Kalighat Paintings



Kalighat in Kolkata, West Bengal, is famous as a seat of Hindu pilgrimage. It houses the Kali Temple, which has a deep religious significance among the Hindus all over the world. Kalighat also happens to be the place of origin of a noted form of Indian painting – the Kalighat Painting. This particular form of painting has its roots in the cultural upheavals of nineteenth century colonial Bengal. Primarily, the scroll-painters and the potters who had migrated from rural Bengal and settled in and around the temple, practiced this sort of painting. They used watercolors and painted on mill papers. Brushes were made from squirrel and calf hair. The cheap pigments were applied in transparent tones in contrast to traditional Indian tempera or opaque colors. With shaded contours and articulated gesture and movement, the figures attained a plaque-like effect on a neutral unpainted ground. The style is characterized by formal and linear economy, expressive gestures, and quality brushwork and flawless rhythmic strokes.

Like most other Indian art forms, Kalighat paintings too started on with a religious note. Hindu gods and goddesses along with their incarnations were painted by the devoted painters. Gradually, with evolving time, social sentiments came to be expressed in the medium of paper and colors. Kalighat painting was the first of its kind in the Indian subcontinent that expressed subaltern sentiment and addressed customers directly.

At that time Calcutta – or Kolkata – was the capital of British India. Close association with the west, spread of English education and Bengal Renaissance brought noticeable changes in the minds and attitudes of the the-then Bengalis. While some pursued noble causes, the majority simply aped the British and became the butt of social satires. This satirical gaze at the changing society, altering lifestyles and industrial progress finds expression in Kalighat paintings. A new typology of men and women were created. The Bengali babu and the 'loose woman' symbolized for them the eroding of traditional Indian values.

There are different views regarding the character and influence on Kalighat painting. While some opine that they have a distinctive British sway, others hold that local technique and social settings are entirely responsible for the Kalighat style. However, it is now acknowledged that Kalighat painting is a legacy that tells us about the past … a past that might have been lost in the oblivion, had it not been for these paintings of Kalighat.

It is interesting to note that for ages scholars and critics alike neglected this folk painting. The ancient Sanskrit texts largely served as the yardstick for judging the merit of art forms. The written word was considered far more important than pictorial expressions. Rural visual forms of the Kalighat Paintings kind were considered degenerate expressions and did not deserve any attention, since they lacked the authority of the sacred text.

It was only in the twentieth century that this art started getting the attention and appreciation that it deserves. Traditional Indian art was facing an imminent threat from the aggressive western culture, and the preservation of traditional Indian art, therefore, became a prime concern. Local traditions suddenly assumed paramount importance and there was an acute need for protecting, documenting and reviving rural art. This largely led to Kalighat Paintings coming into the limelight.

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