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A paean to Kalighat patuas

Rich in imagery, the Kalighat watercolour ‘pats’ became known for their evocative iconography as well as social commentary.
Last Updated : 08 July 2023, 20:15 IST
Last Updated : 08 July 2023, 20:15 IST

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“Change is central to any creative activity,” explained K G Subramanyan in a Santiniketan lecture way back in 1970. “Art changes like other things...changes in social structure, patronage, materials, religion, all have their repercussions on the nature of the art practice of the time.” Citing an example, the eminent scholar described how the advent of colonial powers affected the modes and methods of art practice in the country. “When in the 19th century our princely courts, which were the chief patrons of our traditional artist-craftsmen, gave in to the blandishments of the European culture of that time, it broke the backbone of the so-far continuous craft practice.”

‘The Babu And The Bazaar: Art From 19th And Early 20th Century Bengal’ (Aditi Nath Sarkar with Shatadeep Maitra/published by DAG, New Delhi) explores the changing dynamics of art in colonial Bengal, more particularly, in Calcutta (now Kolkata) a pulsating metropolis standing at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. In the 19th century, when Calcutta became a seat of power, trade and commerce, its growth acted as a catalyst for the development of various artistic traditions, the foremost of which was the watercolour ‘pats’, popularly known as Kalighat paintings. The patuas (erstwhile scroll painters) began producing single-sheet gouache watercolours of divinities and iconic figures and selling them to 19th-century pilgrim tourists.

“What is delightful about Kalighat paintings are the strokes that the artists did and the line surging towards its destination,” says art and cultural historian, Dr Jyotindra Jain. “They were trying to work towards realism and dimensionality. But they also took many liberties and added humour. Like Shiva would look like the next-door mithaiwala and Parvati would wear the attire of a Bengali bride.”

Rich in imagery and iconography and executed with minute care and considerable taste, the vibrant Kalighat paintings became popular not only with pilgrims but also Europeans who took them abroad as souvenirs.

Origins and evolution

Taking the reader through the origins and evolution of Kalighat ‘pats’, the coffee-table book also deliberates on the changing contours of the ‘art bazaar’ in the 19th century. It elaborates on how the watercolour paintings, which mostly depicted divine iconography, began incorporating secular themes; how prints (woodcuts, engravings, lithographs, and oleographs) started populating the market; and how family-owned shops of hand-drawn ‘pats’ virtually folded up in the 1930s when high-quality prints took over. The book also speaks of the advent of oil paints, linen canvas paintings and reverse glass art. It mentions instances of European artists painting Indian themes and Indian painters using European art as a template for Indian themes.

As importantly, the book throws light on the rise of the neo-rich culture in Calcutta and its influence on the art bazaar. The Bengali Babu’s penchant for flamboyant living in the 19th century and the changing urban fashion impacted even the appearance of ancient Hindu gods in paintings. Curiously, the opulent lifestyle of the Europeanised babu became the butt of ridicule in art and literature. The authors surmise that elite babus tried to control the culture of the masses, and in return, their actions were often mocked in popular culture.

Charming asides

A striking range of images produced in different mediums (particularly Kalighat watercolour ‘pats’) is the highlight of the book. DAG, the publisher, incidentally, boasts of a strong repository of art from Bengal spanning several centuries till the modern day.

Apart from the main story, there are several other charming asides which catch the reader’s eye. One gets to see interesting images like that of a sarpa-satra yagna performance attended by sages and gods; the animated setting shows contemporary 19th-century architecture! In another image depicting the Kurukshetra war, the uniform of soldiers is very similar to that sported by soldiers of the East India Company!

Objectification of women

As one browses through the numerous plates populating the pages of the book, the principal theme which stands out is the deification and objectification of women. According to art historian Aditi Nath Sarkar, women seemingly had only two identities in 19th-century Calcutta art. One, beshya (sex worker) who had a transactional relationship with her clientele; and the other, the ideal wife and mother who looked after her family and household.

Sarkar also mentions a mid-19th-century survey which estimated a population of 12,000 sex workers in Calcutta, of which 10,000 were Hindu widowed women and daughters of Kulin Brahmins. “Watercolour ‘pat’ paintings and art studio prints from the late 19th century depicted women as sex workers in a pin-up style of art called Sundari...Their sarees were intentionally made translucent to add to the erotic imagery...On the opposite end of this spectrum, we see the Hindu woman’s deification in popular and elite artistic traditions.” Understandably, religious paintings would deck the temple rooms of mansions, while erotica could be found in the babu’s drinking room or dancing parlour.

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Published 08 July 2023, 19:55 IST

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