February 1873 was a monumental year for Kolkata, then known as Kalikatta. Commerce had compelled the British rulers to look for cost effective and efficient ways to carry merchandise from Sealdah railway station to the Armenian Ghats of the river Hooghly. Unfortunately the horse trams did not find many takers and had to shut down the same year. But in the mean time something of an affair had been heralded that would go on to add to the uniqueness of the city Kalikatta.
Think of trams and you can imagine life slowing down a pace or two. When I first set eyes on a tram in the middle of a main road in the South of the city, all the other noises seemed to recede away and a Mantovani melody started to play in the background instead. I was so mesmerised by the way it snaked on the road, leisurely at its own pace, not bothered by the honking cars, autos and taxis that I forgot to board the bus my palm had brought to halt.
Kolkata is a metropolis like none other. It is large. It is smelly. And it is congested. Yet there is a strange amalgamation in which many new and old; metropolis like and unlike metropolis things/ features, survive side by side. The various modes of transportation are a case to point. Look at what all plies on the city roads and tracks: you have the air conditioned metro rail, the famous yellow taxis, as well as the haath gaadi and horse carriages. The trams possibly the first public transport system introduced in that fateful year of 1873 has continued to co-exist with all other modes of commute without any malice.
Trams became a part and parcel of the daily life of the people of Kolkata once the Calcutta Tramway Company Ltd was created and registered in 1880. The then viceroy Lord Ripon inaugurated the route between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat via Bowbazar, Dalhousie Square and Strand Road. Electrification of the trams was started in 1900. Alongside the work for reconstruction of tracks to a standard size was also initiated. The first electronic tramcar ran between Khiddirpore and Esplanade in 1902. By 1905 the entire system had been converted to an electronic traction. Till 1952 the tram cars were imported from England, though a workshop, which exists till date, was set up in Calcutta to undertake repairs.
In 1967 the West Bengal government took over the management of Calcutta Tramways Company. In the year 1992, the Calcutta Tramways Company introduced a bus service and the trams suffered a jolt as the hurrying passenger preferred the bus to the lolling tram. The number of fleet was reduced due to the high costs of maintenance and less takers.
Today only about 130 of the 530 trams running in the 1980s are making their way on the Kolkata roads.
But of late efforts have been made to turn the trams in to profit making extensions of the government by bringing in AC coaches and transforming them in to a major tourist attraction. Heritage tours aboard the tram start at the Esplanade Tram terminus offering you a glimpse of history at various destinations like the Dalhousie Square, the Presidency College, Ashutosh Museum and many more. It offers a slice of life in the form of the view of the coffee houses on College Street. You can get acquainted with history during this tram ride as it chugs along the Victoria Museum and the Writer’s building. You get to sample the delights of the rich cultural heritage of Kolkata as the off the Chitpore Road is the campus of Tagore’s university of liberal arts the Rabindra Bharti
The city has been a favourite with cinematic geniuses like Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. Many Hindi films of the yore like Howrah Bridge, Do beegha Zameen, Amar Prem and Devdas have been set in Kolkata but then there was a lull. Of late Kolkata has again become a favoured spot for Bollywood with many blockbusters being shot in the city. Think Mira Nair’s The Namesake, Sudhir Misra’s Calcutta Mail as well as Anurag Basu’s Barfi and if you prefer Mani Ratnam then Yuva!
Film makers have been wooed with delightful sights and sounds of the Durga Pujo as well as the majestic sights such as the Victoria, the Howrah Bridge and the bustling Esplanade. The trams have held their lure too for the Bolly directors and we have them either playing out a vivid role or being part of the narrative in many films. Two which immediately come to the mind surprisingly have Vidya Balan as the protagonist. One is the adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Parineeta and the other is the suspense thriller Kahani.
The gong-like sound of the tram horn is a part of the mosaic morning sounds in Kolkata. The trams have stayed around despite threats of being scrapped then and now. Even today the sight of a tram manages to bring to mind the picture of a regally clad viceroy or the bhadrlok in white dhotis chewing paan. The trams have journeyed thus far and I am sure picture abhi baaki hai......
(This article was first published in The Indian Trumpet and you can read it here)