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The Evolution of Kalighat Painting: History, Themes, Techniques

Kalighat painting is a traditional Indian art form that is known for its themes, techniques, and style. Originating around the 19th century in the Kalighat Temple area of Kolkata, the Kalighat art form has left behind a huge legacy. The mastery of the art, the bold outlines, vivid colours, and expressive depictions have been the hallmarks of the Kalighat paintings. Yet, one of the most prominent features of the Kalighat painting has been its contribution to acting as a reflection of the culture, society, and beliefs of the people of its time.

Also, interestingly, the evolution and journey of the Kalighat painting are fraught with ups and downs that are influenced by the social and cultural landscape of the country. However, undoubtedly, the Kalighat paintings are an essential part of the artistic aesthetics and traditional creations of the country. And it is only fitting to know more about this art form.

The Origin of Kalighat Painting

The exact origins of the Kalighat painting are debatable. Though there is no specific date, experts suggest that the Kalighat art form began in the early 19th century. Also, many historians believe that the origins of these paintings coincide with the building of the famous Kalighat Temple in Kolkata.

Moreover, it was during the 19th century that Kolkata, or Calcutta (as it was then known), emerged as an important economic and administrative region of British India. And the Kalighat Temple in southern Kolkata attracted a large number of devotees and European visitors. Thus, craftsmen and artisans from surrounding villages made their way to the Temple to find work opportunities. Among them were the patuas, or artists, from rural West Bengal. The patuas were painters who painted scrolls, or the Patachitra. These scroll paintings were an excellent medium of artistic expression. Besides, they were also modes of storytelling, that illustrated tales from mythology and the epics.

Kalighat style of paintings found its origin  usually depicted Gods and Goddesses, primarily Kali, the main deity of the temple.
Kali of Kalighat, 1885, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The History of Kalighat Painting

The patuas who migrated to Kolkata started out by selling the Patachitra paintings. However, soon, due to the increase in demand and time constraints, they switched to paintings on chouka, or square frames. The paintings usually depicted Gods and Goddesses, primarily Kali, the main deity of the temple. These paintings were minimalistic in the sense that they had no background images or unnecessary decorations. The paintings depicted single or two figures and used basic colours. And thus, this is how the Kalighat style of paintings found its origin.

In many ways, the Kalighat paintings adapted to the needs of their time. The patuas used British-made mill paper and ready-made chemical paints. The Kalighat paintings, therefore, were slightly unlike their other traditional art form counterparts. Most traditional art forms stringently stuck to their traditional ways of creating and using colours and themes. But the Kalighat painters moved with the requirements at hand. They used materials and ingredients that made their creative process faster, more economical, and more efficient.

The Method & Techniques of Kalighat Paintings

Kalighat painting was often a family or group affair. Some members would outline the Kalighat drawing, someone would fill in the colours and someone would add the final touches to the design. Also, the paintings were made using basic materials. Colours, when naturally made, were sourced from leaves, flowers, turmeric, etc. For instance, blue came from the Aparajita flower, black from the soot of the oil lamp, and yellow from crushing turmeric roots and seeds. Initially, cloth scrolls and canvas were used. However, soon after, the paper from the mills took over. The brushes used were simply made from the goat’s tail or the squirrel’s hair.

Thus, the Kalighat paintings had a unique simplicity about them. 

Themes of Kalighat Paintings

Kalighat paintings depicted a variety of themes. However, it started out as paintings of religious deities, as it was associated with the Kalighat Temple. Visitors often bought these paintings as souvenirs and spiritual takeaways. Some of the image themes included the paintings of Kali, Shiva, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Saraswati and more. Influenced by the Patachitra art form, the patuas continued to depict images that were related to the epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Paintings that were themed around religion were known as the ‘Oriental School’ of Kalighat painting.

On the other hand, there was the ‘Occidental School’ of Kalighat painting. This school of paintings depicted the lives of ordinary people and captured the everyday life of Kolkata. Also, these paintings revolved around social and cultural themes. From depictions of freedom fighters such as Rani Lakshmibai and Tipu Sultan to the increasing babu culture of the city, the Kalighat paintings were a great commentary on the societal fabric of the time.

Besides, several Kalighat paintings also depicted animals and pets, such as fish, birds, lobsters, and more. These paintings were probably influenced by the Mughal painters.

The Last Supper by Jamini Roy, who was greatly influenced by the Kalighat School.
The Last Supper by Jamini Roy. Image: Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Religious Paintings

The religious paintings of the Kalighat painting are the cornerstone of this traditional art form. However, besides, the representation of deities for the purpose of spiritual worship, Kalighat paintings also propagated the Bazaar Style.

The Bazaar Style of painting essentially implies a combination of local or religious traditional images with features from Western or academic styles. In the case of the Kalighat painting, the deities were depicted as common men. A great example of this is the painting called ‘Shiva’s Outing with Family.’ Here Shiva is portrayed as a father who is carrying Ganesha, his son, in his arms. Besides them, Parvati is dressed as an ordinary Bengali woman. Thus, in these paintings, religious deities are depicted as commoners, dressing and gesturing as common men and women would do.

