The Stunning Colors of India's Kolay Market in the Sealdah Area

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As human beings, I strongly feel that we were made for relationships.  We were made to know each other and exist in a reality where we interact and connect and live in the spirit of camaraderie and community.  Some of us shun to enter this realm of relationships.  We would rather hide away and ignore the fact that we live in a world with other people.  We would rather be “safe”, ignoring a life where we experience the adventure of indulging in a life with people who truly matter to us, are around us. This is not a lesson I have learned, but I feeling that I have harboured for very long. So naturally it is sometimes involuntarily that I end up in situations and experiences, where I know this fancy of mine will be patronized. A market place is one such hub. A place, I feel where we can experience this life of relationship, simplicity and connection. Enter and you get lost in a world of color and a world of creation.

Kolay market is located in the under-belly of the Sealdah Bridge; Sealdah Station being a prominent landmark and one of the most important rail-head terminals of the city of Kolkata.  My memories of this train terminus have been quite a few. This used to be the same place from where I would board the familiar Bongaon Local (train), or the Madhyamgram Local (train) to Birati- a small muffasshal hamlet which housed my warm and affectionate grandparents. The visit to Sealdah would always be filled with a perfume of musk and memories. Of a pertinent vision of green mango trees and large jackfruit trees. Of my childhood and pranks. Of my innocence and growing up. Of family and happiness.

Never have I had the opportunity to see Sealdah in any other light. Yes, it was always bustling. There were porters and hawkers and salesmen of every kind and form all around. But to me Sealdah was always a starting point of a happy journey.

Several years later, inspired by a few photographs on social media, I was enticed to re-visit the Sealdah area. This time with Manjit Singh Hoonjan, who runs the popular Calcutta Photo Tours. I had a choice either to walk through the bylanes of a Cultural Kaleidoscope or get lost in the arteries of the largest wholesale market in the city: Kolay Market.

I chose the latter. And I returned with a similar bag of happy memories and colorful takeaways.

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This post has been due for the longest time ever. The recollection is slightly faint- since I am no longer a prancing young girl in ponytails and white canvas shoes! But here are some images which might end up telling you a story which my words might not be able to justly convey. The sensory memories are still very active, but so is the warmth and patron-ship of Manjit. The tale below is a mish-mash of both these subsets of memories.

Kolay market is one of the oldest and thriving wholeslae markets of not only Kolkata, but India. Meat, fruit, vegetables, tea, grains, dried fish,  fresh fish and spices converge here from across provinces of rural West Bengal,before scattering to smaller market aisles or local homes. As one weaves through the the narrow stalls, dodging vendors, porters, buyers and sellers you discover the sights, sounds, and flavours of one of the last remaining large scale markets in Kolkata.

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Did you notice how bright and vibrant the vegetables are? As much as they are really fresh and vibrant, the sellers have their own indigenous ways of highlighting their stuff: Carrots : they get more red and are always red; spinach and chillies: They make even the jealous wife green with the green of their envy; sweet potatoes: as pink as the house a Barbie doll will build- shockingly fuchsia! Say hello to the cellophane wrapped light bulbs sparkling and shining bright atop, matched to the color of the vegetables that they decorate!

I have been a shameless photographer; almost always. When I say that, I mean that I photograph without inhibitions,shame or neighboring remarks and comments. So, when I had company like Manjit, it just made it easier for me to continue the way I function. The photo-tour began with a smile, and ended with a grin(possibly also, because I could shop for a long awaited ‘shutki mach‘ purchase,during the tour!). Manjit was delightfully social with the vendors and the porters in the market,which completely helped. The magical marriage of sights, sounds, smells and lights that begin almost at the crack of dawn is an experience that I keep revisiting and cherishing in my memory. Not only did Manjit know the agenda of how the world of wholesale unfurls, he also seemed completely comfortable with them. In the bargain, I felt harbored and safe in an otherwise alien environment.
But the market tour is not for the lovers of luxury. The path is dirty, mucky, slippery. Often I would have random vendors passing remarks(well retorted by Manjit, hence the assured comfort!). Each person I aimed my camera at, seemed unique.. ending up in interesting portraits of people with distinguished character personalities written on their faces. Age, experience, wisdom, knowledge, impatience, anger,smirks and smiles are the top few emotions that get captured, if your frame is ready and your finger on the shutter is nimble.

