Kalighat painting derives its name from its place of originKalighat, in Kolkata - the erstwhile capital of British India. This painting form has its roots in the cultural upheavals of nineteenth century colonial Bengal. At this time a huge number of village folk had migrated from rural Bengal and settled in and around the famous Kalighat temple. Amongst them, many were potters and scroll painters. These were the people whose painting style and themes later came to be known as Kalighat painting. They used watercolors and painted on inexpensive mill papers.
were made from squirrel and calf hair. Cheap color pigments
were applied in transparent tones, which was totally different
from the traditional of Indian tempera. 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, meaningful
gestures, and quality brushwork and flawless rhythmic
strokes. The drawings are bold and attractive and at the
same time their technique is different and simple.
The most interesting aspect of Kalighat painting is perhaps
its strong social themes and consciousness. Kalighat painting
was the first of its kind in the Indian subcontinent that
expressed subaltern sentiment and addressed customers
directly. Like most other Indian art forms, Kalighat paintings
too started on with a religious note. Hindu deities, along
with their incarnations, were painted by the painters.
Gradually, social sentiments came to be expressed in the
medium of paper and colors. The painters were keen observers
of life, with a grim sense of humour. The wealthy zeminders
(landowners) ravishing wine and women, foppish babus spending
their day and night at nasty places, a priest or Vaishnav
"Guru" living with unchaste women - these would not escape
the searching eyes of these artists. They had a moralizing
intent and would draw the caricatures in such a way as
would repel ordinary people from such activities.
Two of the most used themes in Kalighat painting are the
Bengali 'Babus' and their hollow, decrepit culture, and
also the 'loose women' of the society. Kolkata being the
Indian capital at that time, there was 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
gracious causes, the majority simply aped the British
and came to represent what is known as the 'Babu' culture.
A new typology of men and women were created.
These Babus became the butt of social satires and were portrayed with
ridicule in contemporary literature and Kalighat paintings.
The Bengali babu and the 'loose woman' symbolized for
them the eroding of traditional Indian values. This satirical
gaze at the changing society, altering lifestyles and
industrial progress is the distinguishing characteristic
of Kalighat paintings.
There are different views regarding the character and
influence on Kalighat painting. While some opine that
they were much influenced by the West, 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 unfolds our past
… a past that might have been lost and forgotten, 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. In India, 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. Since they lacked
the authority of the sacred text, the rural and folk visual
forms of the Kalighat Paintings were considered inferior
expressions, unworthy of any attention.
Kalighat painting started getting its deserved attention
and appreciation only in the twentieth century. Facing
Traditional Indian art was facing an imminent threat from
the aggressive western culture. Thus the preservation
of traditional Indian art became a prime concern. Local
traditions suddenly assumed supreme importance and there
was an acute need for protecting, documenting and reviving
rural art. This largely led to Kalighat Paintings coming
into the limelight. Since then, it has been recognized
as a brilliantly inventive aesthetic movement, and has
received significant international attention