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Decoding the Symbolism of Cats Eating Fish in Indian Paintings

An untitled Kalighat painting of a cat stealing prawn by an anonymous artist. Source: DAG

By Lakshmi Nagaraj

Indian paintings are a kaleidoscope of stories, colors, and symbolism. Amidst the vibrant strokes and intricate details, one motif that boldly stands out is the image of a cat eating fish. This article takes you through an exploration of the symbolism of this intriguing motif. It delves into the depths of art forms, mythology, and philosophy to give you an insight into the profound tales this imagery whispers from the canvas. 

The cat eating fish in Kalighat paintings

The motif of a cat eating fish (or sometimes a lobster or prawn) is rooted in the Bengali art form of Kalighat. Although this concept gained fame after being adopted in the famous Jamini Roy’s pieces, it dates back to 19th-century Kolkata, where this motif was prevalent in many Kalighat paintings by many different artists, most of whom are unknown now. Kalighat paintings, born in the landscape of the bustling streets of Bengal, are the unruly rebels of the Indian art scene. They have come to be known for their raw and unfiltered portrayal of daily life. The canvases depict slices of life, echoing the chaos and vibrancy of the city. But the art form doesn’t stop there – it also serves as a canvas for societal critique, challenging established norms and hierarchies.

One such scene is of a cat eating a fish, presumably after stealing it from the local market. This motif, characterized by bold lines and vibrant colors, became a defining feature of Kalighat art. Seemingly simple and straightforward, this imagery has evoked a myriad of interpretations. More on that soon in the next segment. 

Cat eating fish
A modern interpretation of the motif by R.B. Bhaskaran, dated 2011 . Source: South Asian Art Gallery

Beyond Kalighat, the motif has further seeped into various art forms across the subcontinent. From classical miniature paintings, by royal courts to modern interpretations that dare to question tradition, the cat and fish saga continues to leave its mark on the canvas of Indian art, reflecting the evolving cultural landscape of India.

The cat eating fish in Hindu mythology 

The origin of the motif of a cat eating a fish in Indian paintings is deeply entrenched in the cultural and religious traditions of India, particularly within the context of Hindu mythology. While it is challenging to pinpoint a specific origin, as symbolism often evolves over time, the elements of cats and fish have individual and combined significance that contribute to the motif’s rich symbolism.

Cat eating fish
A painting of the Goddess Shashthi on a cat as her chariot. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art

As you dive into the sacred pool of Hindu mythology,  you will find cats and fish waltzing with the gods. The cat has a feline connection with goddess Shashthi, which adds an intriguing layer. The animal is portrayed as an elusive and cunning hunter, serving as the divine chariot for this goddess of fertility and childbirth. The image is raw and primal, and yet it carries a sense of divinity. On the other hand, we have the fish – a cosmic swimmer in the sea of Hindu gods. Matsya, the fish avatar of Lord Vishnu, surfaces in the vast ocean of symbolism. In this portrayal, the fish is not just an aquatic being, but a carrier of life and the cyclical dance of creation and preservation. In some interpretations, the fish is also an emblem of life and abundance, often linked to the goddess Lakshmi, who brings wealth and prosperity.

When these two elements collide on the canvas, they create a narrative that is more than just a visual spectacle. The act of a cat hunting and consuming a fish becomes a metaphorical exploration of the interplay between life and death, creation and destruction, echoing the cyclical nature of existence in Hindu philosophy. The cat, as a predator, may symbolise time or the fierce aspect of certain deities. Conversely, the fish, representing life and fertility, can be associated with the cycle of birth and rebirth. Together, the motif encapsulates the dualities within Hindu cosmology, showcasing the eternal dance of creation and dissolution.

A social critique: The cat eating fish and Brahminism

As detailed so far, some clearly interpreted the two animals in these paintings as religious subjects, seeing their union as a divine manifestation of Hindu mythology. But other critical analyses hit closer to home, urging us to look inwards as a society and question social norms. In these, the motif represents a powerful commentary on religious hypocrisy. The cat is caught in the act of indulging in pleasures of the flesh. This represents the hypocritical monk or religious ascetic who, despite his vows of renunciation, indulges secretly in worldly pleasures.

Cat eating fish. A cat with vaishnavite markings holds a blue prawn in its mouth.
A version of the motif with Vaishnavite markings on the cat’s forehead. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

In some depictions, the cat has Vaishnavite markings on its forehead, explicitly associating it with Brahmin priests, pointing towards their violation of commandments prohibiting meat and fish consumption. This satirical portrayal serves as a warning against blindly trusting the claims and requests for sustenance made by holy men, offering a nuanced commentary on the gurushishya system prevalent in the cultural and religious fabric of the time.

‘Cat and lobster’ by Jamini Roy. Source: Google Arts & Culture

One of the most famous depictions of this is a painting by Jamini Roy named ‘Cat and Lobster’, made in the 20th century (exact year unknown). But long before that, this motif emerged as a common theme in Kalighat paintings made by artists observing contemporary life. Situated in close proximity to temples, these artists were astute observers of the rituals, behaviors, and interactions occurring within these sacred spaces. By depicting scenes with this motif, they not only mirrored their keen observations but also asserted their role as social commentators.

A peek into the rituals around temples allowed these painters to portray religious hypocrisy with candor and authenticity, contributing to the distinctive narrative style characterizing Kalighat paintings. The motif, emerging from their observation of religious practices and ascetic behaviors, became a potent visual language for critiquing societal norms and questioning the integrity of religious figures within the Brahminical order.

Other interpretations of the cat eating fish

Firstly, the previous interpretation is extended to be a metaphor for corruption among the elite. The paintings place a humorous yet critical lens on the deterioration of moral values and ethical standards among the ruling class. 

In another, simpler interpretation, the paintings are viewed as a celebration of local fauna and the richness of the Hooghly River, portraying a diverse array of creatures, including lobsters and various types of fish. The motif also becomes a visual narrative that signifies the symbiotic relationship between the community and the river, emphasizing their interconnectedness. This narrative is especially important during today’s climate crisis. 

In a more pragmatic interpretation, the motif can be seen as a representation of the local economy. The cat’s act of stealing a fish from the market might symbolise the everyday struggles and challenges faced by the working class. It becomes a reflection of the economic disparities and the pursuit of sustenance within the community.

So, the next time you encounter a cat sinking its teeth into a fish on an Indian canvas, remember – it’s not just a feast; it’s a multi-dimensional symbol, resonating with layers of cultural, social, and environmental significance. This motif is merely one example to remind us of the rich diversity of interpretations that art can evoke, as well as the dynamic nature of artistic expression and the enduring resonance of symbolic imagery in Indian art.

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so. 

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