Until the 1930s Calcutta was “the” shopping destination for European expatriates between the Suez and Shanghai. British army officers stationed in Singapore, for example, would receive a short furlough to spend time shopping for a decent lifestyle in Calcutta every year. Calcutta was then home to departmental stores such as Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co., Hall & Anderson and the Army & Navy Stores that were held in the same esteem as Harrod’s and Macy’s. Under the socialist economic policies pursued from 1947 until the 1990s, such stores disappeared. However, Calcutta remained a shopper’s paradise, especially known for Indian handicraft and antiques, musical instruments, music, books and jewelry, primarily due to the gifted artisans who produced these articles both in the city and within its vast hinterland. Today, a second generation of departmental stores and malls have mushroomed all over Calcutta, giving the shopper in Calcutta the entire spectrum of the shopping experience – from Oriental bazaars to ultra-modern hypermarkets. The following text is categorized by articles that are probably worth buying while in Calcutta and lists both ends of the spectrum wherever possible.
Calcutta is a bookworm’s paradise perhaps rivaling Paris.
The traditional destination for shopping for books is College Street (nearest
Metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road). Legend has it that if it was ever printed
it is available on College Street. The entire street is lined with bookstores as
well as makeshift cubbyholes on the pavement that deal in nothing but books. As
you approach the book district you the shopkeepers who run the pavement book
stalls approach you. The seasoned shopper carries a list of books that she may
give to one of the sellers. It does not matter if the particular seller does not
have it. He will most likely tell you to come back in an hour and the book,
irrespective of its rarity is likely to be available when you return. This time
may be spent in visiting one of the formal bookstores where you are likely to
meet booksellers as well as buyers who have dealt directly with Tagore, Bose,
Raman, Ross, Kipling or Mark Twain. There is not much of an option for browsing
books here, since the shops are crammed and the sellers too busy serving
customers. You could find the legendary Coffee House on Albert Street and enjoy
cold coffee and a kabiraji cutlet (a Calcutta fast food that has been popular
since long before MacDonald’s was born), or go into the neighboring Rupa &
Co. bookstore located at 15 Bankim Chandra Street, Calcutta 700073 (Phone:
+91-33-2241 6597, nearest Metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road), where you can
browse the latest coffee table books as well as the entire publication of
Penguin Books and Oxford University Press. Other notable bookstores in this area
include Dasgupta & Co. located at 54/3 College Street, Calcutta 700073
(Phone: +91-33-2241 4609, nearest Metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road), and
National Book Trust located at 5A Bhabani Dutta Lane, Calcutta 700073 (Phone:
+91-33-2241 3899, nearest Metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road).
For historical purposes, more than anything else, there is
one interesting, albeit somewhat moth-eaten bookstore, that can hardly be
missed. Railway aficionados know that George Bradshaw started publishing railway
timetables in Great Britain in 1839 that have since become universally known as
the Bradshaw timetables. Since 1855, an Indian Bradshaw has also been published
by W Newman & Company Limited whose bookstore is located at Great Eastern
Hotel at 3 Old Court House Street, Calcutta 700069 (Phone: +91-33-2248 9436,
nearest Metro station: Esplanade).
For those who would prefer a more laid back book experience, the classic Oxford Bookstore located at 17 Park Street, Calcutta 700016 (Phone: +91-33-2229 7242, nearest Metro station: Park Street) is probably the best of Calcutta’s traditional bookstores. This store has a cyber café and a coffee/tea bar, in keeping with modern trends, but also has a comfortable reading room frequented by Calcutta’s intelligentsia, an art gallery, newspapers from around the world and a book collection that specializes in Calcutta and India. As retail chains start ruling the roost in India, the bookstore business has also seen some changes. The Landmark bookstore located at 1 Lord Sinha Road (Phone: +91-33-2282 2617, nearest Metro stations: Maidan, Rabindra Sadan) is now Calcutta’s largest bookstore. There are of course bookstores all over Calcutta, far too numerous to mention. In the Chowringhee/Park Street area the ones that come to mind are the smaller Cambridge Book Store on Park Street and the Foreign Publishers Agency in the Grand Hotel Arcade.
