Kolkata’s Icon in Popular Culture

by Srilagna Majumdar

Some monuments manage to become landmarks. They become synonymous with the places where they are located. The Howrah Bridge in Kolkata has been a long-standing witness of the city’s historical years, both in the pre-Independence era when it was the national capital and also after the Independence. Besides, it has also earned its well-deserved place in the portrayal of the city and its popular culture through books, films and other forms of media.

In Popular Beliefs

Bridge without nuts and bolts- a miracle!
Hard to believe but true, the Howrah Bridge was built without the use of a single nut and screw to join the array of metallic structures making up the gigantic structure of the bridge. Instead, a piece of metal was used to connect two or more plates inserted through the hole in plates and pressed on the other side.

A suspended cantilever bridge

The Howrah Bridge is one of the oldest hanging bridges in the world with no pillars supporting its suspension over the Hooghly River. The bridge is, more specifically, a suspension type balanced cantilever bridge. Today, with nearly 100,000 vehicles and over 150,000 pedestrians passing by daily the Howrah Bridge is perhaps the busiest cantilever bridge in the world.

A bridge surviving several calamities-both natural and man made
The assembling period of the Howrah Bridge was fraught with problems. The bridge was considerably damaged by the great cyclone on 20 March 1874. A steamer named Egeria broke from her moorings and collided head-on with the bridge, sinking three pontoons and damaging nearly 200 feet of the bridge.  But the bridge survived all natural calamities and human tragedies. There is an interesting anecdote, “Even the revolutionary wing of the Anushilon Samity had made abortive attempts to destroy the bridge that served as a important connect for the Britishers.” When the bridge was still under construction, one of its huge plinths accidentally collapsed one night, resulting in tremors in and around Kolkata . In 1943, a number of bombs were dropped in Calcutta by the Japanese, but not a single one targeted the bridge! Even a few days back, a vessel collided with Howrah Bridge and caused some damage to the heritage structure. Yet it stands – it has done so for the last 75 years.

The extravagant and auspicious flower market
At the southeast end of the bridge is the colourful chaos of the the 130-year old Mullick Ghat Flower Market. Located on the bank of the Hooghly River, the flower market will stimulate all your senses with its stunning hues, the captivating fragrance of thousands of flowers, and the bustling crowd. It is said among the Bengalis that flower from this market is very holy, and therefore is used in auspicious occasions.

In Literature and Oral Tradition

Right from the beginning, the bridge inspired both awe and fascination.

A Limerick by Rabindranath Tagore

The Howrah Bridge moves like a gigantic scorpion,  
And Harrison Road follows it and proceeds along.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore had penned this limerick when the twin cities of Calcutta and Howrah were connected by a pontoon or floating bridge, a precursor of the present Howrah Bridge. In 1965, the bridge was officially renamed as the Rabindra Setu (setu meaning bridge) after the great Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel laureate and the founder of the Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan.

Howrah Bridge and Other Poems by James K. Baster

Source: amazon.com
Punarbashan by Sankha Ghosh

The Howrah Bridge holds the intangible above,
And below flows time immemorial.

Bengali poet Sankha Ghosh captures the flavor of the city, Kolkata, in the lines of his poem Punarbashan, which depicts the Howrah Bridge.
Story of a Steel Bridge: The Howrah Bridge –A Testimony of Indo British Co-operation in Engineering Field Edited by Partha Ghosh

The intent of writing this book was to promote further research on the history of the Howrah Bridge of Calcutta. The book contains details of design decisions taken, legal decisions, financial arrangements, construction details and construction challenges in the creation of the Howrah Bridge.

An emotion writ in Silver- TATA group

TATA features the bridge in its coffee table book. The Bridge was made out of 26, 500 tons of steels, a majority of which is a high tensile alloy known as Tiscom that was made and supplied by Tata Steel. 

Popular Bengali short oral poems bringing back historical incidents

Having been there for more than seven decades, the Howrah Bridge has witnessed some of the major historical events of the world, including the Second World War. A catchy Bengali poem says:

Sa re ga ma pa dha ni,
Bomb phelechey Japani,
Bomb er moddhe keute shaap,
British bole baap re baap!

Do re mi fa so la ti,
Japan has dropped bombs,
A cobra hides inside it,
The British freak out!’

