Kalighat Painting by Kalam Patua (India)

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

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.

Kalighat painting
Kalighat painting developed in the mid-19th century in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to illustrate the Hindu gods and goddesses and respond to topical social and political events affecting the local people. At this time, many Patua artists — itinerant storytellers who travelled from village to village, slowly unrolling and singing from scrolls in exchange for food and other goods — migrated to Kolkata because selling their illustrated Kalighat paintings gave them a more secure income. In contrast to the linear narrative style of the scrolls, Kalighat paintings depict a single scene with graphic, simplified forms and often satirical, contemporary content. As cheaper wood prints and then machine-printed images became more desirable to tourists visiting Kolkata, Kalighat painting declined. 

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.

Kalam Patua upholds the Kalighat tradition of observing contemporary society, showing here diners at a local restaurant, with obsequious waiters, bearded intellectuals, a blue-skinned business man, and dreamy young women.

'Nirbhaya' commemorates Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young woman from Delhi who, in 2012, was abducted along with her male friend by a gang of men on a bus and was brutally raped. Pandey died from her injuries and she later became known as ‘Nirbhaya’, meaning ‘fearless’. The case sparked a mass public outcry calling for the protection and rights of women in India, highlighting the high number of uninvestigated rape cases and the victim-blaming by authorities and perpetrators. 

Unable to take part in the protests that swept the city, Patua created a small group of paintings to honour Nirbhaya and to portray the chilling brutality of her attackers.

Women in Kalighat painting
Women are often represented by trees in Hindu iconography, as they symbolise shelter, fertility, growth and possibility. Because Kalighat painting originated near the temple of the goddess Kali, female subjects are often shown as strong, in her honour. Kali embodied Shakti – the female active principle of Hindu philosophy. Women are also idolised as goddesses, such as Saraswati the goddess of knowledge and the arts, rather than being portrayed as objects of desire. In contrast, male suitors are often satirically portrayed as ‘lap dogs and charlatans’. 

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.’

Photography & Kalighat Painting
Photography and Kalighat painting were rival professions in the expanding metropolis of 19th century Kolkata. Both pay attention to current affairs, or to capturing a moment within the artist’s surroundings. Kalighat painting flourished from the early 1800s for almost a century, but fell into decline after the advent of the more easily reproducible lithograph and photograph. Eventually, the children of Kalighat painters migrated to other professions, and the last Kalighat painter is reported to have died in 1930.   Patua has created a number of works and series about photography and the associated ideas of self-representation. 

Here two female friends self-consciously pose for a photo, with New Delhi’s iconic Lotus Temple behind them. This painting is a statement on sexuality and the presence and acceptance of same-sex relationships in Hindu stories and art.

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.

This work is part of an extended series entitled ‘Photography’, which features the same small, blue-skinned figure holding a camera, often overshadowed by the larger-than-life subjects he encounters.

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.

Here, Kalam Patua captures the excitement and poetry of the post office as it exists in his imagination, with love blossoming amid the sorting and stamping of letters.

‘In earlier days, runners would carry the daak (mail) from one area to another and would face enormous problems and dangers including wild animals. This work pays tribute to those runners who dedicated their lives to delivering mail at any cost.’

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.

Kalam Patua grew up with his uncle and aunt, artisans who made clay idols. Here he depicts them painstakingly mixing colours.

Here, Kalam Patua at age 16 and his uncle are crossing a flooded river on their way to sell the clay idols. To avoid being swept away, Patua holds on to a stick that his uncle carries in his mouth.

In this scene from his adult life, Kalam Patua captures the lively characters on a train, including a beggar, a snack seller, and the artist’s wife who has a toothache.

'The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art' (APT8)
Credits: Story

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
©QAGOMA

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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