The Kalighat painters had originally been travelling artists, going from village to village with long painted scrolls that told the stories of the great Hindu religious epics. But they quickly saw that the new temple dedicated to the goddess Kali, on the ghats of what the British anglicised as 'Calcutta', offered a more certain existence. The temple drew thousands a year from towns and villages across India (and indeed still does). Many of them wanted to take a souvenir home in memory of the trip of a lifetime. For the equivalent of a few pence, the painters, sitting around the temple, ran up an instant picture according to the buyer's taste - gods or urban high life, courtesans or animal sketches.
The gods dominate this first exhibition of the Kalighat art. There is a stylised Kali with long protruding tongue and garlands of skulls, her consort, the ascetic Siva, stretched compliantly beneath her stamping feet. They are joined by gentler gods, particularly the dark blue Krishna.
It is fitting, given the energy of Kali herself, that the paintings created under her eye are so robust. It is fitting too - in a country where women are so often shown with downcast decorous gazes - that they do not show women as retiring creatures. The Kalighat women - goddesses or courtesans - are bold. They flaunt large melon-shaped breasts, swelling thighs, raven black heavy hair. They fix you with direct stares and are patently in control of their own destinies. Consider the courtesan, leading in her tiny admirer, his body transposed mockingly to a sheep's; or another who leaps vigorously up and down on her lover. Not surprisingly, the power of women can also lead to their come-uppance. A series of paintings recounts the true story of Elokeshi, an adulterer of the day, who dallied with a priest and was decapitated by her husband (cutlass in the right hand and rolled umbrella, Bengali-style, in the left).
Broadsheet, icon, peep-show glimpse of alien lifestyles, the pictures fulfilled many purposes. But the most striking thing about them today is their style. Because the Kalighat painters worked fast, they developed a distinctive style - economic, swift and elliptical. Figures are outlined in a single sweeping brush stroke, the darker edge providing a sense of moulding or bulk. Irrelevant details (such as the elephant's howdah from which the Englishman would actually have shot his tiger) are summarily dismissed. Rarely is there any background. Humans, gods and animals stand four square in the midst of their space, dominating it confidently.
Very few of the works in this spirited exhibition show the Kalighat painters in less inspired mood. The vast majority (in an exhibition fittingly sponsored by BT) still communicates. It should do much to establish a school that was scorned as bazaar art by the arts establishment of its day. Uncollected in India (and long decayed in the village homes of the humbler pilgrims), the Kalighat paintings now live on overseas, notably in our own V & A Museum and the Bodleian. Sadly, neither the V & A nor the South Bank have been able to give the exhibition room on its national tour. But they will notably cheer the winter days of visitors outside London, and will certainly make you more discontented with the paintings' mundane successor, the picture postcard.
'Kalighat: Indian Popular Painting 1800-1930', Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery to 9 Jan, Edinburgh City Art Centre 15 Jan-19 Feb, Bradford Cartwright Hall 26 Feb-10 Apr, Oxford Museum of Modern Art 17 Apr-19 Jun
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