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‘The Babu and The Bazaar’ at DAG celebrates art of 19th-Century Bengal

Delhi might have been the political capital of the British Empire but in the 19th century, Kolkata was its “second city”, the financial hub that imbibed its way of life. Its socio-political landscape was largely influenced by its rulers as was its art that reflected the crossroads between tradition and modernity.

Centuries later, an exhibition in central Delhi now examines the works produced during the period and how it was entwined in the history of its location. “If you look at any other part of India, largely court patronage is still prevalent,” notes Giles Tillotson, senior vice-president of the exhibitions at DAG, which is showcasing the exhibition titled ‘The Babu and The Bazaar’ at its space at Windsor Road.

Making a distinction between the two distinct cultures that developed with the port city — “the culture of the masses and the culture of the moneyed” — Tillotson elaborates: “In Kolkata during this period, two things are important about the city in relation to this exhibition — one is that it is an important centre of pilgrimage and second that it was a great mercantile city, drawing people from across the subcontinent and beyond, leading to a mixed elite culture.”

Curated by art historian and scholar Aditi Nath Sarkar with Shatadeep Maitra, the show comprises works from the gallery collection, that also feature in an eponymous publication. The Kalighat pats are placed against comparable works in commissioned oil paintings as well as mass-produced prints. “By exposing iconography, we attempt to unravel parts of Calcutta’s history, its culture, class biases and gendered hierarchies,” write Sarkar and Maitra in the publication.

The beginning, befittingly, introduces viewers to the geography of Kolkata and the pat and scroll painters who thrived there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the fine brushes were made from the tails of the three-striped Indian squirrel, the colours for the local patuas often came from natural sources, such as undried turmeric for yellow to red from the hibiscus flower. The term “Kalighat Pat” — which describes a school of watercolour painting that developed in 19th century Kolkata — we are told was “incidentally” given by artist Mukul Dey. The showcase itself spans from mythological narratives and portrayal of deities to works that more directly reflect on the times, including bodybuilder Shyamakanta Bandopadhyay who became “a source of Bengali masculine pride” and the Sundari series showing seminude women as an object of desire.

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With the advent of European artists in the 18th century, more naturalistic oil paintings became popular among the Bengali elites, and soon high-ranking British officials also emerged as patrons. “In Calcutta, the babu did not like interacting with the bazaar, but in art, their worlds bled into each other: whether in cheap prints, erotica, religious icons that appeared in oil canvases as well as watercolour drawings on paper. The elites tried to control the culture of the masses, and in return, their actions were ridiculed in popular culture,” note Sarkar and Maitra.

If on the one hand European artists were painting Indian themes, Indian artists too were using European art as inspiration for Indian themes. While several mythological depictions form part of the collection, some are more unusual than others. In a work, a more playful interaction between Parvati and Shiva is portrayed, when the latter returns to Kailash after a prolonged absence, and there is also a work with Radha dressed as a queen seated on a throne surrounded by gopis. “What the artists are doing is that they are appealing to the slightly westernised taste of the merchant elite… So, at times, there are very familiar subjects with updated settings,” says Tillotson.

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While the exhibition has early reverse glass paintings, introduced in India in the 18th century by Chinese and Parsi traders, with the advent of the printing press in India in the 1700s, artworks also began to be mass-produced. A distinction emerges between printing and printmaking, with the latter associated with an individual artist and limited prints. The exhibition includes, among others, a print by Bengali blacksmith Panchanan Karmakar who has been credited with helping Charles Wilkins to make the first edition of the Bengali typeface. The narrative ends at the juncture when nationalist fervour becomes dominant, and art also emerges as means to propagate the idea of an Independent India.

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