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Kalighat Paintings

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

The folklore of storytelling in traditional Indian art has a lengthy history, and it has persisted over time due to its connections to other forms of art, such as paintings and sculpture, as well as to religion and customs. The interesting practise of retelling epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana through pattachitras—telling stories from village to village—can be traced back to rural Bengal in the 19th century. A famous painting movement known as Kalighat paintings or Kalighatpatachitra was eventually born out of this rural Bengali storytelling tradition.

What are Kalighat Paintings?

A traditional Indian art form called kalighat painting was born in Calcutta during the colonial era of the 19th century. The Kalighat Kali Temple, where the paintings first appeared, is where this ancient painting style gets its name. These were traditionally hand painted as keepsakes for visitors to the Kalighat temple by patuas (local artisans) on a piece of fabric, and later on machine-produced paper. These traditional paintings originally featured Hindu deities and mythological figures, but over time they expanded to include sociopolitical topics and scenes from people's everyday life, lending them a hint of contemporary art as well. The use of strong, assertive brushstrokes and brilliant, contrasting colours make this style stand out.

The Birth of Kalighat Art Paintings - A History

The rural Bengali arena used to host folk performers who would graciously sing tales one pat (a segment of the scroll was known as a pat) at a time as they travelled from village to village. Pattachitras may be up to 20 feet long. Each segment was sung and played exactly as it was portrayed in the scroll by patuas, who would unfurl it. Many of these artists moved to Calcutta in the early 19th century from various locations including 24 Paraganas and Midnapore as a result of the city's flourishing commerce, which the British had sparked. One of the most well-liked tourist attractions was the Kalighat Temple. Artists erected a number of stalls outside the temple to take advantage of the growing market for the goddess Kali.

When people moved from rural villages to cities, painters were unable to offer them laboriously long pattachitras. As a result, they evolved to single pat religious paintings, which were quick to prepare and convenient for people to carry. Paintings with simply one or two figures began to be created by artists. Because of their distinctive storytelling and perfect representation of holy art, Kalighatpata paintings became quite popular. These paintings were highly prized and celebrated because of the spiritual beliefs associated with them. They were not only used as decorations in the homes of worshippers and pilgrims, but they also drew traders, Europeans, tourists, and collectors from other areas of India. Many of these works of art are currently shown in numerous museums across the globe.

Motifs, Influences, and Techniques of Kalighat Patachitra Painting Art

The Ultimate Production Line

The patuas' efficiency and prodigious talent were the only factors that went into creating a Kalighat artwork. The majority of the paintings were created in a setting with family members and on a production line. One would begin by pencil-copping the figures from an original sketch. This was then given to the other family member, who would bring the painting to life by adding the base colour to the flesh and muscles wherever necessary. Additionally, the other family member filled in various body parts and the background with various colours. The final participant—typically the master artist—would apply the finishing touches with lamp black. All unnecessary features were removed by leaving the backdrop undisturbed or plain, which saved time as well. Such was the finesse of their skills that a family of four to five members could easily dish out hundreds of Kalighat paintings in a day.

Hues and colours

Strong lines, vivid, opaque hues, and a clean visual rhythm are all hallmarks of Kalighat art. As a result, the cornerstone of the entire painting was the selection and usage of appropriate colours. Paper, opaque water-based paints, and plain brushes made of goat or squirrel hair were used to create the paintings. Prior to switching to less expensive factory-made colours, artists employed natural hues like:

  • Black - burnt carbon

  • Blue - aparajita flower and indigo

  • Green - sem and its leaves

  • Red - peepal tree’s bark

  • Yellow - turmeric

  • White - rice powder

These colors were mixed with a variety of binding agents like crushed tamarind seeds and gum of bel. Apart from the basic colors, colloidal tin was used to embellish the paintings and give it a bejeweled look.

Influences and themes

1. religious art-As they were intended to be holy mementos, the subjects that were typically represented in these paintings were an extension of the original pattachitras and related to Hindu gods and goddesses. Scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, or stories about Krishna as well as depictions of Shiva, Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Sita, and Kartikeya in their many incarnations were painted. To amuse their Muslim customers, the artists frequently painted Islamic figures as well, such as Imam Husain's horse. The "Oriental school of Kalighat Paintings" was the name given to these religious and mythologically inspired works of art.

2. Contemporary Art - It wasn't until they started creating Kalighat paintings that they also began painting scenes from everyday life in cities. The social and political climate of Bengal in the 19th century was reflected in these paintings, which frequently took aim at the 'babu' lifestyle that the painters loathed. These paintings were a representation of the painters' perspective of modern life given that they had moved from rural areas to a relatively new metropolitan environment. Artists depicted crime scenes, people caring for their pets' animals and birds, guys riding elephants, a barber cleaning a courtesan's ear, etc.

They were not only creating excellent paintings, but they were also promoting independence by depicting Rani Lakshmibai and Tipu Sultan in their traditional works. The "Occidental school of Kalighat Painting" began to be noted for its depictions of civil life in Kalighat pat art.

The Fall of The Iconic Paintings

As the 20th century came into being, Kalighat paintings as a form of Indian art began to lose their appeal as less expensive copies known as oleographs were made available from Bombay and Germany. These were mechanical reproductions of the original paintings that were glazed and coloured lithographs. The largest collection of Kalighat paintings, which have become valuable belongings and collections, is currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. These include the creations of renowned Kalighat artist Jamini Roy, whose other pieces can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Delhi and the Harn Museum of Art at the University of California.

Patuas in rural Bengal still practise the Kalighat art today. The original works of this distinguished Bengali art continue to catch people's attention despite having been lost in a sea of current, contemporary art forms and techniques.

Pic Courtesy Internet.

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