Monday, November 7, 2011

Kalighat Paintings

As new age modern artists swiftly run their brushes on canvas, the oil paints splash onto each other to give life to a new painting. On the other hand, Ganga Chitrakar, in his mid forties, sitting on the stairs of the enigmatic, Victoria Memorial Hall, a museum built in 1921 in Kolkata, draws border line strokes with strong vegetable colours on a piece of cloth depicting naxalism in Nandigram, a village in West Mednipur.

'Chitrakar' or painters began painting on the 'Pat' or cloth which became Bengal's indigenous painting form originating in the 19 th century called Kalighat Painting. The name Kalighat attached itself to the painting form as the painters or 'patuas' used to sit around Kalighat Kali Mandir, one of the most visited temple of Goddess Kali located in Kalighat, the southern part of Kolkata. The patuas based their paintings on straight lines, soft curves, strong suggestions and no detailings of the characters on the painting. This school of painting was the most coveted form between 1835-1935 and they only used vegetable colours to make their 'chitras' or visuals. Pilgrims who came to worship in the temple or visitors who simply wandered in the city could not help but take the city's memories back in the form of these Kalighat Paintings which narrated stories of Goddess Kali, Ram and Sita or Krishna with Radha, Annapurna and others.

As time passed by the patuas did not restrict themselves by only painting Hindu lords, as Mughal emprors began their invasions some of the artists converted their religion and became Muslims and narrated new stories. The patuas fascination took to the Babu-Bibis, the Britishers who lived in the south part of the city also called White Calcutta. Though the painters could not visit or see them but they read the newspapers and derived their thoughts for the painting. Researchers say that Kalighat School of painting blended two different styles which includes the oriental and the occidental form of painting.

As the century passed by the Kalighat temple and its environs are no longer home to these patua families. Most of the patuas relocated to their villages in various districts of the state. A significant amount of patuas are nestled in a village called Naya, situated in West Mednipur district, 150 kilometeres away from the city. The present day artists take the title of Chitrakar or Patua which specifies their caste status.

Most of the artisans have been living in dire conditions though things have been improving since last few years as these artists have gained prominence across the globe with their art work. Banglanatok dot com, a social enterprise in collaboration with European Union, has been working with 230 patuas in both districts in Mednipur. Ranjan Sen, creative head of Banglanatok, says, "Patuas in various districts have signature style like patuas in Murshidabad have a lot of detailing imbibed in their work. Also originally Kalighat paintings were done with only black and white, later on colours came in. The economic condition of the painters is very poor. The paintings go through personal collectors or dealers but as a community their conditions are dire. Though in last few years things have been improving."

The organisation is working on the concept of 'Shilpi bachley shilpo bachbey', if artisans live only then only will art live. One of the aspiring Patchitrakar, Moyna chitrakar had taken to begging with her husband to fend for her family but now not only she earns a healthy living she exhibits her paintings in Paris too. Sen adds, "Earlier they had a monthly income of Rs 500-600, and now the average income of the villagers is approximately Rs 7000-8000 per month." Some artisans are also fetching higher amounts.

Anwar Chitrakar, a west bengal state award recepient, had sold one of his paintings to Delhi Metro Station which fetched him Rs 80,000. Anwar's paintings have been showcased at Harley Gallery in United Kingdom and his graphic novel encapturing 1000 Kalighat pictures have released recently. Anwar, says,"People had stopped painting on Kalighat Pat. It is our family legacy to draw Kalighat Paintings, I started working from 1998 but everyone here had been doing cloth painting work but the payment was miniscule. When I first started selling I used to sell an 8 by 12 inches painting for Rs 100-150 a peice now I sell them for Rs 800 a piece on an average. I have also sold paintings for Rs 75000-85000 a piece depending upon the size of the painting."

The paintings are based on themes which is prevalent in the society, some of the themes are 9/11 strike on the world trade centre in USA, the evils of child marriage, water conservation, safe sanitation, HIV Aids awareness, naxalism in Nandigram. The painters have also innovated their paintings to give three dimensional look.Four of Anwar's paintings is part of the new artist section of the Kalighat Painting exhibition at Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata which has been put together in collaboration with Victoria and Albert Musuem in London. The exhibition is part of the cultural pact signed between Indian and Britain last year. The exhibition showcases some of the rare Kalighat Painting collections which are present with V&A London in Kolkata. The exhibition will travel through the country.

Most of the paintings on display are from the collection of John Lockwood Kipling, which he collected during his tenure in Calcutta. The museum also boasts of collections from Mukul Dey, the Indian artist and first Indian principal of Government art college in Kolkata. Dey's collections can be found across continents, though he wanted to open a museum in Calcutta but a major part of his Kalighat Paintings were acquired by W G Archer.

PLS NOTE: I had written this copy for my publisher Business Standard Ltd, enclosed link is what came on the paper finally, but this is my personal take!