Sandesh: The Emergence of Sweet Shops and the Cultural Transformation of 19th-Century Calcutta

19 August 2018

In a recent exhibition entitled The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas, the writer Amit Chaudhuri had on display a series of photographs---portraits of the founders of some of Kolkata's iconic sweet shops.

An article in Scroll highlights the significance of these sweet shops in 19th century Calcutta, at a time when Bengal was the seat of cultural, social, and intellectual reforms (the Bengali Renaissance).

“By the middle of the 19th century, Calcutta had metamorphosed into El Dorado – teeming with opportunities and overflowing with resources,” said Sanjeet Chowdhury, renowned photographer and food historian. Named the capital of British India in 1833, it was a powerful magnet that pulled thousands of people – from skilled artisans to wealthy landowners – who wanted to earn a living or build a legacy. The Moiras [a caste of traditional confectioners], from the surrounding districts, especially Hooghly, were no exception.

This new era of affluence resulted in increased patronage of sweet shops, which began to innovate and create several new varieties of sandesh. Some of the biggest names in sandesh, such as Bhim Chandra Nag, KC Das, Sen Mahasay, and Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy, were established during this time.

The Kolkata Moira’s true ingenuity was best appropriated in the creation of a mindboggling and unprecedented assortment of sandesh (such as the ones from Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy) unique to the city. As Krondl says, if there was one food that could represent the Bengal Renaissance, it was the sandesh, “the urban, artisanal sweet” made by confectioners in neighbourhood sweet shops.