Social commentary


Elegant: Kalighat style paintings. Photos by author

There are very few genres in the Indian painting gamut that are satirical yet appealingly artistic in temperament. The Kalighat Pat, born from the strained British-Bengal wedlock, is a terrific illustration from that pool of work. Tiptoeing out of folk bearings, artists generated a spontaneous style, which was a compelling blend of influences, and more importantly, a social commentary. Such was the extent of its popularity that the idiom is credited with leading the way for India’s contemporary art movement.

This school of creativity emerged on the art firmament around the early 19th century — historians agree on its glorious period being between 1815-1880 AD  — and drew its name from the place it originated — outside the precincts of the Kalighat Kali Temple in Calcutta. It was the construction of the temple in 1809 AD that started bringing folk artists — scroll-painters or paata-chitrakars — from rural Bengal to Calcutta, who saw an opportunity to make a living and settled around the Kali Temple. Initially, they began creating folk paintings depicting Hindu gods, goddesses, deities and mythical figures, in a bid to appease the pilgrim customer. Over time, as artists got well-entrenched in urban milieu, British-Calcutta began influencing their work. The artists took to documenting the times they lived in and did so by poking fun at society, emphasising on the breakdown of traditions.

Images of this changing world were represented by the emergence of a new figurative style, which had its roots in folk iconography but skillfully incorporated other styles such as British studio photography techniques, Mughal court scenes and the visual effect seen in Sanskrit dramas that used a typical arched stage. The resulting Kalighat genre was effusive — bold, vibrant with a hint of lampoon that a common person could relate to. Ingeniously multi-layered with social, political and religious proportions, these caricatures of society stood out for their artistic elegance.

The artists chose the nouveau-riche clerk or babu of the East India Company as their muse to symbolise the emergence of a prosperous Bengali middle class and the subsequent erosion of the value system. They painted Indo-Western attired Company nabobs, dandy Bengali babus posing for the camera in much the same way as seen in Victorian portraits — flirty and vain women, babus with concubines, idlers, etc. Nuances showing changes could be observed in shoes replacing sandals or chappals; the dhoti being discarded for trousers; men wearing caps and women’s saree blouses being more lacy with puffed sleeves similar to dresses worn by English women. 

Subtle allusions conveying British dominance also emerged, and a popular icon projected a cat eating a fish. The cat was used as imagery quite often. At places, it’s shown bearing temple marks on the forehead, conveying a corrupted mindset of religious persons. As the Kalighat genre grew in popularity, so did voices against British rule, and artists began painting themes projecting patriotism like Rani of Jhansi on a horseback with a sword in her hand.

The Kalighat medium was watercolour on paper. Artists used standard paints and inexpensive, factory-made miniature-sized paper, the dimension usually not going beyond 12x18 inches. The paintings were fundamentally line drawings with a bold outline made in one swift black stroke. Paintings were created within a margin and the figure dominated the entire frame. In comparison to solid contrasting colours used in most Indian artworks at that time, Kalighat painters applied translucent tones and complemented these with subtle earthy shades, which gave their art form a distinct look.

In these paintings, the eyes of the characters are most arresting. Based on folk influence, it’s just two bold black strokes that denote it, but it’s the artist’s brilliance that makes them most expressive. Renowned painter Jamini Roy is said to have been influenced by this school of art, and the typical ‘Bengali eyes’ that his paintings portray, have their roots in the Kalighat style.

This art form made an untimely departure around the end of the century when lithographers replicated the paintings on glazed paper and flooded the market at cheaper rates. The painters never signed their work and got lost into oblivion. A bulk of Kalighat paintings, bought as souvenirs by travellers, reached museums in London and have survived. Today, the originals are worth their price in gold. However, seeing a revival of interest in the Kalighat genre, scroll painters in Bengal, since the past few years, have started doing reproductions, which incidentally are quick sellers.   

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