By Rita Votra,
Kalighat Paintings are a group of paintings, which have their roots in cultural upheavals of 19th century colonial Bengal. Their name comes from the place where the artists originally set up their practice - around the Kalighat temple in Calcutta. Their medium was watercolour on mill-made paper and they were primarily created by the scroll painters-cum-potters who migrated from rural Bengal to the city of Calcutta in the nineteenth century. These paintings have been appreciated as well as neglected over a period of time, their fate being dictated for a greater part of time by popular sentiment rather than their artistic value.
Initially, Kalighat paintings were mainly depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses including their various incarnations. But over a period of time the influences expanded and Kalighat Paintings became a reflection of the society of their time. The artists used this medium to record their impressions of the dynamic social environment they lived in. Calcutta, the capital of British India served as the inspiration for these artists. They turned their satirical gaze towards a changing society, altering lifestyles and industrial progress. A new typology of men and women were created. The Bengali babu and the 'loose woman' epitomised for them the eroding of traditional Indian values.
Ironically, in the nineteenth century when these paintings were at their peak in the artistic sense, the scholars neglected them. Even later at the turn of the century the Revivalists in their quest for an "Indianness" marginalized for it had its origins in the folk. The ancient Sanskrit texts largely served as the yardstick for judging the merit of art forms and the written word was considered far more important than pictorial expressions. Rural visual forms of the Kalighat Paintings kind were considered degenerate expressions and did not deserve any attention, since they lacked the authority of the sacred text.
It was only after the first quarter of the twentieth century that these paintings began to be appreciated as an important art form. The Industrial Revolution was looked upon as a threat to art in general. The Indian art scene, in particular, was under the threat of being swept by the wave of westernisation. Decorative Indian Art, seemed to be under the serious danger of being degraded and contaminated beyond recognition. The survival of traditional Indian arts therefore became a prime concern. Local traditions suddenly assumed paramount importance and there was an acute need for protecting, documenting and reviving rural art. This largely led to Kalighat Paintings being given the importance due to them.
There are conflicting views about the influences on the Kalighat type of paintings as well as their authentic form. While some argue that these paintings have a distinct British influence, contrary views state that local technique and social settings are entirely responsible for the Kalighat style. There is also some amount of dispute about whether the narrative scroll painting or the portable souvenir idiom represents the true "form" of the Kalighat paintings. Irrespective of the outcome of this argument, the fact remains that Kalighat Paintings are a legacy, which help us understand the mode of life at the time of their creation and immortalise events which would otherwise be lost to future generations.