Kalighat Painting: Calcutta's Lost Art


Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai

Oct 30, USA (SUN) — The Kalighat style of painting is a simple, direct approach to art that took root and flourished in Calcutta's bazaars during the nineteenth-century. Thousands of paintings in this style were produced, showing images that were swiftly and deftly executed in watercolors. The paintings were meant to appeal both to the prosperous and the poor residents of Calcutta, and were priced in the bazaars so many could afford to purchase them.

The term “Kalighat” was coined by Mukul Dey, a famous Indian artist and associate in the Tagore school He named the painting style “Kalighat” because he first encountered it around 1910 in the riverside neighborhood of Calcutta’s famous Kali temple.

Kalighat paintings typically depicted whatever was on the minds of Calcutta residents of the day: images of the Deities, religious festivities, social celebrities, and even the criminals of the day. Beautiful images were painted of Lord Krsna, along with Srimati Radharatni and Their gopi attendants. Not surprising, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu was also the focus of many Kalighats, which typically showed the Lord in His Shada-bhuja (four-armed) Form, or pictured the beautifully dancing Sri Sri Gauranga and Nityananda.

An article by Dey describes the scene where Kalighats were created: " I remember the patuas drawing the pictures in their “shop-studios.” These “shop-studios” were more or less “news bureaus” of the country, where not only the pictures of mythological subjects were drawn, but caricatures and satirical sketches ... dealing with topics of the day, the happenings in the law courts as well as in the bazaars. …For example, wealthy zemindars spending their money on wine and women, foppish babus spending their day and night at nasty places, a Mohunt suffering imprisonment for abducting girls, or a priest or Vaishnav “Guru” (who is invariably depicted as well-fed and well-groomed, pot-bellied and top-knotted-the veritable picture of a pious rogue) living with unchaste women.…Even popular sayings and proverbs get good illustrations from them."

Shada-Bhuja Caitanya

It was not until after the Kalighat paintings were no longer being produced, in the early twentieth century, that the art was finally recognized for its brilliant and inventive aesthetic achievement. The creators of these paintings usually came from hereditary artisan communities, and they received training by way of traditional apprenticeship. Because the style of painting was so simple, almost illustrative in the spare lines beneath bright watercolors, a great many artists took to this craft following the style set down by their masters.

Today, Kalighat paintings are attracting a renewed level of attention, and exhibitions of these fascinating works are increasing finding their way to western galleries. In 1999, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted the first major exhibition of Kalighats in the U.S., exhibiting nearly two hundred artworks. In 2003, the extensive Herwitz collection was shown at the Peabody Essex Museum, making the Peabody the most important public repository of Kalighat painting in North America

The Kalighat style was succinctly described by Susan Bean, curator at the Peabody Essex, from an essay she wrote in an exhibition catalog in 2003: "The Kalighat style, well represented by the paintings in the Gallery Arts India exhibition, is characterized by economy of line in deftly executed brush strokes delineating figures against a blank ground using a limited palette of basic colors-black, red, blue, green, yellow, and a silvery tin-based pigment. Most distinctive are the broad strokes of deep color shading into pale washes that impart a sense of volume to arms, legs, and torsos, and contour to faces. Long, fine brush strokes in black, silver, or red delineate facial features, and sometimes outline feet, hands, bodies, and clothing. Occasionally, penciled or lithographed lines that guided the artist’s brush can be discerned at the figures’ edges. Finishing touches in silvery tin-based pigment added jewelry, ornaments, and decorative motifs. The result was fresh, bright, bold, and plainly very attractive to a broad clientele."

Bean goes on to describe how the art form grew due to the availability of new materials: "Kalighat painters style discovered that newly available mill-made paper (produced principally for the printing presses sprouting up around the city) and European-style transparent watercolors, a medium introduced in the eighteenth century, allowed them to paint in new ways. The paper’s smooth surface and the fluidity of the water-based medium made it possible to control the depth of tone from dark to the palest wash applied in flowing brush strokes. Paintings could be made quickly with inexpensive materials and sold at very low prices."

As contemporary Indian art gains popularity and art lovers around the world become more familiar with the Kalighat style, we can appreciate the spiritual benefit they will gain by enjoying the Calcutta-created images of Sri Sri Radha-Krsna and the Yuga Avatara, our most merciful Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.


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