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Picnic Pleasure

picnics are more like an obsession with the denizens and are as much integral to the winter traditions of Kolkata as is feasting on Christmas
The Picnic by Thomas Coles
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The best way to enjoy a bright sunny day in the cold winter season is to head outdoors in the company of family and friends and scrumptious food. For many of us the idea of rustic dining in the lush meadows of the countryside might be a hangover of the popular Enid Blyton series we grew up on where in books like the Secret Seven and Famous Five, characters are often seen setting off on an adventure, carrying picnic baskets packed with an assortment of homemade goodies comprising scones, tarts and sandwiches. But not only children for whom a picnic is an exciting childlike activity in a scenic settings with friends, food and games –it’s also been popular among grownups, much for the same pleasurable reasons.

While the etymology still remains unclear as does its origin, picnics during mediaeval times have been documented in tapestries and paintings of that era. There are also stories of Cornish pasty and pork pie eaten outside homes and food being transported on horseback to huntsmen in the middle ages. According to an article on the history of Indian picnics published on Pixstory, the evidence from terracotta sculptures dating all the way back to the 185-73 BCE suggests picnickers travelled by chariot. There is also a reference to a picnic in the Mahabharata which was attended by Arjun, Krishna and Balram.

picnic by the waterside
Picnics near waterbodies are preferred

But it was evident some of the first picnics recorded in history were very different from what we imagine and have come to enjoy in modern days. For instance, from some of the earliest available descriptions, in the 18th century picnics in England became one of the aristocracy’s favourite pastime where rather than fun and enjoyment, the source of entertainment was largely intellectual conversation. And in stark contrast to the pastoral settings, these were held indoors and would occasionally include music and dance and could pass off more like a ball. Even then, there was one feature typical of a picnic, the concept of attendees contributing to food, be it either by bringing food along when they came to the venue or sharing in the cost of the feast. But it was only in the early 20th century and with the advancement of transport in England that picnics outdoor began to gain in popularity which lead to the manufacture of picnic baskets and grocers began to create picnic delicacies especially for the occasion.

Also read: Restoring Classics by Bimal Roy

However, as the concept of picnics spread to other parts of the world, it became more an urban middle class affair, much like what we are familiar with and is widely described in literature.
The allure of outdoors was captured by Claudia Roden, in Picnics: And Other Outdoor Feasts, in which the author writes about how the fresh air and liberating surrounds stimulate the appetite and elevate the experience of dining. According to Walter Levy, the underlying idea of dining outdoors is recreation, with food, games and entertainment meant to be something of an ‘antithesis of established social routine and work,’ as he noted in his book titled, The Picnic: A History. This certainly appears to be the objective of picnickers in India. Mughal emperors and their courtiers enjoyed royal picnics in their ornamental gardens while the elite of society regarded it as an opportunity to reconnect with nature.

Picnic on Richmond Hill by Joseph Murray
A Picnic on Richmond Hill by Joseph Murray

Since  I,  myself  grew  up  in  some  rather  bucolic  settings,  picnics  were  a  regular  feature  of  my  childhood,  whether  it  was  the  gentle  hillsides  inviting  us  to  explore  it,  wide  open  meadows  where  we  could  frolic  about  or  the  gurgling  forest  streams  that  wove  their  enchantment  around  us  as  we  caught  tiny  fish  and  tadpoles  in  mosquito  nets.  And  unlike  now-a-days  where  it’s  become  a  trend  for  cooks  to  accompany  picnickers,  then  food  was  either  prepared  beforehand  at  home  and  carried  to  the  spot,  or  cooked  at  the  picnic,  which  is  why  places near water-bodies  were  always  a  preferred  choice.  And  for  entertainment,  frisbee  and  badminton  were  the  most  common  picnic  games.

Also read: A Picnic by the Lake

So  when  I  arrived  in  Calcutta  some  two  decades  ago,  I  noted  with  great  delight  that  here  too  there  was  a  strong  picnic  culture.   In  fact,  over  the  years  that  I’ve  resided  in  the  city,  it  has  become  clear  that  picnics  are  more  like  an  obsession  with  the  denizens  and  are  as  much  integral  to  the  winter  traditions  of  Kolkata  as  is  feasting  on  Christmas  cake  or  gorging  on  nolen  gur  sandesh.  And  it  hardly  matters  that  there  are  no  surroundings  that  come  even  close  to  the  idyllic picnic  spots  that  we  have  read  about  in  literature,  ones  that  made  us  fall  in  love  with  the  idea.  The  open  lawns  and  the  ‘Maidan’  outside  the  picturesque  Victoria  Memorial  in  the  heart  of  Kolkata,  even  the  lively  Zoological  Garden  at  Alipore  have  served  as  popular  picnic  spots  in  the  past  with  many  more  new  locations  joining  the  list. 

children playing outdoor
Frisbee and badminton were the most common picnic games

Another  noteworthy  aspect  of  a  Kolkata  picnic  is  the  range  it  extends  to.  From  being  a  small  family  affair,  to  large  group  of  friends  (school  and  college),  colleagues,  housing  societies  and  even  entire  block  communities  organising  picnics – it  seems  that  one  just  needs  an  excuse  to  go  on  a  picnic!  And  if  there  still  remained  an  iota  of  doubt  regarding  how  picnic  frenzy  the  people  of  this  city  are,  according  to  a   recent  report  published  in  The  Times  of  India  this  Republic  Day,  all  picnic  spots,  be  it  barges  on  the  river  Hooghly,  nature  parks  across  the  city  and  baganbaris  on  the   outskirts;  every  single  spot  was  booked  by  picnickers  for  the  last  weekend  of  January,  extending  right  up  until  the first  weekend  of  February. 

And  why  not?  W.  Somerset  Maugham  famously  said,  ‘there  are  few  things  so  pleasant  as  a  picnic  lunch.’    

Images courtesy: Rawpixel

Lesley D. Biswas is a freelance writer and children’s author based in Kolkata. Her interests include nature, bird photography and cricket.

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