The Mess Bari Project: Documenting Kolkata’s Diverse Boarding Houses

Mess baris, the quintessential boarding houses, had been part and parcel of nineteenth and twentieth century Kolkata’s checkered past. Interestingly enough, Permanent Settlement acted as a catalyser to the development of such boarding houses. Land subinfeudation led to decreased earning for the landowners and in certain dire cases, landlessness. These push factors led to large scale migration to Calcutta, the colonial capital. Hordes of young men thronged the city in search of educational and professional opportunities. In order to accommodate this never-ending trail of fortune seekers, boarding houses sprang up in and around the major educational institutions and business areas.

Areas around College Street, including Pataldanga Street, Harrison Street (present day Mahatma Gandhi Road), and Muktaram Babu Street saw the mushrooming of a number of mess baris owing to it being the nerve centre of contemporary Calcutta’s educational endeavours. The likes of Hindu College (present day Presidency University), Sanskrit College, Hindu School, and Medical College made sure that there was no dearth of boarders. Similarly, the business areas or office paras also witnessed the establishment of such boarding houses.

Although the majority of the boarding houses were inhabited by Bangali Hindu men, there did exist numerous boarding houses that catered distinctly to women, people of other ethnicities and religions. Prudent perusal of old street directories asserts the existence of boarding houses dedicated to catering the Europeans, the Scottish, the Muslims, the Indian Christians, the Oriyas, the Madrasis (umbrella term used to denote people hailing from the Southern part of India), and the Goanese amongst others. Women’s messes were mostly concentrated around hospitals, where they found employment as nurses, and also around girls’ convents.

What makes the Mess Bari Project stand apart is the fact that it is not solely invested in unearthing the Bangali Hindu boarding houses from the pages of the city’s history. It aims to document the diversity that the culture of mess baris almost organically curated in the city’s being. Kolkata’s mess baris have been silent spectators of its dynamic and often tumultuous past. From the Swadeshi Andolon to the Naxalite Movement of the 1970s, they have embodied the city’s lackadaisical metamorphosis.

The Mess Bari Project aspires to undertake a rather mammoth task of identifying as many mess baris as possible, within the city limits, by digging into old city directories, archives, and literary sources, tracking them down in real life, documenting their present conditions, talking to people who lived or live there, owners of such establishments, and service providers like cooks and gofers, who might as well be rich repositories of tales that go back to the hey days of mess baris.

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