Blue Santa and fruit-less Armenian cakes
Under Mamata Banerjee, Christmas in Kolkata is tourist-friendly. But the city’s traditions, like the Armenian celebrations, continue to flourish
Though born and brought up in Kolkata, it is only recently that Brunnel Arathoon, 36, started examining her Armenian roots. All these years, Arathoon says, she had only the one identity, of a Catholic; her paternal origins in the Eurasian country remained a footnote in family dinner-table conversations and a conundrum in social circles.
“I had absolutely no idea of my Armenian identity and the history surrounding it. After I got to know of my father’s side originating from Armenia before shifting to Kolkata, I started looking up the map of the country. It is nice to know where one goes back to,” says Arathoon.
For the first time, she has baked the traditional Armenian Christmas cakes— spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon and stuffed with walnuts, and, unlike most other Christmas cakes, without fruit. They are a marker of her Armenian roots, a country from where large numbers came to settle down in Kolkata and do business, as far back as the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
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Though the British are popularly believed to have been the first Europeans in Kolkata in 1690—Job Charnock, an employee and administrator of the British East India Company, is regarded as the founder of the city now called Kolkata— the discovery of an Armenian tombstone in the city dating back to 11 July 1630 has pushed back Kolkata’s European links by at least another 60 years. The site of the tombstone of Rezabeebeh, “wife of the late charitable Sookias”, is the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth near Burrabazar, built in 1707 and widely regarded as the oldest surviving church in Kolkata. It stands as a monument to the city’s earliest encounter with Christianity, even as the number of Armenians has dwindled to an official estimate of less than a hundred. Arathoon, however, contends there are many like her: uncounted Armenians grappling with issues of identity, since only Armenians who are baptized are counted.
Having bagged orders for 56 cakes within a few days of promoting her effort on Facebook, Arathoon hopes the world will now come to know of her Armenian background. “Christmas in Kolkata is as good a time (as any ) to spread the word,” says Arathoon.
We meet one evening at a café attached to a book store in the Park Street area. It’s a week before Christmas, and Park Street is a merry swirl of revellers in red and white Christmas caps, caught ethereally within a dazzle of blue and white lights. On 16 December, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee inaugurated the state government-organized Kolkata Christmas Festival in this area’s Allen Park. This nearly three-week-long festival, which has been organized since 2011, sees street-corner pop-rock concerts, dancing, choir performances, parades, Christmas merchandise, roadside stalls selling Anglo-Indian beef roasts and pork vindaloo, and a heady maze of festive illumination running across Park Street and the St Paul’s Cathedral-Victoria Memorial area. At around 14-15 degrees Celsius, this year’s winter temperature is just adding to the cheer.
On 25 December, Park Street turns into a pedestrian-only zone, with thousands of people in their Christmas finery taking it over. This year, Banerjee spoke about visiting churches at midnight on Christmas Eve even when she was not chief minister. Her comparison of Christmas celebrations to Durga Puja almost echoed the campus saying in Kolkata that describes 25 December as a day dedicated to “Jishu (Jesus) Pujo”—a day when many non-Christian Bengali homes will bake or buy cakes, party at clubs, visit the zoo, St Paul’s Cathedral or Park Street, perfectly at ease in their red Xmas caps.
Youngsters can often be seen in red Santa Claus clothes, complete with faux white beards, while the Santa illuminations put up by the Trinamool Congress-run state government glow in blue and white—red is not a colour it favours. Bengali gospel songs played over public address systems and Santa cutouts in dhotis complete the appropriation of the occasion by even those who are not Christians.
Reverend Thomas D’Souza, archbishop of Kolkata, laughs aloud when I ask him to explain this effortless syncretism. At his 130-year-old colonial residence, marked by tall ceilings lined by Burma Teak beams and ornately carved furniture, we sit over fragrant Darjeeling tea and delicious fruit cakes in his parlour; Pope John Paul II spent two nights in the adjoining bedroom when he visited Kolkata in 1986. D’Souza, who assumed the archbishop’s role in 2011, says: “For a lot of people in Kolkata, Christmas is about religion and spirituality. But if you see the enthusiastic response of the people, you’ll realize that it is also a festival of Kolkata.”
Certainly, it has developed its own local flavour over the years—and tourists tend to flock in droves during this period. Private tour operators, hoteliers and restaurant owners report more traffic. “Christmas in Kolkata is certainly becoming a brand ever since the festival in Park Street started. An entire new segment of tourists has come up for whom Christmas celebration in Kolkata is the most happening after Goa,” says Anil Punjabi, chairman (eastern region) of the Travel Agents Federation of India. Week-long Christmas packages have been introduced by travel companies, he says, with two-day visits to Darjeeling or the Sunderbans thrown in with a five-day stint in Kolkata.
Last year, tourist arrivals in Kolkata during this period saw an 18% increase over the previous year, topping an average annual growth of 10-15% since 2011, says Punjabi. He is seconded by Sudesh Poddar, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern India, which has 800 business establishments, including five-star hotels such as Taj Bengal and JW Marriott Kolkata, as members. “Last year, we accounted for a 25% increase in business. Christmas in Kolkata is already a beautiful event but more areas should be added as festival venues,” he suggests. They are yet to map the effects, if any, of demonetization.
