14 Sep How to make a boutique ‘paara’
When you walk down Gariahat Road, where the pavement eateries force you into the path of other pedestrians, autorickshaws, minibuses, trams, the odd hand-pulled rickshaw rattling persistently behind, and, occasionally, unhurried sheep and goats, the slender, leafy lanes of Hindustan Park nearby feel like the cool cloister of a seashell. The discreet quarter in south Kolkata, where India’s longest-serving chief minister Jyoti Basu once lived, sees a different kind of traffic.
Sunil Subba, a parking attendant on contract with the Kolkata municipal corporation (KMC), thinks he saw a Jaguar the other day. “I checked on my phone and it was a Jaguar. Audis are common. The other day, one of my colleagues said there was a Porsche, but it was not. It was some other fancy car. I am learning the makes and names now,” he says.
Much of this deluxe fleet is headed for the Roastery Coffee House, a coffee-speciality all-day restaurant that opened recently in Kolkata—its second outlet, after Hyderabad. The elegant 60-cover restaurant has leased the ground floor and grounds of the Calcutta South India Club, founded by C.V. Raman and S. Radhakrishnan, among others, in 1926. The building itself will turn 100 next year, according to Unnikrishnan Nayar, general secretary of the club. The café has added a chequerboard floor for outdoor seating and retained the laal mejhe (red oxide flooring) and mosaic, both typical of old Kolkata, inside. The elegant French windows are lined with potted plants and Ikat drapes.
“We saw properties on Park Street, Camac Street, Alipore, Lake Road, but I immediately knew I wanted a place in Hindustan Park when I saw it. It is residential, it is green, it still has graceful old homes like in Banjara Hills (Hyderabad), where we have our first café,” says Roastery founder Nishant Sinha. “I like places where you can see old people living, because older guests are more loyal. If they like your place, they will bring their children and grandchildren. And I got this vibe here that it is a place where people still live, so it won’t be trashed like districts where people come just to eat and shop. I myself love walking around here; even the smallest, cheapest café has such good service.”
The Roastery is the sixth, largest and most popular café in the area. A seventh has opened, while numbers 8 and 9 are being built. There are at least a dozen apparel and crafts boutiques, the most well-known of them Byloom—which stocks the textile label Bailou—all within five lanes connected to each other. Most of these boutiques and cafés are hybrids—they sell handloom apparel as well as natural foods sourced and packaged locally by cooperatives, giving the Hindustan Park paara (neighbourhood) a crafts village identity, distinct from the many café- and restaurant-lined streets of south Kolkata.
The majority of these, say 80%, have set up shop in just the past three years. The first store here was Fabindia, in the early 2000s; Byloom opened in 2011. Since 2016, Hindustan Park seems to be undergoing something akin to the transformation of Hauz Khas Village (HKV) in Delhi in the 1990s, when it became a hub for boutiques and niche eateries.
Malavika Banerjee, one of the founding partners of the Byloom store, says she first noticed the beauty of Hindustan Park when she came to shop at Fabindia. “I always say happenstance. My husband (Jeet Banerjee, a co-founder) and I started thinking of doing something here, we weren’t sure what exactly. We were lucky to be able to buy the three-storeyed house in 2010, lucky the textile designers Bappaditya and Ruma Biswas—the brains behind the label Bailou—were looking for a space to retail from. One thing led to another. And I myself always wanted a boutique with a café, like the beautiful Barefoot boutique store in Sri Lanka. We started in 2011, and I am glad we have so much company now.”
The proximity of Gariahat Road, south Kolkata’s maddening commercial thoroughfare, helps. If you look at the city map, Hindustan Park is one of the quadrants off Gariahat Road, the others being Hindustan Road, Ekdalia and Dover Lane. In 2007, when builder Soumyajit Gupta first started working in the neighbourhood, the residential realty rate was about ₹4,500 per sq. ft. “Now it is ₹10,000-plus for residential, and ₹14,000 and above for commercial properties. This is similar to other areas around Gariahat but I get a lot of queries for studio and boutique businesses here,” says Gupta of the architecture firm SGA Projects & Ventures.
The growth of Hindustan Park, and indeed south Kolkata’s café and hospitality segments, has coincided with the change in Bengal’s political regime. Byloom opened in April 2011 and on 13 May that year, Mamata Banerjee defeated the Left Front, which had been in power in Bengal for 34 years. The going was good, the economy was cruising, though state government policies did little to encourage the shift from a clump of drab umbrella businesses, stodgy sari stores and unchanging biryani and Chinese outlets that made up south Kolkata to a hip downtown where people shop with craft paper bags and eat in cafés that serve more salad than cooked food.
Although Kolkata has a reputation for chaos, many parts of it are “severely planned”, writes Partho Datta in his book Planning The City (2012). In 1911-12, the British administration set up the Calcutta Improvement Trust to make the city more beautiful and “sanitary”. This was meant to prevent epidemics like the plague outbreak of 1898, and wrest back some control from the then Calcutta municipal corporation (which had increasing Indian representation), Datta writes. Hindustan Park, and indeed much of south Kolkata around the Rabindra Sarovar lake, is part of that planned, beautified city. The lake was created in the 1920s, and the most expensive real estate areas were those that came up around it. The Hindustan Park area, which developed in the 1930s, was close to the lake but not right next to it.
Doctors, lawyers, engineers, college lecturers—the professionals of the 20th century—bought plots here, which explains the affluence, beauty and architectural style of the neighbourhood. The homes in Hindustan Park, and in several neighbourhoods extending from the historic Bhowanipore area to the lake, were built by British engineering firms.
In some ways, Hindustan Park today is reminiscent of Singapore’s Tiong Bahru neighbourhood—public housing built by the British-administered Singapore Improvement Trust in the art deco style in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, it is Singapore’s most hipster neighbourhood, with craft breweries, cafés and a superb book store. Kolkata’s story is much more of its people though—individual houses commissioned by its residents to British engineering firms.
The south Kolkata architectural idiom is stereotyped as art deco. But in fact these houses just portray certain features of the style—the typically rounded edges of balconies, and window grilles with vertical designs. But many do not have the geometric windows seen in the classic art deco form of American institutional buildings; most, in fact, have the slatted windows that have been the city’s signature look ever since film-maker Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964). The writer Amit Chaudhuri has coined the phrase “Calcutta architectural legacy” to describe this unique hybrid style.
“The old joke is that residents of south Kolkata are so poor that they have to go to work every day to earn a salary,” says Jawhar Sircar, chairman of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, a former Prasar Bharati CEO and a writer. “North Kolkata is where the obscenely rich lived, the zamindars who did business with the British and became caricatures, babus who threw feasts for the weddings of their cats. You see this in the architecture: the rajbaris of north Kolkata have Corinthian columns, arches, stucco, all these European features, and the majestic thakur dalaans (ceremonial platforms) that are a more Bengali feature. They are grand, while the houses of south Kolkata have a compact form; the art deco movement is inspired by the opulence of luxury liners, and the general impression is compact but aesthetically pleasing houses built by salary-earning professionals.”
“Although we are so close to Gariahat, these lanes were so quiet that we could play cricket whenever we liked,” says Nayar, who has been coming to Hindustan Park since 1970, when the club purchased the…