Alternate Histories : Women in Kalighat paintings

Divine Devis, Infidel Wives and Condescending Courtesans:  Narrativization of ‘Womanhood’ in Kalighat Paintings
Somok Roy, History (Hon.)- 1st Year, Ramjas College, University of Delhi

The abundance of literary sources from 19th century Calcutta is supplemented by an equally vivid repertoire of contemporary visual sources, produced and patronized by diverse groups belonging to a supposedly emergent modernist, urban milieu1. Ranging from Company drawings (dating back to the early 1800s), Kalighat paintings, woodcut prints, engravings, paintings in the European academic tradition, and the trendsetting art studio productions (lithographs and oleographs); Calcutta’s visual archive offers nuanced insights into the social life of the people, local economies, trajectories of structural change, and, the dynamics of identity formation and visual representation, amongst other phenomena. The Kalighat paintings captured the multiple hues of a new urbanity and its socio-cultural idiosyncrasies “from below”2  and led to the evolution of a set of visual metaphors to comment on the ways and manners of the urban nouveau riche. The trenchant tone of these paper paintings mimicked and mocked the double standards of the upper class and upper caste gentry. The degradation of morality as a result of British colonialism and modernity often surfaced as the persistent theme of criticism for the migrant painter. The emulation of the European way of life, manifested in the use of chairs, hats and shoes, the in vogue ‘Albert hairstyle’ and the unwelcome reversal of gender roles, became a substantial part of the urban patuas’ vocabulary. Thus, the ‘modern’ in the Kalighat iconography is often synonymous with the ‘European’. This inquiry seeks to explore the representation of women in Kalighat paintings- the constructs of gender, and the rigidity and fluidity of such ideas. The portrayal of the female individual in a patriarchal structure, by an economically peripheral group3  delineates an alternate history of gender, class, and caste in 19th century Calcutta. However, this paper confines itself to the understanding of the portrayal of women in a popular art form. It aims to understand the articulation of the ‘feminine’ in its temporal and spatial location, re-read, and question the dichotomy between the home (private, domestic) and the world (public, professional/the civil society), re-think the issues of adultery and promiscuity in city life, look for non-conformist or unconventional depictions of women, and enquire into their presence and absence in visual narratives. A brief attempt to look for works (both explicit and implicit) on homoeroticism, and study the trans-attribution of gender traits would also be made.

Text and Context: Locating the Kalighat Paintings
The lineage of this art form can be traced back to the scroll painting tradition of the patuas, which was an integral part of social life in rural Bengal. Several forms of narrative scrolls called jorano pat (literally means a coiled or folded scroll) evolved at centres like Midnapore, Birbhum and Murshidabad, portraying episodes from both the Brahmanical corpus (“Great traditions”4) and, local cult myths and legends (“little traditions”5).  However, it is interesting to note that though the migrant patuas who settled in the periphery of the Kalighat temple initially painted religious themes catering to the demand of the pilgrims, they were soon attracted by the chaos of an emerging modernity and started painting social scenes. Hence, the Kalighat pat was a product of the urban womb, claiming a rural ancestry. This shift in the social location of the patua (artist), changed his style and work significantly. The earlier cloth-backed paper scrolls were replaced by cheap rectangular sheets of mill made paper. The new, inexpensive and portable version was affordable to the lower middle class. Thus, it became a popular art form ‘for the masses’, something that the Europeans and the native elite (both the hereditary landed aristocracy and the emergent bourgeoisie) would look down upon as ‘bazaar art6.’ Productions of the Kalighat school did not meet the European standards of realism, and therefore, though they were collected by people like W.G. Archer, they remained curios from the east, and barely managed to qualify as ‘Art’. The Bengali Bhadralok (gentry, nouveau riche) was fascinated by European art, especially the neoclassical works of painting, statuary and architecture, as manifested in the palatial mansions of 19th century Calcutta. Even if one was to find such populist works in these houses, s/he would find them in the thakur-ghars (house chapels, rooms were deities were worshipped), and they never made it to the drawing rooms of the native elite. Moreover, keeping aside the questions of aesthetics and taste, it is obvious that the patriarch of the household would never want to adorn his house with paintings that mock and mimic his manners and lifestyle. The Bhadralok was portrayed as a foppish man of low moral character, an object of mockery and laughter. Often, his position and power was shown in relation to female characters (housewife, courtesan, women involved in market transactions). A close survey of these paintings in the following section would show the dynamics of gender as perceived by the patuas in 19th century Calcutta.

