Drawings and Paintings of Kalighat

— Mukul Dey

Lovers. Early 20th. century Kalighat pata painting
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Mukul Dey was one of the earliest writers who drew the attention of the ‘educated’ Indians to their own original art forms. As early as 1936, he wanted to establish a national art museum in Calcutta, a project endorsed by Rabindranath Tagore.

However, that was not to be. During 1930s the bulk of Mukul Dey’s priceless Kalighat painting collection was acquired by W. G. Archer (ICS); and many of these found a permanent home in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The following article by Dey is reprinted from Advance, Calcutta, 1932. It gives an account of the artist colony at Kalighat as the writer knew it:

Strolling through the streets of South Calcutta a few years ago I chanced to get into the precincts of the old temple of Mother Kali. The lanes and bye-lanes leading to the temple courtyard were full of small shops dealing with everything interesting to the pilgrims, specially women-folk and children. There were sweetmeat shops in plenty, toys, utensils, bangles and what was most important to my eyes, pictures in colours as well as in lines, hung up in almost all the shops. These drawings had a pecularity of their own which attracted the attention and interest of any man who had any taste for art and drawings. The drawings were bold and attractive and at the same time their technique was so different and simple, that they looked something absolutely distinctive from their class found anywhere else.

These pictures have now entirely vanished. The artist craftsmen are nearly all dead, and their children have taken up other business. In place of these hand-drawn and hand-painted pictures selling at two or four pice each, garish and evil-smelling lithographs and oleographs – quite appalling in their hideousness – have come. The old art is gone for ever – the pictures are now finding their last asylum in museums and art collections as things of beauty which we cannot let die.

It is difficult to state definitely how this original and bold school of art originated and developed in Kalighat; who were the leaders and who followed them. As in the case of other departments of our national life, our ancestors were indifferent in putting down any chronological or historical data of their activities. In this region of art also they were either indifferent or careless. As a result, we cannot trace any history of the development of this wonderful culture of our own.

It can be surmised, however, that as pilgrims would rush to this shrine at Kalighat from all parts of India, as peoples of different tastes and likings would stay at this small place for a certain period of time, their wants would naturally be met and supplied by local people. Thus a sort of market grew up at Kalighat for all things necessary for different types of people, of different provinces of our country; moreover these pilgrims would expect to take back something from this shrine which would have associated with it a peculiar halo and interest so that it may be kept up as a memento of the great event of their life.

Woman beating an amorous Vaishnava sadhu with broom.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Ordinary things for day-to-day use can be had everywhere and however bright or cheap they might be, they would not add any special meaning. These drawings from the Kalighat patuas, however, would naturally possess a peculiar interest and if they would be hung up in any place amongst ten other pictures, they would outshine the others not only for their different  characterization but for their wonderful colour-effects and contours as well. As pilgrims know no caste or difference in wealth, naturally these pictures would be taken, liked and hung by peoples of all classes and communities from the big Rajas and zemindars down to the most ordinary villagers or even little children. These pictures would decorate the thakurghars or family chapels of the rich and the middle-class people, they would brighten up – some of them – the drawing-rooms of people of all sorts; they would add a touch of colour and joy in the humble hut of the tiller of the soil; and the village grocer or the “panwalla” round the corner of a city street would find no better and no cheaper decoration than these pictures.

Thus the pictures had a wonderful mass appeal and mass appreciation. The patuas would naturally sell a good lot of these pictures every year and I remember to have seen many in my younger days at least 30 or 40 shops in those bye-lanes to deal exclusively in these pictures and I remember the patuas drawing the pictures in their “shop-studios”. These “shop-studios” in those days were more or less “news bureaus” of the country, where not only the pictures of mythological subjects were drawn, but caricatures and satirical sketches would be drawn dealing with the topics of the day, the happenings in the law courts as well as in the bazaars.

A Hindu Shaivite sadhu convicted in a murder case is turning oil press in Hooghly jail. Ninteenth century Kalighat painting.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
From a study of the drawings it will be found that these patuas were expert in handling the brush and colour and they were keen observers of life, with a grim sense of humour. For example, wealthy zeminders spending their money on wine and women, foppish babus spending their day and night at nasty places, a Mohunt suffering imprisonment for abducting girls, or a priest or Vaishnav “Guru” (who is invariably depicted as a well-fed and well-groomed, pot-bellied and top-knotted – the veritable picture of a pious rouge) living with unchaste women – these would not escape the searching eyes of these artists and they would draw the caricatures in such a way as would repel ordinary people from such activities. Even popular sayings and proverbs get good illustrations from them.

But these patuas are not found in their old places now. When the other day I chanced to go over to the shrine again I searched in vain for all the old spots where those patuas in their “shop-studios” would draw paintings and sell them before standing crowds of buyers. The buyers are gone and so are the artists. Big buildings, three storeys high, have taken the places of old huts of which no trace can be found now. Not a shred of the old huts or the patuas are to be found now. 

The foreign imitators of these patuas have killed this trade out of its soil. Taking advantage of the popularity of those pictures the sly German traders sent thousands of lithographed copies printed on glazed papers with garish bright colours and flooded the whole country with these cheap imitations of Kalighat pictures. Following these German presses, a litho press of Western India then took the field and as a “Swadeshi” concern did the same thing and hastened the death of this wonderful school of indigenous Art in Bengal. The cheap price, the glazed paper and some kind of imitation of Kalighat pictures took away the crowd from those original artists who created them; the smelly characters of these gaudy paints did not deter them.

A Vashnava saint preaching doctrine of nonviolence to a pair of hungry looking tigers. Kalighat painting, 19th. century.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
But can this very original and vigorous school of painting, which formed a sort of window for the souls of Bengal, not be revived now? This is a question which every artist and every Bengali who loves his province and its culture should ask. The real merit of the art and the unquestioned superiority of its quality created a great demand for these pictures throughout the country.

I believe the demand still exists and it is being  met in a niggardly way by those outrageous imitations of foreign make. It was more a spirit of making money by any means, even by degrading the art instincts of a people, that was more responsible than any actual decay of good taste among our people.The oleograph pictures were thrust upon the masses – the dallals and petty shopkeepers looked to the immediate commission and neglected the artist craftsmen. If we can now revive the old school of art, and produce similar pictures now, I believe they will have a very great demand throughout the country.

As a matter of fact, the Kalighat School of Bengal Art has been a glory of Bengal’s culture and it is our national duty to revive the culture and glory. If false imitations can take advantage of the popularity there is no reason why we should not revive the original movement and drive out the imitators now, when the merit of the original artists is being universally acknowledged and appreciated. Even now a few stray patuas of the old school can be found and if we encourage them and patronise them they can maintain their old calling, and revive the Art in the near future. If we can also arrange to train our young men in these lines they can easily find a way of living by drawing with the help of pen and brush simple drawings of popular interest and get good money out of them as in the days of old.

This is an aspect of the question that which our artists should not neglect – they should not turn up their noses at the idea of being a mere patuas. As a matter of fact Bengal’s traditional instinct lies with the methods of drawing inculcated in the Kalighat School of Art and I think these methods can be taught to our students much more easily than the complex western processes.

We hope our countrymen, who are eager to regenerate the people and also those who are interested in the development of art and culture of the country, should pay attention to this very important item of Bengal’s culture which is really the pride of our country, and help in revivifying its old glory and popularity.

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