Patna Kalam: How An Indian Art Tradition Fused Mughal And European Aesthetics

A procession of Moharram, On Mica
A procession of Moharram, On MicaDr. Abid Hadi

Patna Kalam, also known as Patna School of Painting, is a unique style of miniature painting that originated in the Bihar region of India, primarily Patna. It flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the rule of the Mughal emperors, and continued to be practiced until the early 20th century. Patna Kalam’s stylistic characteristics are a concoction of two influences — Mughal and European art, all the while retaining its originality.

The origins of the Patna Kalam remain shrouded in mystery, but renowned Indian historian, Ishwari Prasad provides some insight. According to Prasad’s accounts, the artists were originally a family of Kayasths who lived in the Partabgarh district of Udaipur Rajputana before migrating to the Mughal court in the 16th century. However, declining patronage during Emperor Aurangzeb's reign forced the artists to relocate again, this time to Murshidabad. There, they painted for Nawabi patrons and even created portraits for the European gentry. But their fortune took a turn for the worse after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when Mir Jaffar's son Mohamed Sadiq Khan, also known as Nasir-ul-Mulk, Ala-u-Dowlah, drove the Hindu artists, among others, to flee to Patna. This group of migrants would go on to lay the foundation of the Patna School of Painting.

Dr. Ishwari Prasad at his residence in Agra
Dr. Ishwari Prasad at his residence in AgraGaurang Sharma

In the 18th century, Patna Kalam took the art world by storm drawing admirers with its unique approach to style and subject. But what was it that made it so different from its contemporary art schools such as Mughal, Pahari, and Anglo-Indian? Unlike Mughal paintings, which glorified royalty and court scenes, the Patna Kalam focused on the daily life of the common Indian man. From the vibrancy of local festivals like Holi to the hustle and bustle of bazaar scenes with fish and fruit sellers, the Patna artists captured the essence of Indian life with unmatched authenticity. A striking example of the Patna Kalam tradition is the depiction of 'Bhishtis' carrying water in waterproofed goat-skin bags, a ubiquitous sight in India that is hardly ever represented in other forms of art. Even seemingly mundane activities like traveling and interacting with others became the main subjects of these paintings, reflecting the everyday realities of life.

Holi being played in the courtyard, ca 1795 Patna Kalam painting.
Holi being played in the courtyard, ca 1795 Patna Kalam
A Patna style painting of 'Bhistis' carrying water (1819-1824)
A Patna style painting of 'Bhistis' carrying water (1819-1824)

With straight brushstrokes and dots, the Patna School painters used the Kajli seahi technique to create their distinctive style. They employed squirrel hair brushes for intricate work and goat, hog, or buffalo hair brushes for bolder strokes, all boiled to soften except for the squirrel hair. The Patna School developed its own individualistic approach, using self-made pigments, brushes, and paper, as their ancestors did in Mughal courts. The pigments were readily available from natural resources. The paintings were usually made in miniature format on handmade paper, bamboo sheets and ivory. A unique feature of Patna Kalam art is the paintings’ lack of a background, foreground, or landscape as a backdrop. Deep sepia and muted red ochre colors were used for figures, while clothing was painted in dull white with soft grey shadows, accentuated by pools of deep crimson, dull gold, and deep peacock blue.

Origins of Patna Kalam Pigments
Origins of Patna Kalam PigmentsThe Heritage Lab

Things took a different turn in the 19th century for the Patna Kalam tradition. With the British colonial power firmly rooted in our nation, the artists began to receive patronage from the East India Company’s officials, local elites — administrators, merchants, lawyers, doctors — and even travelers. The artists reworked their existing style and tailored it more to suit the tastes of the European gentry. This hybrid style, combining Indian traditional techniques with European aesthetics, created a new layer to the Patna Kalam tradition and also made it an important branch of ‘Company Paintings’ (or firangi paintings), that amalgamated the complex interplay of European and Indian culture of the period.

With its 19th-century evolution, the Patna School paintings experienced a shift in their color scheme. The previously bright Mughal colors transformed into fashionable, somber hues when the pictures were intended for the European market. Additionally, a notable development was observed in the shading of solid forms. In earlier paintings, shadows were created using the old Mughal technique of applying darker tones of the same color. However, in later versions, soft washes of color were used to depict shadows, reminiscent of the style seen in English watercolours.

Compare the two images below (one from the 18th century and the other from the 19th century Patna Kalam school) and see if you can spot the differences:

A 18th century Patna Kalam painting
A 18th century Patna Kalam paintingThe Heritage Lab
A 19th century Patna Kalam painting
A 19th century Patna Kalam paintingThe Heritage Lab

Throughout history, The Patna Kalam style has been practiced by many talented artists such as Sewak Ram, Bani Lal, Shiva Dayal, Hulas Lall, and Shiv Lal. One of the last surviving painters of this style was Radha Mohan Babu, who founded the Patna Art School, presently known as the College of Arts and Crafts, Patna. However, all good things come to an end, and from the early 20th century the Patna Kalam style saw a sharp decline in popularity.

A Patna style painting by Sewak Ram. 
Graphite, watercolor and gouache with gold on laid Indian paper (1770/1830)
A Patna style painting by Sewak Ram. Graphite, watercolor and gouache with gold on laid Indian paper (1770/1830) Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Basket weaver, Patna Kalam, Company School painting by Bani Lal of Patna; c. 1880
Basket weaver, Patna Kalam, Company School painting by Bani Lal of Patna; c. 1880G Katyan Misra

"The advent and gradual popularity of photography dealt a severe blow to this traditional art, snatching away its good market for portraits. The decline was further fuelled by the decrease in local patrons, leading to a surplus of artists and a decrease in demand for their craft."

Arvind Mahajan, retired regional deputy director (museum), Bihar, in an interview with TOI

Now, when it comes to the realm of Patna Kalam artistry, its exhibits can only be found in esteemed locations such as the Patna Museum, Patna's College of Arts and Crafts, the Jalan Museum in Patna City, the Chaitanya Pustakalaya at Gai Ghat in the Muzaffarpur district, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna, the Bihar Museum in Patna, as well as nestled within the cherished private collections of foreign aficionados, predominantly Europeans. Although this captivating art form is no longer actively practiced, its enduring legacy continues to ignite the creative spirits of successive generations of Indian artists, who remain captivated by its virtuosic depictions of the everyday existence of the common people that existed in 18th and 19th-century India.