Writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri’s new exhibition in Kolkata is a curious collection of conceptual artworks. Titled The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas, it has on display, among other things, a collection of unusable gifts, such as a faux Tiffany lamp and a pair of motley Chinese shoes bought off Bentinck Street. There are also road signs where dull warnings and archaic proverbs have been replaced by the words of Bob Dylan, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rabindranath Tagore, messages that Chaudhuri has hoarded over a long time.

The exhibition also has the Sweet Shop Owners – photographs that Chaudhuri has clicked of the old portraits of the founders of some of Kolkata’s iconic sweet shops.

The archetypal Bengali confectioner, in the words of food writer Chitrita Banerji, is “a mountainous figure with a ballooning middle” and “a famously sedentary character”. “Clad only in the traditional white dhoti waist down,” she writes, “he leaves his torso bare except for a red and white gamchha (towel) flung over one shoulder and used frequently to mop his sweating face and neck.” But Chaudhuri’s portraits that hang on the white walls of the Harrington Street Arts Centre have no resemblance with Banerji’s imagery.

Instead, Chaudhuri says, these men – most of them wearing dhuti-panjabi (dhoti and kurta), others embroidered Kashmiri shawls – have more in common with the champions of the Bengal Renaissance, the social and religious reformers, authors, poets and scientists of 19th century Calcutta. “These men bear the dignity of that age and stand out by virtue of their individuality,” said Chaudhuri. “There is an aura of greatness about them.”

Incidentally, it was also in the 19th century, an exciting era marked by reform and rejuvenation, that Calcutta had witnessed the proliferation of sweet shops. And it was the owners of those sweet shops – skilled confectioners and smart entrepreneurs – who nurtured the city’s unmatched love for mishti.

A gallery view of the exhibition 'The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas'. Photo courtesy: Amit Chaudhuri.

Mishti and caste

“Traditionally craft-based occupations in India have been organised along caste lines and [the] sweet business is no different,” said food anthropologist Ishita Dey. In Bengal, professional confectioners are called Moira or Modak, after the eponymous caste, which is one of the original nine of Bengal’s Nabasakha caste group (a group of occupation-based castes).

However, in Bengal, the importance of sweets can hardly be exaggerated. Sweets feature in every aspect of the Bengali way of life – be it the prosaic or the exceptional. This might just be a reason why, even at a time when caste rules dominated social interactions, the Moira community’s lesser status in the caste order didn’t reflect in its social standing. In his book Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, food historian Michael Krondl said that while Bengali Brahmins refrained from accepting edible presents that might have been touched by members of other castes, they were willing to accept the sandesh (a generic name for an array of sweetmeats made of chhana or casein).

The origin of the Moira community, though, precedes the emergence of chhana – a 16th century Portuguese import – on the Bengali sweetmeat scene. Kavikankan Mukundaram’s Chandimangal, an important piece of medieval Bengali literature, mentions the Modak community, as Milinda Banerjee points out in his essay Gods in a Democracy. There are accounts in the book of how the community was welcomed in the city (called Gujarat) built by Kalketu (one of the book’s main characters), how they set up sugar factories and travelled to sell the sweets they made from sugar.

The KC Das shop in Esplanade East, Kolkata, in 1944. Photo credit: AnimikhRoy967/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Licence].

Dey subscribes to the view that the Moira community was traditionally involved in sugar mills. “Besides sugar-based sweets, such as monda [and] nabat, the Moira would also make kheer and an array of other milk-based sweets,” she said.

The spread of Vaishnavism in Bengal could have been another reason for the success of the Moira community in the pre-colonial era. The Vaishnavites worship Krishna, a pastoral deity, and hence advocated the use of milk-based products in worship. This probably encouraged the Moiras’ craft.

Further, Dey says, the confectioners enjoyed the patronage of village zamindars who would summon them on special occasions to set up a bhiyen, or a makeshift kitchen, in their mansions and make fresh sweets. “In fact, there were zamindars who are known to have eaten only sweets through the day as a sign of their refinement, if not wealth,” said Chicago-based food historian Colleen Taylor Sen.

“By the middle of the 19th century, Calcutta had metamorphosed into El Dorado – teeming with opportunities and overflowing with resources,” said Sanjeet Chowdhury, renowned photographer and food historian. Named the capital of British India in 1833, it was a powerful magnet that pulled thousands of people – from skilled artisans to wealthy landowners – who wanted to earn a living or build a legacy. The Moiras, from the surrounding districts, especially Hooghly, were no exception.

