36 Hours in Kolkata, India

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CONTEMPORARY narratives of resurgent India frequently sidestep the city of Kolkata, also known as Calcutta, the capital of the state of West Bengal and the seat of power during the British Raj. The city's political clout has long since shifted to New Delhi, and its economic might more recently to Mumbai. Yet its reputation as an intellectual and cultural hub still lingers -- five Nobel Prize winners are associated with the city, including the economist Amartya Sen and the poet-novelist-painter-songwriter Rabindranath Tagore. But like the rest of India, this clamorous yet charming city is changing: in 2011, the democratically elected Communist government of West Bengal was voted out of power after 34 years. For many Bengalis, this political transition reflects a desire to catch up with the rest of India. Visitors exploring Kolkata today are in a position to glimpse an emerging urban modernity but still have the opportunity to explore the city's rich past, which, for now, remains unavoidable at every step.

Friday

3 p.m.1. THE SEAT OF POWER

Known during the colonial era as Dalhousie Square, B.B.D. Bagh sits at the political heart of Kolkata. Sidestep the food vendors selling omelets and dosas to the area's office workers from their sidewalk perches, and admire the colonial buildings where British commerce and administrative functions were once carried out. The most prominent of these is the Writers Building, on the north side of the square, a columnated red brick edifice constructed in 1776 that serves as the seat of the state government, and is now in the hands of the Trinamool Congress party.

5:30 p.m.2. GALLERY STOP

In the early part of the 20th century, the style of art known as the Bengal School achieved national prominence from its base in Kolkata, exemplified by the works of the painter Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore's nephew. These muted watercolors, a response to the purported materialism of Western art, emphasized spiritual and natural themes. Though the influence of the school has long since dissipated, Kolkata remains an important locus for Indian art. CIMA, or Center of International Modern Art (Sunny Towers, 43 Ashutosh Chowdhury Avenue; 91-33-2485-8717; cimaartindia.com), a sleek, modern space in South Kolkata, is one of the best places to view it. Recent exhibitions have shown the art of Shreyasi Chatterjee and Paresh Maity, among others.

7:30 p.m.3. A FULL PLATE

Traditionally, the best way to experience Bengali food, marked by an enthusiasm for river fish and the sharp kick of mustard oil, was inside a Bengali home. If you can swing an invitation to dinner, take advantage of it. But with many women refusing to spend so much time in the kitchen, there are an increasing number of restaurants serving Bengali fare. Of these, it's tough to beat Kewpie's (2 Elgin Lane; 91-33-2486-1600), on the eclectically decorated ground floor of a residential bungalow. Come hungry, order the mangshor thali (620 rupees, or $11.50 at 54 rupees to the dollar) and receive your choice of fish, a vegetable and a meat curry, along with rice, dal, dessert and more.

10 p.m.4. LOUNGE THEN DANCE

Late nights aren't the same in Kolkata after the recent imposition of a midnight curfew, but dedicated partyers now get an earlier start. Settle into a corner seat at Plush (Astor Hotel, 15 Shakespeare Sarani; 91-33-2282-9957; astorkolkata.com), with a cover charge of 1,000 rupees for two, applicable to drinks and food. You can enjoy a cocktail while the soundtrack shifts from house music to Western club hits and the dance floor begins to fill.

Saturday

8 a.m.5. WALKING HISTORY

Economically, Kolkata thrived during the colonial period, with many Bengalis amassing great wealth through trade and service in the colonial administration. A walk through the narrow streets of the city's Sovabazar neighborhood provides a glimpse at the ancestral estates, which range in style from Islamic to Baroque and beyond, that emerged during this period. There are also print shops, jewelry workshops and other enterprises. Rely on an informative guided tour from Calcutta Walks (91-98301-84030; calcuttawalks.com), which charges 1,500 rupees a person, to make the most of your venture. Afterward, taste another side of Bengali food at Bhojohori Manna, attached to the renovated Star Theater (79/3/4 Bidhan Sarani; 91-33-2533-8519; bhojohorimanna.com). If it's available, try the super jumbo ilish barishali (225 rupees), a thick steak of this local fish served in mustard sauce.

