers of Kolkata. The flavour of the adda is very Bengali. They are sitting around Ahanayan Bookstore. Run by Prabir Kumar Chatterjee, the store started in 1971, at a different spot in Gariahat, and shifted to its present location in 1996.

Poetry Couture and Ahanayan might be a study in contrast but they are united by a common cause – passion for the written word. Each have their own loyal following.

Professors and executives, students and artists, Prabir babur dokaan sees all kinds of patrons. During the addas, prized books, periodicals and magazines on art, history and politics as well as old and rare prints are passed around by the 10-odd members.

If the flavours of a forgotten Kolkata fire up the Ahanayan adda, Poetry Couture provides a platform for passionate new poets. Joie Bose, a poet and guest lecturer at Jadavpur University, who heads Poetry Couture, wants to revive poetry and make it fashionable. And she is excited by the response. The club started in October 2014 and meetings are held once a month, ranging from closed-door affairs with less than 10 guests to bigger events with over 40 heads.

Bose communicates through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. This is another aspect of these modern book gatherings. Nowadays, for many youth, ‘being social’ implies ‘being on social media’. So communication through social media has become a must. All types of messages are passed on through these online media, including dates, timings and topics of sessions. Being on social media also helps these clubs spread the word about themselves, and thus generate interest, and in turn, memberships. Poetry Couture is made up of students, homemakers, executives, financial analysts – all lovers of poetry. They are sometimes joined by creative people like film-maker Ashoke Viswanathan, actor-author Jayant Kripalani, folk singer Paban Das Baul, and poets like Ananya Chatterjee, Sharmila Ray and others.

Links to the Facebook pages of some book clubs

But poetry addas are not new to the city. Poet Basant Rungta formed an organisation called Srijan with two friends in 2000, which started hosting gatherings for creative pursuits, first in cafes and now in a room on Ballygunge Circular Road. The aim was to provide "a platform for unbiased discussion on art and literature". Entry here is by invitation only and has been extended to a mix of people, from students and octogenarians to award-winning writers. The adda room of Srijan accommodates informal sessions of around 30. The larger ones are advertised events that take place on rooftops. Rungta said that stalwarts like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sankha Ghosh, Joy Goswami and Keki N Daruwalla have all made it to Srijan sessions, which are conducted in English, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. 

The Readers’ and Writers’ Club organises curated literary chats at 40A Creative Studio in Ballygunge Place. Mona Sengupta of Ahava Communications who started the club. According to her, well-known names like Sampurna Chattarji, Anjum Katyal, Neel Adhikari, Bedabrata Pain, and several academicians, artistes and writers have attended their addas. Also dependant on Facebook to spread the word, the club has over 30 members.

Nowadays, children do not read much, given the existence of so many audio-visual distractions. An effort towards inculcating a reading habit has led entrepreneur Diva Jain to start a book club for children called La Maison de Livres. It is meant for kids aged between seven and 11 years. The club activities are held at her terrace garden on Ballygunge Circular Road every Saturday. Already 50 kids have registered, and many more offers of joining are coming in. In the sessions, she reads out stories to the children in the first hour and in the second, they engage in vocabulary exercises, discussions and creative writing. It is also a library, where the kid members can borrow books for a fee.

Apart from clubs, a book-lover in Kolkata also has literary meets to look forward to. This time the Kolkata Literary Meet recorded double the footfall from last year. There is also the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. According to the Kolkata Literary Meet director, Malavika Banerjee, there is no dearth of events to feed the literary interest. But children need to be involved more.

Vikram Seth at Kolkata Literary Meet 2014 (Mission Sharing Knowledge)

The dynamics of society constantly changes. So things and ways have to adapt. The same is true for book clubs too. But luckily for Kolkata, the old and the new continue to happily co-exist – the traditional book addas as well as the modern curated sessions. Kolkata continues to be a city where fierce discussions over literary creations remain the order of the day.

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