The Kalighat temple, one of the oldest sites of worship in Calcutta, has gathered around it various occupations — among which are devotees, sex workers, the mixed population in the cremation ground and in the little stalls on the road leading to the temple. These stalls sell what could be called the accessories of worship. Those closer to the temple sell all that is immediately needed — garlands, saris, sindoor, sankha-pola. As one walks away from the temple, the stalls change character: here they sell the additional accessories — things that people don’t need for the puja at the temple but may take home as souvenirs or for use in daily rituals — like pictures of the goddess and other gods, figurines, trinkets, ceremonial brassware and so on.
These stalls once used to sell a type of handicraft that later evolved into an important art form. The Kalighat temple finds its identity as much in the Kalighat patchitra as in the golden-tongued goddess. Patuas from Midnapore and South 24 Parganas were drawn to the city by the promise of business around this popular temple. At first they drew images of deities on clay plates used in worship. These were the first Kalighat pats. Then, according to varying demand, their art took new shape. The Kalighat pat entered the domain of social commentary and soon became a subversive tool to depict nouveau riche babus from the common man’s perspective. The patuas no longer confined their art to clay plates; they tried paper, wood cuts and even prints.
But today the Kalighat pat cannot be found in the stalls near the Kalighat temple. It is now found in museums and art galleries, while the accessories in those roadside stalls have evolved into locally-made sequinned photographs of the goddess, shivlingas made in Barrackpore, marble idols made in Lucknow and marble-dust figurines made in suburban factories. To understand when and how this evolution happened, I talked to the only remaining Kalighat patua, Bhaskar Chitrakar. He took umbrage at a magazine calling his grandfather, Girish Chandra Chitrakar, the last Kalighat patua. “He was not the last. I still draw the pat, although I have to make clay idols for a living. The pat is my heritage. I would never give it up.”
He then told me how the printing press and plastic threw the Kalighat patuas out of business. Once the pats could be reproduced in print, demand for original images decreased. Even till the middle of the 20th century, the Kalighat patuas sold their pats in the market. Then they had to close shop, and started making clay dolls for a living. Bhaskar told me how he and his father used to peddle their clay dolls at the Park Street crossing. I immediately remembered the wares peddled at the Park Street crossing today. They are made of plastic, mostly, or rubber. No clay dolls. Not even in the stalls near the temple. Marble dust figurines have taken their place to match similar figurines in television soaps, perhaps. So this later source of livelihood also dried up, and the patuas had to become idol-makers and taxi drivers.
Bhaskar, the one still holding onto the legacy, seemed both proud and sad.