TOKYO-2016 Book / Documnetry

Life and legacy of handpulled rickshaw

  • Prize
    Silver in Book (Series Only)/Documnetry
  • Photographer
    Suvomoy Nandy

The presence of the hand-pulled rickshaw even today in Calcutta perhaps encapsulates the existential crisis that defines the city. It is a metropolis that still perpetuates its colonial legacy in its distinctive architecture, struggles to keep pace with the rest of the country and is marked by disruption and chaos. The rickshaw, therefore, is symbolic of the city striving to come to terms with the pressing concerns of a modern society. Since the end of the 19th century, hand-pulled rickshaws have been plying the streets of Calcutta. They have witnessed to and remained an integral part of Calcutta’s socio-economic evolution for over 100 years. By the time the wooden version of the Japanese rickshaw made its way to Calcutta, the then capital of British India, in the 1890s, the city’s aristocratic families and zamindars (landlords) used to ride palanquins. The man-pulled, embellished palanquin was a symbol of the elite’s socio-economic status. Soon, hand-pulled rickshaw became the middle class people’s answer to palanquins. In Calcutta, a rickshawwallah’s day starts early in the morning at 5 o’clock and ends by late in the evening through a schedule of strenuous labor at daytime. They deliver goods from one place to the other, carry children to schools and take them back to homes, and carry women to nearby local markets. After a short rest in the afternoon, they continue plying the streets and lanes of north and central Calcutta till late evening.