The Maidan (literally open field) is the largest urban park in Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal. It is a vast stretch of field and home to numerous play grounds, including the famous cricketing venue Eden Gardens, several football stadia, and Kolkata Race Course. Maidan is dotted with several statues and pieces of architecture, most notable being the Victoria Memorial. Due to the freshness and greenery it provides to the metropolis, it has been referred to as the "lungs of Kolkata". Maidan is a property of the Indian Army, and hosts the Eastern zone high command of the Indian Army in Fort William. The Maidan stretches from as far north as the Raj Bhavan building in Esplanade and as far south as the National Library on Belvedere Rd. in Alipore. The wide field stretches from the Hoogly River on the west to the Victoria Memorial on the east. It is a historical and cultural center of Kolkata as well as a center of leisure and entertainment for Calcuttans.
In 1758, one year after their decisive win in Battle of Plassey, the British East India Company commenced construction of the new Fort William in the center of the village Gobindapur. The inhabitants of the village were compensated and provided with land in Taltala, Kumartuli and Shovabazar. The fort was completed in 1773. “The tiger-haunted jungle which cut off the village of Chowringhee from the river was cleared, and gave way to the wide grassy stretch of the Maidan of which Calcutta is so proud. The formation of this airy expanse and the filling up of the creek which had cut off the settlement in the south, led the European inhabitants to gradually forsake the narrow limits of the old palisades. The movement towards Chowringhee had already been noticeable as early as 1746.”
In 1909, H.E.A. Cotton wrote, “The great Maidan presents a most refreshing appearance to the eye, the heavy night dew, even in the hot season, keeping the grass green. Many of the fine trees with which it was once studded were blown down in the cyclone of 1864. But they have not been allowed to remain without successors, and the handsome avenues across the Maidan still constitute the chief glory of Calcutta. Dotting the wide expanse are a number of fine tanks, from which the inhabitants were content in former days to obtain their water-supply.”
The Maidan was initially developed as a 5 square kilometre parade ground for the forces. While the Europeans moved to the area around the Maidan, the Indians moved away from the area. The richer families such as the Debs moved to Sobhabazar, the Tagores to Pathuriaghata and Jorasanko, and the Ghosals to Bhukailash (Khidirpur). The Maidan has been with the army since it was developed, they are the owners, but administration of the Maidan was one on the long list of duties of the police. Thieves, both Indian and European, were there as early as the 1860s. Legally also, the fort and the Maidan were excluded from the city as per Act 16 of 1847.
Around the Maidan
While the core of the Maidan has remained untouched except for roads and tram tracks across it, the surrounding areas have seen a lot of construction activity. In 1882, Calcutta Tramways Corporation introduced steam-powered trams across the Maidan from Chowringhee to Kalighat and Khidirpur. In 1889, came the electric trams.
"The oldest road on the Maidan is the Course, extending from the ‘Cocked hat’ in the north to the Khidirpur bridge. The ‘broad gravelled walk’ on the west side of that portion is the Red Road, constructed in 1820. To the south of the fort is the Ellenborough Course, meant for horse exercises, and towards the east is the Race Course, started in 1819. That was the scenario a century back."
The Raj Bhawan was built in 1803, the 48 metres high Octerlony Monument in 1848, the museum was started in the Asiatic Society in 1814 but shifted to the present site as Indian Museum in 1887, St. Paul’s Cathedral was built between 1839 and 1847, it was consecrated in 1874, and the Victoria Memorial came up in 1921. On Council House Street, at one corner of the Maidan was the long-defunct Fort William College, which played a pioneering role in the development of many of the Indian languages, particularly Bengali.
Chowringhee, part of the north-south lifeline of Kolkata came up with the Maidan along what was the old road made by the Sabarna Roy Choudhurys, the old zemindars of Calcutta, from Barisha, where the junior branch resided, to Halisahar, which was the seat of the senior branch. The Tollygunj-Esplanade section of Metro Railway took a little over seven years to build disturbing activity on the eastern end of the Maidan The stations bordering on the Maidan as one travels from the south are Maidan, Park Street and Esplanade.
The Maidan was dotted with statues of British governor generals and other eminent personalities of the British Raj – Lord Curzon, Kitchener, Roberts, Minto, Northbrook, Canning and others who had known Kolkata well. Two or three of them were put down in the first few years of Indian independence in 1947 but it was not until 1983 that the last sixteen were removed. Over a period of time statues of Indians filled up many of the vacant plinths or plots – Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Mohan Roy, Chittaranjan Das, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sri Aurobindo, Matangini Hazra, Pritilata Waddedar, Indira Gandhi, Gostho Pal and others. At the north-east corner of the Esplanade stands a statue of Vladimir Lenin, set up to celebrate the centenary of his birth.
Geoffrey Moorhouse in 1978 presents a vivid description of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) rally on the Maidan, “They generally start about tea time, they rarely finish before nine o’clock… they are masterly exhibitions of organisation… The platform is high so that everyone on it will be visible at a great distance, and it is large enough to accommodate twenty or thirty… it is illuminated with spotlights, it flutters with red flags, and it has huge red backcloth upon which Lenin is straining resolutely forward from a thicket of banners. Everything is perfectly under control… as they sit there upon the ground, row after attentive row of them, a brigade of young women to the fore… distantly across the Maidan people have climbed trees and others are packed standing on top of the Esplanade tram shelters… there must be a hundred thousand here altogether… the leaders come through the guard of honour to the platform…it is only when Promode Dasgupta and Hare Krishna Konar are having their say… theirs is the oratory that sends men delirious with dreams, that can set a rabble to a march of destruction… when the speeches are done, the leaders begin to sing the Internationale… all over the crowd torches are swiftly lit and held high in flaring salute…”
The Maidan has been the venue for major political meetings and rallies of all political parties. However, cleaning up the Maidan after a rally is over has become a sore point. The army authorities have decided to levy a caution money from organisers of the rallies and an undertaking to clear the litter in a bid to make the Maidan pollution-free.
