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Appropriating realism: the transformation of popular visual iconography in late-nineteenth-century Calcutta.


This paper examines a particular period in the art history of colonial Bengal where the transformations in the visual culture of Bengal stemmed primarily from the free percolation and circulation of the stylistic category of academic realism. It focuses on the dissemination of academic realism through the formal levels of teaching in art schools and more fully on the way this fluid category of realism with its range of new norms and techniques began to be adopted by local painters--who had no formal training in art--at the popular level of print production.

Realism in European art history

Realism in the history of European art and literature "attained its most coherent and consistent formulation in France, with echoes, parallels and variants elsewhere on the continent, in England and in the United States" (Nochlin 1991:13) from about 1840 until the last half of the nineteenth century. Following Romanticism, this movement sought to depict a truthful and objective representation of the world, based on observation of everyday life. However, mere adherence to or replication of visual reality was only one aspect of the realists' methods.

A closer observation of the term 'realism' reveals multiple dimensions and layers. As an interventionist movement, realism in art takes a varied journey, starting with the arrival of perspective in the oil paintings of the Renaissance, then on to the tradition of picturesque European landscapes and finally taking us forward to what is known as the Impressionist movement that sought to break away from the artificial props, lights and confinement of the studio. Drawing from the Romantics' "demand for contemporaneity" (Nochlin 1991:103) in arts and ideas, the realists now chose to confront reality afresh and attempted to expand visual truth in terms of the 'ugly' side of life. As pointed out by Linda Nochlin, "they therefore rejected both the pompous rhetoric and the grandiose subjects of the past, neither of which, they felt, had any relevance to modern life, and turned to such novel or hitherto neglected areas of modern experience as the lot of the labouring poor, both rural and urban, the daily life of the middle classes, modern woman and especially the fallen woman ... the modern city itself ... and the life that was led in [these spheres]" (1991:111).

However, realism as an art movement in its own times had been severely criticized by Hegel and then Baudelaire who maintained that "true reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects we see every day" (Nochlin 1991:14). Despite such criticisms and oppositions, nineteenth-century realism as an artistic phenomenon, marked by features both thematic and stylistic, stood apart from earlier and later developments within the arena of European arts and aesthetics. In this paper, I would like to shift my focus from European art history to the history of nineteenth-century colonial India, to see what was transported into the Indian art context as European realism. Realism in Europe had specific connotations, but realism in India was completely different in both form and meaning. In her discussion of the different aspects of realism in nineteenth-century Europe and India, Tapati Guha-Thakurta explains that "over the late nineteenth century, the term in India came to signify primarily a kind of 'enabling technique', a way of adapting Western means and an 'improved' mode of representation to Indian effects. It involved mainly an adaptation to certain academic conventions of European painting: an adaptation ranging all the way from portraits to narrative allegories" (1992:93). It is the stylistic category of academic realism--a category grounded in a pedagogic formula of perspective, shading, object and life study, and anatomy drawing--which we see being transported most effectively and powerfully embedded in the Indian colonial context.

This paper examines a particular period in the art history of colonial Bengal when transformations in the visual culture of Bengal stemmed primarily from the free percolation and circulation of the stylistic category of academic realism. I look less at the dissemination of academic realism through the formal levels of teaching in art schools and more at the way this fluid category of realism with its range of new norms and techniques began to be adopted and appropriated by local painters--who had no formal training in the practice of art--at the popular level of picture production.

The coming of 'Western style' in the colony

The arrival and growing predominance of this Western style in Indian art history can be traced back to the arrival of the art of British portraiture and landscape painting executed by travelling artists such as Thomas Daniells and his nephew William Daniells, the subsequent appropriation of similar artistic conventions by local artists, the development of local instances of Company paintings, and finally the institutional ambit of the art schools and colleges set up by the mid-nineteenth century.

As shown by Mildred Archer, "some 30 British portrait painters in oils and at least 28 miniaturists turned to India in the years 1770 to 1825 as a potent source of novel patronage" (1979:36). This was because the middle years of the eighteenth century held few prospects for many of the British painters in England, as there was stiff competition back home. It was not surprising that the possibility of patronage of wealthy Indian Nawabs lured the British portrait painters to the colony. With the arrival of landscape and portrait painters from England, the art of illusionist oil painting and naturalistic watercolours, the techniques of engraving and lithography made their entry into India.

