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The Child as Consumer in Colonial Calcutta: A Visual History

Dr Gargi Gangopadhyay

   In this photo essay, Gargi explores how in Calcutta, during the long 19th C, the roles and identities of the child were recast and reformed as part of the larger socio-cultural transformations. These reconstitutions changed the social, familial and inner lives of urban, middle-class children, affecting not only their affinities and ambitions but also their everyday habits of food, clothes, leisure and personal hygiene. 



Kankabati (1892), one of the earliest illustrated children’s books to be published in colonial Bengal, intriguingly becomes a fertile text for reviewing the significance of newly-emerging patterns of urban life and culture within the growing metropolis of Calcutta (note 1). The city appears as the epicentre of colonial modernity where the demands of a new economy, prevalence of western systems of knowledge and advent of modern technologies was bringing about radical sociocultural reformations affecting both the public and private lives of its people (note 2). One of the most notable among these was the transformation of Bengali childhood. Ushering in an ‘English’ system of education (constituting of Western disciplines, printed textbooks and a progressive Departmental schooling structure) and novel forms of juvenile leisure and entertainment (children’s periodicals and storybooks, games like cricket, football or badminton, pursuit of hobbies and pastimes), the city remodelled children’s lives both in school and at home. With its grand buildings and modish ways, bustling with new sensibilities and reformed worldviews, fin de siècle Calcutta opened up new kinds of material and psychological spaces for its juvenile citizens.



As early as 1849, a maxim in a vernacular textbook proclaims that the studious child will be rewarded with a modern, luxurious lifestyle in future: 


Lekhapora kore jei

[One who learns to read and write]

Gari ghora chore shei

[On a coach and horse gets to ride] (note 3)


The couplet also reveals the naturalisation of new aspirations and an encroaching commodity culture in the unfolding patterns of urban life. Indeed, the city, at the turn of the century, embodied a heady spectacle of stunning modernity, full of wondrous, awe-inspiring objects. This breathtaking materiality of urban experience, particularly from the child’s point of view, gets registered in many contemporary children’s books and childhood memoirs. Calcutta is the place from where the village boy can bring back a staggering array of ‘gifts’ – books, fountain pens, watches and fashionable dresses, toys and games of the latest kind, pastries and confectioneries like one has never tasted before (note 4). Coming to Calcutta as an eleven-year-old in 1919, Leela Majumdar recollects a bewitching trip to the New Market (note 5). Mesmerised by the ‘heavenly’ sight of table-loads of sugar-sprinkled cakes and chocolates lined up along the aisles, she reminiscences, “Never, in our dreams, could we imagine such treasures...was this fairyland? Previously, while staying in the remote hill-station of Shillong, she and her sister had hardly bothered about dressing up, but in Calcutta, they desired to dress just as fashionably as their friends. Naturally imbibing the new cultures of the city, in their everyday habits of learning and leisure, she writes how, within two short years, they had become “full-fledged Calcuttans. (note 6)”


For the child, then, the city signified not only a new world of education with its grand schools housed in big mansions, modern textbooks and systematic examinations, but also the seedbed of new practices of leisure and consumption. The genre of Bengali children’s periodicals defined one of the earliest forms of juvenile entertainment for the new-age child reader. Embodying the spirit of colonial urban modernity, a flurry of magazines like Sakha (1883), Sathi (1893), Mukul (1895), Sandesh (1913), Amar Desh (1920) and Mouchak (1920) – to name just a few, ushered in a leisure reading space especially curated for young readers. The advertisements printed in these magazines indicate a larger, expanding world of juvenile leisure and entertainment produced in colonial Calcutta. More significantly, these commercials point to a proliferation of commodities that were being designed and sold specifically for children. Thus, towards the end of the 19th C, in the context of newly-developed socio-cultural practices, the urban economy identified the child as a consumer in its own right and developed a niche sector dedicated to importing, manufacturing, selling and advertising of children’s goods. Though printed commercials were in vogue from earlier decades (in newspapers and almanacs or distributed as handbills), children’s periodicals perhaps provided the first commercial space to directly address the child consumer. From toys and sports goods to cosmetics and jewellery, from books and musical instruments to food and drinks, the advertisements illustrate the expanding world of juvenile entertainment and consumption. Using a small selection of advertisements printed in children’s publications in the early 20th C, this essay tries to map the emerging world of children’s leisure and consumption that came into being as part of an increasingly urban lifestyle.
















































