In the 19{+t}{+h}Century if pilgrims or tourists came to the city, a Kalighat painting would be the most likely souvenir they would carry back home. Artist and museum curator John Lockwood Kipling, the father of renowned author Rudyard Kipling, took several of them to England. These are among the more than hundred paintings that have made their way back to the city through an exhibition inaugurated here at the Victoria Memorial over the weekend.

 The display begins with a painting of the Goddess Kali from 1860s. The genre of the paintings, locally known as pats painted by patuas , originated in the vicinity of the famous temple dedicated to the Goddess at Kalighat and evolved into a school of painting.

 The image of Kali was the most popular pat sold to pilgrims and it gave the genre its characteristics: bright colours, bold outlines and a simple yet striking visuals.

 The first section includes paintings of gods and goddesses. The image of Brahma – with four heads, but only five eyes creating “a clever optical illusion” – is quite striking. Sections from two scroll paintings, which would run into several feet when fully unrolled, are also on display. The cracked paint from repeated rolling and re-rolling reveal its vintage from the 1870s.

 Divided into six sections, including one containing 15 contemporary Kalighat paintings that were acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for this exhibition, the paintings are a part of an extensive collection.

For example, the museum houses four copies of the same image – Jatayu's attempts to stop the capture of Sita from the Ramayana – all with slight variations in colour and detail.

 The section titled ‘Social commentaries, proverbs and animals,' which chronicles the shift in the subject matter of Kalighat paintings from religious themes to scenes of everyday life, offers fascinating insights into life in 19{+t}{+h}Century Kolkata. Several paintings satire the ‘Babu' wearing fancy shoes and a pleated dhoti , influenced by Western values.

 Famous Bengali proverbs also find expression in some pats such as ‘A Jackal's Court'. It is a witty interpretation of the saying “Bans bone, shiyal raja” (the jackal is king in a bamboo grove), signifying that a lesser person will claim importance in a smaller playing field.

 An entire section is dedicated to The Tarakeswar Affair, a public scandal of those times involving the priest of the holy town of Tarakeswar in Hooghly district, a married woman and her husband, which fuelled the imagination of many a patua. The explicit imagery, and the public interest in the subject reminds one of the large spreads that may be seen in tabloids today.