One of the first of the famous British portrait painters to arrive in India was Tilley Kettle. His ability to produce excellent portraits led Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Awadh, to commission portraits on a grand scale of himself and his sons. A particular oil painting shows the use of architectural perspective whereby a shaft of light comes through the arched window to highlight the overpowering figure of the Nawab standing with his four sons. They are seen holding a meeting with the British Resident, General Barker. The new ambience of Madras certainly influenced Kettle as an artist who now executed a number of Indian scenes. Kettle's naturalistic paintings depicting full profile figures with conventional landscapes in the background were a revelation for the local painters who took the opportunity of copying such works. The fascination of the European artists with the various native customs and rituals is also to be seen through Kettle's outstanding depiction of a 'Sati Scene'--an Indian ritualistic practice. In this work, the material possibilities of oil with its shade of naturalism succeed in heightening the theatrical postures and expressions of the figures.

Another group of British portraitists whose art represented "the patrons in their sumptuous Indian lifestyles and residencies, often with Indian bibis, most frequently with their faithful retinue of Indian servants" (Guha-Thakurta 2003:4) were Thomas Hickey and Francesco Renaldi. Thomas Hickey's portrait of 'Jemdanee', who was William Hickey's bibi, is an archetype of what came to be known as the 'white man's mistress' and is memorable for the sensitive treatment of an oriental subject. Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, the growing preference for Western-style oil portraits made India a home for such visiting artists from England.

The other source of entry for the so-called Western style was the repertoire of British landscape paintings which captured the sights of India. The most famous of such landscape artists were William Hodges, who travelled between 1780 and 1783, and Thomas and William Daniells who spent two years in Calcutta before setting off into the interior of British India. In the course of their journey, they executed a large number of oil paintings depicting various antiquities and the panoramic views of Upper India. A good example of this is Thomas Daniells's execution of a large oil painting entitled 'View in Gaur' (1791) which depicted the remnants of a tomb amidst scenic surroundings. It is said that Thomas and William arrived at this medieval site with their friend Samuel Davis in 1791 on their journey back from North India. Apart from recording the rugged terrains of North and South India, Thomas Daniells's twelve acquatints entitled 'Views of Calcutta', in particular captured the grandeur of the neoclassical architecture of this expanding city. Not only were the large oils being produced by the likes of Hodges and the Daniells to be exhibited in England, but the impact of these works was backed up by the circulation of engravings of Indian scenes. William Hodges's 'Select views of India' (1787) and the Daniells's 'Oriental Scenery' and 'Views of Calcutta' best exemplified the new Indian scenic conventions of the 'sublime' and the 'picturesque'.

There is, however, a need to remind ourselves that by the time the stream of British landscape and portrait painters arrived in India in the late eighteenth century, there already existed a thriving community of miniature painters patronized by the regional courts of Murshidabad, Awadh, Hyderabad and Tanjore. With the establishment of British supremacy in India, there occurred a shift in the artistic patronage, which posed a threat to this group of local painters.

The increasing preference for illusionist oil painting--with its naturalistic, three-dimensional components--by the Indian Nawabs forced the local artists to adapt to the changing repertoire of techniques, motifs and themes. Popular paintings by the Daniells and Tilley Kettle began to be replicated more cheaply and abundantly in the pictures produced by the displaced painters. Thus, the competition posed by the arrival of British artists in India forced their Indian counterparts to adapt to the same Western conventions of perspective and naturalistic shading. As a result of these transformations of the local art scene, we find that during the early years of the nineteenth century, a new genre of local work labelled 'Company' paintings emerged in the regional courts of Murshidabad, Patna and Calcutta. This array of pictures was commissioned and produced for East India Company officials and their families and they were now being produced by the floating population of miniaturists who were master draughtsmen with an eye for detail. Though Company paintings were a product of British aesthetic preferences and taste, they also carried a distinct sense of Indian craftsmanship and skills. The miniature artists were immensely valued for their ability to adapt quickly to the Western pictorial scheme and they produced accurate 'natural history' drawings, documenting various native customs, rituals, trade and castes of India. For example, in a watercolour produced by an unknown Murshidabad artist depicting the servants of Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert (Illustration 1), the scene on the verandah shows the stereotypical retinue of native servants, including the ayahs (nurses) and the khidmatgar (butler). The production of 'natural history' studies also involved the rigorous training of these native painters in accurate and realistic drawing. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the setting up of art schools and colleges witnessed the displacement of this genre of painting.


