Oxford University digitises depictions of Hindu deities

An example of Kalighat artowrk. Credit: Bodleian library.
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Oxford University digitised more than one hundred 19th Century Kalighat paintings depicting Hindu deities. The digitisation is part of a wider project at the university’s Bodleian library to make thousands of rare manuscripts and images accessible to the public.

Religious statesman, Rajan Zed, took to Twitter to heap praise on the university:

Sir Monier Monier-Williams acquired the Kalighat paintings for the Indian Institute Library following his third fund-raising trip to India in 1883.

You can trace the history of the Kalighat art to a Kali Temple on the bank of the Buri Ganga (a canal diverging from the Ganges River) in southern Kolkata.

This form of Bengali folk art, created between 1800 and 1930, was a product sold to tourists and pilgrims as souvenirs.

The sprawling metropolitan success of 18th-century Kolkata attracted a wealth of creative talents. Others moved to the city due to the economic grip of The East India Company in the region. Among them were the trained artists of Murshidabad and folk painters (patuas). A patua depicted mythologies, religious figures, popular proverbs, and contemporary events with vegetable and mineral dyes. These pictures were a patchwork of sequential images. Patua families travelled to rural villages to sing or recite these stories.

Artists and craftsman found a living by selling inexpensive products at holy sites.  Kalighat artists began to make smaller, single icon paintings, and Hindu deities proved popular. The cheap paper and quick brushstrokes soon turned the paintings into cheap commodities. This inexpensive product allowed more individuals to worship deities at home altars. In spite of the commodification, depictions reflected three characteristics (gunas): essence (satva), power and action (rajas), and chaotic power (tamas). Only a correct depiction meant a person could meditate in divinity. That sense of divinity relied upon the artist using correct colours. Saraswati, Goddess of learning is white, Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth is reddish gold. Whilst depictions of Kali, with her power to dissolve the cosmos, reflected dark tones.

Yet, the inescapable impacts of colonialism meant some artists depicted goddesses in Victorian crowns, their poses reflected English nobility, and violins replaced the traditional veenas (a stringed instrument associated with Saraswati). In Hinduism, Kali embodies the female active principle of the faith, or power (shakti). Artists inverted the approaches of potential suitors into lapdogs or charlatans. Depicting women as Saraswati, goddesses of the arts, though westernised, reflected a broader social change: in 1849, the first female school opened under the banner of the Bethune College (and replacing an earlier Hindu female school), to be followed by a college in 1879.

A desire for female education spread to other parts of India. The social reformer Durgaram Mehta (1809-1876), opened a school for girls in Surat in 1851. In Ahmedabad, a school for girls opened in 1849, under the banner of the Gujarat Vernacular Society, founded on Boxing Day, 1857 by Alexander Kinloch Forbes, a British administrator with the East India Company. The Gujarat Vernacular Society’s original aim of ‘civilising the natives’ evolved towards social change.  Forbes’ society administered a school for girls founded by Harkor Shethani, the widow of businessman and philanthropist Hutheesingh Kesarisingh, and established an all women’s library.

Others lampooned the hypocrisies of the upper-classes. To avoid libel, a cat painted with ritual stripes upon its forehead represented hypocritical holy men (sadhu).

But the artists made sure to reflect the religious diversity of Kolkata; a small number of painting depicted the celebration of Muharram, an important month in the Islamic calendar. A further example included a painting of “Duldul Horse” on which Husain, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in the battle of Karbala. The number of Christian missionaries in Kolkata, including the Baptist William Carey (1761-1834) meant the occasional Kalighat paintings depicted Christian mythologies or iconographies.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, Kalighat artists used their skills to highlight tales of scandal, including a high-profile murder in 1873.

Today the rich traditions of this art form exist in Bengal villages.

 

 

 

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