Where Frida Kahlo Meets Kalighat Pat

The Bengali art of portraiture, and the artist who makes them.

Paloma Ganguly

March 13, 2019

Where Frida Kahlo Meets Kalighat Pat
Babu is refused

The road to Patuapara, a neighborhood in Kolkata, can seem surreal. You’ll see half-made idols, headless, with wood and straw instead of limbs. Grey, bare-bodied, life-sized, still untouched by paint. A short walk away lies one of the city's largest cremation grounds, where Hindus come to burn their dead. There are layers to this enclave, and if you spend time walking here, chances are you will spot Bhaskar Chitrakar clad in his trademark white pajamas, dull from overuse, strolling the streets. Maybe taking an hourly break from the work that strains his back and eyes — painting Kalighat Pat Chitras, a caricature-like folk art native to Bengal.

The boyish Bhaskar is actually 41, and the only artist still known to practice the art in the noisy, cheek-by-jowl neighborhood of Kalighat, which houses Patuapara. Kalighat Pat — or 'pot' as the pronunciation goes — is believed to have originated in the early 19th century, when patuas, artisans from eastern India, migrated from villages and set up their shop-studios near the Kali temple there. Their works catered to devotees or European travelers who wanted to carry pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses as souvenirs.

But their art began to satirize the changing world with scathing caricatures, alluding to topics ranging from religious hypocrisy or the rise of the Babus — a new class of Indian elite who adopted the lifestyle of the then British rulers.