Streetwise Kolkata: Named after an iconic educational institution, College Street now represents them all

Long before the concept of “book towns” gained ground around the world, Kolkata had its own interpretation of that in the College Street area. The term “towns of the book” itself is not very old – it dates back to the 1960s, when a man named Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye in Wales started the movement, which is used to refer to small towns and villages, “rural and quaint,” “full of bookstores and book-related industries,” writes Alex Johnson in his 2018 book “Book Towns.”

Also known as ‘Boi Para’, College Street is one of the largest second-hand book markets, as well as the address of some of the most important publishing houses in West Bengal and India, for example. Mitra and Ghosh Publishers, DasGupta and Company Pvt. Ltd and Dey’s Publishing. But the street takes its name from the weight and power of the academic institutions that were established here about two centuries ago. More specifically, the Hindu College, established in 1817, is now called the University of the Presidency.

“College Street owes its nomenclature to Hindu College, not Medical College, for a road bears its name,” writes P. Thankappan Nair in his book “A History of Calcutta’s Streets” (1987). Before it was known as President College, the educational institution this street takes its name from was called Hindu College, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in South Asia.

This is page 22 of “Views of Calcutta and its Environs” by James Baillie Fraser. Fraser (1783-1856) arrived in Calcutta in 1814 and in six years produced these lively sketches of the bustling city, later published as a collection of 24 beautifully aquatint plates. He included in his collection five views of Tank Square. This image shows the west side of the square, where “the reservoir gate faces Koila Ghat Street, to the right of which is the old export warehouse built against the southern edge of the old fort.” Part of the latter was demolished in 1819 to build the new customs office, which is out of current view. At the southwest corner of the square, Council House Street leads to Esplanade Row. On the corner of Council House Street and the plaza is the building where the first public exchange and first cafe in Calcutta was located. It didn’t work out very well and was later praised by Lord Wellesley for his College at Fort William. (Photo credit: British Library)

The college was so named because it was founded by David Hare with the aim of establishing “an institution for providing liberal education to the children of members of the Hindu community”, mentions an entry in the register of the College of the chair, compiled and edited by Surenchandra Majumdar and Gokulnath Dhar, Calcutta, 1927, says Nair.

The college opened in January 1817 with 20 students and was headed by Raja Ram Mohan Ray. Some of Bengal’s most educated philanthropists have played various roles in overseeing the functioning of this institution and its development. Despite its name and the founder’s attempts to create an institution exclusively for Hindu students, college records indicate that students from other communities, such as Muslims, Christians and Jews, also studied there.

kolkata, streets of kolkata, streetwise kolkata, street names of kolkata, kolkata street history, kolkata history, calcutta history, calcutta, calcutta news, kolkata news, Indian Express College Street Hindu School (Express Photo by Shashi Ghosh)

When the institution was founded, its address was not College Street, but 304 Chitpore Road, a house ten minutes away, which belonged to Gorachand Bysack. “In January 1818, Hindu College moved to the nearby house of Feringhi Kamal Bose. The building is historic as Raja Ram Mohan Ray inaugurated his Brahma Sabha here and Duff began his educational institution later in 1834. From Chitpore, Hindu College eventually moved to Bowbazar and later into a building which now houses the Sanskrit College, ”according to the Alumni Association of the Presidency. The name change from Hindu College to President College did not take place until 1855, when the institution moved to its current location on College Street, according to the Association.

Students enrolled in one of the many centuries-old institutions in the College Street area firmly believe that the rarest books and periodicals can be found in bookstores in and around this neighborhood. While this might be just an exaggeration, the overwhelming selection and accessibility of unusual titles and collections makes it easy to see why this myth has been perpetuated.

kolkata, streets of kolkata, streetwise kolkata, street names of kolkata, kolkata street history, kolkata history, calcutta history, calcutta, calcutta news, kolkata news, Indian Express This photograph of Medical College Hospital from the collection ‘Walter Hawkins Nightingale (PWD): Album of views of Calcutta, was taken by an unknown photographer in the late 1870s. General view of Medical College Hospital, located on College Street. This Corinthian building was completed in 1852. (Photo credit: British Library)

Within walking distance of institutions such as the Medical College, the University of Calcutta and the University of the Presidency are restaurants and eateries that have histories and histories intertwined with these institutes of higher education.

This is partly because establishments like the Indian Coffee House, Paramount, Favorite Cabin, etc. for the freedom of India.

These restaurants continue to operate to this day and little has changed in their interiors; only the prices have been modified over time. The recipes have remained largely the same over the decades, as have some of their older employees. Many restaurants like Paramount and Favorite Cabin in the College Street neighborhood continue to be run by the descendants of the people who founded them, many of whom were revolutionaries or sympathizers.

kolkata, streets of kolkata, streetwise kolkata, street names of kolkata, kolkata street history, kolkata history, calcutta history, calcutta, calcutta news, kolkata news, Indian Express College Street (express photo by Shashi Ghosh)

For now, the Calcutta Tramways Company continues to operate on Route 5 which passes the University of Calcutta and the University of the Presidency on College Street. Amateur photographers stealthily wait as the streetcar takes this route for that precise frame capturing two of the city’s icons, much to the chagrin of streetcar operators, who eagerly honk their horns to ward off annoying crowds. With Kolkata’s cityscape changing so rapidly, neighborhoods like College Street provide an escape for people desperately clinging to the embers of purono Kolkata.

Janice G. Ball