For Jayant Kripalani, actor, adman and author of New Market Tales, based on stories emerging from the iconic shopping hub in central Kolkata, the spirit of Christmas doesn’t lie in “Park Street and its lights”. He finds much of it tacky. “The New Market centre to me is Christmas. I missed those special shops that popped up there. Christmas has always been about the midnight mass at St Paul’s Cathedral and Nahoum’s (a reputed Jewish confectionery and pâtisserie) cakes,” he writes over email. “But I must confess I find the carols in Bengali prettier than the ones in English. What I’m trying to say is, I like the Indianization of Christmas more than Christmas itself.”
Over the years, indeed centuries, Christmas celebrations in the city have evolved. For it was once the capital of British India, with Kolkata being the first port of call for boatloads of European missionaries in India. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese, Danes, Dutch and French all set up camp in the vicinity of Kolkata, often with the intention of proselytizing.
Instances like the conversion of poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt to Christianity may be few, but Bengalis in 19th century Kolkata, closer to their roots but familiar with Western thought, chose an amalgam of both worlds. The Brahmo Samaj, founded in 1830, and helmed during different periods by reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Keshub Chandra Sen and Rabindranath Tagore, emerged as a prominent Hindu reformist movement that sought to give women a respectful position in society, including the right to education and property, eradicate superstitious practices, return to the Upanishads, ensure exposure to the Western world and battle the caste system, according to Nitish Sengupta’s book, History Of The Bengali-speaking People. Indeed, “during the Christmas celebrations in 1864, a group of Brahmo youth, under the inspiration of Keshub Chandra Sen, brought their wives out of the purdah and introduced them to their male friends, thus taking the first steps towards free mixing”, notes Partha Pratim Basu in Strangely Beloved: Writings On Calcutta, edited by Nilanjana Gupta.
At the Visva Bharati university campus in Santiniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore, author Nabaneeta Dev Sen remembers Christmas being celebrated as Christo Utsav, with prayers, hymns and Brahmo songs being performed without the presence of any religious motif or motive. “I’m not sure why Tagore started this practice, especially since Santiniketan didn’t celebrate Durga Puja. Maybe it was his way to intellectually remember the day by being religion-neutral,” she says.
On 16 December, when the large audience present at the hallowed Indo-Gothic St Paul’s Cathedral, built in 1847, heartily applauded the Christmas concert of the Kolkata Music Academy (KMA) Chamber Orchestra conducted by Abraham Mazumder—which included a rendition of three Tagore compositions other than those of Beethoven, Purcell, Mozart and Christmas carols—it could well have been celebrating the spirit of inclusiveness that sees people of all faiths coming together for Christmas in Kolkata. “Brahmo Sangeet (Brahmo music popularized by Tagore) is actually church hymns, though he kept out the harmonies. Tagore knew the value of music and humanity was his religion,” says Mazumder.
For the oldest Christian community in Kolkata, the Armenians, the 25th is the beginning of the period of “Advent of Jesus”, not the day they celebrate Christmas, says Anthony Khatchaturian. Khatchaturian, a prominent Armenian in Kolkata, organizes popular city walks; this year, a “Cake Walk” through the city’s popular Christmas cake outlets has been introduced. It is only on 6 January, when the period of Christ’s incarnation culminates, that the oldest church in the city, the otherwise deserted Armenian Holy Church near Burrabazar, will swell up with the sounds of prayer and singing.
Playing it out of the park
Five alternatives to Park Street for a Kolkata Christmas
The ghetto-like residential area of the city’s Anglo-Indian community in central Kolkata throbs with parties, concerts and balls on the road. Don’t leave without tasting the homemade wine and the meat-heavy food. The Christmas festival starts on 23 December, taking a two-day break—25 December and Boxing Day—before it begins again on 27 December.
New Market, built in 1874, has a timeless aura. A visit to the area is never just about shopping, it’s about diving straight into the pulsating heart of the city. There are Christmas trees, silver bells and golden balls everywhere. Don’t miss a bite at Nahoum, a quick detour for cold cuts at Kalman Cold Storage or a stroll around the moody Free School Street, now called Mirza Ghalib Street.
Around the Victoria Memorial
This is among the city’s leafiest areas, with the imposing St Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, the sprawling Maidan and the Nandan cultural complex in the vicinity—it’s just the right place to laze in the winter sun.
Christmas in Kolkata is incomplete without a visit to its many British-era social clubs, like the Calcutta Club, the Bengal Club and Tollygunge Club. An uppity air and warm hugs go down with gin and tonic here. They organize concerts and belly-dance performances.
Kolkata’s many nightclubs ring in the season with late-night gigs featuring EDM, exotic dancers from all over the world, cabarets, even fire-eating acts. With the state government allowing only four-and-a-half dry days annually and clubs remaining open till late, the party tap never quite goes dry.
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