Religion and economy are strange bedfellows. While they are intrinsically linked, outwardly they like to pretend otherwise. Kalighat painting or Kalighat Pat as they are locally called originated in the 19th century Bengal, in the vicinity of Kalighat’s Kalitemple. This is around the time that the temple became a popular destination for locals and foreign visitors. This popularity saw a rise in artisans who flocked there to make and sell cheap souvenirs. Made to cater to an egalitarian audience, they have a surprising similarity to modern art while still portraying local subjects.
The artisans, called Patuas, were traditionally from the Midnapore district. They originally painted long scrolls, called Pattachitra that had distinct sections called the Pat. These served as pictorial accompaniments to the stories related by the Patuas. These itinerant performers travelled all over and regaled the local audience with folktales and mythological stories. Painting the long scrolls was time-consuming and, in any case, they were too unwieldy as souvenirs. To meet that demand, the Patuas began to make smaller and simpler paintings in the format of Pat; that is single pictures depicting just one or two figures that could be painted quickly leaving the background plain and eliminating the non- essential details.
The Kalighat paintings went through a period of meteoric rise in the second half of the 19th century. This was the time when the essential structure and characteristics of the painting developed. By around 1890s the craft reached its zenith in terms of variations in style, composition and colour. The early 1900s saw the infiltration of cheap lithographs that brought an end to the golden period of this craft.