Sweets on display in a shop in Kolkata. Photo credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters.

“The affluent Bengalis of the time left with significant disposable income splurged on, among other things, sweetmeats drummed up by the Moiras who were establishing themselves in the city,” said Chowdhury. The city’s intellectuals were patrons too, says Dey.

It was against this background that some of the city’s most iconic sweet shops and the extraordinarily enterprising men, who established them, appeared. Before the turn of the 20th century, Calcutta boasted several sweet shops that would go on to become legends, such as Bhim Chandra Nag, Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, Sen Mahasay and Naba Krishna Guin.

New culture

Bengalis have, for the longest time, steadfastly believed in the superiority of the culinary skills of mothers and grandmothers and food cooked in the household hensel (kitchen). The idea of eating traditional specialties such as a shukto or muri ghonto (a type of pulao cooked with fish head) at a restaurant would be scoffed at, until relatively recently.

Sweet shops were the exception to the rule. Bengali sweets have always been loosely divided into two categories – homemade sweets such as naru, takti, pithe and payesh and those that the moira made best – chhana-based delights including the dry sandesh and syrup-soaked roshogolla. As a result, when sweet shops proliferated in the 19th century, there was no dearth of customers.

According to food historian Michael Krondl, if there is one dish that best represents the Bengal Renaissance it is the sandesh. Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported]

Utsa Ray, in her book Culinary Culture in Colonial India, wrote that Saradasundari Devi, the mother of Brahmo reformist Keshab Chandra Sen, would send servants to a professional sweetmeat maker to learn their craft. Some sweet shop owners, such as Dwarik Ghosh in Shyambazar, also roped in crowds with their savoury delights like luchi and chholar dal.

This popularity set off a small backlash. Swami Vivekananda, a bona fide epicure, called the sweet vendor’s shop “death’s door”. In his writings, he vociferously criticised their food “for, being kept exposed, the dirt and dust of the roads as dead insects adhere to them, and how stale and polluted they must sometimes be”.

Vivekananda underscores an important point in his outburst. In his comparative account of the societies and cultures of the East and the West at the turn of the 20th century he wrote:

“Formerly, our village zamindars in Bengal would think nothing of walking twenty or thirty miles, and would eat twice-twenty Koi fish bones and all – and they lived to a hundred years. Now their sons and grandsons come to Calcutta and put on airs, wear spectacles, eat the sweets from the bazaars, hire a carriage to go from one street to another, and then complain of diabetes – and their life is cut short, this is the result of their being civilized, Calcutta-ised people.”

— 'Prachya o Pashchatya'

Ironically though, Vivekananda’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhans, a key religious reformer during Bengal Renaissance, was one of the biggest patrons of old Calcutta’s Moira community. His favourite destination was Bowbazar’s Bhim Chandra Nag, one of the city’s oldest iconic sweetmeat shops, established in 1826 by Paran Chandra Nag, who named it after his son. “Rani Rashmoni, the founder of the famous Dakshineshwar Kali Temple where Ramakrishna was the purohit, supposedly, ordered for 28 maund sandesh from Bhim Nag, for the inauguration of the temple,” said Chowdhury.

The shop in Bowbazar also counted among its patrons renowned mathematician and academic Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. Bhim Chandra Nag, in fact, christened a variant of sandesh after him: ashubhog.

Krishna Chandra Das. Photo credit: AnimikhRoy967/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0].

The most well-known inventor in the mishti universe of 19th century Calcutta was Nobin Chandra Das, who is credited (somewhat dubiously) with the roshogolla’s invention and dubbed the Columbus of Roshogolla. He started out as an apprentice at a sweet shop, went on to set up a shop in Baghbazar in 1866, discovered roshogolla in 1868 and the rest, as they say, is history. His son KC Das opened what became the popular eponymous sweet shop in Chowringhee in 1930.

The Kolkata Moira’s true ingenuity was best appropriated in the creation of a mindboggling and unprecedented assortment of sandesh (such as the ones from Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy) unique to the city. As Krondl says, if there was one food that could represent the Bengal Renaissance, it was the sandesh, “the urban, artisanal sweet” made by confectioners in neighbourhood sweet shops.

In fact, it was in this quest for innovation, common among Calcutta’s master confectioners, that the renaissance spirit was best reflected. And as Dey rightly points out, the invention of new sweets and their imaginative christening ran parallel to the contexts of colonisation and the new religious movements. Chowdhury calls it marketing genius.