Kalighat Paintings of Society

It is often noted, that the painters of the Kalighat style were keen observers of the political and social changes around them. And hence, the paintings were also shrewd observations of the same. Also, the paintings often showcased the evils of society, including the zamindari system, murder cases, and social scandals. For instance, a popular murder case in the 19th century, the Tarakeshwar murder case, became a theme whose events were depicted by the Kalighat painters. However, the paintings also portrayed positive achievements. For example, in 1890, Shyamakanta Banerjee wrestled with tigers in a circus. And his heroic deeds were depicted by the Kalighat painters as well.

Babu and Bibi Kalighat Paintings

But it was the babu and bibi paintings that are one of the most iconic representations of Kalighat paintings. The babus, or upper middle class of Bengali society during this time were often known to be pretentious and Westernised patrons of the British. Though clad in dhoti and chewing betel leaves, they were known to flirt with courtesans or bibi. The depiction of this babu culture is one of the main highlights of the Kalighat paintings. They are a deep reflection of a multitude of social and cultural parameters, including the position of women, the influence of Western culture, religious and social double standards and more. Thus, the Kalighat paintings were an insight into the ever-changing and evolving urban life.

Besides, the babu and bibi paintings were also a parallel narrative to the role of women in religious vs. modern society. Just as Kali was seen as a powerful female central figure, the bibi (who could be a wife or courtesan) was also a vital character in the Kalighat paintings. These women were powerful, sexual, and dominating. This was also a correlation to the actual position of women in Kolkata during the 19th century. They were seeking education and were beginning to occupy important and elite positions in society.

The Decline of Kalighat Painting

The Kalighat paintings reached their peak during the 19th century. However, early 20th century onwards they saw a gradual decline. The decline was mainly caused by the introduction of cheap printed paintings of the Kalighat style. The oleographs were themed around the Kalighat paintings and printed in either Germany, Britain, or Bombay. Besides, the coloured lithographed images were also well received in the country and further replaced the hand-made paintings.

Unable to match the speed and price of the printed copies, several Kalighat painters moved to other professions and abandoned the practice of their art. According to experts, it was around 1930 onwards that the last vestiges of the Kalighat painting remained. However, the Kalighat paintings did not die away completely. It inspired generations of painters and one of the most renowned painters of our time, Jamini Roy was heavily influenced by Kalighat paintings.

Kalighat Painting titled 'Mother and Child' by Anwar Chitrakar
‘Mother and Child’ by Anwar Chitrakar. Image Source:

Famous Kalighat Paintings & Artists

There are several nameless artists who painted the Kalighat paintings. Moreover, since the paintings were made usually together by family members and sold as souvenirs locally, the paintings were rarely signed. However, a few contemporary artists were inspired by the Kalighat painting style. Jamini Roy remains one of the leading artists whose paintings are heavily influenced by the Kalighat style of painting. In fact, his initial paintings drew inspiration from Western art. But he soon realized that his true calling lay in the Kalighat drawings. The bold brush lines and the themes related to the common man inspired him to create some of his best works.

Besides, there are other artists who continue to carry forward this traditional art form. Some of these include Anwar Chitrakar, Kalam Patua, Bhaskar Chitrakar and more.

Some of the most famous Kalighat paintings are Ramayana, Bride and Two Companions, Santhal Boys with Drums, Makara, Babu and Bibi in an intimate embrace, Hanuman fights Ravana, Bibis smoking hookah and eating betel leaves, Savitri begging Yama and more.

Where Are the Kalighat Paintings?

Many museums across the world have Kalighat paintings on display. The biggest collection is found in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In 1917, John  Lockwood Kipling’s 233 collections of Kalighat paintings were donated by his son Rudyard Kipling to the museum. Today the museum has the largest collection of paintings of this art form. And includes, line drawings, water paints, hand-painted lithographs and more.

With more than 600 Kalighat paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, these artistic depictions include a variety of themes. From the Bengali Babu to the Jackal Raja’s Court to the Policeman’s Bribe to depictions of Kali, the museum is home to some of the finest Kalighat paintings. Besides, some of the other museums where the Kalighat paintings are found, include the National Museum of Wales, the Indian Museum in Kolkata, the Naprstek Museum in Prague, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan and more.

Kalighat Painting Today

Kalighat painting still continues in many villages of West Bengal. Also, many scholars have always believed, that for most Kalighat painters, painting was not their solo profession. Many painters were in fact, carpenters, potters, stoneworkers, etc., and painted with the help of family. However, with greater educational opportunities, these painters were influenced by modern surroundings. And this is what they also depicted in their ‘Occidental School’ of paintings.

Today, there are Chitrakars who continue the Kalighat style of painting. Besides, paintings, the art form is also used in various applications, such as wall hangings, cushion covers, garments, accessories and more.

The Kalighat painting may not be flourishing as it was in the early 19th century. However, Chitrakars and some descendants from the Patua family continue to practice this art form. Undoubtedly, several artists over the years have moved into other professions due to economic reasons. But it’s worth noting that workers from other professions were also Kalighat painters. Hence, professional fluidity was not a hindrance for artists to practice this art form. 

And we hope, that more and more artists, especially those from the Chitrakar and Patua families, find enough financial and professional lucrativeness in pursuing the Kalighat painting. Only then, can this style and art form survive the course of time!

Read more:

Patriotism Encased In the Form Of Kalighat Paintings

Eyes in Jamini Roy’s Paintings: Delving Deeper Into Indian Traditional Art

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