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Home >> Painting of the Month >> Kalighat Painting

Kalighat Painting

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.

Brushes 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

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