Perhaps the most organised form of arrival and spreading of a 'Western style' to colonial India occurred through the array of government art schools and colleges. Partha Mitter (1994) explains that the art schools proved to be powerful institutions for the spread of westernization in order to guide native tastes in art. The setting up of such schools witnessed the emergence of a new social category of the 'gentlemen artist'--as opposed to an artisanal community--who brought with him a new aesthetic definition.

Records show that in India the first proper art school was the Calcutta Mechanics' Institution and School of Arts, founded by Frederick Corbyn on 29 February 1839 (Mitter 1994:30-31). Subsequently, art schools were set up in Madras in 1850 by Dr Alexander Hunter and in Bombay by a Parsi industrialist, Jamsethji Jijibhai. The imperial policy adopted for art teaching ranged between the 'fine arts' as imparted by the Royal Academy and the 'applied arts' as taught at the Department of Science and Art, South Kensington. The initial years in the various art schools across India witnessed the dissemination of South Kensington instruction which included freehand and geometrical drawing, copying old masters, and sketching from nature (Mitter 1994:38).

In Calcutta, the fine arts were now pursued with great enthusiasm. With Henry Locke's arrival, students were encouraged to excel in oil painting and he "set about transforming the school into an academy where 'high art' instincts were to be nurtured at the expense of the useful ones" (Mitter 1994:44). By the 1870s, the dominance of salon or academic art became a reality thanks to a growing art-conscious Indian public. The emergence of art societies and the first art journals also proved to be important agencies for the dissemination of Western pictorial styles and norms among the new Indian artists of the nineteenth century.

Towards a 'popular' history of realism

I now turn to address the spread of realism outside the defined spaces of 'Company' paintings and the established spaces of art schools that were run by European teachers. Scholars in their study of the coming of this 'Western style' have not gone beyond these two spheres. One of the main issues that I address will be that of the new demands of realism as the single most powerful compulsion of the times, and as it worked across different genres of visual representation, throwing up a range of new norms and techniques for achieving visual similitude in images. Realism provided credible and tangible images of both the sacred and the profane--with oil painting providing new scope for simulating human flesh, clothes and jewellery. Unlike realism in Europe, realism in the colony proved to be a transformative force as much in popular visual culture as in high art, even as it drew its content from neoclassical European paintings of mythological subjects and representations of domesticity in Victorian prints. The adoption of the new medium of oil, the rich glossiness of colours and the traces of three-dimensional perspectives by the local painters subsequently gave way to the proliferation of cheap mechanical reproduction of such works by different printing presses across Bengal. These glossy prints, chromolithographs and oleographs, with their preferred brand of realism displaced the earlier popular prints and completely transformed the market. I now offer a mapping of the new trends and practices of realism in popular prints and paintings--their uses, dilutions even subversions of realist norms--to show how these trends completely transformed the proliferating popular visual market in late-nineteenth-century Calcutta.

(a) Kalighat paintings and Battala engravings

The transformation that marked the popular visual world becomes especially clear if one begins with the genre of the bazaar art of Kalighat paintings, which lay outside the purview of Western tastes and influences and continued to flourish with its own variety of traditional themes and style. The development of Calcutta as an urban metropolis, with its increasing popularity as a centre of national and international trade, and the emergence of the Kalighat temple as an important centre of pilgrimage witnessed a massive influx of tourists, traders and pilgrims who desired easily portable mementoes to carry back home. This demand was fulfilled mainly by the Kalighat painters who set up small shop-studios mainly around the temple and adopted a new form of visual representation quite distinct from their earlier practices of painting narrative scrolls or fashioning clay figurines (Jain 1999:13). While working under the heavy pressure of market demands, they developed a distinct style in which the speed of production and the agility of lines played an important role. The wide popularity and circulation of Kalighat paintings gave these images "an accepted position as the main art form of the natives in colonial Calcutta" (Guha-Thakurta 1992:18) and they were known as the popular bazaar art of nineteenth-century Calcutta.

