For those who have grown up in Old Dhaka, it is a place that holds the best memories of one's life. It's vibrant culture and old world charm has captured the hearts of many, especially those who have seen it in its past splendour.
Purana Dhaka is a symbol of old-fashioned, restful living in peace and harmony. Foods like 'Kachhi Biryani' 'Nanna Biryani', 'Haji Byryani', 'Paneer Bakarkhani' are synonymous with Old Dhaka.
For artists Old Dhaka has been a treasure trove - with its quaint lanes and Moghal architecture and a timeless warmth that has been captured again and again on canvas.
Talking to artists - senior and junior gives an idea of the things that have stayed on in their consciousness and invariably found their way into their works.
Rafiqun Nabi went to Pogos High School in Victoria Park. It is an old school, established in 1848. In fact the entire area housed other famous schools such as St Gregory's, Jubilee School and St Xavier's School, "There was also Collegiate High School" remembers Nabi, "Qayyum Bhai had begun Art School, which was also located there. There was also The National Medical School, Mukul Cinema Hall, now Azad Cinema Hall." It was started by Mukul Babu and Rub Babu. "They showed a lot of good films there, mainly Bangla films but also foreign films such as those by Kourosawa. At that time I was in class 8 or 9. The Bazar, bank area, included the State Bank and the Central Bank. From this point other areas such as Islampur, Patwatully, Lalbagh, Gandaria developed. Wari and Gendaria were the homes of the affluent. The zamindars and judges lived here. Here was also the huge factory of Jogesh Chandra's medicine Shadhana.. In the shools where we studied were the children of the well-to-do , who had not then as yet fled to safety in India. In the 50s, they slowly departed. Most of the teachers were Hindus.”
Nabi talks about Sadarghat which was another world in itself. It was where steamers with wheels could be seen. "There was a bus service that carried small buses past Patwatully, Chawk Bazar to New Dhaka—on the other side of the rail line," recalls Nabi. "The bus service would return via Nawabpur. The Fulbaria station is now what we know as Bongo Bazar. The Hatirpul station went by Tejgaon. Behind the Shahid Minar, and past the Enginering University the road was then a railway line. The road went off to Tongi, Hatirpool was there to cross the rail line below. People also believe that the elephants of the nawabs went by this Hatirpool.
Qayyum Chowdhury adds that he came to Dhaka in 1948. "I wanted to enrol into Dhaka Art College." "The rail line that Nabi talked about—one portion was based on Sadarghat, Old Court House Street and from Nawabpur began the railway crossing.
"At that time the new Dhaka that we know was only fields. It was like a village," says the celebrated artist.
Qayyum lived in Shiddeshari and recalls the day to day life in this charming part of town: "One could get a bus from Purana Paltan turning. One had to walk some of the way. Horse driven carriages ran. When women went by rickshaw, the rickshaw was always covered by a sari. This was a sort of “purdah”.
"Qamrunessa School was then at Hatkhola. If the girls went by carriage, they sometimes peeped through the wooden shutters. The main part of Dhaka at that time was around Sadarghat. The court, English Road were found there. When Gulistan cinema house was being built, the Fulbaria station was a busy part of the town bubbling with activity. At 8pm we would return home walking to Shideshari. We watched plays at the Nawab Ali Institute were stage plays. There we saw Sikander Abu Jafar's 'Sirajuddaula'. This was in the mid 60s. Dhaka has a history of 400 years—and goes back to the days of the Moghul rulers. Ahsan Manzil, Islampur, Maulvi Bazar are all part of that period.
“Sadarghat had a beautiful walk. Buriganga was then a clear and calm river. One could see the bottom, if one were travelling to Keraniganj. Often we kept company with Zainul Abedin, when he went on his boat trips. The paddled boats would call here. The steamers had quaint names like 'Kiwi'. There were many good restaurants there, like the 'Riverview Café'. There were also cinema cabins. This was like 'Rupmahal' , 'Shabistan' and 'The House of English Movie'. The Anglo-Indians came for the English films during the morning show. Most of the workers of the vast network of the railway were Anglo Indians. On the road that went by the Telephone Office were their quarters. Nearby was the Ritz restaurant, next to the Britannia where the Anglo Indians gathered. They played music and danced morning and evening. Now this community has moved overseas. The boarding houses like “Beauty Boarding” were also cultural centres.
