Estd. Since 1905

SHANU LAHIRI

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There was a time when I would go to G.C. Laha with my Government Art College friends two to three times every week. It wouldn’t feel normal if we didn’t go. We’d pick up various odds and ends — sometimes two brushes, or paper, or some Chinese ink, canvas and other such stuff. During our tiffin break at art school, it was either G.C. Laha or Park Street, which was like Paris for us.

 And it wasn’t just buying materials — we’d make it a point to fight with Nandababu for some time. We’d even irritate Pashupatibabu and Loknathbabu — but most if our arguments were with Nandababu, who would pack our stuff for us. The most endearing quality about the shop was the behaviour of its people. I’ve never seen them behave differently with different people, whether young or old. It’s true that three or four of us would bother them a lot, but then they would also be really happy to see us. At times Nandababu would say something utterly objectionable: “Why don’t you go to the adjacent shop? You’ll get things cheaper there.” We wouldn’t pay him any attention, after all, we never went to any other shop. At times, I remember how they would get the paints we wanted and keep them with care. For example, oil would require a lot of white colour, but it wasn’t always available. But Nandababu would keep it separately for us — many times I’ve seen school students, who have just began working in oil, come and ask for huge supplies of white colour. But they were not given more than one portion. Nandababu would say that more often than not, the kids would lose interest after some time, but if they really needed more they would come back again. But those who painted regularly would require the white colour more often. So it was essential to keep the colour for them or they would find it very hard to get regular supplies. This just shows that it wasn’t just about selling colours, through it they actually reached a higher state of mind.

The colours which weren’t easily available were stowed away in a first-floor chamber upstairs. Pashupatibabu or Nandababu would just have to give the order and the colours would be brought downstairs one by one. Though I haven’t been there for a long time, I’m sure the small wooden stairs are still there. Often, I really felt like going up the stairs. Once I did go with Nandababu’s permission. The stairs were really unique — it was quite difficult to go up them. Behind the counter were kept the paints, brushes and board pieces, while the superior-quality paper, the costly colours, pastel paper, canvas paper were kept on the left side. We’d ourselves choose the paints and colours from the drawers — my children too have gone with me so many times. Many from the art school had permission to go inside, and even though we fought, the shop doors were always open for us.

Nandababu suffered from a bad ailment — the veins of his legs had become inflated and knotted by standing for hours on end. Pashupatibabu would take a lot of care of him. And once we left art school, our fights, too, got over — all of them became great friends. One fine morning I saw the news of Nandababu’s death in The Statesman. There was a wonderful piece on him. I felt really sad reading this bit of news. All the Laha brothers were such gentlemen — and they still are so — that they behaved extremely well with their employees. In turn, the employees too behave very nicely with the customers — something that is extremely rare these days.

The paint of the shop are well-known across India. So many famous persons procured their art materials from here — Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Ray, Hemen Majumdar, Atul Bose — I’ve heard such a lot about them. Later on it was the likes of Ramen Chakraborty, Pradosh Dasgupta, Chintamani Kar, Paritosh Sen, Nirod Majumdar, Gopal Ghosh — and it also includes the famous faces of this generation. Even people from outside Calcutta would come here to buy their materials.

I still remember how surprised I felt when I first went to a famous Parisian art shop to buy paints. As soon I entered it felt like I had walked into a larger version of G.C. Laha. It smelt the same inside — a bit must” and old — and even the decorations were similar. There was a small poster to the left of the entrance, or there was an exhibition going on and people were sitting around and one had to enter being careful that one didn’t in the way. I really liked the ambience. Even here famous painters would come to buy colours and it’s still the same. But whenever I go to G.C. Laha in Kolkata — though it’s a bit of a problem going there now since some people recognise me -I feel as if I have come back to my own place. G.C. Laha evokes wonderful memories of art school but I still miss the presence ofthe Laha brothers and Nandababu.

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