Short on logic

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST


Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World by Jyotindra Jain; Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd, Ahmedabad, 1999; pages 232, Rs.2,000 (hard cover).

THIS is an exasperating book, one has to say; but it has its virtues, and perhaps those should be listed first. The reproductions are good, and there are enough of them to give one a feel for the variety of what is called Kalighat painting; and the way t he pictures are set to each other does suggest, now and again, how the painting emerged from a medley of artisanal practices - gleaning certain skills from potters and carvers in wood, for example - and did not develop, as is commonly thought, just out o f the craft the Kalighat patuas inherited from their village forefathers.

Some early commentators regarded Kalighat painting as a corruption, in fact, of the Bengal village patua's craft: which is supposed to have happened not very long after the patuas migrated from their villages to Calcutta (sometime in the first half of th e 19th century. A good many of them settled in an area which came to be known as Patuapura, we are told, near the Kalighat temple: hence the name.) Jain firmly disposes of the notion that the painting may only be a corrupted practice, by maintaining that "the pressure of swelling market demand" - which is often cited as the corrupting factor - for Kalighat pictures, through the latter half of the 19th century actually "eliminated any scope for an inert and aimless brush to produce highly laboured and or nate paintings" (odd as it sounds to put it so) while at the same time favouring the Kalighat painters' rapid ways of working: which produced, he says, a "sustained tension of forms and confident movement of lines surging towards their predestined target s, making them true works of expression" (all text just quoted is on pages 187 and 188).

One could find much to quarrel with above - especially the assumption that the need for rapid execution is always "a creative advantage" (as Jain puts it a little later) reliably producing "true works of expression" - but the suggestion that it is the ma rket, precisely, which provided the conditions for Kalighat painting developing the character we value is a bold one, and deserves to be explored. One cannot help thinking of Walter Benjamin's celebration of the popular or mass arts of the industrial age now, of course, and Jain does seem to nod in Benjamin's direction when he introduces Kalighat painting as a product of Calcutta's 'age of mechanical reproduction'. But elsewhere Jain talks of the painting as having "pre-empted mechanical reproduction" ( in 19th century Calcutta); and he seems to attribute its demise (in the first quarter of the 20th century) to the development of increasingly efficient means of reproducing images.

Jain's understanding of what 'mechanical reproduction' does to art seems rather different, then, to what Benjamin's might have been - as one might gather from the way he lauds 'true expression' anyway; and somewhere Jain talks of "mechanical replication in combination with photography" (emphasis added) shaping how Kalighat painting develops - so it would not really help to have Benjamin in mind while reading him. On Jain's account of things market conditions seem to produce aesthetic values which survive those conditions themselves: and that raises the knotty question of whether or not what we value in Kalighat painting was just what was valued by its intended beholders. Benjamin might have been able to address that question in certain ways; but we gain no sense at all from Jain's writing of how he would tackle it (and ignoring the problem does land him in some trouble, as we shall see).

The tally of the book's virtues is not quite complete though: and it should be mentioned in particular that the book manages to give us a sense of the larger popular culture, of Calcutta through the 19th century, of which Kalighat painting seems such a b racing example. Jain spends a good deal of time, for instance, talking about how popular theatre might have influenced the way the painters depicted figure and action. (He reproduces some striking pictures, on pages 182 and 183, where the figure appears as if lit from below, by footlights as it were.) The pictures dealing with the Tarakeshwar scandal (which captured Calcutta's attention in the 1870s) serve Jain well here: he is able to point to ones where what is shown could only have come from the tell ing of the story on the stage (rather than, say, from newspaper reports: though that should not really surprise anyone). Jain puts these particular pictures to good use in another way as well, when he uses them to contest earlier ways of dating Kalighat paintings: and the chapter where that is done (titled "Historical Understanding of the Kalighat Genre") is the strongest part of the book.

