Monday, September 21, 2020

Kolkata’s Indiana Jones: In Conversation With Deepanjan Ghosh

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From the microphone to the camera to the pen, Deepanjan Ghosh is a man of many talents. Known for his excellence in the Bengali-language radio field, “Mirchi Deep” is not just limited to his role as a radio jockey. A quintessential Bengali at heart, he is everything you’d associate with a person from Kolkata – very friendly, a man with strong opinions, and a big foodie! Oh, and he’s also a part-time Indiana Jones who goes around blogging about every forgotten corner of the city! But at the core of it, you’ll find a humble man who enjoys time outside the spotlight as much as in it.

Today, I sit down with this charismatic personality to discuss everything – from a resilient city, its fading history, radio, food, and everything else under the sun!

On His Many Roles

“Well, I am primarily a broadcaster, I’m primarily still a radio guy. But I also write, mainly about history and culture and things like that. I’m also a photographer, photographing primarily architecture and landscapes – mostly architecture and monuments.

“I’m currently working on a book on the history of Calcutta. I have done a TEDx talk, and I also work with a few Bengali television channels from time to time.”

On Interest In Kolkata’s History

“I don’t think you can be modern without coming to terms with what your past was.

“I got this [documenting Kolkata’s history] because I started blogging, and I started blogging because I had a breakup. I had a breakup with my girlfriend, which means that, on my weekends, I suddenly had nothing to do. So then I found that there were a bunch of these people who’d go to these exciting places and take photographs and then write about these places. I thought, hey, that’s a fun way to spend your weekends.

“When you start something like this, you do it for a few weeks, and then you think [about the ways you can improve]. So you keep building on this thing that you started, and that’s how I started writing.

Kolkata’s Indiana Jones: In Conversation With Deepanjan Ghosh 1
Deepanjan Ghosh. Credits: Rounikk97 / Wikimedia Commons

“Once I started writing, I’d write primarily about building. Basically: this building here and this is its story. I don’t do that anymore. I have branched out into all kinds of things. I have become more, sort of, story-oriented if that makes sense. I am more about “What is the story behind something?” and “Why are things the way they are?” So, I do a lot of that. “

On His Writing Process

“Google is your best friend. Honestly, if Google did not exist, then most of us would find this very tough because we would have to read books physically. I

do have a lot of reference material at home. I think you can see my books behind me (points at a large bookshelf in the background). I think that’s about a third of what I have.

“Apart from that, I think if you learn how to use the Google search strings smartly, then there’s a lot you can do. Google has this feature where [Google] will physically go through books for you and show you references to something, and where it is.

“That’s how I find a lot of the information that I use. I have a lot of research support from my friend Dr. Tathagata Neogi, who is an archaeologist. There are people like Pushkar Soni, who are providing me with information. I’ll very often run into Arabic or Persian inscriptions, which I cannot read; in that case, I’ll forward it to people like Rana Safi, asking for a translation. Or I’ll just post it on Twitter and say “Can somebody translate this for me?” – crowdsourced translation works very well.

On the City of Kolkata

“I don’t know where that [claim of Kolkata being exclusive] comes from, and honestly, from whatever studying and traveling I have done, Calcutta has never really been a completely Bengali city. We have always been very, very cosmopolitan, especially during the British era when this was the capital and the most significant center of trade. So naturally, like Bombay today, you had people from all over the world migrating to Calcutta in search of greener pastures and a better life and opportunities. I don’t know if we have gone from [being cosmopolitan] to being very insular.

“You still have a very large number of minority communities in Calcutta today. The Parsis are still very much here. The Jews… I think there’s less than a dozen of them left, but they’re still here. The Chinese, despite them migrating out to places like Canada and Australia, are still here in sizeable numbers. And, of course, Calcutta’s Chinese food is the best in India.

Kolkata’s Indiana Jones: In Conversation With Deepanjan Ghosh 2
In Calcutta’s old Chinatown, Tiretta Bazar. Credits: Deepanjan Ghosh / Twitter

“Then you have people like the Bohra community who are still here. At one point in time, you had an extensive Kutchi Memon community here, who had built the Nakhoda mosque. A number of them are still here. So if you go looking around, you’ll find pockets of these populations which are not what one would call natives, but they’re still here. So I’d say that the cosmopolitan character of the city remains. “

“If you look at the other communities… for example, we still have the most significant number of Marwaris outside of Rajasthan. So there are plenty of communities which have made Calcutta their home, and they’re here. So I don’t think the welcoming character of the city has changed in any way.

“I don’t agree with that [Ramachandra Guha’s tweet about Bengal being culturally advanced but economically backward]. It’s effortless. Look at the numbers, look at the state-wise GDP in India, and we’re still very much in the top ten. So all this talk about [Kolkata being] dying or doomed or economically backward is nonsense, which is based on a very biased perception of the place. It has very little to do with reality.”

On Kolkata’s Architecture

“It does not make any sense [removing colonial statues and copying London architecture]. You cannot be removing statues of colonial figures and then replicating the architecture of the city that most of those figures came from.

Lake Town Clock Tower
Lake Town Clock Tower. Credits: Sourav Mondal / Wikimedia Commons

“There’s a bit of a pity [in removing colonial statues] in the sense that merely from the point of aesthetics, a lot of these statutes were extremely beautiful and well-made. Instead of sending them to the wilderness of Latbagan in Barrackpore, if we could have more of them in the Victoria Memorial premises, which is a colonial memorial anyway, then I think it’d be good for a lot of art students to observe and learn.

