The Lady with a Peacock: The Story of Kalighat Paintings
By Louise Wheeler
Originating in Kolkata, the Bengali tradition of Kalighat painting reached its height in the latter half of the nineteenth-century and, as such, captured a unique vision of a now forgotten socio-economic world.
Alongside the Nehru Gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, one can find a group of small display cases containing Kalighat paintings, the majority of which were created in the mid- to late nineteenth century in Calcutta, now Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. In the nineteenth-century context, the rapid economic growth meant that the city became a centre of British colonial power, and indeed Kolkata was a crucial commercial nexus, with the importation and exportation of goods from Europe resulting in the influx of migrants to the city looking for work.
What is so striking on first seeing examples of Kalighat paintings in the V&A collection is how radically different they are in conception and form to their Mughal painting predecessors, some of which are also displayed in the gallery. Kalighat paintings were mostly painted in watercolour (with the exception of later lithographic processes of reproduction) and depart from the commonly held preconception of Indian miniature painting by invoking bold shapes, blocks of unmixed colour with firm contours of shading, and a pared-down sense of detail. Indeed, these paintings appear more modern than their date, their compositions and clarity of harmonious design suggesting affinities to later Western Modernists, such as Matisse or Raoul Dufy. In A Lady Holding a Peacock, a stunning portrait of a woman is expressed with the use of simple line and exuberant colour, which gives the image an iconic quality. The handling of watercolour is controlled and refined, and the primary colours are heightened by the addition of metallic decoration that is made of an alloy of tin pigment, which catches the light to evoke jewellery. The Lady has been variously cited as a courtesan or a lovesick woman; the theme of a woman pining for her lover recurred in Indian love poetry, with the peacock symbolising the absent lover. This sentiment is expressed by the Indian poet Vidyapati (1352-1448) who produced his work between 1380-1406 in the highly charged erotic manner, filled with devotional feeling, an example of which is “Girl Playing with a Peacock”:
The name ‘Kalighat’ is derived from a Hindu story. When Lord Shiva was told that his consort, Sati, the goddess Kali’s avatar, was dead, he was tormented by grief. To resolve his grief, and the subsequent destruction of the Earth that it caused, the Preserver Lord Vishnu took Sati’s body from Shiva and broke it into fifty-one pieces. One of her toes fell by the River Hooghly. Henceforth, this region of India became associated with the goddess Kali. In the 1690s this region became incorporated into Kolkata. The River Hooghly’s moorings, ghat, became known to pilgrims as Kalighat and a temple was built here in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. From then on, it was an important pilgrimage site, aligned with the increasing economic opportunities for migrant workers in Kolkata. Amongst these workers were artists and craftsmen, who exploited the opportunity to create affordable, small works for travellers and pilgrims to buy, associated with the holy site. The demand for Kalighat paintings developed as a result of this, and they were primarily supplied by patuas who had come to settle in Kolkata from the rural villages of West Bengal. They had originally painted patachitra - complex narratives painted onto hand-made paper scrolls, some up to twenty feet long, which the patuas would take with them whilst travelling, and perform the narratives by singing the depicted stories to village audiences, as they unrolled each corresponding element of the scroll. This explains the religious imagery in Kalighat painting. However, the patuas had to adapt the form of the scroll painting to create, instead, the smaller, singular images of Kalighat painting, which had been seen as a response to their changing environment of the city of Kolkata, where traditional village story-telling would have been impossible.
In creating images for a larger audience, situated within a fast-paced city, the patuas had to increase their production in order to capitalise, and this involved the use of cheaper materials, such as imported watercolours that were mass-produced in Britain. Nonetheless, the cheaper materials adopted, as well as the smaller scale, appropriate as souvenirs, show how Kalighat paintings were not intended to be ‘fine art’ objects, as their presentation in museums such as the V&A suggest. Indeed, workshops of painters would work simultaneously, passing images between each other to complete various individual parts; adding colour, shading, and the addition of any metallic details. This production process inherently undermines any notion of an individually responsible artistic identity. In this reproducible process, it is interesting to consider the theory of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) who advocated that the ‘aura’ of an original artwork was lost once it was replicated by technology. The gradual takeover of traditional Kalighat painting by printing processes such as lithography meant that the genre faced its demise in the 1930s, which ironically coincided with the publication, in 1936, of Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, changes in society precipitated a move towards incorporating more secular imagery, which depicted the social world of Kolkata in a satirical and honest way. In this respect, the contrast can be made between the religious image of Krishna and Radha, with the more realistically conventional subject of the couple in Elokeshi, which depicts an imagined scene based on a contemporary scandal of adultery.
The change in subject matter and the rise of new technologies saw the end of Kalighat painting, which had grown from a need for small, devotional images. Before its demise, it grew into an art form that documented a rapidly evolving society and they can be seen to document India as it journeyed towards the modern era.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Translated by J. A. Underwood, London: Penguin Books, 2008.
Dallapiccola, A.L. Indian Love Poetry. London: The British Museum Press, 2006.
Ghosh, Pika. ‘Kalighat Paintings from Nineteenth Century Calcutta in Maxwell Sommerville’s “Ethnological East Indian Collection.”’ Expedition 42, no.3 (2000): 11-21.
Litt, Steven. ‘Kalighat Paintings at Cleveland Museum of Art Illuminate 19th Century Life in India.’ Cleveland.com July 17, 2011. Accessed 04/02/2018. http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2011/07/kalighat_paintings_at_clevelan.html
Kalighat Paintings. Edited by Suhashini Sinha and Professor C. Panda. London: V&A Publishing and Mapin Publishing, 2011.