Painted mostly on inexpensive mill-made paper or cloth with swift brushstrokes and homemade dyes, traditional Kalighat paintings originated in the 19th century. It is said to be developed in the vicinity of the iconic Kalighat Kali Temple on the bank of the Burin Ganga in the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Depicting Hindu gods and mythological figures from the religious epics, themes and characters from everyday life, these stunning works were sold to visitors who sought souvenirs to take with them from the religious sanctuary. However, over a period of time, this traditional Indian art developed as a distinct school of painting.


The specific genre of Kalighat paintings with vibrant colours and visual rhythm is believed to have originated around the 1850s in India. At this time, many local Patua artists — itinerant storytellers who travelled from village to village, slowly unrolling and singing mythological and historical stories from narratives/scrolls in exchange for money, food and other goods — migrated to Kolkata in search of secure income by selling their illustrative paintings. Kalighat paintings, unlike the linear narrative style of the scrolls depicted a single scene with graphic, simplified forms and religious portrayals, often satirical, contemporary content.

Simultaneously, the city was undergoing changes in its education system under the British rule — institutions that imparted a European style of academic training to Indian artists were set up wherein fine art was recognised as a mainstream field of study. The Calcutta School of Art was one such school which attracted traditional artists (the patuas) to the city and learned newer techniques imbibing modern themes, the influence of which can be seen in the later Kalighat paintings. This led to the emergence of two different styles of the Kalighat painting —  the Oriental, and the Occidental.

In what was dubbed the ‘Oriental school’ of Kalighat painting, predominant themes were religious deities, figures — goddesses Durga and Lakshmi, goddess Annapurna, Hanuman, Shiva and Parvati, and scenes including characters from sacred texts  — Rama and Sita from the most popular Indian epic of Ramayana.

The alternate discipline of Kalighat painting, primarily known as the ‘Occidental school’ included Indian artworks that depicted the daily life of ordinary people, often responding to social and political changes and events affecting the locals. This contemporary painting style also captured the social evils such as crime, the hypocritical lives of the quasi-bourgeois, and expressed support for the Indian independence movement through illustrations of the Indian heroes of the struggle— Tipu Sultan or Rani Lakshmibai.

The scroll painters who began painting religious subjects in the Kalighat style also became known for their satirical portrayals of Kolkata society under the colonial rule — English sahibs riding elephants, wealthy Calcutta babus immorally squandering wealth, and charlatan sadhus (holy men) succumbing to base desires.

Owing to the portrayal of the themes that common people could identify with, this traditional Indian art form was way ahead of its times and influenced a lot of critical thinking in those that appreciated it.

Materials Used

Like every art, a sketch, an outline and eventually the filling of the motif are the most obvious things in Kalighat paintings. But, what’s interesting in this traditional art are the unconventional tools and materials used — everything is organic and homemade.

The base was usually handmade paper or cloth, the brush used for sketch drawings was made from the squirrel and goat hair while the black ink used for outline is soot — a dark powdery deposit produced by burning an oil lamp under a copper pot. The vibrant colours used for filling the motif of the paintings were essentially homemade — vegetable dyes or powdered stone fragments of different colours. These dry colours were mixed with either gum or water to create paint fit to be applied on paper and textile.

However, the onset of the industrial revolution in India led to increased use of industrially produced colours along with the canvas and paint brushes.

The Making

Every creation of Kalighat paintings was often a joint effort by a group of artists usually, from the same family wherein each member ( based on sex and age) had a particular task in the process. The women and children in the family were usually involved in grinding the colours and preparing the ingredients for the organic dyes. Others drew outlines of the figure onto the canvas, colour the contours (primarily human figures) and filled in the hues. The older members who were experts added the final touches in the form of motifs and background designs.

Besides motifs, Kalighat paintings featured some specific colours like indigo, blue, black, yellow, red and green primarily due to the use of homemade dyes. It was only for the ornamentation that artisans used silver and gold hues.

Popular Subjects

Despite its link with the famous Hindu tem­ple of goddess Kali, the painting tradition of this Indian art form was diverse enough in its repertoire to include diverse subjects including traditions of other religions — Islamic representations such as the prophets and angels and taziyas , as well as non-religious themes. Depictions of life in Calcutta’s cosmopolitan hub, contemporary events of colonial India (usually in series of drawings and paintings), literary scenes from popular novels, famous proverbs, and genre scenes were other popular themes of Kalighat paintings.

Several Kalighat renditions of traditional Hindu deities also indicate the profound impact of the British colonial capital on the artists — paintings portraying goddesses in Victorian crowns, playing violins instead of veenas (the traditional string instrument associ­ated with Goddess Saraswati), and adopting the elegant poses of English noblewomen. These revered Hindu deities were often framed against the heavy curtains of the English playhouses of the city.