“They [the government] manage to do surprisingly good work. If you go to New Town, there’s a lot of stuff that’s been done on the traffic roundabouts, which looks good. The few times that I’ve been to Rajarhat and New Town, I keep finding these structures, which I think are bits that were preserved from [Durga] Puja pandals which are now decimated, and a lot of them are extremely beautiful because they’ve been created by very well-known artists.

“But then, on the other hand, you also have the example of the hideous-looking fake Roman fountain on the crossing of Burdwan road, which is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. That thing’s a monstrosity. And it is now leaking because it has got cracks because it’s made of fiber-glass.

“[British-made] structures were built to last, whereas I think most modern architecture is geared towards reducing costs and reducing weight.”

On Promoting History of Kolkata

“I don’t think anybody in Calcutta has yet explored YouTube as an option [for promoting Kolkata’s history]. You have a lot of food bloggers who are YouTubers, but apart from that, I don’t think anybody has done anything on YouTube so far. That is one platform that can do wonders if you’re trying to do this kind of stuff. And videos are ‘the’ thing right now. Not everybody reads, but almost everybody watches videos. So I’m looking forward to somebody trying that, which I think will work.

“Nobody in India has been successful [in converting local culture into tourism]. And there are some very strange reasons for that, one of them being that traveling is very expensive within the country. So if you come to India and you want to visit two or three different places, then you’re required to take flights. Flights are punitively expensive in India, even with the rise of cheap airlines. This discourages tourism to a great extent.

And for something like this to happen on a large scale, you need to have government encouragement and plans. Those, I think, have not happened because the government doesn’t seem to able to think straight when it comes to tourism. The government has to create policies; if the policies aren’t there, there’s very little you can do.

“For example, if you go to a place called Taki, which is on the Bengal-Bangladesh border, you had the remains of what was the Taki Rajbari. It was a charming, ruined building. I went back a couple of years ago, and lo and behold; the entire building had been demolished and turned into a park, which was the government’s idea of beautifying the place. Let’s tear everything down and build parks because that’s what people want!

“This is a problem in India in general, and it’s also a little bit to do with culture because we are a nation of people who like shiny new things – we don’t like old things. Preservation of historical monuments is a very new concept in the larger scale of things. I think one of the first people who started this preservation trend nationally was a Governor-General that Bengalis love to hate, which is Curzon. He is the reason why a lot of our monuments look the way they do.”

On the Book That Changed His Life

“William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. It dawned on me the first time that you could bring history alive. When I was reading about Delhi in Dalrymple’s book, I could just read the lines, close my eyes, and I’d be able to visualize that Delhi right in front of me. He is an excellent writer, and at the same time, he is a terrific researcher, so he managed to recreate a lot of these tiny details, which makes a big difference.”

On Radio

“I didn’t choose radio, it happened by accident, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. So this was in the second year of my college at St. Xavier’s College. There was a lecture on sociology, and I was sleeping in the class. The Vice-Principal saw me sleeping and threw me out. I was loitering in the passages, and I saw this poster. I had no idea what it was, so I asked my friend. He said, ‘It’s a fun thing, you go, they give you a piece of paper, and you have to read from it.’ So I went and gave the audition, and I’ve been here ever since.

“The industry’s changing. Radio used to be very different when we started. With the advent of streaming and online taking precedence, things are changing. Audio entertainment, which is the business I like to think I got myself into, is here to stay. Radio is merely a medium. We have got spoken word streaming services like Audible. So the future looks pretty good.

“Physical radio will eventually be phased out. In essence, what you’re listening to remains the same, how you’re listening to it is changed.

“One primary difference between AIR and the BBC would be that, I think, in India, the government still regulates AIR’s content, whereas in the UK, the BBC receives its funding from the parliament, but the parliament doesn’t have any say in what it does. This has allowed the BBC, with all its broadcast branches, to develop into what is probably still the largest news-gathering organization.”

On Bengali Films

“A lot of it [Bengali films lagging] has to do with exposure. The films that we hear about, the films that are at the top of your mind are the films which are promoted the most heavily. But then you have the Bengali films which slip under the radar, and they’re still great films.

“For example, there was a film called Asha Jaoar Majhe, which is made by a guy named Aditya Vikram, and this was a silent film. It had no dialogues at all. And it is, I think, one of the most fantastic films to come out of the city in the last twenty years. I remember a movie called Herbert, which was a great film.

“A [Marathi] film like Court is a fabulous film, but we had all heard about this through word of mouth. It’s not like you saw the poster on some wall and decided” Ahh, this is a great film, we must watch it! “So you have to understand that what we call ‘good cinema’ is almost never heavily promoted. So you just have to seek it out.

“I think we should not be expecting a Satyajit Ray version two. I think in terms of films in India in general and Bengal in particular, what we should be waiting for is somebody like Jimi Hendrix to come along. When he [Hendrix] came along, everybody had to change the way they played the guitar because he just broke all the rules and changed everything. So I think we’re waiting for somebody like that, who comes up with an entirely new way of making cinema.

On Food

“I don’t eat fish – I just cannot stand the smell. Surprisingly, I do like sushi and sashimi. So, I don’t know how I manage to do these things. But give me a bowl of fish curry, and I’m just going to leave the table. That’d be [my least favorite food].

“Among my most favorite [food], I have this liking for red meat in whatever form. If I have mutton and rice, I’ll not look for anything else. It [Bengali cuisine] is what I have grown up with, it’s what I’m familiar with, so it’s what is most comfortable.”

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