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Tracing the journey of Tolly's Canal in Kolkata

A video installation of a forgotten waterway at Kolkata's Victoria Memorial brings with it meditations upon history and the continuity of life

In Madhuja Mukherjee’s work, which traces the Tolly’s Canal's route on camera, the waterway becomes a way of revisiting the city.
In Madhuja Mukherjee’s work, which traces the Tolly’s Canal's route on camera, the waterway becomes a way of revisiting the city. (Photographs courtesy Madhuja Mukherjee)

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A mother and her daughter, around five-six years old, stand almost still for over 30 minutes as the visual plays on the large curved screen. At one point, the child moves forward and tries to touch the screen, as if she hopes to feel the water flowing in front of her—although it’s only a video, it seems real, almost tangible. The room is dark and they are enveloped in the green glow emanating from the visuals—a looped video installation, 33 minutes long, of a stream that flows through Kolkata, once a lifeline of the city and now almost forgotten.

Film-maker and academic Madhuja Mukherjee shares the video of the mother and daughter with other imagery of viewers interacting with her video installation, Kolikata’r Nakshi-kotha: Sketches And Stories Of Kolkata, at the Victoria Memorial, an iconic element of the city’s skyline. The exhibition is the final outcome of a project by Mukherjee, implemented by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) in collaboration with the Victoria Memorial; titled Route 033, it is a creative project with photographs, images, videos, sounds and voices—“a provocation to reroute our pathways and remap the city of Calcutta/ Kolkata,” says Mukherjee.

Kolikata’r Nakshi-kotha is part of the IFA’s ongoing Archives and Museums Project, an attempt to engage with five partner institutions—Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata; People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI); Museum of Christian Art (MoCA), Goa; Star of Mysore (SoM), Mysuru; and SL Bhatia History of Medicine Museum, Library & Archives, Bengaluru—and reimagine them as sites of new expressions of creativity.

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The video installation, which opened on 18 November and will be on display at one of the halls till 18 December, has seen unprecedented interest, primarily due to its location at “the Victoria”, which sees almost 10,000 visitors a day. “I am only now realising the scope of this—this past weekend, over 20,000 people visited Victoria. If even a handful of that number went inside and saw the installation, it is at a completely different scale from the typical gallery space. It is heartening to be able to show this work to a certain kind of crowd, a completely new audience,” says Mukherjee, on the phone from Kolkata.

The video, which has no voice-over or music but is full of the ambient sounds of life in the city, follows the Adi Ganga, one of the significant streams of the river Hooghly (its name means old or original Ganga). Also known at various times as Gobindapur creek, Surman’s Canal and Tolly’s Canal, it provided the main flow of the Hooghly river between the 15th-17th centuries, writes social scientist Jenia Mukherjee in an article in the Economic And Political Weekly (EPW). Between 1772-77, it was revived and developed as Tolly’s Canal by William Tolly, an officer of the British East India Company who has also lent his name to a major Kolkata neighbourhood, Tollygunge, as a commercial waterway, flowing quietly through the heart of the city, via Kalighat, towards the south and west, with multiple detours.

In Madhuja Mukherjee’s work, which traces the canal route on camera, the waterway becomes a way of revisiting the city, of decolonising it and creating a new way of looking at Kolkata—different from the city as represented in colonial-era maps or modern-day Google Maps.

A Shiva idol at Chhoto Rash Bari, Kalighat, Kolkata. The Mona Lisa sketch was done by a local artist.
A Shiva idol at Chhoto Rash Bari, Kalighat, Kolkata. The Mona Lisa sketch was done by a local artist.

“The project started as I was going through the archives of the Victoria Memorial and came across many colonial- era maps, especially those from the late colonial period of the 20th century. I wanted to work with them but subvert them in some way. During the pandemic, I held many online conversations with historians, artists, cartographers about the various neighbourhoods of the city that were thought of as the ‘suburbs’ of colonial Calcutta but actually pre-date colonisation—Chitpore, Behala, Khidirpore. The pre-colonial maps started to haunt and provoke me—and the Adi Ganga became an important metaphor,” explains Mukherjee.

Jenia Mukherjee notes in her article that though Tolly’s Canal was well-maintained during the colonial period owing to its important role in the riverine economy, it turned into a sewer in the post-independence period. “Huge amount of silt was deposited when the heavy silt laden water of the Hooghly River entered the canal especially during high tides resulting in the increase in the bed level at alarming proportions ranging between 6 and 12 feet…. A large number of sewerage drains belonging to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) and the Calcutta Metropolitan Water and Sanitation Authority (CMWSA) discharged untreated effluent directly into Tolly’s Canal,” she writes.

Today, Tolly’s Canal is a dirty, smelly naala (drain) over which, for long tracts, stand pillars of the Kolkata Metro. It flows unnoticed through city landmarks. Mukherjee’s video follows it not in a linear but in a circular fashion as it winds around the city, touching areas like Hastings, Khidirpore and Kalighat. “Up to Kalighat people still use it for bathing, washing clothes…. After Kalighat, the water goes black. It’s all sewage,” says Mukherjee, “and yet life along it persists. The city has almost forgotten it and it flows unnoticed out of the city till it meets a kind of end at the Narayanganj Khal (pond) in Ramkantapur, around 15km outside Kolkata.”

The reactions to the video have been varied. Some react negatively on hearing the association between this narrow, teeming canal and the holy Ganga—though the Adi Ganga was never historically touched by the sanctity bestowed upon the Ganga. Some wonder “Yahan pe gandi naali ka photo kyun lagaya hai (why have they put up photos of this dirty drain)?” when they enter the whitewashed Victoria Memorial. Yet, it is imposing this modern reality of a lived city on its sanitised, well-preserved colonial spaces that interests Mukherjee—“bringing colonial debris into this space of colonial grandeur”.

Children react in a visceral way—as the video of the mother and daughter shows. They reach out and try to touch the screen and seem mesmerised by the visuals of flowing water, land, and the stretches of green that still encompass large tracts of the waterway.

“Water, land, green—we all feel a sort of primitive love for these, even if we are hardened city dwellers. There’s something hypnotic about their pull— something calls to you,” says Arundhati Ghosh, executive director, IFA. “And this, for us, is a way of actively engaging with conflicted histories, and what we have tried to do with each institution that is part of the Archives and Museum Project—look at their collections but build new narratives, new maps.”

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