Reading Women: Female Characters and Themes
As stated earlier, the paintings of the Kalighat style depict social events and occurrences from the patua’s perspective. And the patua was inevitably a male individual, as recorded in the paintings and other contemporary texts. Though there are female practitioners of the rural scroll painting tradition at present, it is unlikely that a female belonging to an economically marginal section would paint scenes of scandalous affairs and obscene unions in 19th century Calcutta7. It was perhaps the larger social and institutional structure that prevented the emergence of female Kalighat patuas8. Therefore, we should bear in mind that all renditions of the female in Kalighat paintings, are by male artists. Then, does a conventional depiction of the female describe the making of a visual idiom to represent the other? 

The virtuous housewife was one of the central characters in these paintings. She is the ideal wife- someone who would accept her husband’s sovereignty over her (adhinata), internalize the trait of servitude (dasatya), satiate his hunger for sex, observe fasts and female rites (brata) for his good fortune, and show high moral standards. The Kalighat painters developed a body of icons to represent such “chaste” women, who were often spoken of as exemplary. A typical good housewife was invariably depicted in “domestic” settings, within the cloistered world of one’s house. Her spatial proximity to utensils symbolized her role in the kitchen, which was considered to be the only feminine domain in the patriarchal household. She’s also seen as a devout worshipper, offering flowers to shiva lingams (‘Woman seated before a lingam’, c.a. 1880, IPN.2576, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Such women have their bodies fully draped, unlike the courtesans, and their heads covered by the end of their sarees. This partial veil emerges as a metaphor of chastity. Also, noteworthy is the fact that these paintings are quite neutral in appearance – they lack the conflict in paintings depicting the corrupt and the vicious. The ideal wife, thus, is a docile and submissive individual, relegated to the margins of the household’s power hierarchy.

A startling contrast to this image of conformity is the image of the courtesan – bold and independent (both socially and economically), she is the woman with agency. Before we look into the portrayals of the courtesan, let us remind ourselves that not all paintings were titled by the artists themselves. Many labels that guide us through this visual journey are products of modern curatorship and research. Therefore, there’s a possibility that not all characters labeled as courtesans were intended to be one. The courtesan’s ubiquitous presence in city life from the ancient to the modern reaffirms her cultural, social and economic importance. The courtesan is almost an antithesis to the ideal wife. The only instances of role reversal in the gender hierarchy are seen when men are depicted in relation to the courtesan. Paintings show babus prostrating before courtesans, young men seeking permission to enter her parlour, the courtesan in charge in a sexual intercourse, etcetera. Portrait style paintings show her in various moods- playing the sitar, at her toilet, caressing a pet parrot or a peacock, smoking huqqa, and fanning her. Some of these paintings are remarkable for their theatricality (both literally and metaphorically), marked by the heavy curtains, the margins of the paper forming the proscenium arch. Art historian Dr. Jyotindra Jain9 has shown the use of stage elements in these paintings, borrowed directly from the contemporary theatre productions. And the courtesan emerges as the regal actress, the central nayika of this two dimensional stage. 

