The exhibition of Kalighat Paintings now on at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) at New Delhi, put up with the collaboration of NGMA, Victoria Memorial, Kolkata and Victoria and Albert Museum in London showcases a difficult moment of transition between pre-colonial India and colonial India. It is tempting to call it the transition point of Indian folk art to urban and modern because it has plenty of examples of that kind of a thing.
For example, the Tarakeshwar affair, where a Mahant called Mahendra Giri has an affair with Elokesh, wife of Nabinchandra. Elokesh confesses her affair, Nabin beheads. In the trial that followed in 1873, Nabin and the mahant were found guilty and given prison terms.
The paintings emerge sometime in the 1860s and stretch into the 1930s. There are paintings of Shiva, Durga, Nrisingha (Narasimha), Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman. Rama and Lakshmana sport moustaches and wear contemporary turbans, in contrast to Raja Ravi Verma's Grecian portrayals of the Indian pantheon. It is easy to term the Kalighat portraits of the Indian gods and goddesses more authentic than that of Ravi Verma's. It is a temptation that is to be resisted. The Kalighat depictions are contemporary and the depictions did not have any thought-out aesthetic behind them. They can be called workmanlike and the artisans/artists did what they could from what they could imagine of what they knew. They were responding to the demands of the day as well as to the sensibilities of the day. That is why, they portray gods and birds and animals on the one hand, courtesans, rich folk of the day on the other.
It would also be wrong to be pretend that there is any refined sensibility or even finesse in execution. The artisans/artists were doing the paintings for their livelihood. But they are quite lively portrayals of people and places and norms and mores.
We have also to come to the reluctant conclusion that this was a movement that could not have sustained itself. It was under tremendous pressure of the changing world around them. This was different from the stylised Kangra paintings of the 19th century in northern India and the emergence of the Ravi Varma school and the technology of lithographs. Some of the Kalighat paintings went into the lithographic mode as well, though the curators seem to imply that lithographs killed the Kalighat artists.
Without being too sentimental, it is necessary to accept the conclusion that the artisans/artists of the Kalighat genre did not stand much of a chance. The attempt to revive the Kalighat style by some of the contemporary artists is a false start.