Art News & Views

Narratives of Common Life and Allegorical Tales In Traditional and Modern Forms the Best of Kalighat 'Pats'


by Sarmistha Maity

Kolkata. Narratives from daily mundane life, social realities and its complexities and binaries, religious beliefs, ethical discourses, relationship orientations, value system and morality, amalgamation of different cultures and so on  all became the basic content of Kalighat paintings or Kalighat 'pats' of the nineteenth century Calcutta. The Kalighat school of paintings in precise can be referred as one of the first schools of India that is both modern and popular. These watercolour drawings/paintings with strong lines, vibrant colours and in bold simplification with a visual rhythm diminishing any kind of 3-dimensional perspective bring them in quite close affinity with modern art. The contemporary depiction of their space and time make these paintings a social document of their times that is quite different from today's world but in no way reduces the reflection of the modern mindset of the people who delved with innovation and brought about changes in looking at things and set a kind of market value to the practice of art to popularize and connect it to the mass. And of course Kalighat paintings were a means of livelihood for many artists of that period in the history.

The basic premise of Kalighat paintings lies in their mystery of being distinctive in bearing the fusion of the meeting of the East and the West where the ideas and techniques of the British and the Bengali merged and that made this form of art modern and traditional at the same time. But as an Indian it should make us feel sorry when we find that the major collection of the Kalighat paintings don't remain with us but has been carried by the British back to their home before independence. The best of Kalighat paintings has become the part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. And sitting back in Kolkata in the 21st century, it can be regarded as a lifetime opportunity to see the real works of Kalighat paintings executed during the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the then Calcutta at an exhibition in the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata in the show that is called, Kalighat Paintings An Exhibition of Paintings from the Victoria and Albert Museum and Victoria Memorial Hall.  The exhibition has begun on October 15, 2011 and will remain open till December 11, 2011.

Kalighat painting as a popular cultural form thrived all through the 19th century and gradually declined in the middle of the 20th century. The works were mainly executed by the local artists known as 'patuas' who painted thousand of such 'pats' and sole them for two or four pice each (1 pie is equal to 1 penny) mostly in the open market outside the Kalighat temple that was one of the biggest hustling zones even in that period. The British influence on Kalighat paintings can be regarded in different layers and in various aspects. 'Pat' as a local form of art existed in India for centuries especially in the eastern fringe of the country. In Bengal artists living in the rural districts of Bengal painted pats on scrolls narrating stories from the epics, 'Purans', mythology, allegorical tales, cults important to Hindus and Muslims  and carried them in their local markets and fairs for display with recital of the stories depicted in the scrolls. But change was brought when the first paper mill was started as early as in 1809, and the ready availability of factory-made water colours and cheap paper. The emergence of the Kalighat style in a way started with this. The English had carried their penchant for water-colours to India, and engaged themselves in training local artists in drawing and water-colours of their own style, chiefly to record landscapes, monuments and natural history. The local artists learnt the technique of using these colours and the paper but applied them in their depiction of the traditional form of art, the 'pats'.

The 'patuas' adopted the new format of single rectangular panels and also adapted the stylistic features like the plain background left empty which was quite unlike of the traditional Indian painting. The focusing on the main figures while excluding the background was probably influenced by the contemporary English portrait prints. Their style evolved in response to the growing market of that time. The most interesting part of the Kalighat painting was of course the depiction of a realistic content with simplistic designs and in a more allegorical way. Basically the designs were kept simple to be repeated as often as required according to the popularity of the picture. Unlike the detailed draughtsmanship of the scroll painters, a strong naturalism became more evident in the works. Figures were outlined in pencil before the base colour was swiftly in broad wet strokes. Colours applied were vivid in nature and a darker hue was added to obtain sculptural volume before the base coat was dry and that helped in avoiding tide marks. Faces were mostly drawn in three-quarter profile and eyes, nose, ears, moustache or beard was added accordingly as required. The simplification in the stylization resulted in the total number of figures being severely reduced and not making the picture-plain unnecessarily voluminous. And silver ornaments that was one of the major characteristic features of the early Kalighat 'pats' was added at last using colloidal tin with detailed brushwork to make it more elegant and distinctive along with the delicately outlined lips that are richly sensuous. The vivid line, the minute finish, deft precision, rhythmical arrangement of limbs, shading to give a strong effect of roundness and an almost tubular simplicity had made this style so attractive and popular.

This particular exhibition has showcased the Kalighat 'pats' according to the stages of their evolution diving them into categories like paintings depicting stories from mythology, epics and so on where how the artists added to their innovation marks the major significance of such artworks also delving with serious thought-process, like the 'patuas' often drew the trio of 'Jagannath-Balaram-Shubhadra' bearing hands. The 'Babu-culture' was another fascinating area of the Kalighat paintings' narrative picture-plane that reflected several relationship orientations and also depicted many proverbs associated with such relations. The painters could easily depict the traditional 'Ramayana' or the contemporary Tarakeshwar murder scandal with the same expertise to a set of scenes. They evolved a minimalist style of generalized figuration (one heavy-set male, one slim male, one ample female, clothed and ornamented) that could be used in any narrative situation, religious or secular. The third category comprised of those paintings which depicted the cultural influence of the English in the Indian way of living and also along with inclusion of the stylization of naturalistic paintings. And the fourth category of paintings broadly included the present Kalighat 'pats' executed since 2007 onward depicting the realities of the present times. The signature of the 'patuas' in these paintings made them quite contextual of the fact that the descendents of the Kalighat traditional painters also want their individual artist's identity.

The exhibition as a whole would be a wonderful experience for any art lover and also the common audience to get a complete idea of the Kalighat 'pats' and its best works and come at par with one of the wonderful creations of Indian art that unfortunately couldn't be preserved in India.

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