Characterised by bright colours and bold outlines, Kalighat painting evolved as a unique genre of Indian painting in 19th-century Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in West Bengal. From the depiction of gods and other mythological characters, these paintings developed over time to reflect a variety of themes. Kalighat 'patuas' (painters) produced these cheaply made works of art to make a living by selling to a mass market.
The V&A holds the largest collection of Kalighat paintings in the world. The collection, which numbers about 645 watercolour drawings and paintings, also includes line drawings and hand-coloured lithographs. The majority of works are similar to standard A3 paper size though the collection also contains 295 smaller, postcard-sized paintings (roughly 13 cm x 8 cm). Created and collected over a period of 100 years from the 1830s to the 1930s, the works vary in style, quality of workmanship, colour, composition and subject matter.
Origins of Kalighat painting
According to legend, Lord Shiva, the god of dance and destruction, was deep in meditation on Mount Kailasha when he received news of the death of his consort, Sati, an avatar (or human manifestation) of the goddess Kali. He wandered for days with her body draped across his shoulders and his inconsolable grief threatened to ruin the earth. Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, was called upon to intervene. To relieve Shiva's burden, he shattered Sati's body into 51 pieces. The little toe of Sati's right foot was said to have fallen at the site of the Hooghly River, and from this point on the area became associated with the goddess Kali. By the 1690s, when it became part of the city of Kolkata, it was already known as the sacred realm of Kali or Kalikshetra. The moorings (ghat in Bengali) on the bank of the Hooghly River were known to pilgrims as Kalighat, and there was perhaps an early version of a temple at the spot in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 19th century, the temple was a popular destination for local people, pilgrims and interested European visitors.
As Kolkata developed into a busy and thriving industrial harbour city, migrants began arriving looking for new opportunities. Among these were various artisans, craftsmen and painters from various parts of India, including patuas, members of an artisan community from West Bengal. Kalighat, with its daily hordes of pilgrims, would have provided a perfect opportunity for the local artists to produce and sell small, cheap religious souvenirs. The patuas traditionally painted long narrative stories, often over 20 feet in length. Influenced by the different art forms around them and with a need to work quickly, the patuas abandoned their linear, narrative style in favour of single pictures involving one or two figures. The backgrounds were left plain, all non-essential details removed, and basic combinations of colours were used. This created the key characteristics of the Kalighat genre. The patuas' productivity was also helped by the import of cheaper readymade paints from Britain and mill-made paper.
The paintings attracted the interest of many foreign travellers who visited the city in the 19th century. As examples of 'oriental' or 'exotic' souvenirs, Kalighat paintings were perfect – easily portable and concise enough to explain to friends back home.
The V&A collection
From 1879 onwards, the V&A acquired its Kalighat collection gradually through direct purchase or by gift. The earliest purchases were two paintings that were originally part of the India Museum collection. Both paintings depicted secular themes: a seated Bengali babu (a foppish male figure, with a mix of Bengali and Western style), and an illustration of Jackal Raja's court.
On 8 August 1917, John Lockwood Kipling’s collection of 233 works were donated to the museum by his son Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was a sculptor and teacher, and Curator of the Lahore Museum in the late 1870s. Another significant source was that of W.G. Archer, Keeper of the Indian Section at the V&A in the 1950s, who oversaw the acquisition of 90 Kalighat paintings.
Kalighat painting today
The practice of Kalighat painting began to die out during the early decades of the 20th century following the increase in demand for cheaper, commercially produced images. Many patua families found themselves facing no option but to leave the city and head back to the rural districts where their ancestors had come from, or to look for other forms of employment.
Kalighat painting continues today in the rural districts of West Bengal. Medinipur and Birbhum are two such areas where the practice of Kalighat painting has been kept alive by contemporary artists. Using organic dyes, as the original 19th century patuas did, the paintings they create focus on secular themes and current events as well as a mixture of religions depictions, executed in a modern style.
Explore a selection of paintings and their various themes from our Kalighat collection in our slideshow below: