Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 03:08 AM IST
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Divinity & more on canvas... - Deccan Herald
Divinity & more on canvas...
Ritu Sethi,
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Few Kalighar artworks
The patua artists and storytellers were the precursors of cinema and television in Bengal. Wandering from place to place with their painted and linear pattachitra scrolls, they regaled audiences with stories, slowly un-scrolling their pats. While the stories of gods and goddesses, myths, folklore and legends were standard, the patuas also carried tales of faraway events and momentous occurrences to their
eager audiences.

Stories on paper

In the early years of the 19th century, some members of the patua community who were looking for new opportunities settled in the vicinity of the Kalighat Temple in Southern Calcutta (now Kolkata). Then, this most renowned of all Hindu religious sites in Bengal was a great marketplace for traders, artists and craftspersons selling votive objects and mementoes for pilgrims to take home as souvenirs.

The paintings of the patuas at Kalighat were different from their scrolls as they now served a very different audience - that of pilgrims to the temple eager for keepsakes at a low price. The patuas broke from their tradition by changing the format of the scrolls to that of a chaukash rectangular pat, which depicted individual scenes and figures. These were executed on mill-made paper, usually in a size of 45 cm, and were sold to eager pilgrims.

Given the huge rush of transient temple visitors, the made-to-order painting was executed with great speed at prices that suited the buyer’s pocket. Painted in watercolours, the background was usually blank with the figures more often than not just one or two large, curvaceously-shaped ones that filled the page with no superfluous decorative elements.

In 1888, an eyewitness account stated, "The patuas now paint rude 'daubs’, which are sold by thousands in stalls near the shrine of Kalighat…, as also in other places of pilgrimage and public fairs. The subjects, as usual, are mythological, but of late, they have taken to making pictures representing a few comical features of Indian life… generally sold at a price ranging from a farthing to a penny.”

Evolving themes

Later, in the urbanised milieu of Calcutta, the patuas branched out from the confines of mythological and religious pats to reflect on the increasingly Anglicised Bengali society. Depicting contemporary social themes, events and lampoons that reflected the mores of a rapidly growing metropolis, their subject matter now includes the strains and fissures of changing times with the artists presenting their viewpoint caricaturing the modern Bengali gentlemen and their ladies with wry and sardonic humour.

Current events and topical goings-on were also portrayed; none more famously than the sensational 1873 legal case that was branded the Tarakeswar Affair. With all the ingredients of a potboiler, the patuas’ skills of caricature, imagination and newsworthiness were put to test as through their art, they vividly imagined the extramarital affair and subsequent murderous beheading that was the highlight of the case. These illustrations fed an avid audience who were agog to gather all the news on the case.

This newsworthiness, combined with their ability to capture the
moment with a satirical twist, expanded their audience beyond the traditional demands of the pilgrims to that of a larger public, which included collectors and European visitors too. This art style came to be termed as Kalighat painting, based on the eponymous temple in whose precincts the patuas worked.

In troubled waters

Like many art and craft forms, the advent of mechanisation and, in this case, the technology of woodcuts and metal-engraved prints with its mass reproduction on print sounded the death knell for the patuas. The Kalighat painting style that had emerged in the early 19th century ended in the first quarter of the 20th century.

By 1932, an account by Mukul Dey, the first Indian to be the principal of the
Government School of Art, noted, "But these patuas are not found in their old places now… 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….”

Stating further, he wrote, "These
pictures have now
entirely vanished. The artist craftsmen are nearly all dead, and their children have taken up other business… selling at two or four pice each… The old art is gone forever - the pictures are now finding their last asylum in museums and art collections as things of beauty which we cannot let die.”

Pats in the Kalighat style of painting were the first works to be applauded, written about and recognised as the truly urban art of Calcutta by scholars with collections in private hands and in museums across the world, bearing testimony to the fame and appreciation of this art form.

While the narrative arts of the pattachitra and its poetic rendering of stories continued in Bengal, the Kalighat style remained dormant for over half a century till the late 1990s when Kalam Patua (who belonged to a traditional patua family) experimented with the form after having seen his first Kalighat painting at Gurusaday Museum.

Working for years to perfect his form, he hasn’t looked back since. His work has been featured in prestigious museums in India and overseas, solo exhibitions, and he has also participated in several international art workshops. His efforts have seen a revival of the genre in West Bengal with new Kalighat-style artists emerging from traditional patua families. However, his work and that of 30-year-old Bhasker Chitrakar stand out as their sardonic
humour and witty paintings of contemporary India best represent the satirical approach of the Kalighats of the past.