For centuries, West Bengal has been home to some of the greatest cultural and political revolutions – some of the greatest artists and leaders have emerged from this part of the country. In our series devoted to reviving the knowledge base of arts forms that are being lost to time, today, we look at a form of art that was born in West Bengal, but is today, recognised all over the world – if you have ever taken the time to browse through the finest Lord Krishna paintings available in the world, chances are that you have seen a Kalighat painting already.
Kalighat Paintings

The history and origin:

It is believed that the Kalighat style of painting originated in the Bengal presidency in the mid-19th century and it was inspired from the style of Pattachitra. The original artists were actually scroll painters and created images that could be carried around, and used as story telling devices. The paintings would be made on cloth or patas and would tell stories from ancient scriptures and religious books. They would then travel from one town to another, telling stories with the assistance of these paintings, earning themselves the name, patua or those who painted on cloth.
The reason why the name Kalighat emerged was because the main practitioners of this form of art were residents of the area around Kalighat Kali temple, in the Kalighat area of Calcutta. The artists would make small paintings that would be purchased by the devotees visiting the temple as souvenirs. Given that this was also a time when machines were on the rise and could reproduce wall decor items much faster than any human effort, the talent of the artists had to be given extra impetus. The artists of the Kalighat school took inspiration and assistance from the mass production movement – they started using the water colours and papers that were being manufactured in the mills and evolved themselves and their form of art with the changing times. As a matter of fact, the British offered much assistance to the growth of this art form and even helped set up the Calcutta School of Art, which attracted several traditional artists.
Over time, two very distinct styles of the Kalighat painting style emerged:
  • Oriental – This was the original style that was closely associated with the Kalighat patachitra painting style – the themes were mostly associated with stories of Krishna and Durga, because these were the prominent deities of the region. There were also themes that were taken from the life of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his disciples and other religious figures. However, the themes did not stop there – secular themes and those associated with the ongoing freedom struggle also made it onto the canvas several times.
  • Occidental – The more modern version, that emerged at roughly the same time, was more focused on the daily life of the people in the area – it captured not only the day to day lives of the people, but also played on social satire such as an Englishman riding atop an elephant or fake and self-proclaimed godmen.
What is most interesting about the Kalighat painters is that none of them were really painters in the sense of seeing this as their primary employment – these were carpenters, potters and stone workers who would make these paintings as an additional source of income. This was probably one of the reasons why, quite often, the entire family would be involved – some would get the canvas ready, while others would prepare the paints and there would be those who would do the actual drawing and painting.

Special features and main themes:

When the school of painting of started, the paintings were much smaller and perhaps of single gods – so for instance, if you were a shopper in those days, you would be able to buy Goddess Durga paintings with only her as the sole focus or a Krishna as the only protagonist of the painting. Over time, with the usage of readymade paper, more characters started being added to the images and there were also influences from other styles of paintings.
The paintings had a unique pictorial form, which was often depicted using light and shade or in the linear form. However, the linear form was simple, because no tools were used, apart from normal brushes and hand strokes. However, there were a lot of clear contours, but there was a lack of a background. The application of colours would be done in a specific sequence and one at a time – so for instance, the face and the visible limbs would be painted first and then all the other details would be filled in.
The painters were not people who had a lot of exposure of the outside world – they painted what they saw around themselves. Kalighat painting images could vary from the humble fish, which was a constant part of the meals to domesticated animals like cats. Religious forms including Durga and Krishna were regularly featured as were priests who conducted the poojas at the temples around. As a matter of fact, even gods were portrayed as ordinary people – in one extremely popular painting, the Kalighat painters have shown Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha as a normal family. As Ganesha rides on his father’s shoulder, Parvati tries to pacify her irritable son, while dressed like a normal Bengali lady. There were also images of rich landlords who lived in Calcutta at that time, and depictions of their lavish lifestyles was common. You could also see the British making an appearance in the paintings.

Materials used and the making:

The paintings were always made using very basic materials – the brushes would be made using squirrel or goat hair, colours would be sourced from natural ingredients; black came from soot that was left over burning a lamp, reds and greens would come from flowers and leaves, yellow from turmeric and so on. If the colours were dry powders, they would be mixed with water or gum to prepare the paint. However, when the industrial revolution started to take hold, water colours became the popular option.
In the earlier days, cloth or scrolls would be used for the wall hangings and these would probably be washed once, before any paint was applied on them. Once mill made paper began being used, it could a lot easier, because the medium was ready. The entire family would be involved in most cases and tasks would be handed out based on gender and age. Women and children would be given the task of grinding and creating the colours and the senior artists would handle the drawing and filling in of the details.
Frequently asked questions:

  • What is the present state of the Kalighat paintings?
    Thankfully, the state of Kalighat art has been able to survive the bashes of time – there are still artists who are practising the form and it has evolved to make appearances on fabrics, including sarees, dress materials, and bed spreads.
  • Can you see these paintings only in India?
    The form of art has become extremely popular and you will be able to see examples and famous paintings, not only in India, but also in museums of Britain, parts of Europe, and the United States of America.
  • How were women portrayed in these paintings?
    Women are always shown as a symbol of Shakti or a form of Goddess Durga – in Kalighat painting, Kali was a constant image and women were showcased in her image. They were idolised as goddesses as well as objects of desire.
  • Who are the famous artists of this art form?
    Kalighat painting and Jamini Roy are two terms that go hand in hand. Apart from her, Bhaskar Chitrakar and Kalam Patua are also prominent names.
  • What was the initial purpose of these paintings?
    Kalighat folk painting was originally made to be sold as souvenirs to the people who came to the Kalighat Temple.
  • What kind of animals can be seen in these paintings?
    Initially only fish were seen in the paintings, because of the important place they hold in Bengali culture. Over time, lobsters and prawns as well as cats and birds became part of the themes.

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