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Decline of Patna Kalam in the Modern Indian Art Discourse

Patna Kalam


Patna Kalam is often considered a part of Company painting. However, this categorisation becomes problematic when it questions the authenticity of the art form to be Indian. Patna School of Art is a hybrid of Mughal and Rajput court paintings and European techniques. A part of the artworks of Patna artists did target European buyers. However, incorporating European influence was a matter of evolution for the sake of survival, impacted by the demand and supply of 19th-century Northern India. Many Oriental art historians questioned the artistic merit of Patna School of Art, and therefore, contributed to its decline. 

Origins of Patna Kalam

Artist Ishwari Prasad gives us a rough account of the origins of Patna Kalam. The artists from a Kayasth family migrated from the Pratapgarh district in Udaipur Rajputana to the Mughal Court in the 16th century. However, the declining patronage of arts during the reign of Aurangzeb pushed them to migrate to Murshidabad where they painted portraits of not only their Nawabi patrons but also British gentry. After the Battle of Plassey, this group of migrating artists set the foundation for what is known as the Patna School of Painting.

By the 1880s, Patam Kalam had turned into a cottage industry where artists used stencils to bulk produce. These were hardly of great artistic merit but were authentic in a way they deliberately emphasised naive crudeness. They repackaged British lithographs in a native style. By the 1890s, the market for Patna Kalam began to die down. The idyllic images of everyday life had become relics of the past. It could not adapt to the changing tastes and newer modes of representation.

Also Read: Evolution of the Chamba School of Pahari Painting

Patna Kalam
Public Gathering by Shiv Lal (Source: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Style and Technique in Patna Kalam

Patna Kalam had a formalised scheme of facial features. Characters in the painting had deep-set, sunken eyes, pointed noses, men with big mustaches, and lean, haggard faces. Artists used a fascinating technique called Kajli Seahi, where they directly painted the pictures with the brush without using a pencil sketch. Gradually, over time bright colours gave way to the fashionable somber shades. A similar change happened in the method of shading solid forms. Using the Mughal technique of shading, artists applied darker tones of the same colours. Later paintings have shadows with soft washes of soft colours. Coarse hair needs boiling first to soften it to make fine brushes. Painters used paper made from cotton, jute, or bamboo saplings. With the British advent, they began to use machine-made paper. 

Artists drew colours from mineral pigments, plants, and flowers. Unlike many traditional art forms which feature imagination and heavy symbolism. Patna Kalam paintings celebrates true-to-life depiction. Another element that is present in most Patna Kalam paintings is the lack of detailed background. 

Subjects in Patna Kalam

Patna Kalam artists portrayed various peddlers, bangle-sellers, fish sellers, basket makers, carpenters, butchers, distillers, candle makers, water carriers, brass workers, thread makers, blacksmiths, etc. Many paintings feature festivals, celebrations, and weddings. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, miniature portraits were in fashion with the upper and middle classes. Artist Sewak Ram’s paintings revolve around festivals and the culture of Patna. He painted Chhath Puja, Holi, Muharram, etc., to depict the vibrant cultural milieu of the time. 

Patna Kalam
Women drawing water from the River by Bani Lal (Source: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Lalji and Hulas Lal painted portraits in a European style. East India Company employed him as a draughtsman. Shiva Lal opened his studio that drew students from many North Indian cities and captured scenes of ordinary Indian life and many pictures of birds. He worked on a series of drawings of the manufacturing process of opium, along with the history of the opium trade. 

Also Read: Exploring The Barahmasa Theme In Miniature Paintings

Modern Indian Art Discourse and Patna Kalam

In the early twentieth century, Abanindranath Tagore geared new discourse on Indian art. It aims to identify the essence of Indian art that could oppose Western art. Orientalism is a set of ideologies or a discourse that tends in any form of knowledge to create distinctions such as ‘East’ and ‘West’. 

