The Painters of Kalighat: 19th Century Relics of a Once Flourishing Indian Folk Art Industry Killed by Western Mass Production Methods

— Mukul Dey

Girl combing her hair. Nineteenth century Kalighat drawing.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Reprinted from The Statesman, Calcutta, Sunday, October 22, 1933, p. 19, the following published article originally carried six Kalighat paintings from Dey’s collection as illustration, which exactly could not be reproduced here owing to the fragility of the newspaper clipping. In stead, we have included on this page some rare visuals from the old photographs of Mukul Dey’s collection of Kalighat pata paintings, which were photo-documented by him about eighty years ago. Emphasis added.

 

Most visitors to Calcutta know something about Kalighat with its temple of the great Mother Kali, the Goddess who presides over Destruction and is at the same time the beloved Mother of All. Many think that the name of Calcutta is only a corruption of Kalighat, although this is disputed. Kalighat means bathing ghat by the shrine of Kali. Foreign residents know of Kalighat as a place where pilgrims go by tram and bus by their thousands. But how many of them know that this Kalighat was until recently the centre of a vigorous school of folk art on this side of India, and that the Pats or paintings on paper or cloth which were sold there by the thousand carried art into distant village homes all over the land?

Girl playing a Sitar. Nineteenth century Kalighat drawing.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
 Yet all this is true, although it has well-nigh become a thing of the past. Even to this day, if you will look with some penetration into a Calcutta pan   and cigarette shop—a mere shanty at a street corner—you may find a litho picture in colour of a girl combing her hair, or a girl playing on the sitar, or Radha and Krishna, the divine lovers of Hindu mythology, underneath the Kadamba tree , or Rama and Sita, or Siva and Parvati, or so such other pictures of Hindu deities. These lithos are mostly imitations of Kalighat pictures, which invariably were hand-drawn and hand painted.

 Foreign Competition

 Cheap oleographs of all sorts from Germany and from Bombay now take the field, some of them blatant imitations of Kalighat paintings. These cheap copies have practically killed hand-painted art production as a business and with it the artistic instincts and creative faculty of the painters of Kalighat. Not being able to cope with the competition of machine-made productions cheaper than hand-drawn and hand painted pictures selling at two or four pice each, their children have now taken to other professions.

A Hindu Shaivite sadhu convicted in a murder case is turning oil press in Hooghly jail. Ninteenth century Kalighat painting.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
When German traders found that these pictures had a very great sale throughout the country—for they were sold in thousands all over India—they imitated them and sent back glazed and coloured lithographed copies which flooded the country and drowned the original hand-painted pictures. The old art has gone for ever; the pictures are now finding their homes in museums and in the collections of a few art lovers.

From these paintings we can get a good glimpse of the religious and social life of Bengal during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mythological pictures are still retained and held in great honour in the family shrine of every Hindu household, and other popular subjects brighten up the homes of all classes of people in the land.

 Decorating the walls was a very old tradition in India, whether in temples, palaces or even the humble houses of the poor. The subjects were mythological. But popular subjects were not wanting either. The folk art of Kalighat did not keep itself divorced from life. Events of burning interest, social oddities and idiosyncrasies, follies and foibles of people, and hypocrisies and meanness—these never escaped the Kalighat painters.

 They missed nothing that they saw. Thus sepoys in old-fashioned pre-Mutiny costume, with shakos instead of turbans feature side by side with European gentlemen shaking hands instead of bowing, and Europeans and Indians ascending Cat eating a Parrot. Kalighat pata painting, early twentieth century, Calcutta.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
in a balloon when the balloon was first seen in Calcutta in the eighties of the nineteenth century—subjects like these interested the Kalighat painter as much as they did his country brothers, and domestic subjects, or domestic satire, were not neglected.

 The Painters’ Method

 The skill of these artists can be easily appreciated when we consider their work and take note of their relatively small and simple equipment. For example, goat’s or squirrel’s hair was sufficient to make the brush for sketch drawings, and ordinary black ink formed by burning an oil lamp under a pot formed the main colour for drawing. Other colours would mostly be homemade, being prepared by squeezing different vegetables or by grinding the various stones and earth of different colours. Moreover, the whole production was on the basis of a cottage industry. The children of the family as well as the women would lend a hand in various ways—grinding the colours, making the outlines in pencil and filling up with colour washes, and preparing everything for the painting—while the expert male members of the household would do the final and difficult portion of the drawings themselves. Thus the whole family would participate in the profession, depending wholly on this for their subsistence.

The dealers, who sell these paintings to different melas in Bengal villages, would advance the money and keep the artists informed about different subjects the buyers Bird perched on a Vaisnva’s tonsured head, a satirical Kalighat painting.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
wanted. It was perhaps for this reason that the artists did not confine themselves to subjects absolutely sacred and mythological, but drew on topical interest to meet the popular demand.

 From the reproductions which accompany this article it will be seen that the drawings, by means of a few broad strokes of the brush, give a vigorous outline of a God or of some legendary subject, or sketch some purely social subject treated in a spirit of satire. There is a great number of bird and animal studies also. The human figures are treated in a bold and sincere manner and in their Indianness they are reminiscent of the classical art of India two thousand years old. This family likeness between the old art and the new is quite striking.

 In 1931 a few of these drawings from my collections were sent at the request of the Government of Bengal to the exhibition of the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London and Her Majesty the Queen Empress, among others, was highly impressed by these drawings. Even long after the exhibition had closed, I received inquiries about the pictures from admirers in London, which shows what an impression was made there.

A Family Affair

A Bengali Baboo with his lover, a common social satire on the habits of nineteenth century Bengali middle-class urban gentlemen.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
 
The method of drawing, as has already been stated, is very simple. One artist would in the beginning, copy in pencil the outline from an original model sketch, and another would do the modeling, depicting the flesh and muscles in lighter and darker shades. Then a third member of the family would put in the proper colours in different parts of the body and the background, and last of all the outlines and finish would be done in lamp black. They would generally mix these colours with water and gum and mould them on a round stone with a granite muller. Thus a living picture would be drawn in the most simple and apparently easy way as a sort of conjoint family work.

 Art is the outcome of the exuberance of life. The people whose sap of life is exhausted in their mere existence cannot think of creating a great art. The great art of mankind show that the people who produced them did not live merely in their physical existence, but lived in the manifold aspects of creative thought, and thus they were always alive to surrounding people.

 And so was in the case of these painters of Kalighat, thanks to whose artistic endeavours we have before us some phases of the pulsating life of the last century, with the ideals depicted in the form of its gods and goddesses and its criticism of life, all done in the remarkably sure and true hand of a popular art of the best kind, the roots of which go back a thousand years or more.   

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