Friday, April 9, 2010

Kalighat paintings

Kalighat paintings originated in Bengal with the patua artists, a local artistic tradition. The bazaar painters around the famous Kalighat temple adapted this style to produce works for the visiting devotees. The golden age of Kalighat art spans from the mid nineteenth century up until the 1920's.
They are highly prized and sought after because they are seen as the beginning of Indian modern art, because it was the first folk style art that created a new direction from the meticulously finished Indian and Mughal miniature tradition. They were very influential on later artists because of the quick and spontaneous drawing and simple flowing color and line.
During the early part of the 20th century Indian artists were searching for a style of art that they felt truly reflected Indian experience and Kalighat paintings were like a breath of fresh air sweeping away the dusty academia of the European style. The introduction of watercolor paint with the British, who loved to go outdoors and paint landscapes and flora, had shown these artists the potential of this quick acting medium. Watercolor lends itself to the 'sketch' or quick impression.
Parallel to this spontaneity, the subject matter also broadened into other areas. The patua painters who worked in this style would of course paint the deities for the pilgrims but they also painted quick scenes of contemporary life in Bengal ( like the europeanised Babu and his mistress, trying so hard not to be too Indian), proverbs and tales (like the cat with the lobster signifying the fat cat priest), and also current newspaper scandals and stories.
Very often several artists were involved in the finished work, one sketching out the line, another quickly filling in the color, and maybe another one finishing off with detail or silver/gold highlights.
Later artists like Jamini Roy were very influenced by this quick drawn sketch as opposed to the lengthy worked out paintings or the dominant British academic oil painting style. They felt that this was truly an indigenous Indian art. Jamini Roy, in fact, started out as a highly accomplished British trained artist painting portraits and post-impressionist landscapes, until he specifically sought another more Indian style and used the local patua, Santhal and Kalighat art as a starting point.
Original Kalighat paintings are highly prized by collectors and are getting more difficult to find, because they are seen as the beginning of the trajectory of Indian modern art which has gathered such a momentum in the past decade.
Today, there are still Kalighat artists producing this style of work.

©Peter Louis 2005
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