Book fair controversy
The Maidan had been host to numerous fairs and exhibitions – Kolkata Book Fair, Handloom Expo, Industrial India Trade Fair, Travel and Tourism Fair, Vidyasagar Mela, Lexpo and so on. One of the reasons is that nobody has taken the lead to develop an exhibition ground similar to say Delhi’s Pragati Maidan in Kolkata. With thousands of people attending the fairs, the question of pollution came up and public interest litigations were filed. The army authorities were alerted and they too started pressurising for the shifting of the fairs to some other site, possibly on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Even the book fair, which was thought of as a cultural event, came under fire. One visitor quipped in 2003: “It’s not the Kolkata Book Fair anymore. It’s the Big Bazar, and the trend is here to stay.” When in 2003 the 17th Industrial India Trade Fair with 700 exhibitors came to a close it had drawn in over 800,000 visitors and the commerce and industries minister, Nirupam Sen announced the effort to construct a permanent fair ground off the EM Bypass. He confirmed that the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, one of the co-organisers of the fair, has expressed its willingness to be a part of the project.
When the curtains came down on the 29th Kolkata Book Fair in 2004, with a record footfall of 2,475,000 (nearly two and half million) the organisers announced that they had already applied for permission to hold the fair the following year to the police commissioner and defence authorities.
In 2005, The Statesman, a leading Kolkata newspaper wrote, “The Kolkata Book Fair may well have had its last outing on the Maidan… In recent years, almost every part of the Maidan has been used to host all manners of melas and fairs. This, obviously, can’t continue… Our courts of justice are now taking cognizance. The military too has woken up to its environmental responsibility. Even business houses have apparently become concerned. At this rate, it might seem the lungs of Kolkata, and of the people who inhabit it, still have some hope. With both the chief minister and the chief secretary assuring that it was the last year that fairs were to be held at the Maidan, as the permanent trade fair complex along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, thereafter the venue for trade fairs, the Kolkata Book Fair and other fairs, was yet to be completed, the army authorities allowed the Book Fair to be held on the Maidan for the last time in 2006.
The drama to organise the book fair on the Maidan started again in 2007 but Kolkata High Court gave the Kolkata Book Fair its marching orders from the Maidan. The Book Fair was finally held in the Yuba Bharati Krirangan in 2007. Other fairs were shifted out earlier. However, there still are people who think that the Kolkata Book Fair cannot be properly be organised, except on the Maidan.
The Maidan in the Bengali psyche
When Bethune (1801 – 1851), set up in 1859 the girls’ school that later bore his name, the noted Bengali poet of the period, Ishwar Chandra Gupta (1812 – 1859) focussed the spirit of public indignation as follows:
- jato chhunrigulo turi mere ketab hatey nichhey jabey,
- A B sikhey, bibi sejey, bilati bol kabei kabey;
- aar kichhu din thakrey bhai! pabei pabe dekhte pabe,
- apon hatey hankiye bogey, garer maatthey haoa khabey.
(When all the lasses have started learning the alphabet, picking up the book, feigning to be English ladies, they will definitely splash the tongue foreign; Brothers, wait for few more days! And you will be able to have a look, they will drive to the grounds of the fort for roaming around, commanding the rein.) 
People did not have to wait for long. After Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849 – 1925) taught his wife, Kadambari, horse-riding on the Maidan defying the conservative society of the time, Bengali society could never be the same again.
During the British Raj white soldiers were stationed in Fort William. When they came out on the Maidan for strolls, they used to kick Bengali boys they found on the Maidan. The Bengali boys were too timid to protest against it. Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (1872 – 1945) was deeply shocked at the cowardly behaviour of the youngsters. She introduced the Birastami brata as part of Durga Puja wherein youngsters took the oath to stand up bravely against all sorts of oppression. It subsequently inspired the youth of the country to lay down their lives in the freedom struggle.
Life on the maidan
The roads on the Maidan are dotted with tiny greenish bungalows (club houses) belonging to various sports clubs. There are numerous patches for playing. Some of the larger clubs occupy the fields with wooden galleries. The big three of Kolkata football, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting have a noticeable presence but there also are names with faded glory such as Rangers. Somewhere in between fit in organisations such as Kennel Club and Press Club. There also are lower order clubs, who do not have much of a following but have a noticeable contribution and sometimes spring a surprise – Wari, Aryans, Rajasthan and so on – and a host of office clubs.
Indian cricket began its long journey with a two-day match on the Maidan in January 1804 between old Etonians employed by the East India Company. World’s oldest hockey tournament, Beighton Cup was instituted in 1895, and is usually held on the Mohun Bagan ground in the Maidan. For the Indian Football Association, the Maidan has been the nerve centre.
The Maidan is not just cricket, football and hockey, apart of course from army parades. It is so many things to so many people. There are washermen who wash clothes and themselves in its ponds, shepherds tend their flocks, the health conscious citizens take their morning walks, the last vestiges of the horse-drawn hackney carriages ply on its fringes entertaining merry makers and businessmen make money. When Jamshedji Framji Madan entered the ‘bioscope’ scene in 1902, he began to screen films in tents one of which was set up on the Maidan. In Satyajit Ray’s film Jana Arayanya there is a shot showing two unemployed young men, observing the sprawling urban comedy around them on the Maidan, identify the typical office clerk in the crowd. He is presented in a long shot, puny against the towering though squalid cityscape, trudging home after a nine-to-five day. Life on the Maidan is the quintessence of life in Kolkata.
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