In the nineteenth century, the new popular Indian art developed in many of the cities of India. In Bengal, around the pilgrimage center of the temple of Kalighat, local village scroll painters (called patuas) and potters (called kumors in eastern India and kumhars in north India) began developing the new popular Indian art.
They moved from the surrounding villages into Calcutta in the early nineteenth century. This was a time when the city was expanding as a commercial and administrative center. Colonial offices were coming up, new buildings and roads were being built, markets were being established.
The city appeared as a place of opportunity where people could come to make a new living. Village artists too came and settled in the city in the hope of new patrons and new buyers of their art. Before the nineteenth century, the village patuas and kumors had worked on mythological themes and produced images of gods and goddesses. On shifting to Kalighat, they continued to paint these religious images.
Traditionally, the figures in scroll paintings looked flat, not rounded. Now Kalighat painters began to use shading to give them a rounded form, to make the images look three-dimensional. Yet the images were not realistic and lifelike. In fact, what is especially to be noted in these early Kalighatpaintings is the use of a bold, deliberately non-realistic style, where the figures emerge large and powerful, with a minimum of lines, detail, and colors.
After the 1840s, we see a new trend within the Kalighat artists. Living in a society where values, tastes, social norms, and customs were undergoing rapid changes, Kalighat artists responded to the world around them and produced paintings on social and political themes. Many of the late-nineteenth-century Kalighat paintings depict social life under British rule.
They often expressed the anger of common people against the rich, and the fear many people had about dramatic changes in social norms. Many of these Kalighat pictures were printed in large numbers and sold in the market. Initially, the images were engraved in wooden blocks. The carved block was inked, pressed against paper, and then the woodcut prints that were produced were colored by hand. In this way, many copies could be produced from the same block.
By the late-nineteenth century, mechanical printing presses were set up in different parts of India, which allowed prints to be produced in even larger numbers. These prints could therefore be sold cheap in the market. Even the poor could buy them. Popular prints were not painted only by the poor village Kalighat patuas. Often, middle-class Indian artists set up printing presses and produced prints for a wide market.
They were trained in British art schools in new methods of life study, oil painting, and printmaking. One of the most successful of these presses that were set up in late-nineteenth-century Calcutta was the Calcutta Art Studio.
It produced lifelike images of eminent Bengali personalities as well as mythological pictures. But these mythological pictures were realistic. The characteristic elements of these pictures came into being in the late nineteenth century. These types of popular pictures were printed and circulated in other parts of India too.
With the spread of nationalism, popular prints of the early twentieth century began carrying nationalist messages. In many of them, you see Bharat Mata appearing as a goddess carrying the national flag, or nationalist heroes sacrificing their head to the Mata, and gods and goddesses slaughtering the British.