Artist Nisar and his family used to live in a colony near Dhakeshwari Mandir. It was near the Engineering University Quarter. "In the '65 war we dug trenches in this field", says Nisar. "Near the pond were huge rain trees. When it rained heavy, baby eagles and chicks of crows would fall on the ground and I at the age of four would take great pleasure in bandaging the young birds up.
Behind were Lal Bagh and Dhakeshwari Colony. Till China Building we had the area to play to ourselves. At China building we could get fine marbles to play with. We had tops to twirl as well as fine kites to play with. This was a centre for artisans skilled in making toys. They would make fine bangles too. Many of the vendors may have come from Bihar.
"People like Quamrul Hassan came to our house to make posters during the pre-Liberation time, paper cones full of scrumptious food used to arrive at a certain part of the house, which was hidden away from obvious notice—to carry on with the anti-government work.
At the Pilkhana Gate, during the 'Gono Andolan” and the “Six point Demand” we had this house near the PilKhana to make the large banners. Hidden away was a space, which was not easily discovered—where the large paintings were executed in secrecy. This was during the sixties.
Some of the foods that Nissar recalls include 'bundia' 'keema puri', 'tikia kabab', 'sutli kabab', 'borhani', 'kalya', 'shoal fish kabab'.
"My early years were spent in Puaran Dhaka", says Ranjit Das. "Everyone's early years influences him deeply. I enjoy both urban and rural life. My early memories consist of the festivals. 'Pahela Baishak , flying kites and 'Pujas' plus the two 'Eids' and 'Muharram' were elements one cannot delete from the mind. It's all part and parcel of our happy, carefree days of childhood. The Chawk Bazar rutis were like sculptures. There were the forms of alligators and lions. Today, in modern art, we see giant-sized burgers. During 'Sehri' there was singing and people going from door to door. Drums were played, in the process. In the month of 'Paush' there was the kite festival. Each one tried to cut and collect as many kites as possible. It was called 'Ghuri- Kata Kati.” As my younger brother stays there, it is natural that I should visit the place from time to time. He lives in Shakhari Bazaar. They make the bangles from sea shells, which come from Sri Lanka. The craftsmen here cut out jewellery from the shells. They make necklaces, bangles and earrings. Earlier on, in Tanti Bazar , as also here, one got chokers, 'balis” of rose and geometrical patterns. Silver and gold craftsmen used to thrive here 30 years ago.
Music was a family tradition for Ranjit; all his brothers and sisters took an active part in musical programmes.
"I feel that Puran Dhaka, as a heritage must be preserved at all costs, and elements like high-rise buildings should be avoided—if possible and probable" says Ranjit. "We have many mosques, and temples and homes of the well-to do —which are only collapsing relics due to lack of care."
Talking about Puran Dhaka, painter Queenie says that people who have homes there do not usually wish to leave their premises. “For them the neighbours are like a family. Whenever they want, they drop in, and make themselves at home—there is not the need of prior phoning" she says.
“They tend to give a lot of importance to food," she adds "In the new part of Dhaka, in Dhanmondi for instance, one is lucky to get even a cup of tea, especially at the houses of the well to do.
"For them guests are blessings. They love to entertain these visitors with all their heart. Their traditional food, as we know is cheese Bakarkhani –which has come down from the time of the Turks in the Indian Subcontinent. Biryani, 'Mansur mithai' and Halim are well-known products of this area. It is from here that the 'Nihari' has developed too.
Dhaka grew bit by bit since the sixties. From Elephant Road, one got New Elephant Road. A road went from New Market past Hathir Pool. It even crossed the Airport Road. What goes past the Science Laboratory, got the name New Elephant Road. Artist Abul Barq Alvi has witnessed these changes while growing up.
"We used to go for outdoor painting in the area of the 'Boro Katra' and 'Choto Katra'. There was a 'ghat' where one witnessed goods being loaded and unloaded around the Buriganga River.
Instead of trucks, boats were the means of transportation of goods and men. These boats would go by Buriganga and Sitalakhya. It was from here that products ended up in the markets all over Dhaka. There was also the rail line which was as it is today. Traffic jams were unheard of in those days.
“Life in Puran Dhaka is still very vibrant. Each person knows the next individual. This phenomenon does not exist in New Dhaka."