Our initial view of the traditional Kalighat paintings that emerged along the Kali Temple in South Calcutta comes from the early 19th century, but as every art form, Kalighat paintings also emerged out of people and places and their complex and dynamic relationship with the spaces in which the art form emerged.
Rural Bengal has had an intimate relationship with the art of storytelling. Traveling folk painters would go from village to village to regale locals with narrative stories on handmade cloth scrolls known as patachitra. The first mention of such a group appears in Brahma Vaivarta Purana, a thirteenth-century Sanskrit text. Each section of the scroll was called a pat, hence the people who read out from them came to be called patuas. These performers would slowly unroll the scroll, one section at a time, and then sing and perform the depicted story. Most of their subjects were religious in nature and they illustrated both Hindu and Muslim tales, the most famous being parts of Ramayana and the lives of popular Islamic saints. The patuas did not sell the artworks or scrolls; they made their living from donations.
Thus, we will date ourselves back to the mid-18th century, when skilled rural folk painters also called as Patuas, migrated from Midnapore (Settlement in West Bengal on the banks of the Kangsabati River) to the urban center of Kolkata and set up shops near the temple complex. One must note that it is very common for migrants to acquire places near the temples and religious sites as they consider it holy to be in the garb of god and earn bread, as the blessing of gods and goddesses will help them flourish their businesses. One must also note anthropological developments such as the development of a new culture, changing social constructs, and changes in demographic structure towards the descending path of the 18th century. The mid-18th century was also a time when Kolkata was becoming the epicenter of trade and commerce with a strong British presence and control. The city acted as a magnet for folk artists from all cultures looking for opportunities in the growing economy, which is also a reason why Kolkata is one of the only true cosmopolitans in today’s day and age.
In the initial stage, paintings with mythological characters on them were sold as souvenirs to the devotees who came from all over the world to the Kali temple to seek blessings. As the artists started getting recognition for their work, they started to adapt their work for the urban market. The artists started out with painting on scrolls, and then transcending towards paintings on individual panels (pats). Eventually, they also moved away from locally available color and moved towards factory-made color and paper which was cheaper to work on, and also gave higher profits.
Gradually the geographical locations of the artists changed and so did their style, which adapted to the new era. The artists responded to the change in the environment and their art started representing social commentary and life in the city of Kolkata. The themes of Kalighat paintings became more relatable and contemporary. Dissent became a major portion of these paintings, as they started criticizing the Bengali Aristocracy who left the traditional way of living and molded themselves in a very English manner. Another target of Kalighat painters was the corrupt Brahmins who would take bribes and seduce women. In the paintings they would portray the Babus as submissive as opposed to their reality, often deluding the reality, which infuriate the oppressor. Although Kalighat artists did not follow any fixated theories of art, they did borrow styles and techniques from Mughal miniatures and Ajanta paintings.
Just before losing their prime, Kalighat painters, painted at the height of the nationalist movement in India, by illustrating freedom fighters, mainly Rani LaxmiBai of Jhansi. They also started painting news stories that would do rounds in markets.
Often called as “India’s first moderns”, Kalighat paintings could not survive for long as the cheap factory-made German paintings acquired their space in the markets. Hence by the 1930s, the artists had to turn towards other sustainable forms of income, and the Kalighat paintings became cultural artefacts as they only caught the fancy of art connoisseurs, critics, and historians.
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