April 02, 2012

New Market (S.S. Hogg Market), Calcutta

“There was something about Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s – a once-glorious city found itself torn by the Naxalite movement. Revolution and history were being staged at every street corner. But nothing had shaken the historic New Market since its illustrious beginnings in 1874, not the World Wars, not the struggle for Independence; the market thrived no matter who was in power.”
– Jayant Kripalani, “New Market Tales” 

According to my friend Kshitish, who claims to be in love with the city of Calcutta and is a self-proclaimed, considerably knowledgeable authority on having good times in the city, New Market is one of the best shopping centers in the city. Contrary to its popular nomenclature, the market, built originally to cater to the needs of the resident British colonial population, is amongst the oldest shopping complexes in the city. Opened in 1874 and otherwise known as S.S. Hogg Market (though very few people call it by this name), it was designed in a prominently Gothic style by architect R.R. Bayne and christened after Sir Stuart Hogg, the Municipal Chairman of Calcutta at the time of its construction. The colossal, sprawling maze-like interiors provide an incredible shopping experience offering for purchase almost everything imaginable – jewelry, clothes, traditional attires, antiques, curios, footwear, groceries, flower bouquets, electrical appliances, meat, poultry, daily-use electronics and toys. Moreover, not unlike a typical Indian bazaar, here too one can bargain with the shopkeepers for the best price, sometimes even less than half of the original quoted, especially when shopping for textiles!

Hemmed in by unique spires - A sliver of sky spotted from the alley running between the two wings of the market complex

In keeping with its distinctive Gothic architectural features, the extensive complex is layered with red and yellow bricks and boasts of a corner clock tower, ornamental facades, shuttered arched windows, sloping tiled roofs, pillared walkways, wide eaves supported on stepped brackets and tall spires surmounted by pointed finials and multi-pointed stars. With over 2000 stalls under a single roof, the interiors house outlets of big brands as well as small vendors and hawkers with makeshift shops – the massiveness of the entire complex necessitates grouping of stalls/vendors in clusters according to what they merchandise, nonetheless finding your way around can still be a navigational nightmare. Also the enclosed area tends to get extremely crowded and chaotic, particularly during the evening hours – in the shadows surrounding the glow of incandescent lamps with the whiff of leather and sweat mingling with the scent of perfumes, cakes and farm produce, one feels transported to an altogether different world which seems to promise dark bazaars, exotic coffee houses, bustling opium dens, and vast quantities of unusual street food and sumptuous delights. 

Like nearly every street and every structure in Calcutta, the almost 140-years old market too bears testimony to an interesting and tempestuous, or at the least combative, history – it was established as Calcutta’s first municipal market offering food, clothing, hardware and manufactured goods under a single roof as a response to the numerous native bazaars that stocked individual items and were often considered unsuitable, inferior, under-ventilated and disease and pest-infested by European merchants, army officers and administrative servants who shared an undisguised abhorrence to these foul, congested bazaars that were crisscrossed by stinking drains and dingy alleys and populated by piles of rotting garbage and streams of putrid refuse besides uneducated, unclean native Indians.

Once upon a time - New Market during the days of WWII (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)

