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Mystical Oriental Kalighat Paintings from the Heart of Bengal

Madhavi Verma Kalighat Painting( west Bengal)

If you ever visit the famous Kalighat temple of Kolkata you can still chance upon a couple of painters working upon intricate life forms on paper. Oblivious to the din around them the painters seem lost in a mystical world of their own. A look at their craft will remind you of the paintings on cloth which were the signature style of the Bengal of yore. The paintings of Kalighat have a chequered history and reflect a delightful blend of the traditional oriental art with Indian occidental influences.
Kalighat Paintings: The Story of their Origin
When the British invaded India they were fascinated by the literary and artistic culture of the country. Numerous art schools that taught European art in India were opened and quickly spawned artists who were hungry for experimentation. The artistic diversity in Institutes like Calcutta School of Art attracted the Patua painters from the villages of ancient Bengal to Calcutta. The artists began to rendezvous around the Kalighat Temple where there was already a constant demand for religious paintings. A few of them started drawing religious figures in the oriental style in a bid for differentiation and thus the first Kalighat Painting took birth.
Art aficionados say that the Kalighat School of art was a smooth blend of Occidental and Oriental. The subjects of Kalighat art were Yellow skinned, slant eyed, ethereally beautiful religious figures depicting the fabric of Hindu religion. While the hot favorite was predictably Goddess Kali; Annapurna, Lakshmi and Durga were also popular subjects. Gradually Hanuman Ji and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu too began to be included in these paintings. As time passed, the artists soon began to dabble with subjects like history and heroic characters. Unknowingly, the Kalighat artists began to support Independence movement by portrayingcharacters like Rani Laxmibai and Tipu Sultan. Paintings representing different professions, costumes etc. were also popular.
Kalighat Paintings: What makes them different?
The principle characteristics of Kalighat paintings were their simplicity and aesthetic color play. These paintings could easily be reproduced and colored by hand.
Famous artist Mukul Dey once said that the Kalighat painting was a family affair. One of the artists in the family world make the outline of the painting, the second would fill in the flesh and muscle tones while a third would fill in the colors while a fourth will ink out the outlines in lamp black. The Kalighat paintings were an example of simple family team work.
Another distinguishing feature of these paintings was in the use of natural materials. The water based opaque colors like yellow, red, indigo, carbon black etc. were mostly made by natural plant and mineral extracts. Even the brushes used in the paintings used to be fashioned with Goats or Squirrel’s hair.
The use of colloidal tin for ornamentation and bel fruit gum for binding were other distinctive features. Artists replicated jewels, ornaments and decorations with exquisite attention to detail in these paintings.
Kalighat Paintings: Reviving the Lost Magic of the Patuas
The Kalighat paintings were a rage but their popularity began to wane around the early period of the 20th century. Many famous museums and homes of the rich and famous still preserve the ancient mystical Kalighat paintings. The Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum, Gurusaday Museum etc. house beautiful specimens of this painting style.
A study of the work of famous Bengal artists like Jamini Roy reveals the huge inspiration of the Kalighat Painting style on their work.
The practice of Kalighat paintings still reigns over some villages of Bengal where the patua artists continue to pay homage to this rich art form. Some organizations like Remek untiringly pursue the goal of popularizing these beautiful paintings and letting the world view their splendor. One look at the clear fluidic lines and the ethereally lovely color play will make you want to possess at least one of the dazzling Kalighat paintings.


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