Saturday, February 24, 2001

Patna kalam
Death of an art tradition
By Janaki Bhatt

IN Indian art circles, the eastern state of Bihar is known for its highly stylised Mithila and Madhubani painting traditions. Few are aware about an equally popular and folk-based school of painting, which has thrived concurrently in the region for more than 200 years — the Patna kalam.

Stylistically, it is very close to the Rajasthani or Mughal miniatures of northern India, only that the subject excludes the royalty and gods and goddesses. Ordinary people engaged in their daily chores constitute the subject matter of the Patna kalam tradition.

"It was the world’s first independent school of painting which dealt exclusively with the commoner and his mundane routines," informs Amaresh Kumar, a fine arts professor at Government Arts and Crafts College in Patna.


"Between 1760 and 1947 these water colour-based works originated from the Mughal and British durbars and yet, they did not conform to known Indian or British styles. The oldest samples can now be seen in the museums of London and Prague."

According to Sadre Alam, another teacher in the college, Ishwari Prasad Varma was the last known practising kalam artist in India. He died about a decade ago and there has been no one to carry the tradition after him. About 50 of his paintings have been "left to rot" in an unguarded gallery in the college.

"All the paintings were stolen from the gallery two years ago," narrates Alam. "Thankfully, they were soon found on the college premises itself. The thieves obviously did not know the worth of their loot, or else they would have been smuggled out of the country."

Tracing the history of Patna kalam, Kumar says the paintings were unveiled by painters Nohar and Manohar, in Mughal emperor Akbar’s court. Impressed by their skills, Akbar promoted this new form of art among his subjects.

"Soon the successors and students of these two painters came down to Patna and conducted some experiments," explains Kumar. "Instead of kings and queens or gods and goddesses, they focused on ordinary people. Local artists also took it up with unusual fervour..."

As word spread of this new art form, painters like Richard Cosway and John Smart went to Patna all the way from England to learn its techniques. Sir Charles Doly even tried to commercialise and hardsell the paintings internationally.

Local landlords and British rulers also patronised the kalam artists and before long, their works were selling in the bustling art markets of Europe. Back in Patna, the mussavir khanas or art studios became as popular as dance and music concerts for connoisseurs of art.

Says Alam: "There were three recognised schools of Indian painting in the mid-eighteenth century — Mughal, Anglo-Indian and Pahari. But Patna kalam, the newly discovered genre, caught the connoisseur’s eye for its clear stylistic difference and unusual use of water colours."

"For the first time, there was a rich coherence between realism and visual perspective. It was a rare combination and a bold concept, distinct from the other paintings of the time. All these factors made Patna kalam popular in markets as far away as London," he adds.

After Ishwari Varma’s death, Alam and Kumar have repeatedly appealed to the Bihar Government to shift his works to a more secure place like the Patna Museum. They are now in correspondence with the Government in Delhi, but have received no response so far.

"There are priceless paintings that need to be preserved for future generations of artists," pleads Kumar. They must be in safe custody. It is only because of the apathy of the state government that our repository is in a sorry state today."

Comparisons with the popular Mithila and Madhubani paintings are also unavoidable. "Those paintings are being marketed in an organised manner, both at home and overseas," Kumar points out. "Moreover, they are folk forms which can be easily transferred from one generation to another."

On the contrary, Patna kalam essentially originated from the royal courts and were patronised by the ruling aristocracy through the ages. With Independence in 1947, the tradition faced inevitable death as the patronage stopped. (MF)