Snapshots of 19th century Bengal in paintings of Kalighat


New Delhi : The 19th century paintings of Kalighat in West Bengal mirrored a phase of socio-political transition when the feudal Bengali gentry was opening up to European influences under pressure from the East India Company.

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Now, 100 ‘Kalighat paintings’ from the 1870-1930 period, taken from London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, are being shown in Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad and New Delhi. The exhibition also has 15 new patachitra (scroll) paintings from the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.

The show, a collaboration between V&A Museum, ministry of culture and Bonita Trust, opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi Tuesday.

“The changing socio-economic situation of 19th century Calcutta inspired the imagination of the artists. The new mill paper — which was invented a few years earlier — allowed the artists to move their brush easily on paper,” said Sangita Gairola, secretary, ministry of culture.

Divided into six segments, the paintings depict ‘Gods and Goddesses’, ‘Scenes from Life of Krishna & Epics’, ‘Social Commentaries’, ‘British and European Influences’, ‘Named Artists at the End of 19th Century’ and ‘Contemporary Kalighat Paintings’.

Symbols such as the ‘rohu’ fish, cats, prawns, women in kitchen, wrestlers, birds, animals, European sahibs, native workers, deities, babus, their modern wives and mistresses are common to the iconography.

The main event around which the art evolved was an 1873 scandal known as the ‘Tarakeshwar affair’ where a Brahmin priest was found having an affair with a housewife, an art critic said.

The 19th century Bengali babus — dividing time between their wives in the city and their mistresses in the suburbs — had suddenly discovered the joys of European luxuries such as ballroom dancing, riding in open carriages, English language and liberal literature.

The hybrid society of extra-marital liaisons, idyllic decadence and increased patronage of the arts led to the birth of Kalighat scroll paintings by migrant groups of painters in areas around the Kalighat temple in Calcutta. They painted on paper in water or natural colours.

Many of these paintings found their way to museums abroad after 1930, when the last of the Kalighat patua (painters) died. The tradition ended for almost 50 years till it began to revive in the villages of Midnapore, with a contemporary flavour.

“The Kalighat paintings were created as popular urban art for the masses. Although historically, they circulated within the social milieu of 19th century Kolkata, their universal appeal went much further inspiring the later works of Indian and European artists,” said Martin Roth, director of V&A Museum.

The museum in London has nearly 600 Kalighat paintings, said Moira Gemmill, director of projects, design & estates at the V&A Museum.

“They have probably been sourced from one collection. This is the first time we have brought the Kalighat paintings out of the V&A reserves — and India has been their first international exhibition venue. They are not on display in the Indian gallery at the museum. Viewers have to seek an appointment to view them in the reserves. But we are planning a bigger gallery for Indian art. We do not have enough space but so much material,” Gemmill told IANS.

V&A Museum has an estimated 45,000 Indian artworks.

The Kalighat paintings became popular as ‘bazaar art’ among laypersons since they blended tradition and market in an urban setting, said eminent artist Jatin Das.

“They were painted by traditional artists who shifted to Calcutta from the villages. They captured a single time period with symbolic social icons such as the babus and their concubines,” Das told IANS.

The Kalighat paintings also marked the growth of the ‘Bat-tala’ (Bowbazar) wood block printing and publishing around similar themes in satirical social commentary books.

“We have been trying to revive it with modern themes for the last 10 years in the villages of Midnapore by merging traditional themes with those of politics, corruption, women’s liberation and consumerism,” Kalam Patua, a new generation of Kalighat artist, told IANS.

Three of his paintings are part of the exhibition which will continue here till May 25.