A lost art from the bosom of West Bengal, or from the city of Kolkata, which was formerly known as Calcutta. A form of painting that has been revered not only by artists of different art periods but surprisingly is owned mostly by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Naprstek Museum in Prague. Kalighat Paintings are also known to be an inspiration for many artists like Jamini Roy.
This art developed way back in the 19th century Kolkata around Kalighat. Now before delving into the details of the art, let’s get to know a bit more about Kalighat.
Lord Shiva was deep in meditation when he got the news of the demise of his consort, Sati who is also an incarnation of the Goddess Kali. The heartbroken Mahadev carried the corpse of Sati like a madman, threatening the ruins of mankind with his immense sorrow. This invoked Lord Vishnu to churn up a solution, who cut the dead body of Sati into 51 pieces, all of which fell on the earth, at different locations. Each of these places is known as Sati’s Pithasthans in India.
The little toe of Sati’s feet fell near what we know as Kalighat and this place got its name. The moorings of the Hooghly river were known as ghats. Around this holy place, many people built their houses and lived with their families because of the budding market around the temple. Many artists from different districts of Bengal also migrated to this place in search of a livelihood and built a community of their own known as the Pata-Pada or the Artists’ Locality. These artists were originally involved in singing scriptures from scrolls and they made this shift as painting was a more stable profession. Sometimes, even after making their paintings on scrolls, they used to sing the story that was depicted in the painting.
These artists, also known as patuas, started making these famous Kalighat paintings. At first cloth or patas, were used to make these paintings. The artists mostly brought to life the different mythological themes and the Hindu deities through their paintings. The Rama Charita Manas or the Goddess Durga killing the demon Mahishasura was the topics portrayed in these. These were the “Oriental” paintings.
Slowly, as times progressed and the influence of the British fell into the arts, the artists started experimenting. Arts were seen as an important subject and instead of just painting the Hindu scriptures, the artists started depicting common life or important events in their paintings. This gave rise to the second school of Kalighat paintings- the “Occidental” paintings.
Soon the use of cloth was replaced by a mill-made paper from the British company. The subjects shifted to social crimes and independence, often containing pictures of Lakshmi Bai, a representative of oppressed women. There was also a certain Baboo culture in Kolkata at that time that found its way into these paintings as well. Other things included domestic violence again women, submissive husbands, and sometimes even Muslim conflicts.
A very unique thing about this kind of painting was that they were not done by only one individual. Usually, a whole family and its members were involved in creating a painting. Depending on the age, the members of a family were given different responsibilities while completing a certain painting. The painting started with a painter doing just the outline or sketch of the scene to be depicted. It was followed by another person who did the actual drawing and contouring of the figures. Next came the coloring which was done by another person or group and they would fill out the generic background colors too. The women and children of the household were responsible for making the dyes and crushing the colors and making the initial preparations for the painting.
Basic colors like indigo, black, yellow, and red were used since the colors and dyes were homemade. The usage of bold black strokes as an outline was in every picture and the backgrounds were mostly made out of neutral colors. This helped bring out the story depicted in the picture even more clearly, having no distractions or unnecessary details. The figures attained a sort of plaque-like effect in this style of painting. The usage of rhythmic strokes made the paintings simple, yet very elegant in their ways. There was not much flair, until much later, when jewelry started being painted in silver. The paintings were really of their kind.
The Kalighat paintings ranged from normal household pictures to deities like Goddess Saraswati, to pets and animals. This art was a voice for several kinds of schools of thought as well as the changing of history that was happening throughout that period. These motifs are still used as some of the main designs of Sarees and other things.
Times changed and arts became a more liberally practiced subject. This also brought up some great artists all across the world whose works started being distributed even in India and Bengal. This brought about the downfall of the Kalighat painting artwork in Bengal. The artists withdrew and the art forms went out of the market soon enough with less production.
Presently, the artwork is practiced in some of the rural districts of Medinipur and Birbhum, and most of the artworks are owned by collectors in other parts of the world than India. It is heartbreaking how such a beautiful art was lost and the greatest pieces reside somewhere so far away from the birthplace of these gorgeous paintings.
The patuas still reside in some of the villages where the artform is handed down through generations and kept alive through hard work and untiring effort. The love for art is what keeps history alive through the ages.