Tableaux form in pat

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This essay is taken from the catalog for the exhibition ‘Kalighat Pat’ held at Gallery Artsindia, September 19 – October 12, 2003

The Kalighat Style: Triumph of Invention and Tradition

Susan S. Bean

The hugely popular, simple, and direct Kalighat style flourished in the bazaars of nineteenth-century Calcutta. Thousands of swiftly and boldly executed watercolors of gods, celebrities, and scoundrels were eagerly acquired. The paintings appealed to the prosperous as well as the poor, and to both residents and visitors in this burgeoning colonial city. Yet it was not until the early twentieth century, when Kalighat paintings were no longer produced, that the art was recognized as a brilliantly inventive aesthetic achievement. Over the course of the twentieth century, a significant corpus of publications has established a place for Kalighat painting in India’s artscape (see the bibliography). The painters who created the style were from hereditary artisan communities, and their training was rooted in traditional apprenticeship. These so-called craftsmen devised a new style of painting, using newly available media and captured the attention of a rapidly expanding cosmopolitan clientele. Their success challenges widely held views of artisans as conservative exponents of static traditions.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Kalighat style has attracted a renewed burst of attention. In 1999 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted the first major exhibition of the style curated by Stephen Markel. A book, Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World, authored by Jyotindra Jain and published in conjunction with the exhibition, brought scholarship on the subject to a new level and, with nearly two hundred color illustrations, made Kalighat painting widely accessible for the first time. These explorations of Kalighat painting were greatly facilitated by the foresight of Chester Herwitz who had assembled a formidable collection of Kalighat paintings during the 1970s and early 1980s and made that collection available to serve as the basis for both the exhibition and the book. In 2003, Herwitz’s collection came to the Peabody Essex Museum, making the museum the most important public repository of Kalighat painting in America, and advancing the museum’s project of presenting Indian art of the modern era, so long neglected and ignored in the West. This rising interest in Kalighat painting is another manifestation of dramatic growth in India’s contemporary art movement. Increasingly curation, scholarship, and criticism are exploring the place of contemporary art practice in India’s complex artscape as well as its relation to art practice elsewhere, now and in the past. In this endeavor, Kalighat painting occupies a singular position—located in the nineteenth century, produced by hereditary artisans, and yet uncannily modernist in its deployment of line and color.

The designation “Kalighat” was applied by Mukul Dey in one of the first articles published on the subject. He named the style of painting for the place where he first encountered it around 1910 in the riverside neighborhood of Calcutta’s famous Kali temple. By the time Dey’s article appeared in 1932, the production of Kalighat paintings had ceased entirely. Dey recalled: Strolling through the streets of South Calcutta a few years ago I chanced to get into the precincts of the old temple of Mother Kali. The lanes and by-lanes leading to the temple courtyard were full of small shops dealing with everything interesting to the pilgrims.…There were sweetmeat shops in plenty, toys, utensils, bangles, and what was most important to my eyes, pictures in colours as well as in lines, hung up in almost all shops. These drawings had a peculiarity of their own which attracted the attention and interest of any man who had any taste for art and drawings. The drawings were bold and attractive and at the same time their technique was so different and simple, that they looked [like] something absolutely distinctive from their class found anywhere else.

Such paintings were certainly produced and sold in other workshops and bazaars around Calcutta, and probably beyond; nevertheless, the name “Kalighat” caught on and became accepted.

While the demise of the Kalighat style can readily be dated to the early decades of the twentieth century, its origins remain obscure. Indications are that workshops producing the paintings were well established by 1832 when Mrs. Belnos, an amateur French artist of some accomplishment, drew a picture of a humble dwelling showing an image of Shiva in the Kalighat style on the wall. Kalighat painting flourished through the end of the nineteenth century, despite stiff competition from rapidly developing local printing presses and imported pictures made for the Indian market in Europe, succumbing only with major improvements in color printing and a new vogue for images of gods and goddesses in a Western naturalistic manner.

The Kalighat style, well represented by the paintings in the Gallery Arts India exhibition, is characterized by economy of line in deftly executed brush strokes delineating figures against a blank ground using a limited palette of basic colors—black, red, blue, green, yellow, and a silvery tin-based pigment. Most distinctive are the broad strokes of deep color shading into pale washes that impart a sense of volume to arms, legs, and torsos, and contour to faces. Long, fine brush strokes in black, silver, or red delineate facial features, and sometimes outline feet, hands, bodies, and clothing. Occasionally, penciled or lithographed lines that guided the artist’s brush can be discerned at the figures’ edges. Finishing touches in silvery tin-based pigment added jewelry, ornaments, and decorative motifs. The result was fresh, bright, bold, and plainly very attractive to a broad clientele.

The Kalighat style was invented by painters from hereditary artisan communities in response to the growth of Calcutta into a densely populated, cosmopolitan colonial city, a center of international trade drawing residents and visitors from around India and the world. In Calcutta’s bazaars, artists had access to a broad range of pictorial art from other parts of India, Europe, and China, as well as to new materials. The painters who invented the Kalighat style discovered that newly available mill-made paper (produced principally for the printing presses sprouting up around the city) and European-style transparent watercolors, a medium introduced in the eighteenth century, allowed them to paint in new ways. The paper’s smooth surface and the fluidity of the water-based medium made it possible to control the depth of tone from dark to the palest wash applied in flowing brush strokes. Paintings could be made quickly with inexpensive materials and sold at very low prices.

