The Kalighat paintings developed in the 19th century in the Bengal presidency. The travelling scroll painters or the patuas had been practising folk art of Pattachitra. The new manners and customs of the British settlers, the revivalist exercises of the Mughal and theatres as well as the use of Sanskrit on stage was absorbed by the rural artists who had migrated to Calcutta and developed it into a popular urban genre. The period of Kalighat paintings coincides with the age of mechanical reproduction in the form of woodcut, lithography, oleography and printing. These developments had caused mass consumption of imagery in the urban cities and Kalighat was a response to it. The Kalighat painters interacted with the colonial paintings and began the use of water colours, shaded figures, folio-sized mill made papers. They absorbed the role of the western theatre performances and the art schools which developed the unique stylistic features of the Kalighat paintings as we know them today.
Characteristic Features of the Kalighat Paintings
- There is a unique handling of the pictorial form.
- The sense of form is depicted by the use of shade and light, or by the linear treatment of the form.
- The method of shading was not the western academic method as was practised by the company artists. It is rather a much-simplified version of the elaborate chiaroscuro.
- Delineation of form and volume is done through contours.
- There is no depiction of background in the Kalighat paintings.
- The colours were applied in a sequence, one at a time. The exposed limbs and faces were painted first, followed by the clothes and other detailing. This can also be seen in the several incomplete Kalighat paintings in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Bazar Style Paintings
One of the most peculiar features of the Kalighat paintings is that it was born in the bazar. The deities were not rendered any differently from the common middle-class man of the period. They can be seen wearing the typical clothes and jewellery of a regular person in the streets of Calcutta. This rendition can be best seen in the painting ‘Shiva’s outing with the family’. The painting beautifully depicts Shiva as a father, who is carrying his son Ganesha lovingly in his arms. Beside him is his wife Parvati, who is dressed as an ordinary Bengali lady. Shiva is trying to amuse his son by playing his damru, while Parvati is clapping her hands to pacify their baby.
Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha
The artists primarily depicted what surrounded the artists. Their dietary practices made fish a recurring and common motif in the paintings. Another important element in the Kalighat paintings was the cat. Paintings depicting Cat with a Fish depict the religious hypocrisy, where the cat is a satirical representation of the false aesthetic. The artists also painted the religious figures such as Durga, episodes from the epics, and other sacred texts. Many paintings commented on the priests, perhaps depicting the social customs that prevailed during that period. Babus with their hair groomed in the Albert style, wearing expensive shawls and buckled shoes, smoking their hookahs and sitting on Victorian chairs was a common depiction. Also prevalent were the depictions of landlords with their lavish dinner parties and erotic pleasures. The particularly famous Tarakeshwar episode depicts that the material culture was entering into the normal life of people.
Kalighat paintings flourished as it developed in the great city of Calcutta, which was connected to the national highway network between 1854 and 1871. There was an influx of pilgrims, tourists and traders who wished to carry souvenirs back home. The Kalighat painting reached its zenith during this period.
The Kalighat paintings are important as they have an ability to create volume through lines. This later inspired the world-renowned artist Jamini Roy. The Kalighat paintings were a common man’s art form from its onset. It continued to absorb changes in the society which never made the artform stagnant. The paintings still continue to reflect the realities of the society among other secular and non-secular themes.
Written by ~ Misha Jaswal
- Bazar Paintings of Calcutta: The Style of Kalighat by W.G. Archer
- Kalighat Paintings by Suhasini Sinha
- Folk Arts and Crafts of Bengal by Gurusaday Dutt
- Kalighat Paintings by Jyotindra Jain