Sitting cross legged at the very fulcrum of the dying tradition of patachitra, Kalam Patua was learning how to master his brushstrokes sometime in the '70s, vaguely aware that his apprenticeship with his uncle was more than just a hobby-horse. Unrolling a scroll down the spine of history, the patuas have been timekeepers chronicling the sociological evolution in West Bengal since as early as the 10th century. Once a syncretic performance, complete with song and dramatic narration, the scroll paintings were unravelled at festivals like Durga Puja to depict elegiac goddess myths and grandiloquent scenes from the Ramayana.
In the 1800s, Calcutta (now Kolkata) — the then capital of colonial India — was drawing craftspeople and travelling performers to its busy marketplaces and the banks of the Hooghly river known to pilgrims as the Kalighat. Originally 20 feet in length, the clumsy cloth canvases of patachitras found few clients and out of necessity, the invention of Kalighat pats which were less epic but more portable paintings materialised among the visual culture of the time.
Descended from a roving clan of storytellers who traversed across villages, the patuas have now coalesced into a self-sustained caste of artisans, and Kalam is probably one of the few surviving heirs of this curiously populist legacy. Owing to the fact that Kalighat paintings found more patronage among ordinary people, this offshoot of patachitra developed into a subculture tuned in with contemporary hairstyles, ornaments and rudimentary predilections of the working class. As a natural progression of events, this style was considered 'low society' by the Bengali elites of the colonial era and as a result, Kalighat paintings grew a reputation for being critical of the grotesque decadence of the Calcutta babus and bibis.
Known for his crisp and confident line work, minimalistic backgrounds, deftly blended shading, heavy undiluted blacks and a lot of transparency wherever required; Kalam’s voice is authentically his own even though it draws generously from the Birbhum and Murshidabad schools of patachitra. Admirably self taught, Kalam studied the collections in the Gurusaday Dutta Museum of Folk Art in Kolkata due to a paucity of accomplished artists who could train him in the style and also because the largest collection of Kalighata paintings are not even in India but in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
A government employee at a rural post office, Kalam relies primarily on his memories and on social media to capture the unbridled chaos of the urban landscape in modern-day Kolkata be-speckled with traffic, skyscrapers and sedulous rickshaw pullers. Following the precedent set by his forefathers, Kalam’s work also reflects the inner demons of its subjects, digging out what breeds in the underbelly of so-called respectable society — domestic violence, unsolicited sexual advances, animalistic brutality — all the while maintaining the astonishingly saccharine pastels, almond shaped eyes, fluid curving limbs, kinetic poses, poker faces and strong outlines giving the characters a misleading vibrance and three dimensional appearance.
His ‘Nirbhaya’ series commemorates a young woman from Delhi, who was assaulted by a gang of men in a moving bus in 2012, a case that shook the nation and incited public outrage. Unable to participate in the protests that erupted in the aftermath of victim-blaming by the authorities, Kalam translated his feelings into a chilling portrayal of the ineffectiveness of the government in investigating such cases.
On the other hand, his comparatively more amusing and epigrammatic oeuvre adds his own incredulous flair to age old themes like a lover’s rendezvous in the thick of the night with Abhisarika that portrays a statuesque woman in a sari holding a smartphone, armed and ready for whatever spooky and uninvited terror the darkness has in store for her.
A reassuring statement on the emancipation of women and the opportunities afforded by technology, Kalam playfully explores the irrepressible anticipation of sexual union with the distant possibility of a car weaving its way through the woods, while a nosy neighbour peers out at the young maiden rushing to meet her partner.
Kalam Patua has worked in the Indian postal service for a large part of his life, chiefly in remote West Bengal branches, toiling away at night on his paintings. There was an instance when he was transferred to a branch far from home, leaving him little time to attend to his art and this reminded him of the days of yore when runners would carry daak (mail) across far flung towns and ran the risk of being mugged or attacked by wild beasts. However, after the chief postal officer got his hands on a magazine article on Patua’s art, he was transferred back to his home office. In his slightly more autobiographical pieces, Patua inverts the lens towards his own experiences and strives to romanticise the humdrum existence of a post office worker, by imagining an unexpected love affair that could bloom amid the shuffling and stamping of missives.
With the support of eminent art historian Jyotindra Jain, Kalam has managed to exhibit his work in Ottawa, Chicago, at Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Belgium, Shanghai and Queensland. However, he remains convinced that Kalighat is highly under-appreciated with only a few other contemporaries who can claim any renown as monumental as Patua — Anwar Chitrakar, Bhaskar Chitrakar and Jamini Roy are among the fading constellation — and in his latest repertoire you can clearly see how he rejects the diminutive labels of ‘folk’ or ‘vernacular’ artist by evoking a more modernistic, universally palatable aesthetic that can sit proudly alongside any European masterpiece.
In Restaurant, Kalam Patua embellishes a rich tapestry of contemporary society, parading its table manners and pseudo intellectual banter while sycophantic servers attend to their whims and blue skinned businessmen rub shoulders with oblivious young ladies.
In the age of mass production of art prints, Kalighat paintings and the itinerant patuas are seeing a steady decline and with the art, we are also losing a panoptic vision of the urban milieu that keeps us privilege checked and introspective as a culture. Behaving as a counterbalance to the mindless hedonism and self obsessed zeitgeist of high brow art circles, patachitra is a sobering and gritty reminder that powerful art can also spring from the inane tyrannies of mediocrity.
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