Advertisements of health and personal-care products were some of the commonest commercials appearing in the juvenile periodicals in the early 20th C. Medicinal mixtures from Bengal Chemical, the legendary venture founded by Prafulla Chandra Ray and perfumes and hair oils manufactured by H. Bose Perfumers - items that were already being advertised in newspapers and other magazines, were now brought to the children’s domain and shown to be essential for taking care of their health and hygiene. However, these three advertisements [Figs. 1, 2 & 3] appearing in children’s magazines demonstrate that these commercials were especially designed for child readers. Not only are they written and illustrated like mini stories to engage the attention of the child, they [Figs. 2 & 3] go on to directly address the child reader/consumer as well. Showing an acute understanding of children’s inclinations, the commercials highlight the pleasurable aspects like taste (mishti/ sweet) and feelings (moja/ fun) rather than simply stressing on utilitarian benefits. Parental figures, acquainted with new ideologies of child rearing and having an affectionate and indulgent attitude towards children are also incorporated [Figs. 1 & 3], not just as buyers but as modern guardians with a greater understanding of their young wards and paying keener attention to their well-being.



















Imbibing the modern colonial cultures of leisure, the children’s magazines advocated profitable recreations and healthy pastimes. Sakha, Mukul and Sandesh frequently featured instructive articles and tutorials (sometimes with accompanying sketches and diagrams) for teaching fundamentals of games like cricket, football and badminton. The growing popularity of such foreign games are reflected in the numerous advertisements displaying an array of sporting goods ranging from cricket bats and hockey sticks to nets and rackets [Fig. 4]. Indoor recreations were also redefined by the urban market – apart from story books or golper boi for pleasurable reading at home (that began to develop into a rich vernacular genre from the last decade of the 19th C), there were board games to be played and musical instruments for lyrical pursuits [Fig. 5]. Thus, the rise of new modes of juvenile leisure in colonial Calcutta soon translated into a market ready for consumption. 


















































Because of their intrinsic connection with commodities and market economy, advertisements were one of the most visible spaces to be flooded by the spirit of the swadeshi movement (note 7). Taking Bengal by storm in the early 20th C, the movement not only called for a boycott on all British-made goods but also promoted indigenous products as better and cheaper substitutes of their foreign counterparts. Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) – the most acclaimed anthology of traditional Bengali folk and fairy tales, was not only endorsed by Rabindranath Tagore as an ‘unalloyed swadeshi artefact’ but also repeatedly advertised as one. Using the highly-charged rhetoric of the ‘Mother’ and the ‘Motherland’ and the innate bond that the child shares with both, and recalling the oral story-telling traditions prevalent since pre colonial times, the advertisement situates the volume in the ‘uncontaminated’ familial domain of the home and the nation that the child is born into [Fig. 6]. The intricate ornamental letterings and the sample illustration used in the advertisement - both heavily embedded in non-Western motifs, also help to visually highlight the book’s distinctive swadeshi nature. A sense of national pride is exhibited in the commercials of cosmetic items produced by indigenous enterprises [Fig. 7]. An advertisement of swadeshi creams and essences appeals to the patriotic spirit of parents and urges them to let their children know about (by using their products) the professional capabilities of Bengali scientists. However, along with such fervent nationalism displayed in commercials of indigenous brands, there continued to be a steady market for imported items and foreign goods like Mellin’s babyfood, Nestle’s condensed milk, Firpo’s bread and Keventer’s butter [Fig 8]. Leela Majumdar recalls getting yardage for dresses and pinafores from the big departmental store of Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co. in Chowringhee. Subjected to the dual influences of colonial cultures and an emerging idea of nationhood, seen as modern citizens trained in Western norms and as sons and daughters of the Nation, childhood “frequently becomes a battleground of cultures”, where “the battle for the minds of men was fought between the East and the West, the old and the new, and the intrinsic and the imposed”(note 8). 