It was not only Western academicians who appropriated this discourse, but also art historians like Ananda K Coomaraswamy and E.B. Havell, who argued for the superiority of Indian art while limiting it to the sharp hard-and-fast distinction between East and West. To define nationalist artistic traditions, they went back to the ancient past. 

Coomaraswamy called Indian art superior to Western art because it is religious and spiritual, while Western art remained drenched in superfluous realism. This argument is a reformed version of distinction, where the West is rational and scientific, and the East is irrational and religious. For E.B. Havell, true Indianness lay in continuity of antiquity, the unbroken classical past. However, the hybrid nature of Since Patna Kalam lacked the claim to the legacy of the classical past.

Alternatives Modernities to Indian Modern Art

An art form can survive or adapt to changing tastes and new modes of representation. But what it can not survive is not being considered as art. Saumya Garima Jaipuriar argues that Patna Kalam was increasingly being considered as debased and contaminated. The alternate and authentic modernity of the popular art of the north Indian bazaar was not as respectable as the modern elite painters. After all, the idea that laid down the foundations of modern Indian art only focused on metropolitan, self-conscious artists. 

The lack of interest in realism, a concern for allusion, and a focus on the ideal are some of the distinguishing features of Abanindranath’s artistic understanding. For him, modernity in art means a transformed way of drawing material from indigenous tradition to meet the intellectual needs of the time. This way of modern transformation was self-conscious, and became a part of Modern nationalist art, whereas Patna Kalam became a derivative form of indigenous tradition. “The hierarchy of the modern metropolitan artist and the traditional artisan has implicitly permeated art discourse and hindered the recognition of alternative modernities such as of Patna Kalam artists in the 19th century,” says Saumya Garima Jaipuriar in her paper published in the Journal of Kolkata Society of Asian Studies. 

Also Read: Preserving Roots: Unraveling the Impact of Commercialisation of Warli Art

Ishwari Prasad, the Last Artist of Patna Kalam

Ishwari Prasad (1888-1986) was the grandson of Patna Kalam artist Shiva Lal, who worked as an instructor at the Government School of Art, Calcutta. Instead of replicating the stereotypes attached to Patna Kalam, Prasad drew inspiration from his talented great-grandfather Fakri Chand Lal and emphasised the Rajput style.

Patna Kalam
Women with a Pet (Source: Victoria and Albert Museum)

‘The Woman with a Pet’ was unusual for a typical Patna Kalam painting. Instead of working or doing some outside chore, the woman is having leisure time. Patna elements are present in the facial features, but the profile orientation is of Rajput and Mughal styles. In the Jharokha-style portrait of Havell, the blind is not attached to a window or a balcony opening but hangs between the viewer and the subject as if calling for attention. It can be seen as a means to identify the school with its parent tradition and gain legitimacy in the art discourse of the time. 

However, the art discourse of the time was vague over techniques and material but was more concerned with sensibility. This change Prasad brought was not enough for Patna Kalam to get picked on the larger scale as Mughal painting, Rajput painting, or Ajanta murals that served as templates for elite artists. 

Patna Kalam
Art, the Lady (Source: V&A Museum)

His other painting ‘Art, the Lady’ shows his turn away from the established style of Patna Kalam to the metaphoric quality of Tagore’s paintings. The woman in the painting does not belong to the servant class, and in terms of the style, it was in no way connected to the artist’s immediate predecessors. The painting seems to send out a message that is typical to the Pan-Oriental narrative of the time, where Indian art is mature enough to embrace cultural influences from other cultures from a privileged position. 


Patna Kalam’s decline tells us the power of ideology and discourse that can lead to the rise of one form of art while hampering the growth of the another. Political, social, and ontological insecurities of the National Self defined the discursive battles fought in the field of art. The all-pervasive Eurocentrism of the early 20th century separated everything into East vs. West dialectic. The complete rejection of the Western academic style also invalidated the incorporation of the non-academic Western style. But this has changed now. Currently, many traditional and folk artists are incorporating Western techniques to add novelty. This practice does not dilute or corrupt the art form but helps it to evolve while capturing its true essence. 

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