Updated: March 19, 2021 10:00:01 pm
Unlike most of Kolkata’s iconic streets and roads, Surya Sen Street is best known for the institutions that have their addresses here and not the other way around. Being a part of the larger neighbourhood of Baithakkhana makes it one of the oldest streets to have developed in the city of Calcutta, but its rapidly changing face makes it easy to overlook that. This approximately 950-meter road starts at the crossing of Calcutta University and the Medical College and Hospital, and runs all the way down to Jagat Talkies cinema hall, ending where the neighbourhood of Sealdah begins.
In his telling of the story of the origins of Baithakkhana, H.E.A Cotton, who documented the city of Calcutta and its history during the 19th century in his book ‘Calcutta: Old and New’, writes that sometime in 1690, when the British first occupied the village of Sutanuti, Job Charnock of the East India Company was so inspired by the environs, that he went on to make the area a permanent settlement for the Company. He refers to a well-known tale of how Charnock conceived the idea of “Calcutta” when the village was only partially occupied by foriegn merchants.
“He was wont to sit and smoke a meditative hookah under the shade of a spreading peepul tree, which stood at the junction of what is now Bow Bazar Street and Lower Circular Road. The spot went by the name of Boytaconnah (boitak-khana) or resting place, and for years it continued to be a favourite rendezvous,” writes Cotton. This tree finds mention in A.Upjohn’s map of Calcutta published in 1794, on grounds that are now part of the Sealdah Railway Station, just a short distance from modern-day Surya Sen Street.
The weight of the history of the institutions that call this street home are almost distracting, especially for a first-time visitor, making it easy for pedestrians to miss its name while walking down this stretch. Kolkata’s ‘boipara’, the book market, for which the official address is College Street, can be seen tapering down this street like tertiary roots, with book sellers who may have missed out on leasing space in the prime stretch making do with the remnants available here, in the greater College Street area.
Just as the book shops begin to dwindle in number down the length of Surya Sen Street, there is another institution of immense historical and cultural value, so nondescript that it is possible to entirely miss it if one isn’t paying attention. On the ground floor of a decrepit one-storey building is the 102-year-old Favourite Cabin, one of the last remaining cabin restaurants in Kolkata still in operation. Set up in 1918 as an eatery for tea and toast by two brothers, Nutan Chandra Barua and Gaur Chandra Barua, this establishment is still run by the founders’ descendants with little having changed in the menu or the layout since it was first opened. Only the prices on the menu have changed, having only slightly increased.
A small wooden board painted red spells out the establishment’s name in Bengali and English, its simplicity belying its contributions in India’s freedom struggle and Calcutta’s socio-cultural and culinary history. Like many other cafes and restaurants in the larger College Street area, Favourite Cabin was frequented by revolutionaries as well as literary icons who spearheaded the Kallol Movement of 1923-35, like Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengali writer Premendra Mitra and author Shibram Chakraborty.
Today, a framed photograph of Nazrul Islam hangs over what was once his regular table, along with a black-and-white image of Rabindranath Tagore. Just beyond the seating area is a mid-sized kitchen that has its own story. One section in the wall in this kitchen, now boarded, is from where the revolutionaries would escape to avoid arrest by British police officials, says owner Saikat Barua, 54.
The establishment was a frequent meeting place for revolutionaries, many of whom were students in the nearby colleges and universities, where they would gather to plot against the British government. The owners of the establishment would alert the revolutionaries if they spotted British police out on the hunt for them, and the group would disperse through the concealed exit in the kitchen, climbing over walls and the adjoining network of terraces.
Before it came to be known by its present name, Surya Sen Street was called Mirzapore Street, writes historian P. Thankappan Nair in his book ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’ (1987), but not much is known about the story behind its former name. In December 1955, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation brought forth the proposal to rename the street that was implemented during a meeting held the next year in July. An entry in the Calcutta Municipal Gazette of October 1956 mentions that the new name was sanctioned in September 1956.
Surya Sen, a revolutionary from Bengal, affectionately known as ‘Master da’, did not have any particular connection with the street that was named after him, says Arup Ray, joint secretary of the Sahid Surya Sen Bhaban, a research center and museum in Kolkata, that has extensive records on the life and work of Master da. Perhaps it was the municipal corporations’ attempts to acknowledge the many contributions of a fearless son of Bengal who is most well-known for heading the Chittagong armoury raid of 1930.
Sen was arrested in April 1933 and subjected to brutal torture by British police for his sustained work in the freedom movement. He was tried and later hanged in January 1934. The street named after him does not have any statues dedicated to Sen, but there are a few across Kolkata. One of the most prominent is the one outside the Calcutta High Court, with Sen’s name etched in Bengali, below the towering statue.
The less well-known institutions on Surya Sen Street include the 142-year-old City College School founded by the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The address for the original building of this institution could not be ascertained, but the building on Surya Sen Street appears to be the second address to where it was shifted sometime in 1897. Over the years, the institution developed other branches across north Calcutta and expanded its curriculum.
The street also appears to have once been the place from where Sri Gouranga Press, one of the city’s most prominent Bengali printing and publishing houses, operated from its office at 71/1 Mirzapur Street, when the street was still so named, in the 1920s. That business doesn’t exist anymore and it is not clear when it shut down.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.