To most Europeans, Calcutta brings to mind the Black Hole, Mother Teresa and the totally irrelevant late 1960s erotic revue Oh! Calcutta. Less well known are the city's Kalighat paintings and drawings, although many are in major British collections and have been quite frequently exhibited. This striking genre of Bengali folk art, created from c.1800 to the 1930s, is intriguingly modern. Some scholars have noted similarities of form and content with the works of 20th-century painters such as Leger, Matisse and Modigliani.
At a time when Calcutta is being officially renamed Kolkata (from August 24), Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World is a timely reflection of the city's vibrant artistic and cultural past.
As Calcutta began to prosper as a stylish metropolis in the 18th century, hopeful migrants came from all over India to seek their fortunes. Among them were professional artists from neighbouring princely courts such as the legendary Murshidabad. (In a letter, Clive of India compared Murshidabad's wealth to that of London.) There were also folk painters, or patuas , itinerant narrators of mythological stories. They roamed the length and breadth of rural Bengal with rolled-up canvas scrolls upon which they had stuck a series of pictures painted with vegetable and mineral dye on handmade paper. The scrolls were unrolled before the assembled village crowd as the patua unfolded his tale.
The patuas were entertainers and educators for simple people; sophisticated city-dwellers shunned their rustic antics. The poorer city-dwellers and the migrant workers could relate to the patua stories, but urban life deprived them of their former leisure to attend lengthy theatrical performances. Therefore, to survive in Calcutta, patuas were forced to reinvent their traditional profession. Following the examples of the potters and the wood carvers who made cheap, portable toys and souvenirs to sell around temples and shrines, the patuas took to painting small, single icons, mainly from the Hindu pantheon, which soon became popular.
As Kalighat Painting shows, Kalighat art must be seen in the context of other forms of visual art of the period in Bengal, such as the wood carvings of sutradhars (carpenters) and the pantomime performances of swangs (clowns). Thus Kalighat paintings are documents of social history rather than mere curios or exotic images.
As the demand for the patuas ' work grew, they opened small shops near the Kali temple - the most sacred shrine in the city, in the southern district of Kalighat. Devotees thronged there daily and in immense numbers on auspicious days. Working with swift calligraphic brush strokes on a plain background, the chief patua would often draw only the outline and leave various members of his family to colour it in turn, with one
filling in reds, another greens and so on. Kalighat paintings were communal productions.
In addition to religious icons, the patuas painted contemporary scenes, such as jockeys on horseback or English sahibs on elephants. Soon they were aided by English water-based colours and standard-sized mill-made papers of roughly A3 size. Gradually they discovered how water-based colours blended by the capillary process, provided they began by painting on a damp surface. This magical way of representing volumes on a flat surface endowed their paintings with vigour, sensuality and charm.
The exciting lifestyle of imperial Calcutta propelled their creativity in new directions. Theatres and pantomimes initiated them into satire and comedy. They began to portray the wealthy Calcutta babus à la Hogarth, as gentlemen without morals who squandered their substance. One Kalighat painting shows a nattily groomed babu in his exquisitely fine, well-pleated muslin dhoti standing outside his home with a hovering butterfly lured by the aroma of his perfume. An open window behind him reveals a band of Disney-esque muskrats playing drums, signifying inner hollowness.
Charlatan sadhus (holy men) were another favourite type. A popular depiction shows a discredited ascetic being beaten by a woman, presumably as a result of an improper advance. Often a cat painted with ritual stripes on its forehead would stand for a hypocrite holy man. Thus a painting of a cat with a prawn in its mouth carries the message that despite professed renunciation of the flesh, a fake sadhu has secretly succumbed to lust. Such social caricatures were eloquent to illiterates, amusing without being libellous, and cheap to buy.
In 1873, the Tarakeshwar trial inspired the patuas to paint this sordid incident as a series. The scandal of a young wife debauched by the head priest of a local Shiva shrine and the eventual murder of the wife by her enraged husband was ideally suited for a moral tableau. Most people bought one or two illustrations, if not the entire series. I still recall my childhood horror, following many stealthy visits to the servants' dingy room in my family home in Calcutta, of a faded oleograph showing the decapitated head of the fallen wife concealed behind a calendar.
The goddess Kali embodied shakti , power, the female active principle of Hindu philosophy. Thus it was felicitous for the patuas to empower their flirtatious, painted women by turning their suitors into lap dogs and charlatans. The painters also idolised women as Saraswati, goddesses of knowledge and the arts, not just objects of desire. Of course, here the patuas were responding to the spread of female education: the Bethune school for girls, Calcutta's first such, was founded in 1849, to be followed by a college.
Kalighat painters are now extinct. Their heyday lasted from about 1830 to 1930. With the advent of cheap, appealing
lithographic and oleographic prints and photography, patuas could no longer
compete. Over time, they took to painting the backdrops of proscenium stages and to decorating the clay idols worshipped at festivals. Only the Kalighat paintings collected and donated to museums by European visitors such as the French missionaries, John Lockwood Kipling, Monier Monier-Williams, W. G. Archer and by Indians such
as the Marwari merchants of Calcutta from Shekhavati in Rajasthan, who took the Kalighat paintings home as souvenirs,
have escaped the ravages of time and
This lavishly illustrated but not so elegantly written book attempts to chart the history of Kalighat paintings through their "stratigraphy of construction" in relation to their "endogamous social circle".
The author, India's leading museum director, has efficiently collated other materials on the subject and included a new album of paintings from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection in the United States (sadly, Chester Herwitz died as the book was published).
There are some good specimens of charcoal drawings from the Gurusaday Museum, Calcutta, but I would like to have seen included some of the black-and-white drawings from the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as works from the Bodleian Library and the Wellcome Institute Museum.
The text omits any reference to such matters as the founding of the Srirampur (Serampore) paper mill and the central roles of the artists Abanindranath Tagore (and the Tagore family in general), Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose in raising general awareness about folk art and the patua tradition. The select bibliography is not entirely inadequate (no India and Modern Art by Archer, for instance), and the index is minimal.
Krishna Dutta is a translator and scholar specialising in Bengali culture.
Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World
Author - Jyotindra Jain
ISBN - 1 890206 17 2
Publisher - Mapin
Price - £40.00
Pages - 232