Saraswati. Image credits : Asian curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, All creative commons.
In the pre-colonial era, artistic traditions in Bengal like most occupations in the subcontinent primarily remained hereditary whereby knowledge and artistic canons were passed down from one generation to another. It remained confined to the rural sphere while the visual narrative created emerged from both traditional and contemporary religious and mythological beliefs. One of the earliest contributors to visual story-telling where the travelling Patuas whose earliest reference dates back to the 13th century text of Brahma Vaivarta Purana. Their musical narratives simultaneously complimented the painted cloth panels that were unravelled as the story progressed. This formulated a strong painting tradition within that region. With the passage of time and the emergence of urban areas, some of the Patuas opted for a sedentary life transforming the combined musical and visual narrative solely into individual paintings. Such was the case in Calcutta within the vicinity of the Kalighat temple giving rise to a predominantly indigenous yet urban artistic style popularly known as Kalighat paintings.
The Kalighat paintings were no longer produced in the earlier tradition of sequential cloth narratives. Instead the availability of paper as a result of mills transformed the art into single narratives as well as increased the quantity of production and its portability. Despite the material being a result of colonial factory production, the style and themes remained extensively indigenous. The colours utilised were water-based pigments derived from vegetables and crushed minerals. The colour palette included indigo, black, red, green, yellow while gold and silver where used for the purpose of ornamentation. While the brushes were made from squirrel and goat hair.
The style usually utilised a plain background upon which an image was drawn. The outline was made in black in swift but strong strokes.The sketches or outlines were filled in with vibrant colours completely transforming the drawing plane. The style asserted a sense of boldness and corresponded to the rapid changes that were taking place within the subcontinent. The modern enthusiasm surrounding Kalighat paintings lie in the themes that were executed by the painters. The themes initially pertained to religious and mythological themes. This had a dual purpose of creating both a souvenir for the visitors and by default a personal object for veneration. The themes were often derived from ancient Hindu texts, local traditions and beliefs that came to be executed with the help of artistic imagination. The changing social landscape of the city was documented by means of satires.