India is home to an amazing variety of the most exquisite handicraft made out of a vast variety of materials ranging from paper to metal to wood and bone. The state of West Bengal in particular is endowed with arts that find eager buyers from the world over, and Calcutta is a natural magnet for vendors of such wares (if anything lives up to the artistic expectations of Calcutta’s discerning citizens, it will probably be appreciated all over the country). The newly established Swabhumi Heritage Plaza located at 89C Abul Kalam Azad Sarani, Calcutta 700054 (Phone: +91-33-2321 5486 or 2334 3903, Fax: +91-33-2334 3906, firstname.lastname@example.org, nearest commuter trains station: Bidhannagar Road) is an amusement park of sorts for the arts and crafts, complete with a replica Bengal village and all the frills associated. This is a great place to see master craftsmen at work and buy glass, bamboo and stone craft from the state of Jharkhand, wrought iron craft, fine china and jute artifacts, dokra, shola (pith) and woodcarvings from the Burdwan district of West Bengal, leather goods from Bolpur and Calcutta, terracotta from Bankura, and a lot more. The one stop shop for handicrafts from all over India is the Central Cottage Industries Emporium located at 7 Chowringhee Road, Calcutta 700013 (Phone: +91-33-2228 4139, nearest Metro station: Esplanade), an Indian government establishment that occupies the same hallowed grounds that were once used by the legendary Whiteway Laidlaw stores, in the Metropolitan Insurance Building (a heritage landmark recognized by the World Monuments Fund). This emporium has genuine handicraft items at a fixed (albeit higher) price from all over India. Each of India’s 28 states also has their own handicrafts emporium, many in Calcutta. The biggest attraction is probably Manjusha, the West Bengal store, located at 59 Rashbehari Avenue, Calcutta 700026 (Phone: +91-33-2465 1582, nearest Metro station: Kalighat) that sells fine specimens of shola (pith) sculpture, terracotta artifacts, most notably the famous “Bankura” horses from Bishnupur (about 200 kilometers west of Calcutta) in the Bankura district of Bengal, clay figurines from Krishnanagar (about 100 kilometers north of Calcutta) in the Nadia district, that look amazingly live, etc. Additionally, the Dakshinapan Shopping Complex (nearest commuter train station: Dhakuria) is home to similar shops run by some states including Pragjyotika (Assam), the Jammu & Kashmir State Emporium (Phone: +91-33-2422 4082), Mrignayani (Madhya Pradesh) (Phone: +91-33-2473 2512) and LePakshi (Andhra Pradesh) (Phone: +91-33-2417 8542). Handicrafts may also be bought at various shops along Chowringhee Road and in the New Market area at negotiable prices, but the chances of getting ripped off both in terms of price and quality are fairly high for the uninitiated.
Fabrics & Clothing
Bengal has been known for its textiles throughout the world for centuries. These come in a vast variety, from the silks of Murshidabad and Bishnupur (and Tangail, now in Bangladesh), the famous muslin from Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) and cotton from Shantipur to name just a few. Also, the rest of eastern India is replete with its own traditions of silk from Bhagalpur and Assam and the most exquisite woolen shawls from the state of Nagaland. Most of the creativity in textiles, which are handmade in most cases, is shown in the quality of the weaving and the designs, as opposed to in the use of expensive and heavy materials like gold brocade, as used in southern India. The primary manifestation of the arts in textiles may be seen in saris, the most beautiful of which is perhaps the Bishnupuri baluchari – hand-woven silk with the borders and the aanchal (the part that hangs behind) depicting elaborate scenes from Hindu mythology with so much attention to detail that from a distance it appears to have been painted on. A good quality baluchari sells for upwards of 5,000 rupees (roughly translates to 120 US dollars or 100 euros). The handloom is known as the tant in Bengali, and produces a vast variety of saris collectively known as tant saris, that have geometric patterns all over and on the borders, valued by the correct use of colors and patterns to bring forth its aesthetic qualities. A traditional and homegrown art form in Bengal was the kantha –quilts made by women in their free time out of worn out fabric, even recycling the thread, but with such attention to artistic detail that when available for sale (these being family heirlooms), fetch incredible prices (recently one was auctioned on eBay for $2,500). Your best bet for obtaining an authentic kantha is probably to get a gift of one from a Bengali family, unless you buy one at an auction. However, the kantha stitch has been reinvented to appear on saris, and given the intricacy of hand-embroidery sell for as little as 5000 rupees (roughly translates to 120 US dollars or 100 euros) and can go up all the way to 10,000 rupees (roughly translates to 240 US dollars or 200 euros), as well as shirts, scarves and cushion covers. Tagore introduced batik at his university in Bolpur after his trip to Bali, and this art thrived and evolved on its own in Bengal. Batik saris seem to be not as popular as they once were but batik shirts are still very popular and in the same league as the ones from Hawaii. Calcutta’s women, as in the rest of India, while perfectly comfortable in utilitarian clothes for day-to-day activities, prefer expensive saris for formal evening wear. Unlike the rest of India, the Calcutta male likes to dress up for special occasions in traditional Indian dress as well – the dhoti (as worn by Gandhi and contemptuously called “loin cloth” by western media at the time), which can be as elaborate as a Victorian gown and expensive as a Saville Row suit, made of the finest, starched cotton, with what seem like a million tiny folds and the panjabi (kurta to the rest of India), a loose shirt of silk or fine cotton with the most intricate embroidery around the collar.
