It was about 11 am on a Thursday when I got down from the bus; it was an hour long journey in the humid heat of mid-April, and I had forgotten my umbrella. As I walked along Tala Bridge underneath the sweltering sun, I finally arrived at the long stretch of asphalt, almost empty and silent. Located in the colonial old Kolkata area of Baghbazar, Galiff Street (during the weekdays) is just similar to any other street of Kolkata! Running parallel to the Circular Canal, the road spans about 750 m, ending at a barrage which controls the flow of the canal to the Ganges. Mixed-use buildings (with shops on the ground floor and residential above) spans throughout one side, and the Bagbazar Tram Depot sits quietly by the road, adding more drama to the same. On the side overlooking the canal, the government has created a series of single-storeyed establishments for the EWS (economically weaker sections) community which houses about 30 families in dark single room units.
As I walked down the street, I encountered kids running cycle tires with sticks on the empty road, and streaks of bright light from the welding shops! The asphalt of the road interrupted by tram tracks was emitting heat, and I decided to study the place over a cup of tea from a roadside tea stall! A big banyan loomed like a gigantic umbrella and humanity thrived silently in its cool shade! There is a silent charm in looking at a building when it’s empty, stripped off its users and all forms of life! The feeling was similar; the bare road with the occasional turbulence of a car passing by or the lazy speed of a cyclist, and the joyful shouts of the kids looked enchanting. The place felt nascent, stripped off its glamour and glory, almost abandoned. Having spent two hours, I decided to come back on the following Sunday!
At around eight am on Sunday, my friends were standing astounded at the entrance of the street. It was jostling with people with hardly any space to go through. I felt a strange contentment; Galiff Street is supposed to be a place filled with people, a crowded and excited mass of population busy in dealing with their call for passion! It is the largest pet market in South Asia after all!
The original pet market was located at Hatibagan, a prominent location in North Kolkata, but it was shifted to Galiff Street because of the growing popularity and overflowing crowds of pet lovers, hobbyists, photographers and story hunters alike! It is located very close to Shyambazar crossing and is accessible through road as well as the Ganges. The rhythm is akin to the Bengali ‘haat’ in which the market comes to life only one day a week, and people from all around West Bengal as well as Bangladesh comes to visit. The street remains closed on all Sundays, bypassing the traffic through a parallel road running through the other side of the canal, but trams do operate, posing a serious problem for the market proceedings and customer convenience.
The market starts around 4:30 in the morning, with sellers coming and setting up their stock before that. Few of the owners are local residents, the majority traveling with their ‘commodities’ to the location. Products range from pets to plants and all accessories necessary for their maintenance. One gets to choose from the variety of puppies to a wide range of birds and the widest collection of fishes and exotic water pets; chicks, ducklings, pigeons as well as rabbits, guinea pigs and white rats are available and up for sale, not all of the trade being strictly legal! Cages, aquariums, and all other kinds of pet accessories including animal food and medicines, pesticides, as well as guidance books are up for sale. However, if you happen to be one of those selected few aiming to grab an exotic animal friend such as a snake, or a spider, this market will disappoint you!
Having known all of that, you may ask where the catch is for an architect (or for any people for the argument). The nature of the street oscillates in a weekly rhythm, portraying two distinct behaviors. During normal days, one may pass through easily without the slightest hint of what the street actually is. On Sundays however, the image is completely different! And such a case with changing the behavioral pattern and street characteristics is a perfect case study of how a single street can handle two different roles, with one being an excessive stressful situation as the overall footfall during Sundays far exceeds the threshold for which the road has been designed. Such a situation also exemplifies instances where the design of a public marketplace needs to be incorporated into the design of a street. In this unique case, Galiff Street identifies primarily as a pet marketplace, and its function as a path of communication turns secondary, even though it is a road changing to a marketplace for only once a week.
We differentiated the user group into three different categories- the seller, the buyer and the residents of the street. In a narrow subset, a part of the seller identifies as residents as well. The most common thoughts that surfaced when we took the collective words of sellers and buyers into account is the problem of space, sanitation and drinking water! With increasing population, the entire stretch of the street is turning to be insufficient for all sellers to comfortably display their stock, with incidents like packing cages with animals beyond their comfort limit turning up too often. Complaints about the absence of any proper sanitation facility were common, with repeated mentions of the absence of a toilet near the street being constant. Overcrowding led to claustrophobia for many consumers, and the demand of an organized framework for comfortable marketing experience was high.
The residents of the street clearly mention problems of smell, and improper sanitation after the Sunday market; however they are happy to have been an integral part of the legacy that is Galiff Street.
On some lucky days, one can experience the rare pleasure of a live hen-fight organized by the local slum dwellers a further bit away from the market! The enigma turns explosive, with people bidding for their favorite animal, and placing their bids for them. A sharp crescent-shaped knife is attached to the claws of the hen, and they are made to fight with each other! I was quite lucky to witness the same, and the adrenaline was high.
The unconventional setting of this place makes it an attraction for those in search of good times and stories! Though this place needs a strict market framework and a sanitation update, it nonetheless continues to satisfy the endless rush of pet lovers! This is one of those many examples where the absence of a built form leads to the space reshaping itself to fit the need. The ambiance of this place is highly similar to that of a typical Indian fish market; a bustling crowd busy with their own transaction of pets accompanied by the overall sound of the busy market, this place surely captures your whims and fancies and turns you to an animal lover even if you’re not! So, if you are in Kolkata anytime soon, and can wake up early on a Sunday, I suggest you take the tram to Baghbazar! Who knows, you may return with a little furball!!!
Shubhayan Modak is a graduate architect from Dept. of Architecture, Town & Regional Planning, Indian Institute of Engineering Science & Technology, Shibpur. He is the co-founder and executive editor of Sthapatya that aims at raising architectural awareness amongst the common public by using local language and colloquial glyphs. Currently working as a consulting design journalist based at Kolkata, he is passionate about visiting places and exploring the local rituals, cultures, traditions, and people. He has served as the Convenor & Editor-in-chief of Indian Arch ’16, the annual student’s journal of National Association of Students of Architecture, India and has won multiple awards for his articles. He was recently awarded the A3F Architectural Journalism Award on November ’17 at Chandigarh for his contributions towards the growth of design journalism in India. Have a look at his works here.