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Era:  19th century.


Location: Market beside the Kali Temple at Kalighat, in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) then the capital of India.

The moorings on the bank of the Hooghly River were known to pilgrims as Kalighat, and there was an early version of a temple at the spot in the 17th and 18th centuries. The temple was a popular destination for local people, pilgrims, and interested European visitors.


Kalighat Temple- an 1887 drawing.


Kolkata developed into a busy and thriving industrial harbour city, and the temple is one of the major attractions where businesses thrived around the temple. Flowers, clothes, sweet shops, utensils, toys were popular merchandises. Patua's or chitrakars also set their shops to sell their paintings as souvenirs to the visitors.


From being an item of souvenir, these paintings developed as a distinct school of Indian paintings.


Origins of Chitrakars or Patuas can be traced to the 13th century. The Patua is a unique community, in that their traditional occupation is the painting and modelling of Hindu idols, yet many of them are Muslims. Their name Patua is a corruption of the Bengali word Pota, which means an engraver, and Chitrakar which means scroll painter.


One of the theories as to the origin of this community relates to the fact that they were cast out when they fell out with their Brahmin priests. They seem to be one of several tribal groupings that were overtime Islamised. They were mentioned both in Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic classic or historical literature, as they moved back and forth from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam.


The Patuas paid little attention to faith while looking for patronage. Chitrakars themselves might have converted to Islam as a strategy to avoid the oppression by a hierarchy of sub-castes created during the Sen Dynasty which ruled Bengal during the 11th and 12th centuries.

This was an extremely slow process with the Patuas, as seen by the fact that every Patua has two names, one Hindu and one Muslim.


Patuas started in the village tradition as painters of scrolls or pats telling and singing the popular stories of the gods and goddesses.


A part of the community moved to Kolkata in Kalighat to sell their painting another part settled in Kumartuli who practiced sculpting out of clay.



Meanwhile, the British, having established themselves in the country politically started to show 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.



Durga with Ganesha- Kalighat painting


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 born.


It reflected and documented the ethos of a newborn urban society. It soon became a school with the capacity of assimilating exotic elements and modifying itself to create a new and vibrant visual language.


This type of secular painting derided Baboo culture (In British India, baboo is often referred to as a native Indian clerk), feminism, social debauchery, religious hypocrisy, and all types of falsehood. Their work found a ready market among middle and lower-middle-class people. The Indian intellectuals of that time despised everything that did not conform to their Victorian ideal.


Rudyard Kipling was charmed by the terse beauty of the art and acquired a lot and donated it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This collection and the Prague Museum collection constitute the best remaining specimens of Kalighat painting.


Paris-based moderns of the early twentieth century vied with each other in acquiring Kalighat Paintings.



The subjects of Kalighat painting predominantly reflect the orthodox sentiments of painters who feared that social changes would lead to chaos. Husbands beating or killing unfaithful wives, pampered wives riding on the shoulders of henpecked husbands, baboos embracing concubines, good-for-nothing-dandies, cats bearing Hindu holy marks on the forehead as an allusion to debauchery, were popular themes. Also popular was the image of Shyamakanta fighting a tiger; an allegory of fighting the British. 





Barber cleaning a Woman's ear- Kalighat painting


In religious paintings, the same jewellery adorns human and divine beings. The tubular anatomy, arbitrary shading along the contours, heavily simplified forms, and rearrangement of the planes, with figures dominating the entire pictorial space without any secondary adornment or props, anticipated quite a few new experiments in modern art.


The treatment of planes forged the two-dimensional quality of the pictorial space. The bold lines, the broad planes, the vibrant palette, the linear tensions, and the rhythmic curves are all attuned to a kind of visual music. Unfortunately, the painters left their work unsigned and are lost into oblivion.


The brush works were with the tip of a thick brush loaded with water-dipped into black ink or colour to achieve shaded contours, plastic feeling, and tubular mass in a single sweeping stroke,   brisk, thin short strokes in black or a dark colour to demarcate figures and the eyes, noses, and fingers, or to denote folds and partings in drapery, thick black lines were used to outline the pad or the border of the cloth. Hair too was shown as a black block. A flat middle tone was used as a colour-wash for clothes to differentiate them from the body. Sometimes, another colour-wash was applied to the figure area. With shaded contours and articulated gestures and movement, the figures attained a plaque-like effect on a neutral unpainted ground. During the later phase, silver was used for jewellery.


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 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.


Kalighat painting was the first artistic expression of a subaltern culture in the Indian sub-continent that addressed the consumer directly; it was neither directed by nor produced for the capital or the ruling authority.


The Kalighat paintings are inspirations of a few paintings done by me in coloured pencils and watercolours. Handpainted artwork and Limited edition prints are available for sale. Please check these paintings:






















Victoria & Albert Museum.