Street games are going to give some serious competition to the Olympics.
The game starts a little late. I observe the patience and a slight smirk on Rajeev Chander, a local chaiwalla’s face, as he defeats his opponent at a game of chess. After finishing their day’s work, many carrom, chess and card game players come to Gariahat market in Kolkata during the evening. The players show up everyday without fail. Most of them are identified as regulars and are often members of groups that go by names such as 'Hatkhola Sabuj Patra’. You’re likely to see groups huddled outside on the streets on chairs and tables playing until midnight.
For people who do not know anything about Kolkata, the city is divided into three parts - north, south and central. Gariahat is located in the southern part of the city and is one of the most famous venues for carrom players. Many of these members have also participated in national level carrom championships. While age and caste is not a factor, gender does appear to play a role. There are mostly male players, playing on the street, all of whom belong to an exclusive club of players. Some claim they have occasionally seen a woman join in.
These street games have rules. For instance you can’t just stroll in and expect to join a table. You need to be a known individual, someone who’s most likely an existing member of the club. Unless of course you are the chess mastermind, Vishwanathan Anand. Many of the players from the Gariahat chess club are huge fans and would kill for an opportunity to play with him. What I find truly inspiring is how the players are indifferent to their surroundings. The sound of traffic, vehicular emissions and curious bystanders seem to go by unnoticed.
I was lucky to get a chance to speak to some of the players, though they remained focused on the game, keeping conversation to a bare minimum. While their eyes darted across the board in deep concentration, contemplating how to defeat their opponent, others silently watched and learned. Curious about these groups of people, I travelled to every part of Kolkata, documenting their life.
The ones who played cards were particularly paranoid about my presence. At first, I was confused by their obvious discomfort of having me hover around. By profession, I am a photographer and explained that I was only documenting the game for cultural purposes. I then realised that there was money involved and the card games were basically a form of gambling. Games involving gambling are illegal in the state of West Bengal. And they thought I was a spy for the police! You can imagine how fast I was thrown out of there.
After meeting groups in the south and central part of the city, I travelled to Raj Ballav Para, which was located in the northern part of Kolkata. All these groups across the city seemed to have a fixed system in place. There was an understanding amongst the locals that no one else could occupy the parts of the street where the players met to play. Over here is where I met members of a club called 'Hatkhola Sabuj Patra'. This group was particularly strict about an ‘only members’ rule. While shooting them, I noticed that they were playing a casual game of cards for fun, not money. Was this for my benefit? I could only wonder.
I reflected upon their lives, comparing it to the bigger picture, their changing city and surroundings. Undisturbed by the state politics, weather conditions, glass coated sky scrapers and frequent honking from the vehicles, the groups remained in a trance like state, fixated on nothing but the game. It was a beautiful sight and I could only attempt to imagine the experience of being in that state of mind for a long period of time. It must be meditative in a way.
Late night gamble
I mentally framed the composition of my last photograph before I left this blissful group of men, surrounded by a chaotic world.
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By Nazia Khan
Photographs by Nazia Khan