Kalighat Painting: Everything You Need To Know About Kalighat Paintings!

The folklore of story-telling in traditional Indian art has had a long-drawn history and its continued presence through the years can be attributed to its relationship with arts, paintings, religion, and customs. One such engaging art of storytelling can be traced back to 19th-century rural Bengal and the fascinating process of narrating epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana through pattachitras ‒ village to village, story to story. This tradition of storytelling in rural Bengal eventually led to the birth of an iconic painting style ‒ Kalighat paintings or Kalighat patachitra.

Let’s dive into the world of these classic paintings, and explore everything about Kalighat paintings ‒ a unique art!

1. What are Kalighat Paintings?


Kalighat painting is a traditional Indian art form that emerged in the 19th-century colonial atmosphere of Calcutta. This traditional painting style owes its name to the Kalighat Kali Temple around which the paintings originated. These were traditionally hand painted by patuas (village artists) on a piece of cloth and later, machine-produced paper to be taken away as souvenirs for the people who visited the Kalighat temple. Depicted on these classic paintings were Hindu deities and mythological figures which later developed into encompassing socio-political themes and scenes from people’s daily lives giving it a shade of contemporary art as well. The style stands out because of its use of bold and vivid colors along with strong and confident use of brush strokes.

2. The Birth of Kalighat Art Paintings - A History

Rural Bengal’s arena saw folk artists who used to travel from village to village, magnanimously singing tales one pat (a section of the scroll was known as pat) at a time. Pattachitras were as long as 20 feet; patuas would unfold the scroll and each section was sung and performed as depicted in it. In the early 19th century, many of these artists migrated from various places like 24 Paraganas and Midnapore to Calcutta because of its booming economy initiated by the British. Kalighat temple was one of the most popular destinations for people and pilgrims. With the rising popularity of the goddess Kali, artists set up multiple stalls outside the temple in order to capitalize on the new market.

With the shift from rural villages to an urban setup, artists couldn’t sell people tiringly long pattachitras, hence they adapted to something that was quick, easy to make, and easy for the people to carry ‒ single pat religious paintings. Painters started producing paintings which were restricted to only one or two figures. Kalighat pata paintings became a rage amongst people for their uniqueness of storytelling and flawless representation of religious art. Given the sacred beliefs attached to it, these paintings were greatly cherished and celebrated. Not only were they adorning the homes of devotees and pilgrims, they attracted merchants, Europeans, travelers, and collectors from different parts of India. Many of these art pieces now grace multiple museums all over the world with their presence.

3. Motifs, Influences, and Techniques of Kalighat Patachitra Painting Art

 

  • A Flawless Production Line

The entire process of making a Kalighat painting relied solely on the efficiency and impressive skills of the patuas. The paintings were produced through a production line and mostly within the setting of family members. One would start with copying the figures from an original sketch with pencil, this was then passed to the other member who would give life to the painting by adding the base color to flesh and muscles wherever necessary, further the other family member filled in different colors in various parts of the body and the background. The last member, mostly the master artist, would add the final touches with lamp black. The background was kept untouched or plain which eliminated all non-essentials elements and 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.

 

  • Colors and Hues

The Kalighat art is known for its pristine visual rhythm, use of vibrant, opaque colors, and strong lines. Hence, the use of proper colors and its availability was the foundation of the entire painting. The paintings were made by using opaque, water-based colors, paper and the brushes were simply made out of goat’s hair or squirrel’s hair. Before the artists made a shift to cheaper factory-made colors, they used natural colors like:

  1. Black - burnt carbon
  2. Blue - aparajita flower and indigo
  3. Green - sem and its leaves
  4. Red - peepal tree’s bark
  5. Yellow - turmeric
  6. 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.

  • Themes and influences

 

1. Religious Art - The themes that were usually depicted in these paintings were an extension of the original pattachitras and pertained to Hindu gods and goddesses as they were meant to be religious souvenirs. Scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, or tales from the life of Krishna and deities like Shiva, Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Sita, Kartikeya were painted in their different forms. Often the artists painted Islamic figures like Imam Husain’s horse as well to entertain their Muslim clients. These paintings with religious and mythological themes came to be known as the ‘Oriental school of Kalighat Paintings’.

 

2. Contemporary Art - It was only when they began producing Kalighat paintings that they also turned to urban scenarios and started painting scenes of daily lives as well. These paintings were a reflection of the social and political atmosphere of 19th century Bengal and often a satirical take on the ‘babu’ culture that the artists despised. Given that these artists had migrated from rural areas to a relatively new urban setting, these paintings were a reflection of their understanding of contemporary life. Artists painted scenes of crimes, women and men feeding their pet cats, birds and animals, men travelling by elephants, barber cleaning the ear of a courtesan, etc. Not only were they producing high quality paintings, they were also propagating the idea of independence through their traditional paintings of Rani Lakshmibai and Tipu Sultan. The portrayal of civil life in Kalighat pat art came to be known as the ‘Occidental school of Kalighat Painting’.

 4. The Fall of The Iconic Paintings

With the advent of the 20th century, Kalighat paintings as a form of Indian Art started losing its charm as cheaper imitations in the form of oleographs were made available from Bombay and Germany. These were machine-made paintings, glazed and colored lithograph copies of the original works. Today, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds the largest number of Kalighat paintings, which have turned into priced possessions and collections. These include the works of the famous Kalighat artist Jamini Roy; his other works adorn the walls of the Harn Museum of Art at the University of California and the National Gallery of Art in Delhi.

Today, Kalighat art continues to be practiced by patuas in rural Bengal. This prestigious Bengali art has now been lost in a sea of modern, contemporary art forms and techniques but the original works continue to capture one’s eye.