While the Mughals were patrons of the arts in India, in the 19th century as the strength of the empire declined, artists began looking for outward benefaction. The European traders lent support, not without Western influence though — the masters, in fact, even felt it important to impart formal training, leading to the establishment of the Calcutta School of Art in 1854. One of its famous alumni, Annadaprasad Bagchi was to make realistic paintings more accessible to the masses through the institution of the Calcutta Art Studio, where along with oils and watercolours the artists also produced litho prints. “Their portfolio had patriotic paintings, besides mythological or religious paintings. These became very popular and gradually replaced ‘high art’ as the top draw,” says curator Ashit Paul. He has included several of these in the exhibition ‘Swadeshi Art’ at Akar Prakar gallery in Delhi. “Bagchi soon became the Raja Ravi Varma of Kolkata. However, none of his paintings resembled Varma,” says Paul.
Among others, we see the two vidyas from the Dasamahavidyas (10 avatars of Paravati). While as Matangi she is adorned with jewels, as Dhumavati she is seen in soiled clothes and dishevelled hair, evoking fear. Several other prints from the series have two goddesses appearing on a single lithograph: Bhubaneswari and Bagala, Sadabhuja Gouranga and Kali, Kamala and Bhairavi. “The customer or the seller could cut the picture into two according to their needs. There are oil paintings of the Dasamahavidyas that are mostly similar to the prints,” says Paul. He notes how artists had to follow the pundits when depicting religious figures, but they were allowed to experiment with costume and surrounding. The European influence on artists in the studio was evident. “The characters depicted in the paintings did not follow the stereotyped notions of mythological characters of the day and in that way they introduced an interesting trend where a reconciliation between the British ‘high art’ and the popular ‘bazaar paintings’ can be noticed. Madan, the Hindu god of love, was thus designated as the ‘Oriental Cupid’, and in a popular scene from the Ramayana, where Ram chases the elusive maya mriga, the deer gets transformed into ‘the enchanted deer’,” says Paul.
With 32 works on display — 18 lithographs, five oleographs, nine oils, and mixed media — the exhibition represents other active studios during the period as well as independent practicing artists of the time. For instance, we see oleographs by Bamapada Bandyopadhyay, on paper from Germany. Trained by German painter Becker, who was in Calcutta at the time, Bandyopadhyay’s depictions were primarily mythological. If in one frame there are Kaikeyee and Manthara from the Ramayana, another has Arjuna and Urvashi in an episode from the Mahabharata.
With primarily mythological depictions, it is not just the portrayal of the works that generate interest but also the tales, often depicted by different artists with minor variations. Paul brings out a Krishna-Kali. In a 1890 oil of the work the coming together of the Company style and miniatures of Krishlila is evident, whereas a lithograph from the pre-Calcutta Art Studio days has Krishna and the gopis dressed in a north Indian attire. “Partially coloured pictures were then yet to come into the market,” says Paul. The depiction itself narrates the tale of Radha leaving home each night at the call of Krishna’s flute. When her sister-in-law accuses her of adultery and infuriates her husband Ayan, he follows her into the deep woods, and Krishna takes the form of Kali to save Radha.
One of the most recurring images, however, is of Kali from an Early Bengal School oil on canvas and a lithograph by the Kansaripara Art Studio. The latter, Paul notes, is an exact image of the deity at the Kalighat temple. “It is an unique image of Kali which does not follow any other pattern of Bengal’s Kali images. Most other images are full of human anatomies, but this image is with a big head, long tongue and three big eyes, four small hands, and no bare body,” he says. In another lithograph of Dev Gostho (Devi Durga with baby Krishna) by the Kansaripara Art Studio, the asura is absent and we see cows and Krishna playing with his friends in the foreground. Durga is seated with baby Krishna in the centre, with Ganesh, Karttikeya, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Shiva on the side. “The artists and printmakers made several mythical pictures as requested by devotees,” says Paul. In another customised image, we see Durga with her family, perhaps resembling that of a Calcutta resident. “The master of the house wanted Durga’s family to resemble his own, and, in most cases, the artist tried to fulfil this pre-requisite,” says Paul.
There is also Kali on a cigarette box manufactured in 1885, despite several protests. AH Johar, the sole agent of cigarettes manufactured by the East India Cigarette Manufacturing, tried to attract buyers by putting the pictures of goddesses in the centre, surrounded by catch lines about the product. An advertisement read: If you are interested in improving standards of domestic products, if you feel this to be your duty to nurture the poverty-stricken labourers, if you use your judgement rightly, then O, Hindu brethren! Smoke these Kali cigarettes.