A travelling exhibition of Kalighat paintings, from the collections of Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata, exposes human foibles and mirrors the life of a city that is its home.

Kalighat painting, the art of the Bengali patua, originated from the great temple in Kolkata from which it took its name. In the 19th century, village craftsmen gathered here to sell their wares to thousands of pilgrims and souvenir hunters, many of whom wanted paintings done on the spot.

In the heyday of The Raj when all things “native” were scorned and cheap printed pictures displaced handcrafted ones, the Art went into terminal decline. Despite this, Matisse and Picasso were influenced by its simplicity and boldness, and it inspired Jamini Roy to create his own unique style. Recently it has made a dramatic comeback, and is now a valued item in the collections of museums worldwide. Though its themes are urban, the artists still live in the surrounding villages, and it has retained its folksy naivety and charm.

Changing times

Chronologically presented, the exhibition shows how Kalighat Painting moved from purely religious beginnings to subjects reflecting the social mores and events of the changing times. A panoply of deities appears in the opening section: Kali, Shiva with his wives, Vishnu in his age-long sleep on Sheshnag, Krishna dancing on Kaliya attended by lady-serpents with human torsos and sari-covered heads praying, and much else. Whimsy, fanciful touches and bright colouring imbue these traditional images with fresh life.

For speedy execution, scroll painting was rejected in favour of single pictures with one or two figures depicted in broad sweeping curves and solid blocks of paint. A typical example shows Yashoda with baby Krishna. There is no background, shading is rudimentary, detailing absent; and no adornment or props draw the viewer's attention away from the protagonists. The bodies are tubular, fingers and toes are barely outlined, and the hair does not fall in strands but in a black mass. Black derived from lampblack was inexpensive and much in use to edge picture frames and outline figures, giving them a sharper definition. Paired with strong primary colours, it made a dramatic statement.

With the shift from the sacred to the secular, the patua turned to the larger world, varying his palette and enlarging his canvas to include numerous figures. With a keen eye of the outsider he observed and lampooned the hypocrisy of the Brahmins and the conservatism of babu culture with its slavish imitation of all things Western. Suited and booted dandies strut about, and husbands beat their wives or are thoroughly hen-pecked. A pampered woman is carried on her husband's back, while another walks a pet lamb on a leash wearing a stylish hat, the animal representing her long-suffering husband. A hilarious line drawing shows a man with his concubine. Amid a welter of flailing limbs and clothing (if any) one can distinguish only the faces, an arm and a leg.

In 1873, an attention-grabbing scandal erupted when a government employee's 16-year-old wife Elokeshi confessed to having an affair with a priest. Though she begged forgiveness he decapitated her with a fish knife and then, in a fit of remorse, surrendered to the police. This heady mix of adultery and revenge, crime and punishment, drew such crowds to the courtroom that an entry fee had to be charged.

The story is told in more than a dozen paintings, from a fine group composition showing the first meeting of the lovers, to the conviction of the murderer and the priest. The climactic moment of the beheading is far too genteel. Elokeshi sits upright in a chair, her hands clasped demurely in her lap, her clothing undisturbed, her severed head hanging from her neck in a neat geometrical line, and no sign of blood and gore.

When the Company Style came into vogue the patua turned to local customs, depicting a barber cleaning a woman's ear, a fishwife selling her wares. And soon, with telling satire, we are in the India of today where a couple romances in a rickshaw, elders are no longer respected, policemen take bribes and women have midnight trysts with their lovers.

This is a theme with hoary antecedents, particularly in the Miniature tradition in which the “abhisarika” hastens to her lover braving all dangers. Slender and bejewelled, her clothing fluttering and swirling as she strides through the forest unafraid of snakes and scorpions, she is a vision of romance and idealised beauty.

In contrast, her Kalighat counterpart is no head-turner. A realistically depicted city dweller, she lights up the darkness with that emblem of modernity, a cell phone, and sends text messages to her lover as she moves towards a car waiting in the shadows for her sordid liaison. In the apartment behind her a face is visible at a lighted window, suggesting that her affair is no longer secret. The artist has a keen eye for detail and uses symbols with admirable economy.

Dearer to the heart of a Bengali, than wine, women and song, is fish it is said, and the gallery is full of fishy paintings. Two succulent specimens appear in vertical profile with the beady eye of one aligned with the other's tail, giant prawns hang from a hook, and a jaunty cat with caste marks on its forehead chomps on a prawn, a satirical dig at greedy brahmins, supposedly vegetarian, who find sea-food irresistible.

Fishy matters

Fish is again the central motif in the splendid painting by Bahadhur Chitrakar that rounds off the exhibition. Titled “Tsunami”, it reverts to the older scroll format. A bird-man with long, curved talons upraised to pounce looms over the devastation, and myriad life-forms swirl below in a raging sea covering the length of the scroll, sweeping away trees and houses. Huge fish, larger than the human prey they pursue punctuate the scene. Fancifully depicted with large round scales resembling ornamental coat-buttons and elegant frilly tails, they are things of beauty despite their savagery.

Eschewing primary colours, the artist uses blue, orange, warm shades of brown, sea green and golden yellow. This is the painting one would have loved to photograph, but alas it was not permitted.

Leaflets were not provided either. A great deal of information was posted on the walls, but walls can't be taken home! You need something to mull over and pass on to like-minded people, for this is an exhibition that goes far beyond a display of paintings. It gives us an informed overview of a vibrant and witty art form that exposes human foibles and mirrors the life of the great city that is its home.

(After showing at Chatrapati Shivaji Museum, Mumbai, the exhibition has moved on to Hyderabad and Delhi.)