In 2011, Mamata Banerjee strode to power after decimating the Communists in Bengal, who were in theory opposed to any idea of religious festivals. One of the many things she did following her victory was to give her electorate an enviable holiday calendar. Starting with the four-day long Durga Puja festivities, which now stretch to almost a fortnight, Banerjee turned Christmas from an organic, community affair into a market-friendly pre-packaged social do. This, as she made it clear, was done to instil a sense of pride among the cosmopolitan and secular Bengalis and also to attract international tourists. The advertising campaign features a dhoti-clad Santa and a hand rickshaw sledge. Christmas Comes to Kolkata, it says. It could also have been Kolkata comes to Christmas, to turn a standard Rajini joke around.
In the first year of her government’s second term, the festival has acquired popular hashtags and attracted more corporate sponsorship, but it is still not clear if international tourists have risen to the bait.
Over the past five years, Christmas In Kolkata, branded and organised by the Kolkata Police, has got bigger and brighter. Park Street, the heart of the festivities, is illuminated and hundreds throng the stretch for their annual ritual of eating cake at the legendary tearoom Flury’s, buy Santa caps from the pavement stalls, condoms from the cigarette vendors, and eat duck and turkey roasts with nostalgia as a side dish.
A few minutes’ walk away, Allen Park, a small public space, comes alive with fairly lights, stars, LED installations and a bunch of food stalls. From pork vindaloos to vadas, kebabs to momos, jalebis to rum Balls and nalen gurer sandesh (a winter Bengali delicacy), there is food from every community for all kinds of palates. Every day for two weeks, students from convent schools across the state put up earnest performances, local talents sing, dance and play music. The top lining acts later in the night feature more seasoned performers. And it is all free.
There is also a tall Christmas tree on the road, which the chief minister inaugurated amid much fanfare. Through the evening, the PA systems that usually serenade motorists with Rabindra Sangeet play carols and hymns. Occasionally, you will hear the anchor urging you to use the festival hashtags and Instagram handle.
Bemoaning the abysmally low tourist footfalls through the year, the ruling party has thrown in a bit of history into the mix. You can also visit Bandel and Chandan Nagore, the Portuguese and French colonies some distance away from Kolkata, for a different kind of Christmas feel.
One look at the beaming faces of the revellers on the city streets, and you know Banerjee may have hit a sweet spot. The city has passionately held on to the vestiges of its multicultural and cosmopolitan roots, and has always shared an emotional bond with Christmas. This year also marked Mother Teresa’s canonisation, the Saint who inspired Banerjee’s regulation white saree with blue border and the party’s appropriation of the colour scheme that has taken over the city’s public structures.
“The government is good at hijacking what is always a successful model created by the people,” said Iftekhar Ahsan, who is known for his Calcutta Walks that give tourists a glimpse of the vintage city. “Durga Puja was already the most successful carnival and street art festival in the world. So was Christmas in Kolkata, which has been celebrated for centuries before the government decided to appropriate it and brand it.”
While Ahsan lauds the government’s efforts to scale up the celebrations and package the festival, he believes it is not enough to pitch Bengal as a tourist destination. “I think Bollywood has done a much better job of promoting Calcutta as a destination that way,” he said.
Ahsan says rather than focus on Park Street, which is grossly commercialised, he would like to take his guests to Bow Barracks, a central Calcutta neighbourhood where one can still meet a few Anglo-Indian families who make almond cake and their own wine, and to the many historic churches in and around Calcutta.
His sentiments are echoed by Fr. Dolphi Mathias, Director and Secretary of the Social Service Society of Diocese of Asansol, who said in a recent interview that the mass scale production of Christmas tree and decorations have meant people do not feel like visiting these beautiful churches anymore.
Bandel Church, for instance, one of the oldest churches in Eastern India, was declared a mini Basilica by Pope John Paul II. Other communities of Christians are in Bankura and Sreerampore, where British missionary William Carey, who founded the Baptist Missionary Society and came to India in 1793, translated the Bible into Bengali and Sanskrit. While the Government has added a trip to these churches in its itinerary, the connecting transport and hospitality services are yet to plug in.
“True there is a lot to be done and bettered, but so far so good,” said a happy Beulah Gomes, who sold out 200 pieces of the juiciest shami kebabs in three hours at her little stall in Allen’s Park. “Only wish the music was better,” she said and grinned while attending to an elderly bhadralok couple who demanded more kachumber salad with their kebabs as a new bunch of performers took stage.