While all the government handicrafts and textile emporia offer a good collection of saris and other articles of clothing, Calcutta’s traditional textile shops, operating out of decades, if not centuries old establishments, in the older neighborhoods are definitely the choice destination for best quality. In general, the Gariahat area (nearest Metro station: Kalighat, commuter train station: Ballygunge), the Shyambazar area (nearest Metro station: Shyambazar) and the College Street-Mahatma Gandhi Road crossing (nearest Metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road) are home to textile stores, mainly specializing in saris, and too numerous to list in entirety (each family has its personal favorite, with the customer-shopkeeper relationship going back generations), but we would like to mention a few that are Calcutta institutions in themselves. These include Adi Dhakeshwari Bastralaya at 161A Rash Behari Avenue, Calcutta 700029 (Phone: +91-33-2464 3903, nearest Metro station: Kalighat, commuter station: Ballygunge) which moved from Dhaka, now Bangladesh, in 1947 and is regarded as one of the best sources of Dhaka’s fine jamdani saris in Calcutta, besides the usual repertoire of other saris from the rest of India, especially Bengal. Mohini Mohan Kanjilal & Sons located at 81 Mahatma Gandhi Road (Phone: +91-33-2241 3850, nearest Metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road) is a classic Calcutta institution where Calcutta ladies have been buying their bridal dress and trousseau for generations.
Music, CDs & Videos
Calcutta has been a center of the recording industry ever
since The Gramophone Company of India was established in Dum Dum in 1903 – the
first recording studio outside the United Kingdom. This has meant that all the
leading music labels have maintained a presence in Calcutta and their products
are available all over. Calcutta’s music stores of long-standing reputation
are the two Melody stores, one located at 82A Rash Behari Avenue, Calcutta
700026 (Phone: +91-33-2466 2474, nearest Metro station: Kalighat) and 23
Gariahat Road, Calcutta 700019 (Phone: +91-33-2440 5979, nearest commuter train
station: Ballygunge) and Symphony located at B68/69 New Market, Calcutta 700087
(Phone: +91-33-2216 8504). Lately, a couple of very large music and video stores
with good collections have also appeared in Calcutta. The first is Music
World located at 18G Park Street, Calcutta 700016 (Phone: +91-33-2217 1219,
nearest Metro station: Park Street) and Planet M located at 22 Camac Street,
Calcutta 700016 (Phone: +91-33-2281 7799, nearest Metro station: Park
Calcutta is a great place to hunt for old vinyls and 78s.
The area around Free School Street (Mirza Ghalib Street) (nearest Metro Station:
Esplanade, Park Street) is home to a number of old record stores, where you can
browse through hundreds of records and find some rare and interesting numbers
ranging from Hollywood and Broadway hits, Indian classical music and Chinese
popular music from the 1940s.
Calcutta, like the rest of India uses the PAL format for video transmission, which is the same as Western Europe but incompatible with the NTSC format used in North America and Japan. This means that all videos that you buy in Calcutta will need to be converted into NTSC if you plan to play them in Washington or Tokyo.
Calcutta is famous the world over among students of Indian classical music for the finest musical instruments, especially harmoniums, sitars, sarods and tanpuras. A few of the famous stores are listed below.
Hemen Roy & Sons located at Rash Behari Avenue, Triangular Park (nearest Metro station: Kalighat) whose client includes the sarod maestroo Ali Akbar Khan.
Hiren Roy & Son located at Rash Behari Avenue, Gariahat. (Nearest Metro station: Kalighat) whose clients include Ustad Imrat Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar (of Monterrey Pop Festival legendary fame).
Manoj Kumar Sardar & Bros located at 8A Lalbazar Street, Calcutta 700001 (nearest Metro station: Central) who Sardar make excellent guitars, sitars and sarods to order.
Mridangam located at 114/10A Hazra Road (nearest Metro station: Jatin Das Park), regarded as one of the best tabla makers.
