The wonderful world of Kalighat Paintings

Kalighat Painting

Background:  

For ages now, India has been known for its folk art and culture. Be it folk songs or folk paintings, India has always mesmerized the world with its rich and varied heritage. One such folk art that has impressed art lovers across the world is Kalighat paintings.  

History of Kalighat Paintings: 

Kalighat paintings or ‘Kalighat pat chitra’ traces its origin to Kalighat temple area, Kalighat, Kolkata in West Bengal. During the initial days, these paintings were a result of group effort. The members of the family or the community would sit together. While some members would draw the outline of the main figures on the mill-made paper, the other members would work on the backdrop. The most striking features of these paintings were flowing brush work and big prominent eyes of the main figures and the colors used are prominently primary colors like yellow, blue and green, which were prepared from natural and homemade dyes. 

The Origin:

Originally, the paintings mainly portray Goddess Kali and her tales of defeating the demons. With time, the Kalighat painting images involve other Gods and Goddess as well, the most popular being scenes from Tulsidas’ Rama Charita Manas.  

In the earlier times, during the process of creating these paintings, these rural artists would travel from one village to another and entertain people in the village gatherings, melas and other festivals. These artists would then carry their scroll paintings and entertain people by singing the scenes depicted in those epic paintings. The entire stories are depicted in separate sections, called a ‘pat’.’ Due to this, the people who read out from these scrolls, are called ‘patuas’’ or ‘painters on cloth’. However, during the older times these patuas would only entertain people by telling stories and this did not help sell the artworks or scrolls they painted so they made their living from the donations that were made to them by the audience. 

The Growth:

In the mid-eighteenth century, Kolkata was rapidly developing as a hub of economic activities. Therefore, many of these patuas along with other skilled artists from rural Bengal, migrated to Kolkata in search for greener pastures. They set up stalls outside the Kali temple and started selling their work to people who visited the temples. Due to the popularity of its location, they then went on to be known as Kalighat paintings. Today, like most folk-art gain fame, Kalighat paintings to have become very popular as souvenirs among tourists and merchants from different parts of India and the world. 

This was a paradigm shift for these patuas. Now there was no need to travel to gain audiences, the sole reason being - tourists and pilgrims came to them. Their business model also changed – from being entertainers to sellers of physical copies of their work. With time, these painters began to sell individual panels and paintings of solitary gods and goddesses.  

Contribution of British to Kalighat paintings:

During the British rule, Kalighat paintings gained a lot of popularity. When the British gained complete political control over the country, they started to take interest in art, literature, and music of the locals here in the country. To further promote the art, they set up institutions that trained the Indian artists in the European academic style.  

One such art school started by British was the Calcutta School of Art also known as the Government School of Art with E.B. Havell as the principal. This art school became a major attraction for all these rural artists and the traditional patuas flogged to Kolkata for better opportunities. There was a great demand for religious paintings in this area. These two factors fueled the growth of this area to become the hub of art and culture. This in turn made many of these traditional rural artists settle near the Kalighat temple. Here they started learning the newer techniques and thus a new form of painting, the Kalighat paintings or “Kalighat Pat-Chitra” was born.  

With the passage of time, the Kalighat paintings evolved a great deal. The paintings got massively influenced during the reign of British Empire. Now, the paintings gained varieties, and two prominent kinds of Kalighat paintings started to exist:  

  1. Oriental: Here the paintings depict the Gods and Goddesses and their stories. These include Sita & Ram, Radha & Krishna, Hanuman, Lakshmi, Durga, Parvati & Shiva and many more.
  2. Occidental: These paintings depict contemporary events like crimes, daily chores and lives of heroics characters of freedom fighters like Rani Lakshmi Bai, Tipu Sultan and many others. 

These paintings were usually done on a mill-made paper of size 17 inches by 11 inches. At first, the artists did not make any attempt to fill in the backgrounds; apart from religious images these paintings started depicting contemporary events - but one thing that did not change was the style of paintings. The paintings still incorporated broad sweeping brush lines, bold colours, and simplification of forms, which was suitable for mass production.  

Kalighat paintings today:

Towards the early 20th century, this art started noticing a decline in its demand. The reason was increase in demand for cheaper, commercially produced Kalighat painting “pictures”. Many patua families had no buyers to buy their work and hence were left with no option but to leave the city and head back to the home town, or look for other employment opportunities. 

However, there are few families in the Medinipur and Birbhum districts of West Bengal, who are still keeping this art from alive. These contemporary artists, use organic dyes, just as their ancestors did originally. In the present times, they make paintings on secular themes and current events as well as a mixture of religions depictions, executed in a modern style. 

Conclusion:

The Kalighat paintings, as an art form gained a lot of positive criticism from the people and other artists, since its origin. This was a compelling art for all the sectors of society, as it reached everyone, physically and through its thoughts. 

The biggest achievement of the Kalighat artists were the depicted events close to daily life of the people. Furthermore, all these paintings could be copied through lithography and then reproduced in large numbers. These paintings were then hand coloured. This trend continued up to the early part of the twentieth century and these paintings were picked up by many art lovers and collectors – one of the reasons how these paintings reached their rightful places to art museums and private collections. The charm of the Kalighat paintings lies in the fact that they captured the essence of daily life in the simplest forms.