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The ancient art of satire

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is hosting an exhibition of 105 Kalighat paintings. The art form, which flourished in the 19th century, depicted mythological scenes and was a tool of satirical commentary on the society of the time

The town of Kalighat (home of Kali) in Kolkata is renowned for the famous Kali temple as well as for spawning a unique style of art. Since Kalighat was  bustling with pilgrims, there was a market for clay sculptures, ivory carvings and clay figure paintings which were lapped up by the tourists as souvenirs.


Oh Kolkata by Uttam Chitrakar which depicts the
society of those times


A need for creating simple artworks at a fast pace led to the patuas (artists) creating single pictures involving just two characters against a plain background as opposed to the traditional long scrolls.
 
The easy availability of cheap mill-made paper and water colours helped the artform thrive. But after the advent of the printing press in the 20th century, the art form started going into decline.


Mahant meets Elokeshi, which depicts the Tarakesh-war affair
between a priest and a Bengali babu's wife


To create awareness about the story behind this unique art form, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, in collaboration with London's Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum and Kolkata's Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH), is exhibiting over 105 never-before-seen Kalighat paintings over the next two months.

Snapshots from history
To a modern audience, this genre provides a snapshot of an urban lifestyle that flourished briefly in the 19th century. "The artists started off by creating mythological scenes for the pilgrims but quickly took to satirising the whims of the Bengali middle classes that emulated the European way of life.
 
In a way, these patuas were the social commentators of their time and the satirical element should interest today's audiences as we are used to such commentaries in today's media-driven world," said V&A curator Suhashini Sinha. Among the 105 images, 68 are from the V&A collection, 22 from the VMH and 15 are by contemporary Kalighat patuas.

Scandals and hypocrisy

The highlight of the exhibition, according to Sinha, are the paintings depicting the Jagannath trio (Jagannath, Balarama and Subhadra), a portrayal of Hanuman fighting Ravana, images of Bengali babus relaxing with their mistresses and the paintings from the Tarakeshwar affair.
 
The affair, in question, was a hot topic of discussion and involved a Brahmin priest who was found to be having an affair with a married woman. One of the other highlights is the Cat Holding A Prawn image which is a satirical take on the false Brahmins who pretended to be total vegetarians but secretly ate fish.

The Kalighat images are characterised by bold outlines, sweeping curvaceous forms, bright colours, simple shapes and compositions with basic detailing.

They have had a profound influence even among artists in the late 19th and early 20th century with artists such as Jamini Roy and Picasso whose paintings showed certain resemblances in terms of elements.

The last of the Kalighat patuas?
Bringing the story full circle, the exhibition will include the artworks by contemporary patuas from Medinipur and Murshidabad areas of West Bengal. They are carrying forward the tradition and the contemporary paintings they create focus on secular themes and current events mixed with religious depictions executed in a
modern style.  

Did you know...
> The V&A museum boasts of the largest single collection of Kalighat paintings, which it acquired through purchase or in the form of gifts.

> Kalighat paintings were considered as an attractive and portable type of popular art that was collected by foreigners visiting Kolkata. John Lockwood Kipling, curator of the Lahore Museum in the late 1870s and father of author Rudyard Kipling, collected 28 Kalighat paintings when he visited Kolkata between 1870 and 1890.
Rudyard Kipling donated his father's Kalighat collection to the V&A in 1917. 

> The Kalighat style has strong roots in the scroll painting tradition known as Pattachitra (translates into painting on cloth) which has been practiced in Bengal for centuries.

From December 22 till February 1, 10.15 am to 6 pm
At Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, MG Road, Fort.

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