Colourfully clad women inhabit rich scenery.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
With a strong repository of art from Bengal spanning not only the modern epoch of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but also artworks made during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, DAG, one of India’s largest art institutions, brings together the exhibition titled The Babu & The Bazaar. Opened May 7, it is an expansive showing of nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal, featuring watercolour Kalighat pats — both religious and secular in their subjects — placed against comparable works across the genres of commissioned oil paintings and mass-produced prints alongside a selection of reverse-glass paintings from Canton (present-day Guangzhou), copying the designs of the watercolour pats.
Curated by historian and scholar Aditi Nath Sarkar, The Babu & The Bazaar attempts to unravel part of Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) history, its culture, class biases and gendered hierarchies, by featuring rare artworks that are over one hundred years old and registered as historical artefacts. The many Hindu deities, figures from mythological tales, as well as those from every-day life — are the focus of the show. Developed over the course of the last four years since 2018, the exhibition and its ensuing publication, centered on the Kalighat pat watercolours of Calcutta, steadily increased to include works by travelling artists who arrived in the city in the first decades of British colonisation, as well as those created by local artists — living in the city or in the other European colonies of Bengal — who either painted using watercolours and oils or were part of the developing printing industries.
Each artwork describes human beings clad in jewellery and clothing that are elaborately detailed; while women are dressed in patterned sarees of gold and red and adorning abundant ornaments ranging from crowns, earrings, anklets and necklaces, men are clothed in dhotis (lower wear) and kurtas (upper wear), decking themselves with capes and headdresses that rival those of their partners. Additionally, a collection of reverse-glass paintings are included in the exhibition and the book, which try to copy designs from the watercolour pats, emphasising their importance.
Ashish Anand, CEO and MD at DAG said: “In three decades, DAG has built a strong repository of art from Bengal. While collating artworks, we realised that certain imageries were more prominent than others, which therefore could be found across all three categories — even though stylistically they may have differences.”
He further added: “I have spent a lot of time in Kolkata since the 1990s, understanding the city and its art. Bengal’s art has been showcased by DAG across India as well as internationally, and the company has exhibited extensively in Kolkata. This is an opportunity for us to look further back into the history and art of the land and the culture of its people.”
In the nineteenth century, Bengal, especially Calcutta, stood at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. The port city through which wealth and goods flowed in and out of the Indian subcontinent, was of great commercial importance. The city’s growth acted as a catalyst for the development of various artistic traditions, foremost of which was the watercolour pat painting that makes up the nucleus of The Babu & The Bazaar. Indian elites, who worked closely with the British in business and governance, wanted to copy a Westernised lifestyle and opted for having their deities painted with oil pigment on cloth canvas. Inspired by the rich, flat colours of the pat drawings and the gold leaf detailing of the oil canvases, the exhibition design for the Babu & The Bazaar celebrates the different artworks on display through colour and materiality.
Highlights are displayed on panels of indigo blue, vermillion red and silver or gold leaf, depending on the medium they belong to. Archival objects and supplementary artworks are housed in open-based glass showcases, designed to complement the light and airy feel of the exhibition. Kalighat painting, Kalighat Patachitra or Kalighat Pat originated as a distinct style or genre of Indian paintings in the 19th century, practiced and produced by a group of specialised scroll painters known as the patuas in the vicinity of the Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata, in the present Indian state of West Bengal.
Composed of bold outlines, vibrant colour tones and featuring minimal background details, the paintings and drawings, done on hand-made, or more usually, machine manufactured paper, depicted mythological stories, figures of Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as scenes from everyday life and society.
It thereby recorded a socio-cultural landscape which was undergoing a series of transitions during the 19th and early 20th century, when the Kalighat pat reached its pinnacle. Today, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London hosts the single largest collection of Kalighat paintings in the world, 645 paintings in number, including watercolours, line-drawings and hand-painted lithographs.
DAG began its journey not as an art gallery but as an art institution right from its inception, choosing to build up an inventory of works by Indian artists from the nineteenth century onwards. In acquiring artists’ studios and estates, it pays homage to their legacy. DAG has created a large pool of twentieth century artists and artworks that taken together, tell the story of Indian art through iconic exhibitions curated to provide art historical overviews and document India’s tryst with modernism. DAG’s galleries are located in New Delhi and Mumbai in India, and in New York in the U.S.A.
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