Pritish Nandy, a poet, painter, journalist and former lawmaker, was one such refugee. He left Calcutta as a young man to run the then-fledgling Times of India, now the nation's largest English-language newspaper, in Mumbai. "I felt the opportunity was slipping out," he said.
Still, Bengalis have clung defensively to their intellectual reputation, some believe, even as vitality has slipped away.
"It's a belief in the lost cause," said Swapan Dasgupta, a senior Bengali journalist now living in Delhi. "It's a lost generation."
But Kolkata's loss was India's — and the world's — gain, as a host of Bengalis and their offspring populated Indian media, Bollywood and beyond, including Nobel Prize laureate and Harvard economics professor Amartya Sen, filmmaker Aparna Sen, author Amitav Ghosh, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri.
For some, Kolkata's finest don't necessarily embody creativity. Rather, they're pretty good at convincing others of their brilliance. "It may look like they're doing a lot of thinking, but it's more their articulation," said Sen, the economist.
In a world obsessed with greed, upward mobility and glitzy shopping malls, some welcome a place where the ideals of faded glory still hold sway.
Back in the elegant, dated apartment of filmmaker Satyajit Ray, his son expresses cautious optimism about Kolkata's future, even if it never lives up to state leader Banerjee's boast of becoming the "next London."
"Changes are happening, although it's still a bit on the slow side," said Sandip Ray, 57, also a filmmaker. "We have to be a little more aggressive about marketing, which isn't really in our psyche."
Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.