Possibly the Kalighat school of painting was India’s first “modern” popular style. Bold watercolour simplifications, strong lines, vibrant colours and visual rhythm. Vivid, mature brushwork and minute finish rhythmically arrange the limbs, shaded to round, tubular simplicity. Round faces are softly modelled with round faces, narrow noses, wide open eyes high eyebrows and delicate outlined lips.
A fusion of east and west, specific to their time or place and of British and Bengali ideas.
Kalighat paintings were the urban art of 19th century Calcutta.
Usually painted on cheap mill paper that deteriorated in the humid climate, Patuas (painters) , drew thousands of distinctive pats that sold from 2 – 4 pice( a pice is 1/100 of a rupee) at temples , markets and fairsconcerned by making a living and not a reputation decades in the future.
Fortunately, some missionaries and travellers collected them. These collectors included Lockwood Kipling (father of author Rudyard Kipling) and later W G Archer, Keeper of the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The tradition continues in Bengal around Kalighat temples, temple surrounds are no longer the homes of male and female patuas. Now more rural based, it is no longer affiliated with Muslim or Hindu traditions, but is themed around current events.
Kolkota (formerly Calcutta) has grown around a site sacred to Kali. Legend describes Lord Shiva in deep meditation on Mount Kalaish when he heard of the death of his beloved Sati, avatar of Kali. For days he carried the body in grief across his shoulders until Vishu, the preserver, shattered the body into 51 pieces. The small toe fell by the river Houghly and became sacred to Kali.
By 1690s the forested area was well recognised as sacred to Kali or Kalishetra. Pilgrims were well familiar with the ghats, or river moorings, and a temple was completed in 1809 incorporating traditional Bengal architecture and eight roofed athchala design.
There were wide roads to the site in 1742, however jungle clearance in the maidan expanded settlements around Bhawanpur and Alipur. With increased ease of access the temples fame and popularity grew.
The art includes themes of Hindu, Christian and Islam. Stories tell of a Rani (queen) dingfor her country in a soldiers uniform, a yogi wrestling tigers, an abbot caught in adultery, Sawaswati playing the veena, a babu in European chair posed with veena, a courtesan putting a rose in her hair or woman holding a rose and mirror, a blending of blue and white for the sari thick bold lines for the borders.
In the top image above, often wrongly described as courtesan holding a nursing peacock, this lady is more likely a nayika or heroine holding a lost love. In earliest Indian love poetry specific features identify a different mood a heroine represents. Colours lie bright green come from from seem (flat been) leaves, Bel fruit is used for for a binding medium and pink came from mixing betel nut juice with white
and as an art form Kalighat Painting has continued to develop until today.
Hindi canons guided the artists. A meditational formula for each divinity to be realised. Each icon was considered as prakash or manifestation of the divinity.
It is believed the gods were blessed with transformative power, or maya, which can take on illusory forms.
As a devotee the arist struggles to perceive this in a publicly recognisable form, revealing the pure essence, satva, power and action, rajas, or chaotic power, tamas, that is depicted in a divinities complexion.
For example, Sawaswati, goddess of learning is white, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth is reddish-gold (satva shining through worldy rajas) but cosmic dissolving Kali is dark.
In Bengal Siva is remembered as a forgetful god, wildly dressed, quick to anger and easy to placate. The avatars of Vishnu are foud depicted, and Shakti and Durga return like good married daughters to the Bengali Hindu home as Kali to relieve man of their fear.
Religion is the story of mankind’s search for God. It is like art. We are rooted in the act of creativity. To be made for no other reason that an artist’s love to create. Whether you call that artist god, or nature, we are seeking to engage the unfathomable experience of life.
Sources: Sarkar, Aditi Nath & Mackay, Christine, Kalighat Paintings, Pocket Art Series, Lustre Press. (year unsatated)