Gallery Views of Indian Kalighat Paintings

May 1-September 18, 2011
Prints and Drawings Gallery

A dynamic, cosmopolitan city, 19th-century Calcutta was the political capital of British India, the financial hub for trade between India, East Asia, and Europe, a center for religious pilgrimage, and a focal point of new movements and ideas. The upwardly mobile Bengalis, made wealthy by the East India Company, embraced decadence and hedonistic vices along with Western sensibilities and were part of a fast-changing social order.

Kalighat painters, drawn to the urban bazaars from rural regions, peddled their watercolors near the Kalighat Temple (dedicated to the goddess Kali) in South Calcutta from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century. Sold for paltry amounts, they were simultaneously souvenirs for 19th-century tourists as well as inexpensive images used for worship in personal shrines of lower- and middle-class Hindus. Kalighat motifs included religious themes, Western material influence, and satirical commentary regarding social-climbing Bengalis.

These souvenirs were mass-produced with great haste using cheap paper, iconographic formulas, and water-based media that dried quickly. Families sometimes manufactured the paintings in an assembly line. Images of gods and goddesses satisfied the Orientalist preconceptions of foreign visitors who could buy proof of their "exotic" travels, and they also satiated the religious pilgrims who were enamored by images of their Europeanized deities and contemptuous of nouveau-riche lifestyles. In the process, the innovative Kalighat painters, transforming folk art into a popular genre, offered scathing portrayals of the many societal changes of the day.

By the end of the 19th century, mass production combined with industrialization meant that block prints, lithographs, and oleographs replaced hand-drawn images, and their style changed drastically. The Kalighat moment was as brief and transient as the paintings themselves.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The Ohio Arts Council helped fund this exhibition with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence, and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans.