Thursday 6 January 2022

"A city that has a bit of everywhere but is not like anywhere"

I first met Manjit Singh Hoonjan, owner of Calcutta Photo Tours, in 2017. I booked his early morning Mesmerising Markets tour and for three hours I experienced the crowds, colours, sounds and smells of Kolkata's vegetable and fish markets. He helped me engage with people, gave me the back story to the markets' activities and I came away with some great pictures. Since then I've made a point of repeating the experience whenever I've been in India. We spoke recently on zoom and I took the opportunity to get the full story of Calcutta Photo Tours.

"Her pictures were in colour and attracted more attention than mine"

Manjit started taking pictures at a young age and was given his first camera for his eighth birthday. "It was an Agfa click 4 with a plastic body and took black and white pictures" he said. He was delighted with it but recalls "I went on a school picnic and took several photographs. One of my classmates also had a camera. Her pictures were in colour and attracted more attention than mine". 

He did not have a colour camera until the age of 17 but by that time his work was already attracting  attention. College Street is the centre of the book trade in Kolkata and like many other students Manjit went there to buy textbooks. On one visit he saw a notice bearing the word "Silence" on the street lamp post, close to the exterior wall of a hospital, under a poster for the film "Kab Tak Chup Rahungi" which means "how much longer will we remain quiet". He wanted to photograph the two notices together and to enter The Telegraph newspaper's regular photo competition. His father borrowed a camera from a friend, bought film for it and Manjit took two shots before returning it. He then had to  wait for the friend to use the rest of the film and have it developed. The pictures were chosen for publication and he won a prize of 250 rupees which he used to open his first bank account.

After completing his studies he spent some time working in, and then managing, the family print and graphic design business. In his spare time, he continued with photography and an American friend suggested he start running photo walks in Kolkata. At the time most photo tours tended to concentrate on whole regions and lasted at least a couple of weeks. After a few years of running the walks in his spare time he decided to close the family business and to concentrate on photography. When I asked him about his family's reaction to this he said "at first they were worried and pointed out that tourism, the main source of business for the walks, is seasonal, but when my work started getting a lot of media attention, they became very proud". 

"I am booking this tour and I hope you will be there"

He recalls his first ever client "A Dutch woman sent me a message saying 'I am booking this tour and I hope you will be there'". He too had concerns and remembers thinking "I'm getting up at 5 a.m. will she even be there?". They both turned up and since then his decision to concentrate on photography has brought great success. Trip Advisor lists the tours as one of the most popular things to do in Kolkata and his work has been featured in National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph,  the Guardian and other high-profile publications. In 2018 his Durga Puja pictures were seen by millions when they were exhibited outdoors on London's South Bank as part of the Thames Festival.

The Hoonjan family have been in West Bengal for three generations and have a strong connection to Kolkata. Despite his Sikh heritage and religion Manjit considers himself to be deeply connected with Bengal. He said "When I started some people queried how a Sikh could really know Kolkata but more recently a Bengali friend said that I am more Bengali than he is". I asked him what inspires his desire to show Kolkata to others. He explained "It is a city that has a bit of everywhere but is not like anywhere". This is reflected in the range of tours he offers. The Culture Kaleidoscope tour reveals the religious diversity of Kolkata and also includes a visit to India's only China Town. European Calcutta concentrates on the colonial legacy of the city and Mesmerising Markets shows the day to day life of some of Kolkata's key workers. All include short breaks for chai and snacks - important elements of any day in India - and the telling of stories related to the tours. 

I asked Manjit about how people respond to the tours. He said "Sometimes they become emotional, particularly people who have not previously left the tourist trail and who are having their first glimpse of real, day to day life in the city. A Chinese family who came on the Cultural Kaleidoscope tour were delighted to be able to speak to locals in their own language. One member of the family said they felt so happy they had goosebumps". My own favourite comment came from a group who had begun their tour of India in Kolkata with Manjit ."They told me I had spoiled their trip because later guides had not been able to equal their time with me". In my case, that first early morning walk in the markets led to Kolkata becoming my favourite Indian city and one of the places I've missed most in the last two years of being unable to travel. 

Please note all photographs in this post were provided by Manjit Singh Hoonjan.

You can follow Calcutta Photo Tours on instagram and on Facebook

For more details of the tours and booking see Calcutta Photo Tours


  1. Excellent write up. Four years ago I took what was then called the “neighborhoods tour” (which today is the culture tour). I am a journalist and photographer and was mesmerized by the detail and amount of access the tour gave us. I instantly fell in love with Calcutta and have been waiting to return as soon as the pandemic wains enough to allow it. Manjit is such a gracious host, and because he knows photography, he expertly guides you to terrific opportunities; then he gets out of your way, allowing you to interpret the scene with your own aesthetic.

    1. Thank you Brock. In Calcutta, everywhere you look there is something interesting.