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By the 1830s, artists had started to arrive in Calcutta, which was the capital of British India from 1833-1912, from rural villages in Bengal, and drawing on their local scroll painting traditions began to produce a new style of painting as souvenirs for pilgrims around the famous Kalighat temple.
Kalighat images were a popular artform and reflected a variety of subject matter ranging from religious Hindu deities, social customs and humour, to the political conflicts of a colonised society. Created by unknown artists, they are characterised by their stylised images, rapidly executed with bold, black outlines and brilliant colours to create the unique identity of Khaligat painting.
I have purchased you with cowries. I have tied you with a rope. I have put a spindle in your hand. Now bleat like a sheep.
Kalighat artists were also keen to capture whatever emotional or political turmoil was currently taking place in Bengali society. A particularly popular topic was the scandalous Tarakeshwar affair of 1873, which concerned the forbidden relationship between a Brahmin priest and Elokeshi, the young wife of the Bengali government employee, Nabin Chandra Banerjee.
In characteristic style, this immoral drama was portrayed by different generations of Kalighat artists who recorded all the key events. Compositions ranged from the Brahmin priest offering Elokeshi a cup of liquor in order to seduce her; to Nabin, pressurised by jealousy and public humiliation upon hearing the news, killing his wife by severing her head with a fish knife.
Interestingly the painters used a black 'holdall', lying on the ground in front of Elokeshi, to illustrate Nabin's westernised accessories. An umbrella, a further Western touch, hangs limply from his left hand. Nabin's was given life imprisonment for the murder, and the priest was sentenced to three year's hard labour with a 2000 rupee fine!
From the 1890s onwards, the male Kalighat artists continued to choose as their subject matter an increased form of social criticism of Bengal society and its immoral values. Many created paintings of Bengali proverbs, an example of which is this painting of a 'bright yellow cat with a fish in its mouth'. This illustration highlights how Brahmin priests publicly abstained from eating fish, but were notorious for their private indulgence. Earlier versions of this painting show on the cat's face the vertical 'tilak' markings normally found upon the Vaishnavite priests forehead, which make the allusion to Brahmin priests more specific.
Creators: Yasmin Hales Henao
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