An 1830 C.E. painting titled ‘courtesan seated on a chair’ portrays a bedecked lady with flowing, dark hair, uncovered head and bare, voluptuous breasts. She wears a translucent green saree, unlike the opaque saree of the idea wife. Visible through the saree is her flesh and the round contours of her lower body, deftly rendered by the application of different colour tones. The gaze of a courtesan in the Kalighat works is immensely confident, her smile could be taken as a metaphor for seduction and enticement, elements seen as characteristic to her art and profession. It is obvious that she would invest time in her upkeep, and indulge in shringaar. Images of young courtesans with flowers (primarily roses) in one hand and a mirror in another would resonate with the notion of feminine beauty, showing the intertextuality between traditional, classical Indian aesthetics10  and a popular, modern art style. These girls were called ‘golapshundaris,’ which literally translates to ‘rose-beauties.’ A rare 1875 C.E. work in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, depicts a male barber attending to a seated courtesan. The courtesan, embellished with heavy jewellery (painted in colloidal tin alloy), smokes a huqqa (huqqa, an integral object inthe pre-modern court, symbolized nobility and the culture of consumption) sitting on a chair, while the barber pierces her ear before inserting an earring. A 1900 C.E. painting, also in the collection of V&AM London, by Kali Charan Ghosh depicts the courtesan trampling her lover. The descriptive line reads, “…The picutre is a satire of the `Nabya Babu` or newly westernized dandy culture of the contemporary Calcutta society. The `Babu` is sporting `Albert` hair-style, after the Prince Consort and suitably dressed for the period. He is completely under her influence, so much so that she can walk all over him. A parallel is drawn between Goddess Kali trampling over prostrate Shiva.” Reverberating within is a hidden lament of changing times and power relations due to the coming of modernity. Thinking along the lines of the description, there seems to be an attempt to relate it to divine parallels, by alluding to religious myths; if not to legitimize it, then to neutralize its unpleasantness. However, I would see it as a brazen satire on the society. Similarly, another painting (IS.239-1953, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) dated between 1865-70, personifies the coming of the kaliyug (the dark age of decadence) in terms of gender politics. It shows a courtesan leading an anthropomorphic sheep with a man’s head, called the ‘sheepish lover.” The composite creature is an allegory to those men who submit to the authority of ‘their’ women (either wife or courtesan) and lead subordinated lives. Such men disgraced the patriarchal social structure, and therefore were rewarded with acerbic jokes, proverbs and sarcastic paintings, like the one being discussed. 

The portrait style painting of a courtesan playing the sitar, would go on to influence later works. A lithograph printed in 1932, at Kansaripara Art Studio, retains the Kalighat style of portraying a courtesan playing an instrument. But the Sitar of an earlier watercolour has been replaced by a violin in the new lithograph, an instrument connoting western modernity. There are innumerable other paintings revolving around the courtesan, and her awe-inspiring gravitas. Apart from the courtesan, the only woman playing a role in the public life is the fisher-woman. She is shown seated, de-scaling and weighing fish, and interacting with an interested male buyer. Thus, there are visual sources to attest the fact that women participated in the urban economy. A very different narrative is woven around the character of Jhansi ki Rani- the painting resembles an equestrian portrait. The Rani of Jhansi11  emerged as a provincial leader during the revolt of 1857, but soon became a pan-Indian war-hero(ine), remembered for her militaristic traits and patriotism, and commemorated in popular works of art, folk songs, proverbs, poems, and plays. The 1885 C.E. painting in the collection of V&AM, London shows her wearing a red saree and jewellery, a riding crop in her right hand, and the reins of her horse in the left. The painting is, to a certain extent, successful in capturing the motion her horse. To my eyes, the portrayal is nearly sacred- I feel that the character was deified in the artists mind, and then transferred to paper. However, this assumption cannot be emphasized due to the lack of signs connoting the sacred/divine in the painting.