Naskar & Sons located at 14 Ganga Prasad Mukherji Road (nearest Metro station: Netaji Bhawan) who are especially renowned for their tanpuras.
Calcutta is a great place to hunt for antique furniture and other artifacts. The best place to buy them is at the antique auction houses on Russell Street (nearest Metro station: Park Street, Maidan), like Russell Exchange located at 12C Russell Street, Calcutta 700016 (Phone: +91-33- 2217 0076). These auction houses are open through the week for browsing while the auctions happen on Sundays.
Calcutta’s reputation as the cultural capital is also due to a good number of designer boutiques some of which are listed below.
Srijani located at 40/1A Bhupen Bose Avenue, Calcutta
700004 (Phone: +91-33-2555 4278, nearest Metro station: Shyambazar)
Calcutta is also home to a number of outlets by leading international designer brands such as
Lalique, only outlet in India located at 4/1 Camac Street, Calcutta 700016 (Phone: +91-33-2282 0626, email@example.com, nearest Metro station: Park Street, Maidan), Pierre Cardin, Louis Philippe, Cartier and others, mainly located along Shakespeare Sarani (nearest Metro station: Maidan, Rabindra Sadan).
When it comes to jewelry, Calcutta is the home to the most gifted artisans – whether we talk about a goldsmith working in the Bowbazar district of Calcutta or a diamond-cutter in Antwerp, Belgium, there are pretty good chances that the person we are talking about calls the Calcutta metropolitan area home. It is little surprising, therefore, that Calcutta is also home to some of the finest specimens of gold and diamond jewelry. Traditionally, Indians prefer 22-carat gold, as opposed to the standard 14-carat used worldwide, which means that there is about 60% more gold in the jewelry that you would buy in India than if you bought in Europe or North America. The remaining two carats (2 parts out of 24, that is) are usually a base metal, usually copper or silver. Calcutta’s customers usually prefer the copper alloy to the silver (which is preferred in the rest of India), which gives the gold a reddish tinge, identical to the sovereigns or guineas of Great Britain. The traditional jewelry district of Calcutta is Bowbazar Street (nearest Metro station: Central), but enough stores exist in the Shyambazar area (nearest Metro stations: Shyambazar, Sovabazar) and Rash Behari Avenue (nearest Metro station: Kalighat) to designate them as mini-jewelry bazaars. Most families have strong loyalties and usually go to the same jewelers over generations. The following is a list of some of the leading jewelers in Calcutta.
P C Chandra, with
their four showrooms across the city at 49C Gariahat Road, Calcutta 700019
(Phone: +91-33-2475 6734, firstname.lastname@example.org,
nearest Metro station: Kalighat), 83 Chowringhee Road, Calcutta 700020 (Phone:
+91-33-2223 8062, email@example.com,
nearest Metro station: Esplanade), 127/1A Bowbazar Street, Calcutta 700012
(Phone: +91-33-227 7272, firstname.lastname@example.org,
nearest Metro station: Central) and P30 Gariahat Road, Calcutta 700029 (Phone:
+91-33-2464 5304, email@example.com,
nearest commuter train station: Dhakuria, Jadavpur) is perhaps one of the best
Benode Behary Dutt, with their two showrooms located at 84
Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Calcutta 700025 (Phone: +91-33-2455 0388, firstname.lastname@example.org,
nearest Metro station: Netaji Bhawan) and 473 Diamond Harbour Road, Calcutta
700034 (Phone: +91-33-2468 1001, nearest commuter train station: Majerhat) is
also a large jewelry store.
The once famous house of jewelers, M B Sircar of the
Shyambazar, has given way to what seem like myriad successors in each grand and
great-grand child seeking to use the brand name for their own store. These
include M B Sircar at P20 Saradamoni Sarani, Calcutta 700003 (Phone: +91-33-2555
4437, nearest Metro station: Shyambazar, nearest commuter train station:
Bagbazar) and M C Sircar at AE-336 Salt Lake City Sector 1, Calcutta 700064
(Phone: +91-33-2337 1257, nearest commuter train stations: Bidhannagar Road,
Lately, Tanishq, a jewelry chain has become quite popular all over India. Their Calcutta store is located at 1/1 Camac Street, Calcutta 700016 (Phone: +91-33-2229 9931, nearest Metro station: Park Street).
© Focus Calcutta Initiative, Inc. Contents may be used for non-commercial purposes without malicious intent. Last modified December 10, 2003