22A, Janpath Road, Windsor Place
8 May – 8 July
10.30 am – 7:00 pm
Calcutta, flourishing with commerce and maritime trade during the nineteenth century, was regarded as the ‘second city’ of the British Empire. People thronged there in large numbers to make a livelihood, or in holy pilgrimage, seeking blessings at the Kali temple at Kalighat that had been re-built in 1809.
The temple aided the growth of an adjoining bazaar selling memorabilia and curios to tourists, including drawings in watercolours on paper—a category of painting now broadly classified as ‘Kalighat pat’. Alongside watercolour drawings, prints populated the city’s markets. With increasingly efficient and better printing technology becoming available, a succession of woodcuts, engravings, lithographs, and oleographs appeared. Because patuas and printing studios sold similar imagery and targeted the same demography, they wrestled for business. Themes from popular or commercial art also reverberated in works commissioned specially by Bengal’s wealthy population. Painted using oil pigments on cloth canvas, their iconography and subjects overlapped, but were executed with an emphasis on superficial realism that adhered to the affluent clientele’s aesthetic sensibility. A small selection of reverse-glass paintings is included, which were plausibly imported from the British trading centre at Canton (present-day Guangzhou) or made by Chinese artists residing within the Indian subcontinent.
During the nineteenth century, two distinct cultures developed within the city—the culture of the masses and the culture of the moneyed—with stark and, at times, rivalrous differences. The nouveau-riche ‘babu’ was satirised as a deracinated man unaware of worldly problems. For their part, the babus or English-educated Calcutta ‘bhadralok’ found popular culture lewd and uncivilised. Art reacted to this division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures. Today, it provides us an intriguing vision of the city and its people at a dichotomous precipice of tradition and modernity.
In this exhibition, watercolour pats—both religious and secular in their subjects—are placed against comparable works across the genres of commissioned oil painting and mass-produced prints. By exposing iconography, we attempt to unravel part of Calcutta’s history, its culture, class biases and gendered hierarchies. The artworks in the exhibition over one hundred years old are registered historical artefacts, and will not be exported from India.
'In the early nineteenth century, groups of patuas started selling single panels depicting various narratives of their repertoire. One group in particular gained popularity as ‘Kalighat painters’, who sold gouache watercolours of divinities and notable Calcutta iconic figures painted on single sheets of paper to nineteenth century pilgrim-tourists.'