Sunday, 1 June 2014

Let there be light

Anirban Mitra.
Calcutta, Sunday 1st of June 2014.

“In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind” -Louis Pasteur.
During the shooting of my narrative on the Stately Homes and Palaces of Calcutta, on my keen interest to details, in admiring and being receptive to the elegance of many remnants of the bygone era, I remember being shown vintage light bulbs on the antique lamp shades that graced the living rooms of the noteworthy Bengali household. Robertson of England – if I recollect rightly and of course Philips of Holland. In the Mullick mansions and other palaces, the owners proudly proclaimed that these bulbs have continued to remain alight from the time of their installation in the 1920s and 30s when electricity came into these elite homes in Calcutta. I was awe struck by the sheer quality of these products. The old designs commanded respect and bore testimony to a great invention of mankind.
And unlike the blinding white, modern fluorescents, the predecessors - these tungsten bulbs had a nice, creamy tone in the light and always added a 'character' to the setting where they belong.

At the Murshidabad Palace – Hazarduari, there were these bulbs too…probably even older…lovely, small ones with exquisite filaments fitted on the majestic, period chandeliers. On asking the caretaker – I was confirmed they are from the British times and continue to light up since close to a century!
A different scene from today, when we procure bulbs almost as a regular ration and they go off quite too often - much to the dismay of having to replace frequently. Obsolescence and degradation must be promoted, else how will the business survive? Well, that’s fodder for another story – not that I am keen to discuss on that. Rather, I am not.
Getting to see the vintage bulbs in Stately Homes and Palaces, along with antiques and things of value is not too uncommon, though their sheer timeless appeal supersedes the logic of their being. What is, however most amazing is the presence of the past in the most unassuming of the present times and in the most banal setting.
Many of my Saturdays are spent in Radhabazar – watch paradise of Calcutta, in getting my mechanical wrist watches serviced and in enquiry for probable ‘new vintage’ supplies to add to my modest collection!
Every corner, every shop, the alleys, twists and turns are too familar to me. Every sight and sound - from the car horn to the clock ticking ; The cart-wallah selling delicious, hot pakoras, the tea vendors, the man with his small packets of red peanuts and fried green peas and even the unkempt bathroom in one of the narrow lanes – which is a misfit to the fun of spending time in a great setting of clocks and watches.
You must be wondering, in all these recollections of things vintage and of grace, where do a bathroom in a narrow alley of Radhabazar really fit in?
Well, hold on, this is the place where, just a week back I spotted an odd looking, but a fine, period bulb akin to the ones adorning the aristocratic lamp shades and light fixtures of great homes.
Curious, as I am to old things, and true to my style, the adrenalin starts to flow by the whiff of any new discovery of a long lost piece of art or technology.
My blood was up and I stepped inside again – inside the lavatory, to introspect upon my suspicion!
Ah!! ‘PHILIPS. Made in Holland’ – the yellowish bulb with a low, mellow light truly lived up to its embodiment – a lovely, vintage piece, with a fantastic, ornate filament and with proud, aglow!
I started to interrogate the man with the watch buffing machine stall opposite to the lavatory:
“Umm…you see…that bulb…I mean the one in the lavatory…that seems to be an odd piece, isn’t it ?”
“Yes, it is’ – the man, with whom I share a good rapport, smiled.
“And where on earth has it popped up from?” – I was greedy and overly inquisitive.
“Oh, that shop, in that lane” - he directed me. “They were clearing up the mess and got a big box full of old bulbs, which they distributed as freebies. Many of us picked up and one was put up there, which you can see”.
In the next few minutes, I rushed to that shop.
It was as mundane as can be, shorn of any signs of the bygone era and with no traces of any thing remotely interesting. Quite simple and modern, devoid of any individuality whatsoever.
“That bulb…” – I tried to make an introduction to the shopkeeper and start a conversation with a suitable context.
He looked at me trying to probably place me in perspective with respect to my motive. Clearly, he made out - I was not in for the business he offers.
“I mean that bulb, there up on the lavatory” – I continued. “I just heard you supplied that one. Quite interesting…”  I was still at a loss of a coherent dialogue. “Do you have more?”
The man looked at me in wonderment.
“I have great fondness for old stuff and was hoping to get a few…I mean buy them if they are still available”.
“Oh…is it? Let me check” – and he stepped down from his shop to help me in my little adventure, but only to return a few minutes back, disappointed.
“I am so sorry. I had a carton full of them, you know. I gave it away to that shop. They’ve, I heard, kept the imported, vintage pieces for themselves – the likes of which you fancied…and distributed the desi ones to the others. They will not return back those bulbs, even for money. I enquired”.


I was almost planning to visit an antique shop to get a suitable table lamp to adorn the befitting bulb, and found out that my hope was a bit too far-fetched.
Old seems to be nothing less than gold ...and people, even in this fast changing, modern times, do not miss to pick up 'obsolete', odd pieces. And lovingly so, to the extent of being immediately possessive and not ready to part with them for any lure.

Details of the filament of a Holland Philips vintage bulb.

 'Bengal Lamp' bulb.