One of the quintessential series of the Kalighat school remains the Elokeshi-Mahant affair, also known as the Tarakeshwar Murder Case of 187312. The articulation of scandalous events in 19th century Calcutta happened in various media- songs, theatre, literature, woodcut prints and bazaar paintings. According to historian Tanika Sarkar, these expressions belonged to “processes that constituted an emerging public sphere where private people argued about their intimate concerns through novel modes of public communication.” Therefore, the blurring of lines between the private and the public in everyday discourse became a reality. The Tarakeshwar Murder Case of 1873 involves three individuals- Nobin Chandra Banerjee, an employee at a military press in Calcutta, Elokeshi, his young wife, and Madhavchandra Giri, the mahant (head priest) of the Tarakeshwar temple. The mahant, Madhavchandra Giri was accused of seducing and raping Elokeshi, who stayed in Tarakeshwar with her parents, while her husband Nobin, stayed in Calcutta for work. When Nobin came to know about this incident from village gossips and allusions, he confronted Elokeshi. Elokeshi confessed and begged his forgiveness, to which Nobin relented, and decided that the two of them would shift to Calcutta. The mahant’s musclemen attacked them on their way to Calcutta, which triggered Nobin and he slit his wife’s throat with a fish knife (aansh-boti). Disconcerted by the series of events, he went to the local police station and confessed. Initially, Nobin was acquitted by an Indian jury in the Hooghly Sessions Court at Serampore on the grounds of insanity but the case was pushed up to the Calcutta High Court, where he was sentenced to life transportation. However, in 1875, responding to the huge upsurge in public petitions pleading mercy for Nobin, he was pardoned. The Bengali public opined that there was nothing wrong in punishing an unchaste wife, even if it costs her life. The mahant was sentenced to three years of rigorous punishment and a fine of Rs. 3000 was imposed. The Tarakeshwar murder case still survives in public memory, in the form of proverbs, rhymes, and anecdotes, flowing between archived history and exaggerated anecdotes. The Kalighat series depict the story in episodes (each painting capturing one episode), and in an exhibition curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the works were chronologically arranged to form a linear story line in images. The first painting is titled ‘Elokeshi meets the mahant at the Tarakeshwar Shrine.’ In another painting, Elokeshi is seen seated on a chair and the mahant is fanning her. According to W.G. Archer, this allusion to heat symbolizes the swelling tension between the priest and Elokeshi. Archer remarks that it depicts the “slavish subservience” to which she appears to have reduced the priest. Thus, in the early analyses of these works, we see a tendency to malign Elokeshi. Then there are paintings depicting an enraged Nobin severing his wife’s throat, Elokeshi trying to resist with her raised hands but succumbing to the fatal blow. The violence depicted in these paintings was sanctioned by the public, and therefore these works could have acted as didactic visual texts to deter wives from indulging in adulterous affairs. 

To fathom the artists’ thoughts is an abstruse trail; however their works emanate enough light to make visible the social forces that shape them. In this incomplete reading of the Kalighat paintings, we saw the various trajectories of representing the female entity – a set of moral characteristics acquiring visual forms, association of physical space with women, divergent clothing for different women, the shifting positions in power hierarchy, patriarchal anxieties triggered by the coming of modernity, and the interactions between law, morality, punishment and violence. However, this paper remains constrained in terms of themes and sources, and I wish to further this study to explore the social fabric of 19th century Calcutta.


[1] My emphasis on and italicization of supposedly emergent modernist.., keeping in mind the fluctuatingnomenclatures in South Asian historiography. The period preceding theestablishment of Company rule, which is conventionally called the late medieval,is often labeled as ‘early modern’, thus pushing back the emergence of‘modernity’ in the subcontinent, for an overview of the early modern debate,see Daud Ali, The idea of the medieval inthe writing of South Asian history: contexts, methods and politics (SocialHistory, 2014)

[2]  To use E.P. Thompson’s eponymous phrase, which is also a method of‘doing’ social history. The focus here is on marginal narratives as sources ofhistory.

 [3]   By the phrase ‘economically peripheral group’, I refer to a group that is certainly not privileged. Indigenous folk styles like that of Kalighat were referred to as ‘low’ art, and consequentially did not bring much profit or patronage to their creators. Moreover, in the late 19th century, the Patuas had to face cut-throat competition from the art studios that produced cheap litho prints and oleographs, something that contributed to the total disappearance of this art form.

 [4]  Robert Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture (1956)

 [5]   Ibid.

[6]   W.G. Archer’s pioneering work on the Kalighat style is titled ‘Bazaar Paintings of Calcutta: The Style of Kalighat.’ The title of this work interests me when seen in relation to the author’s cultural location. I wonder if the Orientalist perspective of looking at the arts of the Orient manifest itself in the title of the book, the bazaar being a symbol of the ‘exotic east’, or does it merely convey the social geography of the art form.

[7]   There’s a large body of anonymous Kalighat works, however, it isunlikely that women were involved in the making of these paintings.

[8]   Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists? (1971). Nochlin’s path-breaking reasoning in the aforementioned essay has helped to address the absence (or apparent absence) of female painters in the Kalighat school.

[9]   Jyontindra Jain, Kalighat Paintings: Images from Changing World,1999

[10]   Taking Bharata’s Natyashastra as the ur text.

[11]   For a nuanced historical account on the Rani of Jhansi, see, Tapti Roy, Rajof the Rani, 2006.

[12]  For a detailed discussion and analysis of the affair, see, Tanika Sarkar, “Talking about Scandals”, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, 2005.