That said, there is little else to recommend the book; and much to fault it for. One sort of irritant is the announcement, now and again, that something ambitious is about to be attempted: which is not carried very far in what follows. So Jain undertakes , for example, to look into the Kalighat painters'

"codes of representation, reinvention of the requisite visual language, the need to sift through their own pictorial conventions, invention of narrative devices, and configuration of representational space"

But the reasons Jain gives for the formal differences here do not really make clear - any more than the pictures themselves will - just how the Kalighat painter's 'codes of representation' and 'invention of narrative devices' differ from the village patu a's; and nothing he says demonstrates how they reinvent their 'visual language' to deal with the Tarakeshwar affair. In fact, the discussion ends with Jain flatly contradicting himself. The "animated, expressive, directed and participatory posture s and gestures clearly differentiate" these pictures from the usual run of Kalighat painting, Jain says - though one might doubt that if one sets a picture like After the First Blow (Figure 124) next to, for instance, Woman beating a Man with a Broom (Figure 134) - and he then claims that the "interactive mode and action-bound relationship" of the figures in these pictures "allude to performative conditions unforeseen in the Kalighat genre outside the paintings of the Tarakeshwar affair".

But Jain had earlier ascribed just these sorts of attraction to a picture of Shiva and Parvati with Ganesha. Looking at a painting with the quaint title "Shiva's Family on an Outing", Jain points to the god "using his drum as a child's rattle (as) he at tempts to entertain infant Ganesha seated on his lap, while Parvati pacifies the child by clapping her hands". The postures and gestures here are not appreciably less animated or expressive - or 'directed' or 'participatory' - than they are in the Tarake shwar pictures; and nothing Jain says shows us why the 'interactive mode and action-bound relationships' between these figures may not be taken to 'allude' to just the sort of 'performative conditions' that the Tarakeshwar pictures refer to.

Logical consistency is not something Jain prizes, apparently. Regarding their pictures of Calcutta's rich we are told that "in the eyes of the Kalighat painters the babu was a living cartoon"; these 'babus' are the young of Calcutta's "nouveau riche, fop pish dandies, whose half-baked anglicisation and sanskritisation" had apparently excited the painters' scorn. Now, just before this Jain had told us that these pictures "modelled a whole lifestyle for those who had begun to climb the ladder of upward soc ial mobility", and that possessing them "brought the owner closer to the hallowed circle of the fashionable upper-class gentry, providing him a means of annexing himself" to an 'ideal' (emphasis added). Not only does Jain not remark on the pictures being so completely misread - on his account of them, at least, which should surprise Jain since he thinks Kalighat painting is "determined by continually fluctuating m arket forces" - but he goes on to claim that "this message (to the social climber) is clear from the very conceptualisation and construction of the image" itself. And, to compound matters, Jain later asserts that "clearly in the fashionable Calcutta dand y the artist visualised the living image of (the god) Kartika".

MORE logical problems can be found in the chapter titled "Articulation of the Pictorial Language". Describing how Kalighat painters model their figures, Jain assures us that they "did not aim at painting from life, capturing images frozen in given situat ions of light and shade... in order to achieve a realistic depiction of nature" but painted, rather, "in accordance with their requirements of representation and interpretation". What is more, "the sense of dimensionality perceived in nature is internali sed... and fully transformed", Jain says, by the painter "retrieving and reconfiguring... fragments of visual memory and retained impressions of light and shade" according to his "felt need of expression". That may or may not be the case; but if it is, J ain cannot also suggest that the Kalighat painters began to "perceive volume in nature in terms of a vision that had grown out of their own style of painting chiaroscuro": because there would not be much 'sense of dimensionality' left to transform then. (To put it another way, if the pictures do record a transformed way of seeing, then the painters would be painting 'from life'.)

The sorts of problem just pointed to impair Jain's book seriously: which is a shame, because a careful study of Kalighat painting would be useful. (It might, for instance, suggest how to go about assessing what is formally distinctive about modernist pai nting in India.) One expects rather more from a person of Jain's standing; and it is surprising, in fact, that he should have been so careless, given his obvious enthusiasm for the subject. Perhaps a more clinical eye was needed.

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