In the labyrinthine bylanes of Kolkata’s Kalighat resides Bhaskar Chitrakar, the last of the Patua painters whose family has been producing the Patachitra art unique to the area for six generations. His studio, a crowded room in his childhood home, overflows with art supplies and half-finished paintings, but affords just enough space to work on a makeshift bed.

Patachitra are traditional cloth scrolls that depict mythologies and folktales, and have been present in Eastern India for centuries. But the Kalighat Patachitra is distinctive in how it uses a rural style to pass commentary on the city’s socio-political landscape. While other Patua artisans operating in the area have relinquished painting in exchange for making the more profitable sculptures and idols that are used for the city’s many religious festivals, Chitrakar continues to ply his trade. “I too used to make sculptures while growing up,” said Chitrakar. “But after making statues with my father for the Akshardham temple in Gujarat, I realised that painting was my calling.”

'Untitled', Powder Pigment on Paper. Image credit: Bhaskar Chitrakar.

He recalls sneaking into the Government College of Art near the Indian Museum in Kolkata, and observing the styles exhibited and discussed there. “The professors there were very encouraging when I told them about my family background,” he said. “My father also guided me and told me to avoid the stereotypical religious paintings. He said that if I experiment then, I would eventually discover my own style.”

And discover his own style he did. Taking inspiration from miniatures, Mughal paintings, movie posters, newspaper clippings and the people of Kolkata, Chitrakar has been infusing the modern into the traditional over the last decade. Talismans of the 21st century, such as mobile phones, cars, auto rickshaws and synthesisers, started making an appearance in his paintings with a playful, sometimes surreal, flourish. The subject of almost all his paintings was the Bengali babu, who has been a consistent target of the Kalighat artists for nearly a century.

You can throw a stone in any direction in Kolkata and expect to strike an Anglophile. As the seat of the Empire for 139 years, Kolkata has inherited a predilection for the British way of life, perhaps more than any other city in India. There is still a reverence for an erstwhile colonial mode, which had made the city the birthplace of Indian babudom. While in modern parlance Babuji is used to address a superior, in British India it was used in reference to an Indian clerk (and when used without the suffix, it almost always had a disparaging undertone).

During their rule, the British needed educated locals, who could perform administrative duties and act as a conduit between them and the population. Prior to the First World War, the service comprised exclusively of Europeans, but this changed in 1922, when Indians were permitted to sit for the exams due to a shortage of British applicants. But this much-coveted authority – which granted Indians control over their fellow countrymen – invited the ridicule and resentment of locals who were eyeing independence. It was one thing to be ruled by the gora sahib, it was another to be given orders by a desi babu, who was garbed like the oppressor.

While much of this abhorrence towards the new administrators could not be expressed owing to fear of consequences, the painters of Kalighat found a way to lampoon them by making caricatures, which depicted the babus as vain and flamboyant. The rural artists, who had moved into the area since the construction of the Kali temple in 1809 to sell souvenir prints to tourists and pilgrims, found a new muse. Not content with merely depicting mythology and folktales, painters like Chitrakar’s ancestors injected satire into their works, which proved to be immensely popular.

Untitled, Powder Pigment on Paper, 2019. Image credit: Bhaskar Chitrakar.

Their paintings portrayed the babus – with their oiled hair, dhotis, hookah pipes and black pumps – as they sat spread out before their housekeepers with a vacant look. Since their cheeky caricatures were not of an individual, but rather of a lifestyle, they managed to survive without ruffling feathers.

“My ancestors were fortunate to live in a time when they could mock their superiors,” said Chitrakar. “We live in a different era, [during which] powerful people do not like being made fun of. Personally, I don’t like getting into politics. I only want to keep the tradition of Kalighat Patachitra alive, which is why I incorporate modern items into our old established style. However, my subjects are always adorned in dhotis and sarees instead of the pants and suits and jeans we see all around us because I like the contrast this creates.”

Even as Chitrakar’s paintings maintain the style of his ancestors, what sets them apart is a 21st century setting that is all his own. For example, one of his latest works depicts a babu getting cruelly rejected by one of the many No Refusal taxis, which are commonplace in Kolkata and are notorious for turning down anyone not headed in the absolute same direction. Another illustrates an incarnation of Shiva in a stand-off with a puchka-wallah.

His Jazz Cats series adds a surreal touch to the ubiquitous Kalighat cats that have been a fixture in the area’s artwork for centuries. These are quintessential Kolkata themes and, unlike the cloth scrolls used by his predecessors, the Italian Fabriano paper Bhaskar uses brings out their vivid colours and childlike composition. While the paints for Patachitra illustrations were conventionally derived from vegetable and mineral sources, Chitrakar found the process unnecessarily cumbersome and opted for acrylic watercolours instead.

Something immediately perceptible in Chitrakar’s work is a deep reverence for women. In Kalighat Patachitra, the babu has always been depicted as a henpecked dandy, dominated by the women in his life, which is why Chitrakar’s female subjects appear to be larger in size than their male counterparts. It is a visual trick that makes a thematic point.

“For far too long in Indian art, women have been depicted as goddesses or subordinates,” he said. “In my artwork, I try to portray women as I see them around me. While growing up in Kolkata, I noticed these signs on the bus that said Ladies First, and the conductor would even scream this when passengers were getting on or off the bus. I guess this stayed with me. In my art, and even in my family, I always put women first.”

It takes Bhaskar around three to five days to make a painting as he works alone. Thanks to the internet, he is now getting orders from the US and UK and Europe, but doesn’t want to bite more than he can chew. “I work at a slow pace and only accept as many commissions as I can manage to ensure that I can give each painting adequate time. Kalighat has changed, our community is scattered. Since I am the last painter of my lineage, I feel a tremendous pressure to not compromise on quality.”

Bhaskar Chitrakar. Photo credit: Abhishek Sikhwal.

Bhaskar Chitrakar’s works are on view at Art Exposure (as part of a Range-Art Exposure collaboration), 54 Mahanirban Road, Ballygunge, Kolkata, till March 9.