Pat Yatra

Pat Yatra

It was perhaps one of the most closely followed trials of 19th-century Bengal.

It was perhaps one of the most closely followed trials of 19th-century Bengal. Elokeshi,the 16-year-old housewife of Bengali government employee Nobin Chandra,had an affair with the head priest of the Tarakeshwar Shiva temple. Chandra decapitated her with a fish knife,and what followed was a trial that lasted for years. Long queues were seen outside the court. The scandal had become a part of people’s lives — and the arts. Years later,the incident has been renewed in public memory. But this time,in the corridors of Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). It has a dedicated section in an exhibition featuring Kalighat paintings — the art form practised by the patuas or ‘painters on cloth’ who established base near the Kali temple on Ganges in the 19th century.

“The selection is representative of the stylistic changes that took place in Kalighat paintings over the years,” says Rajeev Lochan,director,NGMA,as he introduces the exhibition curated from the collection of Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum,London. Arguably,the V&A has the largest collection of Kalighat paintings in the world. Recognised for its swift brush strokes,the genre often borrowed from mythology and later depicted the constant change in the surroundings that resulted from interactions with the colonial masters. “The Kalighat painters not only became the first contemporaries of Indian art,but also anticipated the popular culture of the 20th century that was to follow,” adds Lochan.

The works of art represent the transition. It is the meeting of two cultures — Indian and European — that makes the exhibition striking. The aspirational Bengali babu dominates the section “Social Commentaries,Proverbs and Animals” — dressed in a pleated dhoti and a handkerchief in his pocket,he keeps pets and sports the ‘Albert’ hairstyle,attributed to Queen Victoria’s husband,Prince Albert. The European masters introduced him to innumerable sports,from wrestling to horse race.

In the section titled “Scenes from the Life of Krishna and Scenes from Epics”,one sees the incorporation of contemporary elements in traditional Kalighat patterns. So,Lord Krishna plays the violin. In another work,at the coronation ceremony,Ram and Sita’s throne has drape curtains akin to western theatre. “The old and new images are seemingly layered one upon another on a transparent plane,” notes Lochan.

Now,a century later,Kalighat paintings are no longer distributed as souvenirs to visitors to the Kali temple in Kolkata,like earlier. Yet,experimentation with the theme continues. Represented in the exhibition are patua artists such as Kalam Patua and Anwar Chitrakar. The strokes keep the Kalighat art tradition clearly alive but the imagery has changed — it’s the Bengal of today,with concerns of corruption,pollution and urban development,sexuality and humour .

The exhibition is on till May 25