Most of the artists who took up the new style were probably patuas or chitrakars, traditionally painters of narrative scrolls who traveled from village to village to recite the tales of gods and goddesses using their paintings as props. But, especially as their market expanded, painters were also drawn from potter (kumor) and woodworker (sutradar) backgrounds. Artists from all of these communities seem to have been adept at following the market, turning to image making in clay, or painting on cloth and paper as their clientele demanded. In his recent book, Jyotindra Jain has shown how sub-styles of Kalighat painting can be related to the particular artisanal heritage of the painter.

Kalighat painters produced works in a broad range of subjects. Perhaps most in demand were images of gods and goddesses and episodes from their lives—the incarnations of Vishnu, the youthful adventures of Krishna—but the narrative themes ranged much more widely embracing the lives of mortals as well. Mukul Dey in the article cited above recollected: I remember the patuas drawing the pictures in their “shop-studios.” These “shop-studios” were more or less “news bureaus” of the country, where not only the pictures of mythological subjects were drawn, but caricatures and satirical sketches ... dealing with topics of the day, the happenings in the law courts as well as in the bazaars. …For example, wealthy zemindars spending their money on wine and women, foppish babus spending their day and night at nasty places, a Mohunt suffering imprisonment for abducting girls, or a priest or Vaishnav “Guru” (who is invariably depicted as well-fed and well-groomed, pot-bellied and top-knotted—the veritable picture of a pious rogue) living with unchaste women.…Even popular sayings and proverbs get good illustrations from them.

In the artscape of nineteenth-century Calcutta, Kalighat painting dominates the scene for the sheer volume of production and for its astonishingly broad popularity. Their bold and colorful style and the range of divine and topical subjects appealed to all sorts of buyers. There are paintings inscribed in Bengali and English, of course, but also in Tamil, Czech, German, and Russian in collections that found their way to other parts of India, Europe, and America. Wealthy Western travelers sometimes gathered collections and mounted them into elaborate leather-bound albums. Visitors from other parts India who came on the recently extended railway network went home with sacred and very secular mementos of Calcutta. Even poor pilgrims could afford to take home images of gods and goddesses.

Paradoxically, Kalighat painting in its time was both immensely popular and considered inconsequential. Paintings were cheap, and the painters were poor artisans of low social standing. Even T. N. Mukharji, an authority on the arts and industries of India in the late nineteenth century, pronounced them rude daubs. The economy of line and simple bold composition that characterized the Kalighat style were not esteemed by nineteenth-century art connoisseurs and came to be appreciated only with the emergence of modernist sensibilities in the twentieth century.

Ajit Ghose may have been the first to articulate this new perspective, writing in 1926 when a modernist movement was underway in Calcutta: In the pata drawings there is a boldness and vigour in the brush line which may be compared to Chinese calligraphy….The drawing is made with one long bold sweep of the brush in which not the faintest suspicion of even a momentary indecision, not the slightest tremor, can be detected. Often the line takes in the whole figure in such a way that it defies you to say where the artist’s brush first touched the paper or where it finished its work.

Later in the twentieth century, artists, including Jamini Roy, Jogen Chowdhury, Bhupen Khakhar, and Lalu Prasad Shaw, found Kalighat paintings an inspirational source for their own art practice.

Twenty-first-century postmodern sensibilities are open to a far greater diversity of artistic expression than prevailed in the West during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. Ranging far beyond the confines of the traditional Western canon, even beyond the classical arts of Asian civilizations, Western art museums, scholars, and critics engage elite and vernacular arts around the globe and modernist movements outside Europe and the United States. This aesthetic enlightenment promises a widening circle of admirers not only for Kalighat painting, but also for the exceptionally vibrant and diverse popular art forms that have flourished in towns and villages across southern Asia.

Bibliography

W. G. Archer, Bazaar Paintings of Calcutta. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953.

W. G. Archer, Kalighat Drawings: From the Basant Kumor Birla Collection. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1962.

W. G. Archer, Kalighat Paintings. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1971.

Susan S. Bean, “An Art World Transformed: Paintings from 19th Century Calcutta at the Peabody Essex Museum,” Orientations, June 2003, pp. 39–46.

Mrs. S. C. Belnos, Twenty-Four Plates Illustrative of Hindu and European Manners in Bengal. London, 1832, plate 14, Interior of a Native Hut.

Mukul Dey, “Drawings and Paintings of Kalighat,” Advance. Calcutta, 1932.

Ajit Ghose, “Old Bengal Paintings,” Rupam, nos. 27 & 28, July—October 1926, p.103.

Jyotindra Jain, Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World. Ahmedabad: Marg Publications, 1999.

Hana Knížková, The Drawings of the Kalighat Style, Anthropological Papers of the Náprstek Museum. Prague: National Museum, 1975.

T. N. Mukharji, Art Manufactures of India. New Delhi: Navrang, 1974 (originally 1888).


Susan S. Bean is curator of South Asian and Korean art and culture at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where she has just installed two new galleries for Indian art at the museum as part of a $125 million expansion and renovation project. One of these, the Herwitz Gallery, is the first in the United States dedicated to the exhibition of Indian modern and contemporary art. Dr. Bean’s most recent book, Yankee India: American Commercial and Cultural Encounters with India in the Age of Sail, 1784–1860, was published in 2001 by the Peabody Essex Museum and Mapin Publications.

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