The Patua artists and storytellers were the precursors of cinema and television in Bengal. Wandering from place to place with their painted linear Pattachitra scrolls they regaled their audiences with stories, slowly un-scrolling theirpats. Stories of gods and goddesses, myths, folklore and legends provided entertainment, the Patuas communicating and interpreting the stories while in addition carrying tales of faraway events and momentous occurrences to their audiences. In the early years of the 19th century looking for new opportunities some members of the Patua community settled in the vicinity of the Kalighat temple in southern Calcutta. Then as now this most renowned of all Hindu religious sites in Bengal was a great marketplace for traders, artists and craftsperson’s selling votive objects and mementos for the 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 selling their paintings, changing the format 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 cms. Given the crush of the large numbers of transient temple visitors themade-to-order painting were executed with great speed at prices that suited the buyer’s pocket. Painted in water-colors 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 for the eye to focus on. in 1888 an eye-witness 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.”
In this urbanized milieu of Calcutta the Patuas had branched out from the confines of mythological and religious pats to reflect on the increasingly Anglicized Bengali society. Depicting contemporary social themes, events, and lampoons that reflected the mores of a rapidly growing metropolis their subject matter now include the strains and fissures of changing times the artists presenting their view point caricaturing the modern Bengali gentlemen and their ladies with wry and sardonic humor. Current events, topical goings-on were also portrayed; none more famously than the sensational 1873 legal case that was branded the Tarakeshwar 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 extra-marital affair and subsequent murderous beheading that was the highlight of the case. The Patuas 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 that included collectors and European visitors. This art style came to be termed as Kalighat painting, based on the eponymous temple in whose precincts the Patuas worked.
Like many art and craft forms the coming of mechanization and in this case the technology of woodcuts and metal-engraved prints with its mass reproduction onprint 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 MukulDey, the first Indian to be 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, “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 recognized as the truly urban art of Calcutta by scholars with collections in private hands and in museums across the world bearingtestimony 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 was to remain dormant for over half a century till the late 1990s when KalamPatuawho belonged to a traditional Patua family experimented with the form having seen his first Kalighat painting at Gurusaday Museum on one of his rare visits to Kolkatta.Working for years to perfect his form he hasn’t looked back since with his work in collections in prestigious museum in India and overseas, solo exhibitions and participation in international art workshops. His efforts have seen a revival of the genre in Bengal with new Kalighat style artists emerging from traditional Patua families. However his work and that of 30 year old BhaskerChitrakar stand out as their sardonic humorand witty paintings of contemporary India best represent the satirical approach of the Kalighat’s of the past.
First published in Sunday Herald.