A portal into the past

Kalighat paintings

A portal into the past

The Kalighat paintings, or pata as they are called in Bengali, are done in a distinct style of Indian painting. Belonging to the 19th century, the art originated in and around the Kalighat Kali Temple of Calcutta.

Done by scroll painters-cum-potters who migrated from rural Bengal to the city of Calcutta, these paintings are done in an earthy and satirical style and are characterised by bold colours, sweeping brush strokes and generously curving figures of both men and women. While most of them were water colour paintings done on mill-made paper, some were done on cloth as well. The artists were simple village folk who usually come from a lineage of artisans.

The paintings are highly stylised and are basically line drawings filled in with flat, bright colours. Some are done in black and white, using brushes and the blackening from lamps. Initially these paintings mostly depicted Hindu gods and goddesses and other mythological characters. They were bought by devotees who visited the Kali Temple. Decorating the walls with pictures of gods and goddesses has always been an old Indian tradition, even amongst the poor. Thus, the artists found a ready market in Kalighat. The most popular deities they painted were Kali, Durga, Lakshmi and Annapurna. They also portrayed Rama and Sita, Radha and Krishna, and the exploits of Hanuman and Sri Chaitanya. But the Kalighat painters soon looked further and went on to portray a variety of other themes, both social and historical. They also painted people who played an important role in the Freedom Movement, as well as heroic characters like Tipu Sultan and Rani Laxmibai.

Kalighat paintings have been in existence from the late 1830s. The 19th century witnessed a sudden burst of prosperity brought on by the East India Company that led to many changes in urban society. Many commoners became incredibly rich and were keen to imitate the Europeans, giving rise to what was termed ‘babu culture’. To the common people, these babus — who tried to dress like the English, wore shoes, smoked pipes and went about in their ‘curling Albert hairstyle’ — were objects of ridicule. So was their new lifestyle that included maintaining garden houses and courtesans, partying late into the night, and heavy drinking.

Since the Kalighat painters portrayed day-to-day happenings, babu culture, with a heavy satirical undertone, became a popular theme for their art. The babu culture portrayed in these paintings often shows inversions of the social order, such as wives beating the husbands and maidservants wearing shoes. In one of the pictures the artist depicts musk rats holding a party at night while the master of the house spends his time with nautch girls. The main aim of Kalighat painters was to lampoon the hypocrisies of the nouveau riche through their satirical paintings. They also did not spare the religious institutions and holy men who were fast becoming lax, corrupt and far removed from the asceticism they preached. All events of interest, social oddities and idiosyncrasies, follies and foibles of people, their hypocrisies and meanness were caught on the patas of the Kalighat painters. The Kalighat School of Painting also influenced the Bengal School of Art.

It is not difficult to appreciate the skill of these painters when we consider the simple equipment used by them. They made their paint brushes with the hair of goats or squirrels. They made their ink by burning an oil lamp under a pot and collecting the blackening. Colours used by them were homemade too, either from the juice of vegetables, leaves and flowers, or by grinding bricks and stones of different colours.

The entire family would help in the process. Children would collect the leaves and flowers while women would do the processing and grinding. The method of drawing was quite simple. One artist would copy in pencil the outline from an original model sketch. Then another artist would portray the flesh and muscles in light and dark shades. A third member would then fill in the background and the colours of different parts of the body of the figures portrayed. Finally, the main artist would do the finishing and outline the figures with lamp blackening.

The colours were mixed in water and gum so that they last longer. Quite often, women and children would help in filling up with colour the outlines made by actual artists. Thus the whole thing became a family affair, and its sole means of subsistence. The Kalighat School of Painting — considered a form of folk art — steadily gained popularity and their work travelled far and wide.

When German traders realised the popularity of these pictures and the fact that they were sold in thousands all over India, they had imitations made and took them back. Then they sent back glazed and coloured lithographed copies which flooded the country and virtually swept out the original hand-painted pictures by Kalighat painters.
What made it easy was the fact that these lithographs were much cheaper than the
original works of art. It spelt doom for the Kalighat painters who were obliged to turn to other professions for their livelihood. One can now find Kalighat paintings in museums alone, or among the private collections of a few art lovers.

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