Even in the age of Kindles and digital media, the charm of books has not been lost. When it comes to Kolkata, books remain intertwined in the city’s cultural and social fabric. In fact, the City of Joy is one of the few book towns to feature in journalist Alex Johnson’s new book – “Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word.”
Kolkata has its own ‘boi para’ (colony of books) in the form of College Street, which is the largest bookselling market in the country and the second largest in the world. The long stretch of street stalls, traditional bookstores, and publishers along with narrow lanes of smaller bookshops that collectively form the colony of books, run from Mahatma Gandhi Road to Bowbazaar. The area also houses a number of prestigious educational institutions like University of Calcutta, Presidency College, and Calcutta Medical College, also known as the first medical college in the country.
Dotted with makeshift bookstalls made from bamboo, wood, and tarpaulin, College Street’s charm is undeniable. The bookstalls have books on virtually every subject matter known to man — from fiction to non-fiction in myriad languages and even textbooks. This is where you will find books that will appeal to every book-lover — from a racy Agatha Christie thriller to the latest Indian bestseller, second-hand copies of classics and a range of imported comic books. And the best part? You can get these books at bargain prices, sometimes at even half their market value.
A Glimpse into the History of College Street
Under Lord Wellesley, who first planned the construction of the roads in the area, College Street was known as The Great Arterial Road. The name ‘College Street’ came to exist in around 1817 when the Hindu College was first established in the city. The college was founded by David Hare, who wanted to provide a liberal academic education to all Hindus. After the approbation of the college was complete, the Hindu College finally commenced with twenty scholars as students. The street on which the college was established therefore came to be known as College Street.
College Street has been a centre of political and literary activism since the 1930s. The area has been used as a meeting place by iconic Indian leaders such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose as well as intellectuals and eminent personalities, including filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, poets Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay, to name a few.
Not only that, but College Street has also witnessed the beginning of the revolutionary Naxalite Movement of the 1970s in Bengal. The popularity and legacy of this street are so widespread and profound that in 2007, it was added to Time Magazine’s ‘Best of Asia’ list.
Famous Landmarks and Attractions in College Street
Since the street itself is so iconic, it is obvious that it will house some exceptional landmarks. And truly, College Street is synonymous with a lot of Kolkata’s best attractions:
The Indian Coffee House
To a Kolkata native, College Street and Coffee House can be used as interchangeable terms. The Indian Coffee House has been around for over a century and has seen the likes of stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen and the like. The place is so ingrained in the memory of Kolkatans, that even songs and poems have been composed in its name. In fact, the place has been immortalized in legendary singer Manna Dey’s famous song “Coffee Houser shei adda ta aaj aar nei” (The rendezvous at the Coffee House is no more).
Today, the Coffee House is visited by students from nearby institutions, literary enthusiasts and tourists.
University of Calcutta
This public state university was established in 1857. It has the reputation of being the first multi-disciplinary and secular educational institution in the country during the time of the Raj. The University has a total of 14 campuses across the city of Kolkata, and the Ashutosh Shiksha Prangan is located on College Street. This is the main campus of the university and the centre of all its administrative work. The University of Calcutta is truly significant, especially to the educational future of the country, since students from both Kolkata, as well as other cities, enroll into the university.
Earlier known as the Presidency College and the Hindu College before that, Presidency College was given the status of an independent university in 2010. Presidency College has the reputation of being the centre of political fervour and discussion, activities in liberal arts and intellectual debates. The stately white gates of the university have seen the likes of Swami Vivekananda, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sarat Chandra Bose, and Chittaranjan Das pass through its premises. It continues to live up to its reputation of being a stellar academic institution.
Calcutta Medical College
As mentioned earlier, Calcutta Medical College, or Medical College Bengal as it was formerly known, is the first medical college to be established in India by William Bentinck in 1835. The college has both hospital and administrative wings that train budding doctors to help the ailing. The imposing architecture of the college has starkly British overtones and stands out in the middle of the busy by-lanes of College Street.
Founded on 1st January 1824, the Sanskrit College and University offer a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, Sanskrit, Pali, linguistics, and ancient and world history. This university is one of a kind, focussing on the study of the most prolific languages in the world. The campus of this monumental institute is also located on College Street.
Hindu School is a government-run school located in College Street, close to Presidency University. The school has groomed and educated celebrated people like Satyendranath Tagore, Jyotindranath Tagore, Chhabi Biswas, Meghnad Saha, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Kaliprasanna Singha, Keshob Chandra Sen, and others. The school stands tall and proud today, providing valuable education for generations.
This is actually one of the oldest schools in Kolkata. The official date of establishment of this school is 1818. It is situated opposite to Presidency University and is adjacent to University of Calcutta and Hindu School.
The Legacy Continues
College Street continues to remain at the heart of political, social, and cultural debates. And why not? Being a colony of books, it is only fitting that College Street represents the essence of what books teach us — to broaden our minds and to question our long-held beliefs and institutions.
It is crucial to the identity of Kolkata and what makes it the cultural capital of the country. In fact, we cannot think of the city without bringing up College Street. It was, is, and will continue to be one of the most prominent and central spots of attraction of the city.