“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Remembering the quote of Leonardo da Vinci when I visited the exhibition at Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH), Kolkata to see collection of “Kalighat Paintings” from Victoria & Albert (V & A) Museum, London and VMH in the year 2011 and wondered how some simple brush strokes of water colour have given birth to these master pieces, the elegant Bengali folk arts. I have visited several museums after that to get the inherent taste of this gracious art and found a great zeal to write a review with the knowledge that I have gathered these days.
Kalighat Paintings refer to the class of paintings and drawings on hand-made or more usually on machine-made paper produced by a group of artists called ‘Patuas’ in the neighbourhood of the famous Kali temple at Kalighat in between 19th and earlier 20th Century.
A N Sarkar & C Mackay1 remarked that “The Kalighat school of painting is perhaps the first school of painting in India that is truly modern as well as popular. With their bold simplifications, strong lines, vibrant colours and visual rhythm, these paintings have a surprising affinity to modern art”.
One of the earliest pieces of description on Kalighat paintings by Ajit Ghose2 is also worth to be mentioned here. He said: “The drawing is made with one long bold sweep of the brush in which not the faintest suspicion of even a momentary indecision, not the slightest tremor, can be detected. Often the line takes in the whole figure in such a way that it defies you to say where the artist’s brush first touched the paper or where it finished its work…”
Dr. Lopamudra Maitra, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC- UG), Pune
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As the torrential rain gushes down the plastic and tarpaulin sheets of the narrow alleys in Kumartuli, covering the half-made clay idols, the smell of wet earth emanates, reverberates, encircles and rises up to announce the arrival of the auspicious occasion— Durga Puja. Finally, as the dawn of Mahalaya announces the arrival of the Devipaksha and the last ablutions are offered to seek blessings from one’s forefathers on the banks of the sacred river Ganga, the artisans of Kumartuli pronounce the occasion through invoking the powers of the female goddess by painting the eyes of the idols of Durga, famously known as Chokkhudaan or bestowing of the eyes. A popular and annual sight in the region every year, this relatively small, yet largely famous and well-renowned region of Kumartuli stands tucked within the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Sovabazar area of the northern region of the present city of Kolkata (West Bengal, India) and the relatively recent construction of the underground metro-railway station of the same name. A busy place for idol-makers, the kumbhars, their small and narrow workshops, aligned against their crowded tenements, hum with the buzz of activities at most times of the year, especially during the time of the Durga puja. Over the years, the region has experienced a surge and witnessed changes in the style of the clay idols, their expression and depictions, especially the ones made for Durga puja. Carrying forth a string of history within itself, as these depictions represent a strain of continuity of the famous worship of female deities of the region, the changes and alterations in visual depictions of the idols made in Kumartuli also help to reflect new ideas and ideologies in the age of new-media, forming an important part of Visual Anthropology. Based on an extensive fieldwork in the region of Kumartuli and various parts of Kolkata throughout the month of Aswina (September-October) between 2011-2012, this paper tries to look into the significant aspects of the representations of the idol-making formats of Kumartuli, their changing presentations and new reflections and how the local history, oral traditions and lores still manifest themselves through these changing representations.
Iconography is a field of study that concerns itself with the evaluation of symbols and their significance in religion. It aids in establishing context and helps to link the beliefs and myths of the past to the practices of the present. Any attempt to discuss iconography of temples needs to start with a look at why icons are created. The need for religious iconography is multifold in nature. First, it seeks to make the intangible concept of the gods real through physical presence. Religious iconography has a language of its own which seeks to make the god visible through a certain set of characteristics that are predetermined by rules that originated in ancient times. Secondly, religious icons in the days prior to the industrial revolution provided a unifying effect by their occurrence in temples across a region or a kingdom. Even though the actual mode of worship may differ from region to region within India, the icons themselves are pan-Indian. Icons associated with temples may also be a sign of the wealth or social standing of the person who finances the temple building process. Removing the icons makes religion itself a vague concept which is not as easily disseminated. One other function icons perform is as a record of a certain period in history. The intentional removal of icons during certain historical events can provide clues to the socio-political climate of the time and be reflective of invasion or change of patronage.
The brick temples of Bengal are remarkable for the intricately sculpted terracotta panels covering their facades. After an initial period of structural and decorative experimentation in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was some standardization in architecture and embellishment of these temples. However, distinct regional styles remained. From the late 18th century a certain style of richly-decorated temple became common, particularly in the districts of Hugli and Howrah. These temples, usually two-storeyed or atchala and with a triple-arched entrance porch, had carved panels arranged in a fairly well-defined format (Figure 1). Ramayana battle scenes occupied the large panels on the central arch frame with other Ramayana or Krishna stories on the side arches. Running all along the base, including the base of the columns, were two distinctive friezes (Figure 2). Large panels with social, courtly, and hunting scenes ran along the bottom, and above, smaller panels with Krishnalila (stories from Krishna’s life). Isolated rectangular panels on the rest of the facade had figures of dancers, musicians, sages, deities, warriors, and couples, within foliate frames.