The Kalighat patachitra is a unique genre. It is distinct as a folk art form since it has grown in an urban setting, not a rural one. So, the visual language conveyed by a Kalighat pat is radically different from that conveyed by the traditional patachitras of Birbhum or Midnapore.
The Kalighat pat is different in other ways too. Unlike most rural patuas, the patua of Kalighat would focus less on deities. The principal subject of the Kalighat pat has always been the illicit lives of other people. Recurrent images in Kalighat pats are the babu in myriad avatars, the voluptuous concubine playing games of seduction, and the educated and ‘modern’ middle-class daughter-in-law heckling a subdued husband and a pitiable mother-in-law. The last image is the most interesting, since it is starkly critical of women’s education in the 19th century. This sentiment finds a reflection in the popular literature of that time — the Battala paperbacks. In those, the educated woman is shown as the villainess, scathingly referred to as ‘pash kora maag’.
The patachitra has always been a medium for social commentary or satire. But the Kalighat patachitra is probably the only genre in which the Bengali urban middle-class of a particular time has been portrayed in such great detail, and in so many shades. There are clear moral biases at play, but that does not take away from the fact that this genre is a raw record of a time when urbanity was presented in literature and art in a much more polished and ‘clean’ form. Tejas Gallery’s exhibition, Patachitra Art (September 3-16), displayed some of the works of Bhaskar Chitrakar, a Kalighat patua who is reviving the art form. His efforts look honest, and it is a relief to note that he possesses the skill required to bring a Kalighat pat to life. But one feels that the exhibition deserved a bigger, better and brighter display space.
Bhaskar’s pats include the images discussed above, along with pats depicting some deities like Ganesh or Shiva in the typical Kalighat style. Most of his subjects have been explored before, but Bhaskar’s tendency to introduce surprising elements into a familiar image makes some of the pats quite exclusive. His use of colours is also unexpected at times. The most amazing of his pats is the one which shows a woman tying her hair while another holds the mirror. The surprise is in the window — a man in the driver’s seat of a passing car, and the woman glancing at him through the mirror held by her friend. The existence of multiple layers of suggestiveness in this pat is captivating.
One wishes that the Kalighat patua of 2012 would not limit his creativity to reviving the old-style 19th century images. Perhaps the genre could evolve, to include nightclubs and the metrosexual babu?