While exploring the transitional moment in local art practices, one sees that this bazaar art responded in its own way to the new visual vocabulary which existed around it in the early middle years of the nineteenth century. What Kalighat painting represented was one kind of alternative, nonrealistic tradition of picture production with its notion of flatness, its use of watercolour and its shift from continuous scrolls to single-frame images. While continuing to work within a traditional non-naturalistic, two-dimensional style, the Kalighat artists did confront and respond to other stylistic challenges that were products of the changing times. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that through shading and a sense of volume, these bazaar painters were responding in their own way to the new category of realism that posed a visual challenge to them.

Within the shifting realities of the social and cultural space of nineteenth-century Calcutta, the popular genre of Kalighat painting thematically liberated itself from the narrow precincts of normative religious iconography, and began to churn out images of the foppish babu, the bibi, seductive courtesans, contemporary social scandals such as the Mohanta-Elokeshi episode (Guha-Thakurta 1992:22), (1) and the icons of theatre heroines and actresses (Jain 1999:97). For instance, a Kalighat watercolour shows the front view of a woman sitting with a rose and a mirror in her hand. It is interesting to note that some of the European collectors of Kalighat paintings and later scholars such as WG Archer labelled such an image "courtesan with rose and mirror" (Archer 1953), thereby undermining other possible identities of the woman. She strikes a seductive pose with the rose in her hand, and her semi-covered body and her alluring gaze emphasize her heightened sensuality.

In exploring a variety of other kinds of representation, we find that the same bold flowing lines which expressed the maternal graces of Yashoda were also used to express the violence of a reversed world order where a woman is seen beating up a man with a broom or trampling her lover (Illustration 2). The latter painting can be juxtaposed with the traditional iconography of Kali standing astride Shiva. However, one of the best examples of the Kalighat artists' collective sense of anxiety and disavowal of the changing social order, with its radically subverted gender roles, is the depiction of the 'Ghorkali', or apocalypse theme--"in the traditional upper-caste Hindu notion of cyclical time, in which aliens rule and hierarchies of caste, gender, and age are inverted" (Sarkar 1984:177). This painting is executed in watercolour and shows a man, likely to symbolize the dandified babu, carrying his preening, strident wife on his shoulder while his religious widowed mother is being dragged in tow in chains (Illustration 3). In this context, one should mention the innumerable literary expressions of this theme of 'Ghorkali' that are to be found in social satires.


With the city's changing printing technology, however, the Kalighat painters now faced stiff competition from the metal and wood engravers of Battala--the centre of early Bengali book printing of nineteenth-century Calcutta. Like the Kalighat pictures, the Battala prints were flat, two-dimensional decorative prints that were produced in bulk in tones of black and white. Like the rotund figures of Kalighat imagery, the figures of the Battala wood engraving were stylized in composition and non-naturalistic, with the emphasis on heavy, black curvilinear lines which gave a sense of volume to them. Not only stylistically, the Battala artists remained loyal thematically to the genre of Kalighat iconography. In theme, they replicated the same stock of stereotyped representations of the bibi, the courtesan, contemporary social scandals, etc. Apart from these so-called 'secular' pictures, they also produced a wide range of mythological and religious compositions such as the 'Four-headed Mahadeva' and the goddess 'Kali' of Kalighat. The development of printing technology now held immense possibilities for these engravers and a number of their prints bore the names of some well-known practitioners such as Panchanan Karmakar (working in Hogalkunria), Nrittyalal Dutta and Gopicharan Karmakar (working in Kombulitola).

