Kolkata is a city synonymous with creativity. From unsung crafter communities quietly working to keep their traditions alive to some of the Indian art world’s most recognizable and popular signatures, there’s an incredible quantity and variety of creative produce in India’s third-largest city. For travellers passing through Kolkata this means a chance to not only become acquainted with the city’s glittering creative heritage, but also buy a precious collectible or two on excursions around town.
Observe the divine feminine at Kumartuli
The city’s most famous artisanal hub, Kumartuli is home to clay potters who build iconic clay idols of the mother goddess during Bengal’s Durga Puja festival. Easily accessible to travellers, this neighbourhood features innumerable studios along narrow lanes, where clay artisans toil over several months to create the divine idols that are then venerated in pandals (ceremonial shelters made of upright poles) across the city during the festival.
Kumartuli is a great place to study this unique form of clay art. Once you’re granted permission by a friendly artisan, you can sit in at his or her studio for hours (or even days) and watch as they painstakingly fashion the idols, starting with a straw-and-wood chassis and then slowly layering over it with clay. Kumartuli also houses specialised studios where artisans make hand-carved ornaments and other decorative finery from shola (a soft white pulp derived from the pith of a local plant species).
Even after Durga Puja has passed, the artisans of Kumartuli keep busy by making other idols for festivities such as Kali Puja, so any time of the year is ideal for a visit. Bring your camera along and feel free to ask the artisans about their crafts. Most are obliging and will happily show you around their studios for a small donation.
Experience even more of India on a private three day tour from Kolkata to Delhi.
All that glitters is found on Rabindra Sarani
Bordering Kumartuli to the east, the atmospheric Rabindra Sarani is one of northern Kolkata’s major thoroughfares. Along its serpentine lanes and alleyways, you will find countless creative microcosms where specialised crafters follow in their centuries-old traditions, meticulously working away in their studios to produce a wide range of handcrafted items.
Goldsmiths, brassware makers, printers and typesetters, potters, bangle designers, locksmiths or even the odd calendar artist - you will find all of them here, and more. Their workshops are usually open to walk-in visitors, so feel free to step in, admire their craft and then buy a few things that seize your attention.
If you’re interested in Indian arts and crafts, visit the National Handicrafts & Handloom Museum in Delhi.
Delight the senses in the Lalbazar district
The southern extent of Rabindra Sarani is often called Lalbazar after the eponymous police headquarters that stands in the area. The neighbourhood is also home to a curious collection of crafters plying an unconventional range of trades that provide a full sensory experience from head to toe.
A string of musical instrument makers (most notable among them being Mondal & Sons) line the streets here, making and selling a variety of traditional Indian instruments such as sitars, sarods and flutes. You can commission an instrument to your liking at one of these shops, after which artisans will craft your order over the next couple of months before shipping it overseas to your home.
An excellent perfumerie called Hind Perfumers continues in its decades-long tradition in the vicinity, and you can stop here to purchase small quantities of unique essences bottled and sold by its blenders. Nearby, a tiny number of Chinese shoemakers still operate along Bentinck Street, continuing a dwindling tradition of handcrafted bespoke shoes for the few clients who still care to have them.
Take a walking tour of Lalbazar if you want to learn even more about this historic neighbourhood.
Score souvenirs at Kolkata fairs and festivals
Wintertime is synonymous with several festivals organised to celebrate and promote Kolkata’s creative spirit. If you’re in search of souvenirs from your time in Kolkata, this can be one of the most fruitful seasons for finding unique items from throughout west India and Bangladesh.
The Kolkata Trade Fair, usually held in December, is a good place to shop for crafts from Bengal and its neighbouring states. Eminently buyable souvenirs include fine samples of Bankura terracotta horses made by the potters of Bishnupur; scroll paintings made by folk artists of the tradition now popularly known as Kalighat pats; and dhokra bell metal handicrafts from Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha.
The Kolkata Book Fair, while primarily catering to bibliophiles, also makes room for a diverse array of paper crafters, puzzle makers and DIY kit designers, and can be a great place to shop for some wackily creative souvenirs.
Browse the galleries of Ballygunge
To survey a well-curated range of ethnic crafts and modern art by Bengali contemporary artists, drop in at CIMA, a gallery known for its fabulous inventory of creative products. A short distance north is the Harrington Street Arts Centre, which is popular with the city’s art aficionados and holds fantastic exhibitions where you can see the works of some of India’s best-known modern artists on display (and on sale).
Also in the neighborhood are Byloom and Weaver’s Studio are two of Kolkata’s best-known textile stores and stock a wide repertoire of fabrics unique to Bengal’s weaving and dyeing traditions. The expansive Dakshinapan Shopping Centre, on the other hand, brings together the best of pan-Indian arts and handicrafts under a single roof.
Work up an appetite scouring galleries? Grab at a bite at 6 Ballygunge, a chic restaurant in a converted mansion specializing in Bengali cuisine.