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A bulk of Calcutta’s vegetable supply from the rural areas passes through this market. Supplies keep coming and the market never sleeps. Inside, it is organized chaos. There are separate sections for onions, potatoes, chillies, pumpkins and seasonal greens such as cabbages and tomatoes. Choc-a-bloc with buyers, the narrow lanes are slippery with rotting vegetables. The smell of fresh and rotting greens, along with those of chilli and garlic make it an overwhelming experience.

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While there is happiness in the colors, and a sense of sensory appreciation, a little has been told about the rigmarole, dependencies and compromises the workers here go through.

The “turban-wallas“: On the congested road just outside the gates of the Kolay Market, one often comes across group of well built men in colourful turbans. Wrestling bundles weighing hundreds of kilograms onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow workers, they deliver bushels of veggies from the trucks and carts outside to the wholesalers. Life for these human forklifts is tough. Each team generally has 15-16 men, mostly from the same extended family or village. They are aspirational migrants from the neighboring state of Bihar. This is the largest incidence of migratory workers from Bihar who try their hand in income through labour in the ‘big city’ of Kolkata.

There is no respite. . They sleep in dormitories in the first floors of the warehouses just above their workplace. The noise and ruckus created by the early morning arrival of trucks is unavoidable. That noise is their alarm clock, for days on end. Wake up, rush down and start to work.

There is a strategy they deploy to distribute the weight, which is a feat to watch. As the load gets hurled on their heads, they move in serpentine precision, aligning their sinews and bodies almost in a manner that a caterpillar does. Have you observed how they move? Closely?

Turns out they move with their gut.   Literally. A groundbreaking study conducted last year in which scientists have the  intriguing critters walking on treadmills while x-rays scanned their wormy bodies indicated that the first step in a caterpillar’s stroll is taken by its gut.When caterpillars walk, their guts move first, with the rest of their bodies following behind in a rippling motion.  Now transfer your imagination back to a group of muscular legs moving in a rippling fashion; an endearing act, wobbling, crawling, and creeping on dirty slippery road, twisting their torsos like trapeze artists at Cirque de Soleil! Fascinating!

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You will capture some truly great market scenes in action, and some very interesting activities during bargains and transactions that you will witness. If these are things that tick you right as a photographer, this tour is definitely not something you want to miss. It carries no stories(as Manjit repeatedly kept telling me!), but if you can make your pictures tell a story, like I usually attempt, you just need to identify interesting subjects. And Manjit completely helps you with that. To the last-T, he checks for your comfort..complete with a text message asking if you have reached home safely.

My fascination with markets is from a very early age. Thanks to the virtue of being a Bengali, and having a father who treats food like religion. The markets in India are very different than the farmers market or the Chelsea markets of the western world. The colours are always enticing in both cases but Indian markets, with the smell of fish, garlic, muck and swamp and rotten foliage in parts, is not for the faint hearted.  You need to have a acquired taste  and an olfactory for that. Am glad I am imbibed with one!

Mesmerizing Markets, is a highly recommended trip, for true-blue lovers of sensory food addictions!

Sambrita Basu
Sambrita Basu is a food-fascinated travel writer and photographer based out of Bangalore India. A background and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management paved her interest in food. As the secretary of the institution’s editorial club, she contributed regularly and wrote about food in their annual magazine, A la Carte.

Sambrita has published interviews of celebrity authors and business veterans in international publications like Infineon. Her contributions also include photographs on foods and restaurants of Bangalore for DNA—a leading newspaper publication in Bangalore. Sambrita’s creative expressions transport readers to alleys, hotels, hide-outs, restaurants, attics, and spice markets in several cities across the world.

Sam (as she is popularly known by her friends and family) doesn’t write for a living, but she lives to write.
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