Kalam Patua

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Kalam Patua: Carrying on the Kalighat Tradition

Majumdar, Minhazz


An ancient one and the artists who create them are known as Patua. This tradition features long vertical multi paneled scrolls known as patas (paintings) or jorana patas (rolled paintings) since the scrolls are rolled up for storage and transportation. Each panel represents a particular sequence in the story and as they are unrolled for viewing, the accompanying couplet or story is recited. Painted on sheets of paper glued at the edges to form one continuous roll, these scrolls are mounted on cloth (usually old saris) for greater strength and flexibility. Traditionally, the performer would carry these scrolls from door to door, and depending on people’s request, particular stories would be narrated for a small fee, either in cash or kind.

In 1983, at the age of 21, Kalam held the first show of his works. Soon, Kalam achieved great renown for his finely detailed works, exhibiting his patachitrapaintings at the West Bengal Pavilion, India International Trade Fair, Delhi in 1987, 1988 and 1989. His scrolls on the French Revolution done for the French Cultural Centre in Kolkata were hailed as a new innovation in patachitra art and he collaborated on shows with artists from other countries.

Once he mastered patachitra painting, Kalam focused his attention on yet another Bengali art tradition, namely Kalighat paintings. At first, he was inspired by the paintings of yore and then later developing his own individual repertoire of contemporary Kalighat paintings. Kalighat paintings are believed to have originated in the nineteenth century with the establishment of the Kali temple in the city of Kolkata. Initially developed as religious souvenirs for pilgrims coming to the temple, Kalighat paintings of gods and goddesses were rendered quickly by artists sitting outside the temple. Using water-colours and cheap mill made paper, the artists executed drawings as per the buyer’s request for a small fee. Typically, Kalighatpaintings are not overly embellished or crammed with imagery as in many other folk art styles such as Madhubani or Pabuji phads or Puri paintings. Rather, Kalighatpaintings display a minimalist yet striking treatment of subject matter. Gradually, secular themes began to be introduced and Kalighat paintings became a means of social commentary.

When Kalam Patua began making Kalighat paintings, the tradition had all but died out, replaced successively by cheaper wood-prints and then machine printed images. He began by learning from existing works, painstakingly copying the pieces till he mastered the art. It was not easy as he had a full-time job in the post-office but soon, reviving Kalighat art became a passion. Once he became confident of his brush-strokes, he began experimenting with themes, coming up with truly original interpretations of contemporary events and world-views.

Kalam has participated in several shows including the The Margi & The Desi curated by Dr. Alka Pandey at Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi, (2004); Bouro-64, along with a group of artist from Switzerland at the Birla Academy Of Art, Kolkata, (1996); and a two-man show along with a German artist organized by Poliphony, a group of employees at Alliance Française, Kolkata, 1994. In 2002, he was invited by the Canadian Museum Of Civilization to demonstrate his art in Canada. In 2003, Dr Jyotindra Jain curated a solo show by Kalam at Gallery Espace, New Delhi. His works are part of the permanent collection of National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi and in several private collections in India and abroad.

Kalam’s works never fail to delight – the bold lines and soft swathes of colour, the fine detailing and bare background, creating sheer visual beauty. One can look at his works a million times and always find something to delight in.

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