(b) New genres of chromolithographs from the art presses of Kansaripara and Chorebagan

By the 1870s, the Battala woodcuts were on the decline before the competition being posed by lithographic prints and oleography. The introduction of superior technologies of mechanical reproduction of pictures in colour threatened the earlier genre of bazaar pictures. With the advent of the first means of mechanical reproduction, in Walter Benjamin's words, "the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility" (Benjamin 1973:218). This brings to mind the instance of the Kalighat painters who later had recourse to lithography in order to make several copies of their own work. Thus, the new order of printmaking ensured the democratization or accessibility of the reproduced works to several consumers which in turn held better potential for urban commercial art production. While Benjamin argues that what was lost in the age of mechanical reproduction was the 'aura' or authenticity of the work of art, it is possible to imagine ways in which this new genre of chromolithographs would produce and circulate a new type of 'aura' around the glossy tactility of the colour print. This becomes evident when one moves from the corpus of Kalighat and Battala pictures, which faced rapid extinction with the emergence of new printing techniques like lithography, chromolithography and oleography, to the new modes of shading and three-dimensional perspective that were employed. By the 1870s, the popular art market in Calcutta was invaded with the new kinds of standardised mass-produced 'realistic' pictures with their glossy colour and texture, which ultimately drove the Kalighat and Battala pictures out of the market.

The category of popular picture prints coming out of the Kansaripara and Chorebagan Art Studios not only drew on the visual vocabulary of the Kalighat style of paintings--marking a continuity with it--but also broke away from the latter towards an even greater realistic, illusionist style. The replication of the Kalighat images which found their way into the Kansaripara and Chorebagan pictures, can best be seen in the particular ways in which the new visual language of realism served to offset the sensuality and tactility of the represented female body. The new printing techniques of chromolithography allowed the forms to grow more solid and tactile, even as the colours and settings became more heavy and loud. Realism, therefore, began to serve the ends of these popular artists who produced iconographies ranging from mythological figures to the sensuous, alluring feminine form. Interestingly, we get an entire 'Sundari' series of seductive women coming out of the Kansaripara and Chorebagan Art Studios during this time. However, it is difficult to ascertain the identity of these women who are variedly named as 'Jnanadasundari', 'Kumudasundari' and 'Golapsundari'.

Though not much is known about the history of the press, Kansaripara Art Studio was run not by art school trained artists but by traditional artisans who took to lithography as a more economically successful venture. Produced in an average size of 16" x 12", the image of 'Jnanadasundari' shows a voluptuous woman seated on a green carpeted floor, wearing a transparent black-bordered sari and gold jewellery. By looking straight out of the picture she seems to be establishing a direct, seductive relationship with the viewer. Though drawing directly from the repertoire of Kalighat depictions of women, this printed image reminds us of the colonial tradition of oil portraits, painted with a realistic finesse and the right expression and poise. The glossiness of the print and the garish colour succeeded in enhancing the tactility of the represented body and certainly carried the illusionist effect of oil painting.

Like the 'Jnanadasundari' image, we get two more similar representations variously named as 'Kumudasundari' and 'Golapsundari', which strike similar seductive poses. Perhaps it would not be wrong to infer that the very coded gesture of 'Kumudasundari', as she is seen arranging paan (betel leaves), places her within an 'erotic trade' and enables her to become a social type. Unlike the Battala engravings and Kalighat paintings with their flat bright colours and stylized forms of narration, the 'Sundari' series flaunts a brand of greater realism with tonal and colour gradations that were possible only because of the technique of chromolithography.

The other kind of female iconography that comes from the Kansaripara Art Studio shows women playing a violin and a tabla. Although these two representations lack a given title like that of the 'Sundari' series, the similarity between these two women and their 'Sundari' counterparts is most striking. In exploring some other similar images which were being churned out by these small printing presses, we encounter the example of 'Sushilasundari + Modesty' that best exemplifies the preferred brand of realism of the popular art market in this period. This coloured lithograph was produced by the Chorebagan Art Studio (24 Bhooban Banerjee Lane, Calcutta). It depicts a bare-breasted woman who is looking at her own reflection in a mirror, mesmerized by her beauty. The glossiness of the print simulates the tone of the flesh, the fold of the sari and the glitter of the ornaments. The green draperies hanging from one corner and a lamp indicate the realistic surroundings of the inner quarter of a house. Another print entitled 'Pramodasundari' (Illustration 4) shows a young woman combing her long tresses. Her toiletry surrounds her and she is seated on a carpeted floor with a hint of curtains and furniture in the background which creates the distinct atmosphere of a middle-class boudoir. Thus, unlike the Kalighat and Battala pictures where translucent images of rotund female figures greeted the viewer, the prints of Kansaripara and Chorebagan gave the audience a sense of touching and possessing the object of representation. These mass-produced popular prints certainly succeeded in giving the human figures a life-like form.