In Calcutta, during the long 19th C, the roles and identities of the child were recast and reformed as part of the larger socio-cultural transformations. These reconstitutions changed the social, familial and inner lives of urban, middle-class children, affecting not only their affinities and ambitions but also their everyday habits of food, clothes, leisure and personal hygiene. The many images of childhood that appear as illustrations or in the advertisements in juvenile publications of the contemporary period, reveal the emergence of the modern urban Bengali child [Figs. 9 & 10]. As children acquire a growing social importance, childhood is seen as a happy and playful domain to be carefully guarded and tenderly nourished. By popularising new practices of juvenile leisure and entertainment, the cultures of consumption produced by the city at the turn of the century, contributed significantly to this modern rubric of middle-class Bengali childhood. 




                1. Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay, Kankabati (Kolkata: Mitra and Ghosh [1892], 2002), 21.

                2. In this essay, the word ‘modern’ refers to the 19th and early 20th C period in Bengal, an era marked by

                    revolutionary changes ushered in by British colonial rule.

                3. Madanmohan Tarkalankar, Shishushiksha or The Infant Teacher, Part I, 1849, 209.

                4. Shibram Chakraborty, Bari Theke Paliye (Kolkata: Abhyuday Prakash Mandir [1937], 1959); Kankabati.

                5. Leela Majumdar, Pakdandi (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 2010), 86.

                6. Pakdandi, 127.

                7. The popular anti-partition agitations of 1905 linked the Swadeshi Movement with the Boycott Resolution.

                8. Ashis Nandy, ‘Reconstructing Childhood: A Critique of the Ideology of Adulthood’, Traditions, Tyranny 

                    and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 65.



Author's Acknowledgement 


I am indebted to the CSSSC Archive for generously granting me permission to use the calendar advertisement (Fig. 8) for online publication. All other images are sourced from an online documentation of early Bengali children’s books ( initially funded by IFA.

Fig. 1.jpg
Fig. 2.jpg

Fig. 1. Advertisement of medicinal syrup by Bengal Chemical and 

Pharmaceutical Works Ltd., Sandesh, 1917.

Fig. 2. Advertisement of syrup by Bengal Chemical and
Works Ltd., Amar Desh, 1920.

Fig. 3.jpg

              Fig. 3. Advertisement of Jabakusum hair oil by C.K. Sen & Sons,
Amar Desh, 1920.

Fig. 4.jpg
Fig. 5.jpg

  Fig. 4. Advertisement of sports goods by Carr & Mahalanobis,
Amar Desh, 1920.

                        Fig. 5. Advertisement of musical instruments by Dwarkin & Sons, Mouchak, 1920. 

Fig. 8.jpg
Fig. 7.jpg
Fig. 6.jpg

  Fig. 6. Advertisement of Thakurmar Jhuli, Prakriti, 1908.

Fig. 7. Advertisement of snow cream and essence by Sharma, Banerjee & Co., Chheleder Gandhi, 1922.

                      Fig. 8. Calendar Advertisement for Nestle’s condensed milk, 1920.

Fig. 9.jpg

                                                Fig 10. Photo illustration, Sandesh, 1913.

Fig. 10.jpg

Kankabati loved to read. Khetu sent a variety of books and newspapers from Calcutta. Kankabati even read the newspaper advertisements.



Dr Gargi Gangopadhyay is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan, Kolkata, India. Her doctoral thesis ‘Reading Leisure: A Print Culture for Children in Colonial Bengal’(Jadavpur University, 2013) is a study of pleasure and politics in Bengali children’s literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period. Her research interests and publications are in the areas of childhood studies and history of travel and travel writings in colonial Bengal. ‘Children’s Books from  Bengal: A Documentation’, an online illustrated catalogue of early Bengali children’s books, is an on-going project.


                                        Fig. 9. Photo illustration, Khukuranir Diary, 1912.

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