Kalighat Paintings Exhibition at CSMVS
The exhibition of Kalighat paintings at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is a neat primer to the art form that developed in the middle of the nineteenth-century on the eponymous river bank in Kolkata. Culled from the vaults of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which has the largest collection of such paintings in the world, and Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Hall, the show traces the various stages in the development of Kalighat painting.
It begins with works from the mid 1800s, when patuas (artists) mostly painted deities. These were sold as souvenirs to pilgrims visiting the Kali temple in Kolkata. Speed was of essence for the artists because they had to keep up with the demand for religious iconography. As a result, they developed the bold, spare style that is the hallmark of Kalighat art. Figures are prominent and cleanly outlined, colours are usually vivid and there’s little background detail.
European influences crept into the works of the late nineteenth-century. Artists began painting typical colonial pursuits such as horse races and hunts—and, amusingly, satirised the colonial affectations adopted by Bengalis. A series of paintings pokes fun at the Bengali ‘babu’, a foppish figure who keeps pets, plays Western musical instruments and sports the ‘Albert’ hairstyle, an effete crop attributed to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.
Kalighat artists also commented on social issues through their paintings. The best example of this is a series of works that describes the 1873 Tarakeshwar affair in detail. It was the Nanavati scandal of its time. A civil servant learned that his wife was having an affair with the temple priest. He forgave her and they planned to leave town. But when the priest’s henchmen stopped their flight, the husband, in a fit of jealousy, beheaded his wife.
The show ends with works by painters who continue to practice the art form even though they no longer live around Kalighat. The situations depicted in the contemporary paintings are modern but the style of painting is unchanged. This makes the newer works, replete with cars, high-rises and rickshaws, delightfully odd.