Kalighat is one of a few styles of Pattachitra practised in West Bengal, and has been handed down through generations. The art form got its name from the artists who resided near the sacred temple of Goddess Kali by the ghats of the river Hooghly that flows by Kolkata.
Traditionally made as scrolls, these too, like Phad from Rajasthan in the West and Cherial from Telangana in the South, were used as a visual backdrop for telling the stories of the epics by the rural communities of the state. Each section of the scroll depicted a chapter of the story, which the wandering storytellers unrolled section by section while singing to audiences.
However, with the arrival of the East India Company, Kolkata transformed to become a busy and thriving centre for trade and commerce, attracting people from overseas and other parts of the country. It soon became a melting pot of many traditions, languages and artistic ideas. The urban migrant audience was more mobile than before, and consequently, artists had to change from creating scrolls to single pictures that focused on composition, line and colour. Over time, they eliminated background and other non-essential details and started using water-colours imported from England instead of hand-made natural pigments and paper.
These influences make it one of the few, if not the only, folk art form that observes, and comments, on secular themes and current events - and shows much less of popular stories from the religious literature of the country since the turn of the 20th century.
It is interesting that the Kalighat patua’s, or artists, do not affiliate themselves with any religion, use both Hindu and Islamic first names and observe festivals and customs of both religions! Long may this wise approach to life last …
According to some commentators, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK, holds the largest collection of Kalighat paintings in the world. We hope you enjoy our artists’ commentary on life as much as we do.