Born into the Patua community of scroll painters and storytellers, Kalam Patua is a self-taught contemporary exponent of Kalighat painting, which draws on conventions from West Bengal scrolls and Indian miniature painting. A postmaster in a rural post office in West Bengal, he is one of the few artists painting in this style today. Patua’s unique watercolours contain elements of autobiography and myth, and reflect on social issues and current news events. Topics include the changing nature of Indian society; dowry deaths and violence against women. He also paints light, humorous works, including a series about working in the postal system.
The scroll painters from West Bengal who opened shops in the Kalighat district and began painting religious subjects in the Kalighat style also became known for their satirical portrayals of Kolkata society — English sahibs riding elephants, wealthy Calcutta babus (liberalists) immorally squandering wealth, and charlatan sadhus (holy men) succumbing to base desires.
This painting shows the strength of human bonds — between mother and child, and between lovers. The central female figure is shown supporting her lover and an angelic child while she stoically gazes ahead, her body still and statuesque, straight despite the weight of a branch that grows out of her heart.
Kalam Patua created the work after the brutal gang-rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi in 2012.
‘It is about how we all seek out women as mother or lover, but respect still eludes her . . . I couldn’t be part of the protests or the candle march . . . so it is my way of registering a protest and contributing to the movement.’
Here Patua explores the power of dreams and humanity’s desire for things that are out of reach. Inspired by the angel sculpture on the roof of the Victoria Memorial Building in Kolkata, Patua has imagined the angel coming to life, soaring above a kneeling tourist who tries to capture her with his camera.
In Hindu iconography, snakes often represent divinity, and the legend of the snake goddess Manasa Mangala is especially popular in West Bengal. For Kalam Patua, the snake charmer also has a personal and historical dimension — his ancestors were patua or scroll artists, who often practised alternative trades to supplement their incomes, making clay idols (as did his uncle and aunt), performing magic tricks, making fireworks and snake charming.
Playfully exploring sexual attraction and union, Patua consciously mixes religious symbols with earthly ones in this painting. The male figure has the blue skin of Krishna, and the delicately painted sky with its stylised clouds also suggest divinity, contrasting with the balding, earthly figure who is trying to seduce the posing beauty.
Kalam Patua has worked in the Indian postal system for most of his adult life, mainly in remote West Bengal branches, only pursuing his passion for painting at night. He was once transferred to a branch far from home, leaving him no opportunity to paint. However, after the chief postal officer read a magazine article on Patua’s work, he was transferred back to his former office.
In this work from Kalam Patua’s ‘Autobiography’ series, the artist is depicted as a young boy pointing to an aeroplane in the sky. He tells his parents he will fly in it one day, and they smile at his ignorance. Patua did later take several plane journeys but not until after the death of his parents.
Since 1993, The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) has been the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art's flagship contemporary art series. APT has driven the Gallery's focus on the region and enabled the development of one of the world's most significant collections of contemporary Asian, Pacific and Australian art.
'The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art' (APT8)
21 November 2015 – 10 April 2016