Another interesting subject commonly captured in Kalighat paintings was women who symbolise shelter, fertility, growth and possibility— often represented by trees in Hindu iconography. Because this Indian art originated near the temple of Kali which embodied Shakti – the female active principle of Hindu religious philosophy, these female subjects were portrayed as strong, in her honour rather than being portrayed as objects of desire. In contrast, male suitors were often satirically shown as ‘lap dogs and charlatans’ in many popular Kalighat paintings.

The British rule severely impacted the social and cultural life of India, it was towards the end of the 19th century, that these changes in society precipitated a move away from the religious portrayals and towards incorporating more secular and realistic imagery in Kalighat paintings, which depicted the social world of Kolkata in a satirical and brutally honest way. One such example is the famous painting ‘Elokeshi’ which captures a realistically conventional subject of the couple depicting an imagined scene based on a contemporary scandal of adultery.

Prominent Indian Artworks

Many acclaimed, modern Indian artists like Jamini Roy were strongly influenced by the distinctive style of Kalighat paintings. His creations usually consisted of lively, bold, and sweeping brush strokes. Though he was trained in classical European painting style, in the early 1920s he began experimenting with traditional Indian art and indigenous materials and became fascinated by the Kalighat style of painting especially features of its figures – big almond-shaped eyes, round faces with bulky cheeks, curvaceous body structures and firm contours.

Here are some famous creations of Jamini Roy which have grabbed global attention:

Ramayana – This 1946 masterpiece of Roy is undoubtedly his magnum opus. Created using Kalighat Pata style and using vegetable colours, dyes and pigments derived from natural elements, he has narrated his version of the great Indian epic in a series of paintings portrayed across 17 canvases. Sarada Charan Das, the successor of famous Bengali entrepreneur K.C. Das, bought the entire series of Roy’s work, which now adorns the walls of his personal residence ‘Rossogolla Bhavan.’ In fact, his residence boasts of Roy’s largest private collection with 25 of his original paintings. Later on, Roy also worked on paintings depicting individual episodes of Hindu epic- Ramayana, some of which are now available for public display in popular art galleries and museums including the National Art Gallery of India and the Victoria Memorial Hall.

Dual Cats with one Crayfish - During his lifetime, Roy came up with a number of paintings portraying cats, which are now collectively called the cat series. This particular piece of art was created in 1968 and looks somewhat restrained in terms of the usage of colours but exhibits a distinctive style.

Bride and two Companions – Painted in the year 1952, this particular painting of Roy stands out for its majestic indigo of Bengal. It is often described by  having a meaning and reason attached to its every aspect featured.

Crucifixion with Attendant Angels – This painting of Roy captures the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The canvas used is made out of woven palm fiber while the medium used is opaque watercolor.

Krishna and Balarama – Lord Krishna is depicted along with his brother Balarama in this painting of Roy wherein  he has used distinct earthy colours against a majestic red color background.

Santal Boy with Drum – Fascinated by the local Santal tribe, Roy came up with a number of paintings depicting them and their culture. This particular painting was created by him in the year 1935.

Krishna and Radha Series – Roy created a series of paintings depicting the colorful life of beloved Indian Gods, Radha and Krishna. Some of his work also features Lord Krishna along with his other Gopis (girlfriends).

Makara – Painted in 1945, Roy captured the strange looking sea animal of the mythological tales of ancient India. Though most of his paintings revolve around local people, many wonder what prompted him to paint this mythological creature.

St. Ann and the Blessed Virgin – All his paintings that represented the Christian iconography had some elements of Hindu idioms which made his works more interesting and unique. This painting was done by Roy in three versions and was created in the year 1945.

Seated Woman in Sari – Created in 1947, this is arguably one of the most recognizable works of Roy portraying the woman of India.

Several English scholars and cultural figureheads working in India including Sir Monier Monier-Williams and Lockwood Kipling developed fascination for these artworks and amassed vast personal collections, which are now housed in the famous Bodleian Library and Victoria and Albert Museum respectively.

Redefining The Art of Kalighat

Grown from a need for small, devotional images, the change in subject and the rise of new technologies saw the end of Kalighat paintings’ tradition. However, before its demise, it grew into an Indian art form that documented a rapidly evolving society and reforming colonial India as it slowly journeyed towards the modern era.

Undoubtedly, Kalighat painting is one of the most well-recognized forms of Indian art that has been witnessed globally. Today, these paintings exhibit across the globe, in museums and galleries across the globe including the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, Britain, Philadelphia, Prague (Naprstek Museum). Besides being an art form, it is now also used as a modern motif in the creation of fashionable ethnic Indian garments such as suits, saree, kurta, dupattas. Inspired by this genre of art, many Indian designers have created some of the most unusual motifs to have ever been spotted on a saree. This has further popularised the art form and increased its reach, and helped in widening the scope of its reception and bringing it to younger people whose interest lies more in unique fashion trends than in modern art forms.