English translation
In paintings

Invariably, the bridge stood in view of the water colour sketches of every school child studying in Calcutta and Howrah. Plus, it is also featured in elaborate drawings of artists who are mesmerized by the chant of the bridge as well as by the City of Joy.

On Movie Screens

The bridge has found its way into many films and books both in Bengal and elsewhere, depicted as a symbol of heritage, nostalgia or love. You will rarely find a movie filmed in Kolkata without a flattering shot of the iconic structure in all its glory.

Screen grab from the movie Howrah Bridge. Source: rediff.com

Howrah Bridge starring Madhubala is classic ;the plot focuses on Prem Kumar, a businessman from Rangoon, who travels to Calcutta to track down his brother’s murderers and recover a priceless family heirloom. In Calcutta, he is helped by Edna, a cabaret dancer who is related to the murderers. Thus, various shots of the bridge has been featured in this movie.

Howrah Bridge starring Madhubala and Ashok Kumar, full movie.
Poster of the movie. Source: rediff.com

Besides, it has featured in the films of Satyajit Ray, too. It has also appeared in several scenes of Ritwik Ghatak’s Bari Theke Paliye and Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Niche. The Bengali Night by Nicolas Klotz and City of Joy by Ronald Joffe, too, have featured this monumental steel structure.

Bari Theke Paliye, Ritwik Ghatak, full movie.
Neel Akasher Niche, Mrinal Sen, full movie.

The bridge has been shown in numerous films. Hers’s a list:
– Bimal Roy’s 1953 film Do Bigha Zamin
– Amar Jeet’s 1965 Teen Devian in 1965, 
Mrinal Sen‘s 1972 National Award winning Bengali film Calcutta 71 Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy its sequel in 1973, Padatik
Richard Attenborough‘s 1982 Academy Award winning film Gandhi
Goutam Ghose‘s 1984 Hindi film Paar
Subhrajit Mitra‘s 2008 Bengali film Mon Amour: Shesher Kobita Revisited
Mira Nair‘s 2006 film The Namesake
Blessy‘s 2008 Malayalam Film Calcutta News
Surya Sivakumar‘s 2009 Tamil film Aadhavan
Imtiaz Ali‘s 2009 Hindi film Love Aaj Kal
Abhik Mukhopadhyay‘s 2010 Bengali film Ekti Tarar Khonje
Sujoy Ghosh‘s 2012 Bollywood film Kahaani
Anurag Basu‘s 2012 Hindi film Barfi!
Riingo Banerjee‘s 2012 Bengali film Na Hannyate,
– Rana Basu’s 2013 Bengali film Namte Namte,
Ali Abbas Zafar‘s 2014 Hindi film Gunday and the
Dibakar Banerjee‘s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, 2015
Shoojit sircar‘s Piku, 2015
Garth Davis‘ Academy Award-nominated 2016 film Lion.

Poster of Anurag Basu’s 2012 Hindi film Barfi! Source: rediff.com
Poster of Mani Ratnam’s Yuva. Source: rediff.com

Much water has passed under it since then, but movie cameras still continue to find angles to the view, startling enough to return for more. However, in India’s popular cinematic imagination, the imposing structure has always evoked romance, thrill and awe!

The emotion behind the steel bridge

Featured in songs about love, failed love, city of Kolkata and about the emotion attached with the city and its heritage, the “Howrah Bridge” remains peerless as ever – a jewel in Kolkata’s crown.

Howrah Bridge – A Cultural Icon

If you happen to be in the vicinity at night, it is impossible to miss the sight of the brightly and colourfully lit up bridge as you enter the city of joy or leave it behind. The Howrah Bridge today is a proud symbol of Kolkata. It is often called the gateway to Kolkata and with good reason, as it connects the city with the Howrah Railway Junction. There is no other bridge in the country that has inspired poets, authors, filmmakers, artists and other creative people as this bridge has. Its beauty and innovations are truly amazing, making it evergreen!

Watch: Suno ji yeh Kalkatta hai! – song featuring Howrah Bridge,
and other Calcutta landmarks, from the movie Howrah Bridge, 1958.

Deccan Herald

1 thought on “HOWRAH BRIDGE”

  1. Very Well written and captured every mood of our great howrah bridge.. I read somewhere that every passenger who travels through Howrah railway station has to pay a fee ( very nominal) towards maintainence of this great and beautiful bridge.. even today the same is applicable and rule has not changed.

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