The Maidan (literally open field) is the largest urban park in Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal. It is a vast stretch of field and home to numerous play grounds, including the famous cricketing venue Eden Gardens, several football stadia, and Kolkata Race Course. Maidan is dotted with several statues and pieces of architecture, most notable being the Victoria Memorial. It was once home to the oldest golf club outside Great Britain - the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. Due to the freshness and greenery it provides to the metropolis, it has been referred to as the "lungs of Kolkata". Maidan is a property of the Indian Army, and hosts the Fort William, the Eastern zone high command of the Indian Army.
In 1909, H.E.A.Cotton wrote, “The great Maidan presents a most refreshing appearance to the eye, the heavy night dew, even in the hot season, keeping the grass green. Many of the fine trees with which it was once studded were blown down in the cyclone of 1864. But they have not been allowed to remain without successors, and the handsome avenues across the Maidan still constitute the chief glory of Calcutta. Dotting the wide expanse are a number of fine tanks, from which the inhabitants were content in former days to obtain their water-supply.”
“The oldest road on the Maidan is the Course, extending from the ‘Cocked hat’ in the north to the Khidirpur bridge. The ‘broad gravelled walk’ on the west side of that portion is the Red Road, constructed in 1820. To the south of the fort is the Ellenborough Course, meant for horse exercises, and towards the east is the Race Course, started in 1819. That was the scenario a century back.”
The Raj Bhawan was built in 1803, the 48 metres high Octerlony Monument in 1848,the museum was started in the Asiatic Society in 1814 but shifted to the present site as Indian Museum in 1887, St. Paul’s Cathedral was built between 1839 and 1847, it was consecrated in 1874, and the Victoria Memorial came up in 1921. On Council House Street, at one corner of the Maidan was the long-defunct Fort William College, which played a pioneering role in the development of many of the Indian languages, particularly Bengali.
Chowringhee, part of the north-south lifeline of Kolkata came up with the Maidan along what was the old road made by the Sabarna Roy Choudhurys, the old zemindars of Calcutta, from Barisha, where the junior branch resided, to Halisahar, which was the seat of the senior branch.The Tollygunj-Esplanade section of Metro Railway took a little over seven years to build disturbing activity on the eastern end of the MaidanThe stations bordering on the Maidan as one travels from the south are Maidan, Park Street and Esplanade.
The Maidan has been the venue for major political meetings and rallies of all political parties. However, cleaning up the Maidan after a rally is over has become a sore point. The army authorities have decided to levy a caution money from organisers of the rallies and an undertaking to clear the litter in a bid to make the Maidan pollution-free.
When the curtains came down on the 29th Kolkata Book Fair in 2004, with a record footfall of 2,475,000 (nearly two and half million) the organisers announced that they had already applied for permission to hold the fair the following year to the police commissioner and defence authorities.
In 2005, The Statesman, a leading Kolkata newspaper wrote, “The Kolkata Book Fair may well have had its last outing on the Maidan… In recent years, almost every part of the Maidan has been used to host all manners of melas and fairs. This, obviously, can’t continue… Our courts of justice are now taking cognizance. The military too has woken up to its environmental responsibility. Even business houses have apparently become concerned. At this rate, it might seem the lungs of Kolkata, and of the people who inhabit it, still have some hope. With both the chief minister and the chief secretary assuring that it was the last year that fairs were to be held at the Maidan, as the permanent trade fair complex along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, thereafter the venue for trade fairs, the Kolkata Book Fair and other fairs, was yet to be completed, the army authorities allowed the Book Fair to be held on the Maidan for the last time in 2006.
The drama to organise the book fair on the Maidan started again in 2007 but Kolkata High Court gave the Kolkata Book Fair its marching orders from the Maidan. The Book Fair was finally held in the Yuba Bharati Krirangan in 2007. Other fairs were shifted out earlier. However, there still are people who think that the Kolkata Book Fair cannot be properly be organised, except on the Maidan.
(When all the lasses have started learning the alphabet, picking up the book, feigning to be English ladies, they will definitely splash the tongue foreign; Brothers, wait for few more days! And you will be able to have a look, they will drive to the grounds of the fort for roaming around, commanding the rein.)
People did not have to wait for long. After Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849 1925) taught his wife, Kadambari, horse-riding on the Maidan defying the conservative society of the time, Bengali society could never be the same again.
During the British Raj white soldiers were stationed in Fort William. When they came out on the Maidan for strolls, they used to kick Bengali boys they found on the Maidan. The Bengali boys were too timid to protest against it. Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (1872 1945) was deeply shocked at the cowardly behaviour of the youngsters. She introduced the Birastami brata as part of Durga Puja wherein youngsters took the oath to stand up bravely against all sorts of oppression. It subsequently inspired the youth of the country to lay down their lives in the freedom struggle.
Indian cricket began its long journey with a two day match on the Maidan in January 1804 between old Etonians employed by the East India Company.World’s oldest hockey tournament, Beighton Cup was instituted in 1895, and is usually held on the Mohun Bagan ground in the Maidan.For the Indian Football Association, the Maidan has been the nerve centre.
The Maidan is not just cricket, football and hockey, apart of course from army parades. It is so many things to so many people. There are washermen who wash clothes and themselves in its ponds, shepherds tend their flocks, the health conscious citizens take their morning walks, the last vestiges of the horse-drawn hackney carriages ply on its fringes entertaining merry makers and businessmen make money. When Jamshedji Framji Madan entered the ‘bioscope’ scene in 1902, he bagn to screen films in tents one of which was set up on the Maidan. In Satyajit Ray’s film Jana Arayanya there is a shot showing two unemployed young men, observing the sprawling urban comedy around them on the Maidan, identify the typical office clerk in the crowd. He is presented in a long shot, puny against the towering though squalid cityscape, trudging home after a nine-to-five day. Life on the Maidan is the quintessece of life in Kolkata.