Indians were opposed to the idea of building a massive marketplace catering only to European tastes and requirements through funds generated by taxes realized from Indians; most European citizens, though enraged at the increasing incidences of diseases caused as a result of purchases from native bazaars, were against the concept of a common market being constructed and managed by municipal authorities. Sir Stuart Hogg nonetheless pushed ahead with the agenda despite the fierce opposition offered against the construction; the structure was designed by R.R. Bayne of East India Railway Company and modeled very much like an English railway platform (more like a smaller, more Gothic version of Howrah railway station, refer Pixelated Memories - Howrah Bridge and Railway station). Many local merchants pressed legal charges, emanating from administrative overreach and misuse of funds, against the municipal authorities since the building’s construction was beyond the latter's purview while newspapers sternly predicted the market’s failure especially while the authorities were attempting to attract Indian customers to patronize it too. But New Market continued to prosper and few years later the municipality, upon failing to wean off traders and grocers from the Dharamtolla market, their chief opposition, purchased the latter to eliminate continuous competitive friction and legal proceedings. Overtime, the hygienic market transformed from one stocking only groceries and food products to one also housing cloth merchants and good dealers and the interiors were organized to designate individualized areas for different goods. A large English garden, complete with benches, fountains and walkways, was created immediately opposite the market complex for shoppers to rest, but at present no signs of it exist and the entire area around the market has been engulfed by modern commercial establishments progressively more intent upon dwarfing the heritage structure. The lofty clock tower looks puny in comparison with most of the buildings that have come up in the rest of the city. In 1903, the market’s name was changed from “New Market” to “Sir Stuart Hogg Market” and even today a brilliant blue municipality board proudly illustrates in white characters this nomenclature. Later Vikam Seth too immortalized Sir Hogg in his remarkable magnum “A Suitable Boy” – 

"Cuddles, Cuddles, gentle dog,
Go and bite Sir Stuart Hogg." 

Stuffed - Sir Hogg Market interiors

However, not all transformations were for the ultimate good. Old photographs reveal the area to be spotlessly tidy, but at present the interiors are exceptionally stuffed and often unhygienic; rats can often be spotted scurrying around and people are still to learn mannerisms including but not limited to throwing waste in designated dustbins. Unlike its initial glorious days, today the market exteriors have been encroached upon by peddlers and makeshift stalls while the congested interiors have their passages and arcades blocked by goods, mannequins and cardboard boxes either spilling out of the shops or simply propped around. Most of the original, renowned shops shut their shutters long ago and the brutalities of the vicious fires that broke out in 1985 and 2011 can still be observed at certain places around the huge complex – 1985’s fierce inferno even necessitated partial rebuilding of the historic complex.

The in-house slaughterhouse – located near the rear of the market complex and accorded an unusually forbidding aura by the numerous rats sauntering around on the floor and the huge crows kawing crassly and flying overhead inside the building – is best avoided by those who have a weak stomach. The terrible darkness and dreadful stench further aggravate the entire creepy setting and, as my friend Aakash discovered to his utter dismay, can lead to horrific nightmares. But for a photographer, the huge cuts of pink and white beef hanging around the dark and congested chamber make for interesting visual compositions. And once you ignore the large blades they wield and the swift movements with which they cleave bones, flesh and muscles, the butchers and fishmongers are very friendly people and would quickly flash jovial smiles and pose for photographs – sadly, Aakash wasn’t there anymore to see this facet of the slaughterhouse, he turned around and ran away as soon as we set eyes upon a large bull skull hanging besides a butcher’s work table.

The slaughterhouse

Both inside and outside the enclosed complex, the market building has numerous restaurant joints, including KFC, Cafe Coffee Day and Dominos, serving Indian and Continental fares, but one cannot resist but dig into a plateful of fuchkas (fried hollows stuffed with flavored water, sweet tamarind paste and mashed potatoes), jhal muri (puffed rice tossed with mustard oil, spices, peanuts and shredded onions) or my favorite, the cheap dal pakoras (deep fried lentil flour balls) sold just outside the market entrance with a serving of chutney (mint sauce). With hunger and shopping urges satiated for a long, long time, we finally agreed that Kshitish was again correct!

Wild Wild East - Had to post this photo!

Open: Monday to Saturday
Timings: Weekdays: 10 am – 8 pm; Saturday: 10 am – 2:30 pm
How to reach: The Market is located on Lindsay Street and one can take a bus/cab to  Esplanade/Dharamtolla and walk from there on.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for exploring: approx. 2 hours
Facilities available: Parking upon payment of hourly charges.
Nearby attractions - 
Suggested reading - 

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