2 p.m.6. KAFFEEKLATSCH

Book stalls stuffed with used textbooks and paperbacks line College Street in front of the University of Calcutta, as you make your way to the historic Indian Coffee House (15 Bankim Chaterjee Street; 91-33 2237-5649). Here, in an airy second-floor hall, generations of Bengali students and intellectuals have engaged in adda, or spirited discussion, over cups of coffee (15 rupees). Even though the Communists are out of power, leftist thought remains strong here; on a recent visit, among the slogans in English and Bengali on a whiteboard on the wall, someone had written: "Capital is not in crisis. Capitalism is the crisis."

5 p.m.7. SHOPPING TIME

While shopping-mall culture has emerged in the city's newer neighborhoods in the south and the east, the sprawling New Market (Lindsay Street) still surges with crowds. The name refers to the covered S. S. Hogg Market, but informally it also refers to the shopping arcades surrounding the complex. Shop for pashmina shawls and curios, admire richly detailed saris and other fabrics, or simply marvel at the range of items on offer here, from flowers to feather-dusters to foodstuffs. If you need a snack, head to Nizam's (23-24 Hogg Street; 91-98-3619-4669). It is said to be the progenitor of the kathi roll -- a paratha (flatbread) that's cooked in an egg, then rolled up around mutton or chicken spiced with fresh lime juice, red onion, finely chopped green chili, and salt -- that is now found in cities across India (35 rupees).

8 p.m.8. TOUCHPAD DINING

Take a breather from Bengali food at Bistro by the Park (2A, Middleton Row; 91-33-2229-6494), which opened in 2011 with a menu created by the British expat chef Shaun Kenworthy. The menu at this 50-seat restaurant arrives on iPads and features salads, pastas, pizzas, Southeast-Asian-influenced dishes and, in a concession to Bengali tastes, fish (here, bhetki) in mustard sauce. Dinner for two, including two glasses of Italian or Australian wine, is about 1,800 rupees.

10:30 p.m.9. ROCK 'N' ROLL

Park Street was once lined with clubs where one could hear jazz and other Western sounds, but since 1997, the city's rock music scene has been dominated by one spot: Someplace Else, inside the Park Hotel (17 Park Street; 91-33-2249-9000; theparkhotels.com/kolkata/kolkata.html). With brass lamps, iron railings and brick walls, the room nicely approximates a dingy pub (save for its location inside a boutique hotel). On a given night, the small, deep stage in the back of the room might host a talented cover band playing the Doors and Foreigner, or a rising Bengali act like Friends of Fusion.

Sunday

7 a.m.10. DIM SUM?

At its political and economic apex, Kolkata drew immigrants not just from elsewhere in India, but from around the world. Jewish, Armenian, Parsi and Chinese communities blossomed here. And while most are in steep decline, Sunday mornings provide a vivid (and tasty) opportunity to interact with the remnants of the city's Chinese population. Wake early and stop by Tiretta Bazar (the intersection of Chatawala Gali and Sun Yat Sen Streets), the city's old Chinatown, which springs to life at 6 a.m. with vendors -- interspersed with vegetable sellers -- spread out curbside dispensing steamed buns, dumplings, soups and other dim sum staples.

10 a.m.11. STATELY MONUMENT

Exchange the din of the city for relative serenity on the manicured grounds of the Victoria Memorial Hall (1 Queen's Way; 91-33-2223-1890; victoriamemorial-cal.org); entry 150 rupees for non-Indian citizens. Built over 15 years in the first part of the 20th century, the domed white marble hall serves as a reminder of the grandiosity behind the British colonial project. Stroll along the lawns and spot egrets and parrots in flight (along with young couples canoodling on benches in the shade) before entering the memorial. Inside, you'll find colonial-era lithographs and oil paintings, and an extensive local history display, running from the city's origins to the present.

IF YOU GO

On bustling Park Street, the Park Hotel (17 Park Street, 91-33-2249-9000; theparkhotels.com/kolkata/kolkata.html) maintains a fashionable contemporary feel (and remains a hotbed of night life) after four decades. The hotel's communal areas host an impressive display of contemporary Bengali art. Rooms start at 9,000 rupees (about $167); discounts available online.

An oasis of calm close to the Rabindra Sarovar Metro Station in South Kolkata, the Bodhi Tree (48/44 Swiss Park; 91-33-2424-6534; bodhitreekolkata.com) offers six themed rooms around a communal space that serves as garden, art gallery and cafe. Rooms start at 2,200 rupees.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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