Meet Melbourne trammie Roberto D’Andrea, who has been instrumental in sealing a unique friendship between two cities – Kolkata and Melbourne.
In 1994, Melbourne tram conductor and driver Roberto D’Andrea undertook a journey to India with his then tram-driving girlfriend. While she was 600 km north in the hills of Darjeeling in east India, Roberto had three days in Kolkata, the city of joy. It would be a turning point in his life.
Walking toward the Esplanade above the Hooghly River, Roberto recalls hearing a ding, a sound so familiar it reminded him of Melbourne. “I was asked by my friends at the South Melbourne Depot to look for the Kolkata tramways, which was under threat of closure. So when I went to the Esplanade and heard the gong going ding ding, it magnetised me.”
Roberto’s curiosity led him to the tram. He hopped onto it, discovering in his excitement too, the similar characteristics to trams in Melbourne.
The Esplanade line took him to Belgachia tram depot, the busiest depot, where Roberto met a bunch of tram workers. Once they discovered his background of working in trams in Melbourne, they sat him down to a conversation on their problems and the looming threat of closure. Roberto ended up spending his first day on Indian soil at the Belgachia tram depot, striking a long-lasting friendship with the team. “The fraternity was beautiful,” reflects Roberto.
From there, he was determined to build the relationship further. In 1996, two years later Roberto returned to Kolkata on the invitation of tram activists. “I was a worker and I had union work experience, so on arrival they sent me to see Sisir Mitra, the legendary tramway union leader. He was beautifully and elegantly dressed in white,” recalls Roberto. It would be a meeting that heralded the start of Tramjatra, a festival that has just completed 20 years and one that marks a unique friendship between Kolkata and Melbourne tramways, two of the rarest surviving tram systems outside of Europe.
The festival launched in 1996 began with the decoration of four trams named Bondu (friend) in Kolkata. Roberto took with him from Melbourne the translated poems of Michael Just, called the ‘Phantom tram poet’. According to Roberto, after finishing his day’s work, Just, a tram conductor, would write poems on what he saw in the city and his general experiences, type them beautifully and stick them up on the trams. The fresh poems from Just every morning were a delight for the other workers. These poems, translated by a Bengali resident in Melbourne, were an important contribution to the festival.
So Roberto along with others managed in curating a travelling tram show which had the poetries, pictures of Melbourne and Kolkata and other different things with which to decorate the trams. The festival in the early days was called the Melbourne Calcutta Tramways Friendship. “It was our way of engaging with the Bengali community and celebrating two tramways,” says Roberto who has since played an active role of advocating – not just for old tram lines, but for an exchange of people’s history, culture, and art. After its launch in October 1996 in Kolkata, Tramjatra was launched in Melbourne some months later in February 1997. The Bondu tram ran for a month as a Melbourne-Kolkata friendship tram.
The festival was given a further impetus when in 2001, Roberto collaborated with other artists from Melbourne mainly Michael Douglas, a designer professor from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). At that time, Douglas was working on a project “Tramtactics”, which was exploring Melbourne’s tramways and he became part of Tramjatra visiting Kolkata a few times over the past few years. Interestingly, Douglas has also translated this collaborative public project of exploring a dialogue between two former British colonial cities through the medium of tramways to manifest a network of temporary public art works, participatory events and publications in both cities through his book titled Tramjatra.
Today the festival of Tramjatra has completed 20 years and 12 trams have been decorated so far in both cities of Kolkata and Melbourne. This October, Melbourne will be celebrating the 21st birthday of the Tramjatra, says Roberto. “The festival will be called the Tramjatra Tram and will run through six months. We brought artworks from all of the decorated trams in the past such as the sunrise from Sundari Tram, Rabindranath Tagore from Geetanjali Tram, to name a few. It is a big year and what is exciting this year is we have reengaged with the local Indian community here and the artwork of the tram is designed by Bushra Hasa, a Lucknow-born artist based in Melbourne.”
Roberto’s unique journey and his friendship with Kolkata have been filmed in a documentary titled Tramjatra by Mahadeb Shi. “I was making this film in the late 1980s because the government was thinking of closing down the trams. It pained me because I look at a tram differently. It is just not ferrying passengers but offering an experience and every journey is metaphorically connecting cities and culture. I was looking for supporters and I found Roberto, which is truly God-send,” he says, adding, “I didn’t know about Melbourne trams but when I saw the pictures he had I said ‘oh there is another city where trams exist’. So that’s how we got connected and the film started.” The Year was 1996.
The documentary was screened at the recently concluded Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. The shorter version of the film was also screened at the last Kolkata International Film Festival. In the modern era of Tramjatra, Mahadeb’s documentary celebrates 20 years of tramways friendship connecting people and different cultures. “It shows the love between the work force, the interaction between the public and the decorations of the trams embody the love and appreciation that is shared,” adds Roberto.
Apart from making the film, Mahadeb is also part of Tramjatra festival. His first visit to Melbourne was in 2001 to participate in Douglas’s Tramjatra project and he has also collaborated with Roberto on two of the last Tramjatras in 2013 and 2016. ““The main purpose of doing the tramjatra was to encourage Kolkatans and the present generation to love trams, to love nature because if a functional solution can be given, it will be good for the city,” says Mahadeb, adding, “The closure issue is off and on. Some routes have been closed down but the reason why the government is now thinking twice could be because of our Tramjatra serving as an indirect catalyst.”
Most Kolkatans have grown up with trams and there is a lot of nostalgia and memory associated with them. “I look at the tram as a benign friend and I saw my benign friend in Roberto,” sums up Mahadeb, who is currently making a long documentation in Melbourne in the hope of having a Melbourne Tramjatra film in the future.
Melbourne, for Mahadeb is like a fairy-tale city with its trams. “I love the tram system in Melbourne. There are trams everywhere moving on its own, not disturbing anyone, it’s so nice, I want to live here. And I also love Melbourne people. But Roberto loves Kolkata trams more than any Kolkatan,” he quips.
On his part, Roberto says it’s a mutual admiration society. “Kolkata is such a colourful, beautiful city with wonderful people, the camaraderie with the tram workers, spontaneity of passengers are all infectious,” gushes Roberto, adding, “My family background is Sicilian and when I go to Kolkata I feel my southern Italian gene pool comes to the top. It’s the spontaneity of the city, I feel there has been bad luck with India on that side with Partition, so I am happy to help in whichever way I can. We come from a rich country, we can do a lot with what we have here so it’s lovely to share that with Kolkata.”
Trams have always occupied a pride of place in Calcutta. Currently Kolkata has the only tram network operating in India. Melbourne’s trams are an integral part of the city. Clearly, trammies such as Roberto are doing a great job of creating a uniquely inter-cultural arts project and sealing a bond of friendship that transcends geographical boundaries.
By Indira Laisram