Mullick Ghat is a name Kolkata and Travellers to Kolkata are well acquainted with. This century-old heritage flower market has appeared in countless publications- from Nat Geo to local travel & culture blogs. Spring lives here forever and riots of colours at this place can make Holi at Vrindavan a shade paler. The location is also awe-inspiring. The market is spread about a kilometre by the ghats of Hoogly (a tributary of River Ganges). It starts from Mullick Ghat pumping station on Strand Road and goes deep under the southeast end of Howrah Bridge and is hailed as the largest wholesaler flower marked in Asia. You can check the location on Google Map here.
Needless to say, the bustling outdoor market is a photographers’ paradise. The River, the Bridge, the Market- all three together makes you feel like a child in a candy store. Not only the Desi ‘Us’, the adventurous foreign travellers often hunt this place with a camera to shoot ‘real India’ . The fascinatingly colourful flower market exists virtually 24 hours a day. At daybreak, wholesalers arrive with huge consignments of seasonal flowers that are then auctioned to retailers. About 2000 vendors set up their stalls every day. Many of them live in makeshift shacks, bathing in the river with stunning views of Howrah Bridge. If you shift your glances towards the ghats, in many ways those will remind you of Varanasi. People bathing at the ghats, the local wrestlers practising, the priests performing rituals- give you glimpses of life in Varanasi, the holy city by the river.
So why am I writing about this already much-talked-about wholesale flower market? 1. I am documenting my experience of the first visit. 2. More than the market itself, I was intrigued by the flower vendors and this is an attempt to portray their profession through portraits.
I have already given you the shameful fact that in the four decades I lived in Kolkata, I have never been to Mullick Ghat. I had seen stunning photos and whenever I had expressed a wish, I had been discouraged by friends(?) who frequent the market to bulk purchase flowers for Durga Pujo, Kali Pujo etc. “ Jash na, bhishon nongra aar bhishon gondho! lok gijgij korche. Tui parbi na.”(Don’t even think of going, the place is filled with garbage, gives out horrible stench and is terribly congested. Not your cup of tea!)
I think it’s “Tui parbina” that ultimately pushed me to join in a walk arranged by Sahapedia during the recent month-long India Heritage Walk Festival. The Universe immediately gifted me with none other than the Lord of the Walks, Manjit Singh Hoonjan as our walk leader. Manjit is a well-known name in street photography circle in India and beyond. He had set up Calcutta Photo Tours and had introduced the concept of photo walks to Kolkata much much before city exploring walks mushroomed around us. He has been leading exclusive Kolkata photo walks for travellers for a decade now and the walks give you unforgettable experiences. His Howrah Flower Fest is one of the most popular walks and Sahapedia had collaborated with him for the walk festival.
On a Sunday morning in February, about 25 Kolkatans of all age had gathered before the pumping station gate. The market unofficially starts from the foot of the small bridge, just a few steps away from the gate. It officially starts after crossing the bridge. The vendors sit on the entire length of the bridge too. They are quite used to such walk participants and photographers. Although not very keen on being photographed, they would not say anything or behave badly. It, of course, hampers their business and we should be very understanding about that.
Tip 1 : Don’t hover around them, click pictures without disturbing them and move on.
After briefing us, Manjit had told us to explore the market at our pace and to meet after an hour at the side steps of the Howrah bridge for de-briefing and group photo. Me being me, it took me less than 5 minutes to lose view of the group and get lost. But I was too dazzled by the colours everywhere to be worried.
Tip 2: It is a female-friendly market. If you can not find your ways through the market, just ask someone for guidance
The atmosphere was hectic. But what caught my eyes was the way the male flower vendors carried their flowers. They were rough men, but they held their petals in feminine ways with kind, gentle grip . This masculine-feminine contrast was really intriguing and I tried to capture that in the portraits I shot.The other aspect that shook me was their naked faces with empty stares. Neither happy, nor sad, they are waiting forever for the next customer. The utter hopelessness was heart-wrenching. Psychologists often urge us to use flowers to brighten our days. Then why thousands of flowers fail to make their caretakers cheerful?! -asked the voice inside me. Well, the answer was kinda obvious! My camera did salute their grit. A series of stirring images against a raw environment is my way of celebrating the humans of Mullick Ghat. From here onwards, the photographs talk.