As many of you may know, I was born and raised in Alipore, Calcutta. While the cityscape may have morphed over the years, there is still a strong sense of history every time I visit home. One of the most fascinating parts of living where I do is the proximity to Kalighat, famous for the Kali temple and the amazing craftspeople who make the traditional Kalighat pats, sandesh moulds and shola pith artefacts.
I recently came across a stunning showcase by DAG, which reflects the new-age aesthetic of modern India: The Babu and the Bazaar, a gorgeous amalgamation of the old and the new, of tradition and modernity, with rare artworks from 19th and early 20th century Bengal. Curated by historian and scholar Aditi Nath Sarkar, the exhibition and its accompanying publication by Sarkar and Shatadeep Maitra, attempts to unravel part of Calcutta's history, culture, class biases and gendered hierarchies and emerging art practices through rare artworks over a 100 years old.
Calcutta, my dear City of Joy, is like a long love poem. Let us celebrate the imagery from over 100 years ago through a world of unique depictions and styles:
Reverse-glass art was originally introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century by Chinese or Parsi traders along the Western coast, but their popularity spread in the next 100 years. This selection of glass paintings was plausibly made in Canton (present-day Guangzhou) and brought to India as peddling merchandise in the 19th century. The artists responsible for these images remain unknown, but their presence shows a unique confluence between two vastly different cultures.
It is not difficult to imagine that among secular prints, pin-up style art sold in the highest numbers. Reverend James Long’s documentation of the Battala presses that printed erotic literature was highly popular by the middle of the 19th century to such an extent that the colonial government tried to legally ban their production. The Sundari images describe complex social ideas and innuendos with hidden implications of women during that time.
Fun fact: The Bengali typeface was first used in Nathaniel Brassey Halhead’s Grammar of the Bengal Language, published in 1778.
The image of a cat stealing a prawn or fish has been made popular through the paintings of Jamini Roy—one of the earliest modern artists from Bengal—but the iconography dates back to the days of Kalighat pats. A metaphor for corruption amongst the elite as well as religious heads, the imagery is intended to evoke satirical humour. Belonging probably to a later period, the work underlines the deterioration of the Kalighat tradition; not only did the artist paint the feline with unnatural round patches, but also mistakenly extended the right arm further from where it should have been.
In the 19th century in Calcutta, widows who survived sati were commonly abandoned by their families, and many became sex workers to earn a livelihood. The woman in the paintings, who wears the widow’s white and black saree, had suffered the same fate.
The exhibition is now open at DAG Janpath, New Delhi till 1st July, 2023, Monday through Saturday from 10.30am to 7pm. You can reach them here. To order the publication at a 15% discount, use code ALIPORE (only for the first 25 orders) while writing to @dag.world on Instagram.
Read the full newsletter on the exhibition on The Alipore Post.