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The kaleidoscopic journey of Kolkata through a sketch diary

By Sohomdeep Sinha Roy & Debika Banerji

The act of complimenting travel writing, is the art of capturing the essence of a place through illustrations and photographs, to preserve the memories in space and time. It was a common practise by old Victorian travellers maintaining a sketchbook or journal where they would record their thoughts on the go. With the advent of technology, this kind of documentation has become more popular with digital photography. On the flip side, digital photography is more generic and may not have a strong character and personality in reference to the photographer whereas a sketch documentation will always be unique in terms of the personal perception of the traveller. So a revival of this popular art form and travel documentation is on the rise. A group of sketchers – who call themselves ‘Urban Sketchers’ – capture the cityscape through onsite sketches. These sketches may not be completed in elaborate sessions, but are rather a quick play of strokes and colours to capture the essence as experienced by the painter. This documentation is a kind of visual travel writing, of how a traveller perceives his/her surroundings, expressing it through a visual medium of drawing. An urban sketcher’s diary typically is his/her active engagement with the neighbourhood and the landscape through the visual interpretations of food, clothes, architecture, nature, and so on.

The city of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) is an amalgamation of colonial legacies and the interactions among different migrant communities brought together through different cultural traces which get reflected in the different parts of the city. Thus, the old city can be distinctly divided into two halves: the White Town and the Black Town with a staggering indistinct but interesting Grey Town lying in between. The White Town is the place of the city which was formerly built and inhabited by the British, the Black Town was the chaotic native town and the Grey Town was the twilight zone where the immigrants started living: neither British nor the native Bengalis. (The coloured demarcation to the city is not very popular as textual references but is more popular amongst heritage walkers and enthusiasts. The term most likely has got incorporated in the city’s landscape terminology because of its common usage during colonial rule and has a racist tinge attached to it). The essence of chaos and eccentricity of the city has been captured through sketching in different parts and interpreted on the same. The town demarcation as we see in the map is a rough idea of the zones which has been discussed.


Sketch 1: Map of Kolkata with the locations sketched in reference to the zones of the city

White Town

  1. The cityscape as seen across Laal Dighi, Binay Badal Dinesh (BBD) Bag, previously known as Dalhousie Square: This is the central business district lying in the heart of the city. The Central Square is occupied by a large tank which once served the Old Fort William with its water supply. The skyline is dotted with numerous Victorian style buildings, especially the one on the left, the Writer’s Building is a fascinating architectural legacy. The steeple of the St. Andrew’s Church gives more character to the White Town.

Sketch 2: Laal Dighi and BBD Bag or Dalhousie Square

  1. Hogg Market most popularly known as New Market: One of the busiest markets in Dharmatala, the Sir Stuart Hogg Market or simply the ‘New Market’ is a sprawling red mansion, with turrets, steeples and old clocks which give an old world charm to the place. It is a difficult job trying to capture this building on paper, being jostled by the crowds in a truly cacophonic surrounding. The peak hours let loose a pandemonium in front of the streets. This locality near Dharmatala houses many old colonial style buildings, old cinema theatres and eateries.

Sketch 3: New Market or Sir Stuart Hogg Market

 3. South Park Street Cemetery: Around the Park Street area, there is a very old British cemetery which houses some of the oldest graves of the city. A very quiet and lonely spot amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, the cemetery shelters a number of prominent graves of the Britishers who played an important role in laying the foundation of the city. The motto of the British was to ‘glorify death’ as seen in the imposing structures and plaques, most of them exhibiting Greek, Roman, Islamic as well as Hindu influence.


Sketch 4: The South Park Street Cemetery

Grey Town

  1. Toong-On Church, Territi Bazar: Kolkata’s Chinatown has six Chinese Tao temples where the Chinese population offer their prayers to the various deities. One such distinct temple is the Toong-On Church. No more in its former glory, the crumbling temple is surrounded by modern buildings and garbage dumps.

Sketch 5: Toong-on-Church

  1. Colootola-Central Avenue Crossing: This is the transition zone of the Grey Town of the city, one of the busiest crossings in Central Kolkata. The Chinatown and a very old Gujarati-Muslim migrant dominant locality juxtaposes with the College Street ‘Boi para’ (‘Boi’ in Bengali means book, ‘para’ is the bengali term simply known as locality. So this would simply translate as Book Enclave). Any time of the day is busy here as hand drawn rickshaws and carts ply the roads along with taxis, buses, trucks and scooters. Islamic and European architecture fuse to give shape to unique buildings.

Sketch 6: Colootola-Central Avenue Crossing

Black Town

  1. A view of Sovabazar Rajbari, Raja Nabakrishna Deb Street: The lanes and by-lanes of North Kolkata hides a very interesting feature that adds character to the city. The palladian structured pillars of the Deb’s Residence in Sovabazar is one of the most popular old mansions of the city. A native landlord, Raja Nabajkrishna Deb was the patron of the British and was given the title of ‘Raja’. Their sprawling mansion in Sovabazar is an important landmark and is a crowd-puller during the Durga Puja festivities.

Sketch 7: Sovabazar Rajbari

  1. The Mullick’s Marble Palace: This grand house is an iconic part of the Black Town, owned by a rich and prosperous merchant family. The house and its garden has a collection of a great number of marble statues, hence the name. Among them is a collection of bronze, brass and wooden statues, along with Ming vases, grandfather clocks and beautiful paintings. This was an example of the prosperous natives who spent money lavishly to lead a lifestyle as grand as that of the British.

Sketch 8: A view of the Marble Palace

The different sketches give a rough idea about the city of Kolkata via the pages of this everyday travel sketchbook. The hustle, bustle of the city is captured in some of the sketches. Some of the perceptions are very personal and hence it makes it an interesting medium of study. As in the case of the Chinese temple, the sketch has omitted the modern surroundings and tried to imagine what the temple would have been in its heydays. The sketch on Sovabazar Rajbari moves beyond the grand architecture and adds the superimposed human elements in the form of clothes being dried on the boundary walls. However, the sketches are more focussed on the architectural elements, sometimes giving a narrow view as perceived by the sketcher at that point of time.


Note: All sketches are by Sohomdeep Sinha Roy and the write-up is by Debika Banerji. The narrative is the sketcher’s views and is hence not devoid of bias and is based on casual observations. The historical narrative may not be accurate, but gives an overall understanding which was obtained by visiting the place. This is a small section of the sketcher’s travelogue. 

Sohomdeep Sinha Roy is an architect and urban designer by profession. Debika Banerji is a researcher and a lecturer in geography with a doctoral degree from Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. Both of them are passionate about Kolkata and their sketch based merchandise can be found on the Instagram page, ‘a landscapeofmemories merchandise’.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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