Apart from the 'Sundari' series, prints that came from these two presses were religious or quasi-religious in nature. For instance, there is a composition from the Kansaripara Art Studio entitled 'Radha-Goshto' (Illustration 5) which depicts Radha standing under the canopy of a blossoming tree with the hint of snow-capped mountains in the background. She is seen surrounded by other gopinis. The rich, garish colour and the glossiness of the print have certainly simulated the tone of flesh and the glitter of ornaments. The degree of realism is all too clear; there is a striking similarity between such a print and what we refer to as Calendar art. The other realistic mythological composition which we encounter is called 'Gouranger Grihatyag' (Illustration 6). It shows the interior of a typical house with the sleeping wife of Gouranga unaware of her husband's departure. The landscape and a crescent moon can be glimpsed through the open window. The realistic setting of the inner quarter of the house with its chequered marble floor, and the technological superiority of chromolithography, succeed in producing a credible and human-like figure of Gouranga in this picture. What can be concluded here is that the displacement of Kalighat and Battala engravings did not indicate the complete end of this genre of popular art, but rather its language now flowed into a novel stylistic category of realism which was a hallmark of the prints of Kansaripara and Chorebagan.


As already mentioned, along with the range of bazaar art operating within the autonomous space of the Black Town, the period saw the widespread introduction of academic art through the various arts schools and colleges which were indirectly controlled by the departments of public instruction as part of the imperial policy (Mitter 1994:29). With the mushrooming of several printing presses, public taste for academic art now began to be reinforced. Thus, several established artists who were products of the government art schools now opted for the more commercially viable venture of mechanical reproduction of pictures for the popular art market. As printmaking became a common ground for both the local painters who were not trained in the formal aspects of art practices and the art school students,
 there occurred a sweeping transformation of visual tastes
 and aesthetic norms across the social divide. This change
 centred around the ascendancy of oil painting, and the
 increasing demand for a tactile, three-dimensional naturalism
 in a picture. (Guha-Thakurta 1992:35)

Thus the adoption of westernisation and new pictorial norms and conventions did not remain confined to the realm of art institutions, but now spilled over into the domain of popular bazaar art.

(c) The Calcutta Art Studio prints

As printing technology developed further, the popular art market of Calcutta was flooded by the hand-coloured lithographic prints produced by the Calcutta Art Studio on Bowbazaar Street. This lithographic press was founded in 1878 by one of the first ex-students of the Calcutta School of Art, Annadaprasad Bagchi, along with four other art school products, namely Nabakumar Biswas, Phanibhusan Sen, Krishnachandra Pal and Jogendranath Mukhopadhyay (Sarkar 1984:5). Their art school background gave these artists an edge over other artisan-run presses, because they were well equipped with sophisticated techniques and were able to adapt to the Western styles of representation and pictorial conventions.

By 1879, "the studio seemed to be operating at full force, advertising to undertake a wide range of work: 'Portrait painting, landscape painting, oil painting ... all kinds of decoration and lithographic works ... Hindu mythological and historical pictures, and also stage scenes and prosceniums'" (Guha-Thakurta 1992:79). The majority of the Calcutta Art Studio prints drew directly from the artists' training in drawing European antiquities and from their more direct familiarity with European neoclassical and allegorical paintings. These popular prints used a naturalistic style and a European landscape--flaming skies, floating clouds and alpine mountains.

That the mytho-pictures produced by the Calcutta Art Studio created a new order within the popular art market is an established fact. They proved to be the most distinctive and marketable products of the studio and were extremely popular among its clientele. Though they carried crude composition, loud colours and dumpy figures, their improved techniques and a realistic Western style provided a three-dimensional quality and a degree of volume and perspective to the mythological compositions. Perhaps the most telling influence of European allegorical painting is to be found in the chromolithographic print which dramatizes the mythological story of Savitri and the dead Satyavan (Illustration 7). Through the effect of chiaruscuro and theatrical expressions, the picture of Savitri and Satyavan attains a larger than life status. While the figure of Savitri is directly modelled on the Pieta (the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ), the looming figure of Yama (the god of death) and the dark, night background of this Calcutta Art Studio print remind us of the biblical scenes of the Last Judgement. The other picture of Nala-Damayanti shows the reclining figure of Damayanti in a saffron robe who "could well have been modelled on a Venus" (Guha-Thakurta 1992:101).


