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From being items of souvenir taken by the visitors to the Kali temple, the paintings over a period of time have developed as a distinct school of Indian painting.
From the depiction of Hindu gods and other mythological characters, the Kalighat paintings developed to reflect a variety of subjects, including many depictions of everyday life.
In the 19th century, the only school of painting that was flourishing in Bengal was the traditional art of scroll paintings that was popular in the rural areas.
These paintings were done on cloth or patas. They depicted conventional images of gods and goddesses and scenes from epics like Tulsidas’ Rama Charita Manas.
The artists were villagers who travelled from place to place with their scroll paintings and sang the scenes from the epics depicted in the paintings during village gatherings and various festivals. These artists, called Patuas or ‘painters on cloth’.
The British: as patrons of this art :
Meanwhile, the British, having established themselves in the country politically started to evince interest in art, literature, and music.
They set up institutions that imparted a European style of academic training to Indian artists. The Calcutta School of Art was one such school and attracted traditional artists – the Patuas – to the city.
Initially, these artists were concentrated around the temple at Kalighat where there was a demand for religious art.
Gradually, they have started to learn from the newer techniques and discovered that these could help them increase their earnings. They started creating new forms of art and the Kalighat painting was thus born.
Oriental and Occidental Kalighat :
Another theme depicted, dear to the Bengali ethos, was that of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his disciples. But the Kalighat artists did not restrict themselves to religious themes. Their paintings depicting different professions and costumes were also popular with tourists.
Even contemporary events like crime were the subject of many paintings. The artists also chose to portray secular themes and personalities and in the process played a role in the Independence movement.
They painted historic characters like Rani Lakshmibai, and Duldul the famous horse of Imam Hussain of Karbala.
Capturing Daily Life
An important achievement of the Kalighat artists was that they made simple paintings and drawings, which could easily be reproduced by lithography. Such prints were then hand coloured.
This trend continued up to the early part of the twentieth century and these paintings ended up in museums and private collections.
The charm of the Kalighat paintings lies in the fact that they captured the essence of daily life and they influence modern artists like the late Jamini Roy even to this day.
Characterised by bright colours and bold outlines, Kalighat painting evolved as a unique genre of Indian painting in 19th-century Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in West Bengal.
From the depiction of gods and other mythological characters, these paintings developed over time to reflect a variety of themes. Kalighat ‘Patuas’ (painters) produced these cheaply made works of art to make a living by selling to a mass market.
The V&A holds the largest collection of Kalighat paintings in the world. The collection, which numbers about 645 watercolour drawings and paintings, also includes line drawings and hand-coloured lithographs.
The majority of works are similar to standard A3 paper size though the collection also contains 295 smaller, postcard-sized paintings (roughly 13 cm x 8 cm).
Created and collected over a period of 100 years from the 1830s to the 1930s, the works vary in style, quality of workmanship, colour, composition and subject matter.
Origins of Kalighat painting :
According to legend, Lord Shiva, the god of dance and destruction, was deep in meditation on Mount Kailasha when he received news of the death of his consort, Sati, an avatar (or human manifestation) of the goddess Kali.
He wandered for days with her body draped across his shoulders and his inconsolable grief threatened to ruin the earth.
Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, was called upon to intervene. To relieve Shiva’s burden, he shattered Sati’s body into 51 pieces. The little toe of Sati’s right foot was said to have fallen at the site of the Hooghly River, and from this point on the area became associated with the goddess Kali.
By the 1690s, when it became part of the city of Kolkata, it was already known as the sacred realm of Kali or Kalikshetra.
The moorings (Ghat in Bengali) on the bank of the Hooghly river were known to pilgrims as Kalighat, and there was perhaps an early version of a temple at the spot in the 17th and 18th centuries.
By the early 19th century, the temple was a popular destination for local people, pilgrims and interested European visitors.
As Kolkata developed into a busy and thriving industrial harbour city, migrants began arriving looking for new opportunities. Among these were various artisans, craftsmen and painters from various parts of India, including Patuas, members of an artisan community from West Bengal.
Kalighat, with its daily hordes of pilgrims, would have provided a perfect opportunity for the local artists to produce and sell small, cheap religious souvenirs.
The Patuas traditionally painted long narrative stories, often over 20 feet in length. Influenced by the different art forms around them and with a need to work quickly, the Patuas abandoned their linear, narrative style in favour of single pictures involving one or two figures.
The backgrounds were left plain, all non-essential details removed, and basic combinations of colours were used.
This created the key characteristics of the Kalighat genre. The Patuas’ productivity was also helped by the import of cheaper readymade paints from Britain and mill-made paper.
The paintings attracted the interest of many foreign travellers who visited the city in the 19th century. As examples of ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’ souvenirs, Kalighat paintings were perfect – easily portable and concise enough to explain to friends back home.
The V&A collection :
From 1879 onwards, the V&A acquired its Kalighat collection gradually through direct purchase or by gift. The earliest purchases were two paintings that were originally part of the India Museum collection.
Both paintings depicted secular themes: a seated Bengali Babu (a foppish male figure, with a mix of Bengali and Western style), and an illustration of Jackal Raja’s court.
On 8 August 1917, John Lockwood Kipling’s collection of 233 works were donated to the museum by his son Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was a sculptor and teacher, and Curator of the Lahore Museum in the late 1870s.
Another significant source was that of W.G. Archer, Keeper of the Indian Section at the V&A in the 1950s, who oversaw the acquisition of 90 Kalighat paintings.
Kalighat painting today :
The practice of Kalighat painting began to die out during the early decades of the 20th century following the increase in demand for cheaper, commercially produced images.
Many Patua families found themselves facing no option but to leave the city and head back to the rural districts where their ancestors had come from, or to look for other forms of employment.
Kalighat painting continues today in the rural districts of West Bengal. Medinipur and Birbhum are two such areas where the practice of Kalighat painting has been kept alive by contemporary artists.
Using organic dyes, as the original 19th century Patuas did, the paintings they create focus on secular themes and current events as well as a mixture of religions depictions, executed in a modern style.
Kolkata, as India’s unofficial cultural capital, has pioneered several movements and trends in literature, theater, and the visual arts over the past several centuries.
Kalighat painting, a school of art founded in the city during the 19th century, is among those rich legacies the country continues to bask in today.
Painted mostly on mill-made paper with flowing brushwork and bold dyes (often homemade), Kalighat paintings are said to have originated in the vicinity of the iconic Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata.
At this time, the works were sold to visitors who sought souvenirs to take with them from the religious sanctuary. The art almost always depicted Hindu gods and mythological characters, or incidents, themes, and characters from everyday life.
In what was dubbed the ‘Oriental school’ of Kalighat painting, predominant themes shone a spotlight on religious figures and scenes from sacred texts, from goddesses Durga and Lakshmi, to the characters of Rama and Sita in the ancient epic poem of Ramayana.
The alternate discipline of Kalighat painting, known as the ‘Occidental school,’ included pieces that depicted ordinary people engaging in everyday life or captured the changes taking place in Kolkata at the time.
The artworks commented on social evils such as crime, or expressed support for the Indian independence movement through illustrations of the likes of Tipu Sultan or Rani Lakshmibai – both revered for having fought the British.
Kalighat paintings were often a joint effort by a group of artists – usually from the same family. So while some members ground ingredients to create homemade dyes, others drew outlines of the figures, filled in the hues, or added the final touches in the form of motifs and background designs. These were then typically brought to be sold in the city.
This type of painting continues to influence and charm artists and art lovers in contemporary India. The late artist Jamini Roy is among some of the most acclaimed painters who have been influenced by the distinctive style.