Kalighat painting first came to the attention of the West in 1917, when Rudyard Kipling presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum, a series of watercolour paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses which had been collected by his father, J. Lockwood Kipling. They were not the first Kalighats to reach the museum but because of Kipling’s fame they highlighted an area of Indian art previously neglected. As William Archer stated ‘…they were not only a new kind of Indian art but one which had seemingly antedated some of the more audacious inventions of the modern epoch.’ (W.G. Archer, Kalighat Paintings, London 1971, p. 1).
These Kalighat paintings had been created by patuas (village artists) who sat outside the Kali temple along the Broad Road leading into Calcutta. The paintings were produced for the pilgrims visiting the temple, ‘they supplied a different kind of public from the local aristocracy and for this reason appeared to be a more popular form of Indian expression.’ (ibid., p. 1). The pilgrim trade demanded the rapid execution of paintings in large quantities at low cost. The themes depicted were religious scenes that catered for orthodox Bengali interests and popular proverbs that were a comment on the ‘Babu’ society that had developed in Calcutta during the late nineteenth century.
William Archer first discovered Kalighats at the old Indian Museum on Exhibition Road, whilst studying at the School of Oriental Studies. His knowledge was furthered during a trip to Calcutta in 1933, when Mukel Dey introduced Archer to the last of the old Kalighat painters, Nibaran Chandra Ghosh. Archer greatly admired the Kalighats use of ‘bounding line, brilliant colour, bold linear rhythm and free watercolour technique.’ In 1971, Archer published the definitive book on the subject in which he outlined the circumstances that established the Kalighat school of painting. ‘Kalighat painting originated in the early years of the nineteenth century…and was a product of the special conditions then obtaining in Calcutta.’ (Archer, 1971 p. 6). In his publication Archer identifies the urban growth of Calcutta, the availability of cheap paper and the Company School tradition of using watercolour to depict flora and fauna and scenes of everyday life (ibid. p. 3) as major contributing factors in the development of the Kalighats. Archer discusses the development of the Kalighat idiom within the context of the patua painting tradition. Describing patua paintings as a ‘dazzling summary of situations rather than a delicate evocation of some natural event,’ whose indigenous style was characterised by dark contours, flat plains of colour and a distortion of the features to display expression. (ibid. p.8)
The Kalighats in this sale represent a delightful array of subjects that were painted during the height of Kalighat production. A number of the paintings in the group closely relate to examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, many of which were acquired for the museum by the Archers during William's tenure. Related examples include: the Courtesan leading a sheep-headed man (Archer 1971, fig.17, I.S.239-1953), the Jackal Raja’s court (Archer 1971, fig.20, 08144 (b) I.S.), the Courtesan nursing a peacock (Archer 1971, fig.23, N.M.W.3), the Water-snake swallowing a fish (Archer 1971, fig.24, N.M.W.5) and the Fresh-water prawn with cat-fish (Archer 1971, fig.83, I.S.2-1954).