Responding to popular demands for religious pictures and entering the middle-class artistic taste, the earliest instance of a chromolithographic picture of the Hindu divinity is, however, 'Saraswati' (Illustration 8) which appeared on the cover of the journal Bharati in July-August 1877. It depicts the image of the goddess of learning seated amidst floating lotuses. The flat pictorial space has been filled by the frontal figure of Saraswati with stereotypical, European mountains and deep-coloured skies with floating clouds pushed to the background. As argued by Guha-Thakurta,

 though the main appeal of these religious and mythological
 pictures lay in their handling of traditional Indian themes,
 their new status relied largely on the extent to which they
 appropriated the conventions of Western academic realism and
 could compare with the history and neoclassical paintings of
 Europe. (1992:96-99)

The other genre of the Art Studio prints with all the naturalistic refinement of photographic style, shading and tonal gradations, and where the Western conventions of life-study and perspective were the strongest, was the lithographic portrait of both European and Bengali famous personalities. The lithographic technique certainly contributed to the softer tonal values and effect of photo-illusionism in such prints. For example, there is a portrait of Dwarakanath Tagore which exemplifies the Western conventions of life-study. The other portraits are of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, who is seen in contemplative mood with a book in his hand, and that of Hemchandra Bandopadhyaya. These are definitely the finest examples of this genre of pictures which made the Calcutta Art Studio a formidable force in the realm of commercial printing in the later half of the nineteenth century.

It would be interesting here to draw out the contrast between the portraits and the mythopictures of the Calcutta Art Studio in order to see the different orders of realism attributable to the two genres of prints. The Calcutta Art Studio artists appropriated certain features of the Western academic style to lend a greater material credence to the idealized female divinities that were represented as "fair, plump and drooly-eyed" (Guha-Thakurta 1992:101). On the other hand, the lithographic portraits made use of the rough texture of lithostone and produced the most intricate details of facial expression, attire and surrounding accessories. These realistic litho-portraits evoked the strongest sense of photorealism at the time.
 [I]n the prominent use of shading, in the evocation of volume and
 perspective, and in the identifiably 'life-like' appearances of
 people and scenes, these illustrations had made a clean break from
 the conventions of Kalighat and Battala pictures--and lay at the
 centre of the pervasive change that had occurred in popular visual
 tastes by the late nineteenth century--in favour of 'realistic'
 pictures. (Guha-Thakurta 1992:96)

In fact, the only claim to realism by the mytho-religious pictures, which were mass-produced by the small presses of Kansaripara and Chorebagan, was the roundness provided to the figures through heavy shading. It should be said, however, that in the process of selective appropriation by the artists at the popular level, realism underwent considerable dilutions and subversions in its effort to accommodate existing traditional iconography. Realistic iconographies of gods and goddesses now existed within palatial interiors with decorative backdrops and settings. These kinds of transmutations become more evident if one looks at the printed pictures which were being churned out by the lithographic presses such as the Calcutta Art Studio, the Imperial Art Cottage (founded by the Dhar family) and later by artists such as Bamapada Banerjee and Bhabani Charan Laha.


One of the most stimulating of approaches in the recent study of such popular prints and realistic iconography has been that of Christopher Pinney who tries to locate the place of realism in Indian popular art. In "How Indian Nationalism Made Itself Irrefutable", Pinney speaks about the free and selective appropriation of academic realism in a variety of transmutations across an indigenous gamut of popular print pictures to produce a stylistic category that he describes as 'xeno-real'. By 'xeno-real' Pinney means "the form of realism that circulates outside of its original, colonially authorised framework: it is jettisoned into the colony, where it comes (primarily) to signify itself ". Thus, unlike realism in Europe which shared a close proximity with a valorised nature, "colonial realism becomes a xeno-real which claims its power from its closeness to that reality that lies within the truth of colonial power" (Pinney 2003:119). Pinney addresses this issue of 'xeno-real' across a range of nineteenth-century popular prints coming out of the various art presses and finally culminating in the phenomenon of Ravi Varma (1848-1906) who was perhaps the first native painter who had fully mastered the techniques of realistic oil painting.

