BOOK REVIEW / Awe mined from Calcutta

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The Independent Culture
THE HOME of R P Gupta in Calcutta - and several other Calcutta homes for all I know - contains a box of treats. If Mr Gupta has no objection to you, he may haul out an old tin trunk and spread its contents on the floor: sheets of paper, roughly of A3 size, on which anonymous artists have spread and flicked their brushes to produce pictures which are bold, witty and direct. Some depict the Hindu deities, but there are rats, too, and mischievous cats, and fish, and voluptuous Bengali courtesans and foolish babus, and colonial Britons looking less dignified than they might. Their simplicity and secularity give them a modern, non-Indian look. But in fact these pictures represent skills that flourished in Victorian Calcutta, in the stalls beside the temple to the city's chief patron, the goddess Kali.

An evening spent with Mr Gupta leafing through these Kalighat pats is a delight. The good news now is that you do not have to travel to Calcutta to experience the same pleasure: the Redstone Press has produced a similar box of treats, Kalighat: Indian Popular Paintings, 1800- 1930 ( pounds 14.95). No metaphors here: this is a box which contains a book, three full-colour posters (folded, alas) and a postcard. Julian Rothenstein, the designer who is the Redstone Press, has done other boxes in the past, but this is the best yet. It's a wonderful present - a pretty souvenir, which is entirely appropriate because Kalighat pats themselves were nothing more than that.

As Balraj Khanna explains in his introduction, they were the product of Calcutta's great Victorian boom as the commercial and administrative capital of British India. Itinerant rural painters settled round the temple and adapted old skills to new factory-made paper and paint, selling their pictures for fractions of a rupee to the crushes of poor temple pilgrims who wanted, back home in their villages, to remember and advertise their trip to the big city. The painters worked fast, families of them copying and colouring, until new printing processes made them redundant in the early 20th century. Their pictures were, in their profane sense, the equivalent of the British seaside postcard - the enchanting art of thousands of unknown Oriental Donald McGills.

(Photograph omitted)