New Market: the microcosm of Kolkata

Hitaishi Majumder | Live the World

November 23, 2022

The late Anthony Bourdain believed that local markets were must-visits during one's travels to "get a sense of what a culture loves most dear." And when it comes to Kolkata's beloved New Market, the statement holds truer than ever! The 145-year old New Market captures the heterogeneous, inclusive, warm soul of Kolkata in its numerous alleys like no other. Kolkata was formerly known as Calcutta and was the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911. Back then, people from different parts of India and the rest of the world came to the city and later set up shops in the New Market. Today, their predecessors are at the helm of these flourishing businesses. As a result, you'll find Tibetan Sherpas, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Jews and the native Bengalis hobnobbing with each other in the market, making it a microcosm of the city. Many consider Kolkata to be a time warp that holds on to its history and age-old traditions passionately. In keeping with the spirit of the city, the people of Kolkata can't do without the historical and cultural emblem that the New Market is, be it for festive shopping or regular buying of household miscellanies.

The colonial origin of the New Market

© Clyde Waddell

A dingy market by the name of Fenwick Bazaar used to occupy the stretch on Lindsay Street where the New Market stands tall today. As British colonies became prevalent in Calcutta, the other thing that became widespread was the disdain of the British expats and elites towards the native bazaars where they had to rub shoulders with Indians whom they considered to be socially inferior. By the 1850s, there was a concerted cry among the British residents that ultimately led to the Calcutta Corporation proposing a ‘white' market in 1871. The Calcutta Corporation purchased the plot on Lindsay Street and hastily commissioned R.R.Bayne, the eminent architect at the East India Railway Company, to design a Victorian-style market complex. On the first day of the year 1874, the colossal, Gothic-style New Market threw open its doors exclusively to Calcutta's English residents. The market is laced in red bricks, beautiful facades, tiled roofs, pillared alleys, shuttered arched windows and other distinctive Victorian architectural details such as tall spires and wide eaves. As this market replaced the old Fenwick Bazaar, it came to be known as the New Market. The market was home to exclusive retailers such as Cuthbertson and Harper (shoes), Ranken and Company (garment-maker),  R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink (books and stationery).

The evolution of the New Market

© Flickr/ Sudipta Mallick

Sir Stuart Saunders Hogg was the chairman of the Calcutta Corporation from 1863 to 1877 and was the driving force behind the construction of the New Market. In 1903, the market was officially named as Sir Stuart Hogg Market, although, people rarely refer to the market by that name. In 1930, a stunning clock tower was brought from Huddersfield and installed at the southern end of the market where it occupies pride of place till date. New Market has come a long way from being a snooty ‘white' market to being the cosmopolitan heart of Kolkata, where the modern and the traditional thrive in harmony.

What to buy at the New Market

© Archi Sengupta

There is an old saying that one can find everything ranging from a needle to even an elephant at the New Market. So, if you are looking to pick up souvenirs from your trip to Kolkata, New Market is the place to be. There are 2000-odd shops in the New Market, and that is without even counting the makeshift stalls that have come up surrounding the market. New Market is a treasure trove of exclusive glass items that can go down as family heirlooms. The market is also home to a huge assortment of dry fruits and spices. Don't forget to grab at least a pack of each when there. And how can I forget all the gorgeous sarees, clothes and fabrics! Here, you'll find a bonanza of not just traditional Bengal weaves such as Dhakai, Jamdani, Baluchari, Tant, and Tangail, but also other Indian weaves like Kanjivaram, Banarasi, Maheshwari, Bandhani, Ghicha and many more. I suggest you invest in at least one such traditional Indian saree and you won't regret the ravishing addition to your closet. You should also look out for cotton kurtas (knee or calf-length, collar-less shirts that are worn with pajamas) with intricate Chikankari work (a style of embroidery from Lucknow, India) and dupattas (long scarves) and stoles with heavy Phulkari embroidery (originating from Punjab, India).

Get bejeweled at the New Market

© Hitaishi Majumder

One thing that you must buy from the New Market is silver jewelry. Visit shops like Chamba Lama, Asian Arts and Karishmaz for your fix of unique silver baubles. You'll find silver stud earrings in the range of INR 200 to INR 2000 depending on the size of the earrings. The shops house beautiful silver neckpieces starting from INR 1500, danglers starting at INR 500 and silver rings starting from INR 200. Chamba Lama is also famous for its collection of silver curios. Don't miss out on an opportunity to talk with Sharon, the owner of Chamba Lama, who will tell you how her Darjeeling-based family traveled to Calcutta for business and how her mother got hold of the store at the market almost 7 decades ago!

The iconic Nahoum and Sons

A trip to the New Market can never be complete without having the tarts, brownies and fruit cakes at Nahoum and Sons, a bakery established by a Baghdadi Jew gentleman called Nahoum Israel Mordecai in 1902. I don't remember celebrating a single Christmas without having Nahoum's rich plum cake. In the age of molecular gastronomy and chic, industrial decor, Nahoum and Sons still stick to its old teakwood cabinets, glass displays, zink-panelled ceiling and the wooden cash register that has been witness to changing times since 1916. Their recipes are old-fashioned as well. And in true Kolkata style, we have held on to the inimitable flavour of nostalgia served by them.

The legend of the New Market

© Flickr/ shankar s.

For the people of Kolkata, New Market is an emotion. Three generations of my own family have been shopping from there. Every corner of the market has a story to tell. The market is located on Lindsay Street at Dharmatala, in the heart of the city, and remains open from 10 AM – 8 PM all week long, barring Sundays. I suggest to not go by its somewhat scruffy appearance. It is in that begrimed microcosm that you will encounter the loud and affectionate spirit of Kolkata.

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