Convinced of the commercial and popular potential of such pictures, Ravi Varma set up the Ravi Varma Picture Press at Girgaum in 1892 with some local German collaboration. The tactile and illusionist potential of Ravi Varma's paintings now began to be transported into the glossy and garish prints of the cheap oleographs and chromolithographs. The colourful and varnished texture of these prints certainly enhanced their realist mode and we see an outpouring of Ravi Varma's formula of the idealised, sensuous woman, which included titles such as 'Rambha', 'Hamsa-Damayanti' and 'Mohini'. Realism in such popular prints, with its new illusionist technique, evoked a larger-than-life, idealised dimension in the represented figures and scenes that were being churned out from the newly established press. This was particularly true for the archetypal celestial beauties and romantic heroines that were a favourite theme of the coloured oleographs and chromolithographs.

Ravi Varma's pan-Indian imagery now provided the predominant marker of types, themes and motifs for much of the popular art of this period. His new mass-marketed brand of imagery--particularly of the idealised female form in myth, legend and contemporary domestic life--set the dominant model across a range of visual productions in early-twentieth-century Calcutta. With the increasing popularity of Ravi Varma, we find that the subsequent circulation of his paintings in the form of cheap, mass-produced coloured oleographs ultimately displaced the garishly coloured prints sold by presses like the Calcutta Art Studio. His oleographs performed the important function of further refining popular taste and producing newer orders of religious and social iconography that paved the way for a new kind of popular art, the kind which we can now see in the film posters, hoardings and calendars of the twentieth century.


Archer, WG. 1953. Bazaar Paintings of Calcutta: The Style of Kalighat. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Archer, Mildred. 1979. India and British Portraiture, 1770-1825. London: Sotheby Parke Bennet Publications.

Benjamin, Walter. 1973. Illuminations. Great Britain: Fontana Press.

Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. 1992. The Making of a New 'Indian Art': Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal: 1850-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--2003. "Visual Arts in the Period of Colonialism and Nationalism, c. 1757-1947". In Asher, Frederick M (ed). Art of India: Prehistory to the Present. New Delhi: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Jain, Jyotindra. 1999. Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World. Ahmedabad: Mapin.

Mitter, Partha. 1994. Art and Nationalism in Colonial Bengal, c. 1850-1922. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Nochlin, Linda. 1991. Realism: Style & Civilization. Great Britain: Penguin.

Pinney, Christopher. 2003. "How Indian Nationalism Made Itself Irrefutable". In Ramaswamy, Sumathi (ed). Beyond Appearances? Visual Practices & Ideologies in Modern India. New Delhi: Sage.

Sarkar, Kamal. 1984. Bharater Bhaskar O Chitrashilpi. Calcutta: Jogmaya Prokashani.

List of illustrations

107 Illustration 1: Servants of Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert on the verandah of a bungalow

Bayly, C A (ed). 1990. The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.

108 Illustration 2: Courtesan trampling on her lover

Jain, Jyotindra. 1999. Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World. Ahmedabad: Mapin.

108 Illustration 3: Ghorkali

Birla Academy of Art & Culture. 1997. Kalighat--Drawings, Patachitra & Contemporary Indian Artists. Calcutta: Birla Academy of Art & Culture.

109 Illustration 4: Pramodasundari

From the archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Courtesy Sanjeet Chowdhury Collection.

109 Illustration 5: Radha-Goshto

From the archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Courtesy Chitrakoot Art Gallery, Calcutta Collection.

110 Illustration 6: Gouranger Grihatyag

From the archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Courtesy Chitrakoot Art Gallery, Calcutta Collection.

107 Illustration 7: Savitri-Satyavan

From the archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Courtesy Victoria Memorial, Calcutta Collection.

110 Illustration 8: Saraswati

From the archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Courtesy Victoria Memorial, Calcutta Collection.


(1.) A married woman, Elokeshi, was seduced by the Mohanta (priest). Her angry husband, Nabin, killed her; subsequently he and the priest were tried for their offences.
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Title Annotation:religious symbolism
Author:Mukherjee, Kamalika
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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