Patna Kalam

Patna Kalam school of painting was the world’s first independent school of painting, which dealt exclusively with the common folk at work and delineated the lifestyle of ordinary people. Unlike Mughal and other miniature painting traditions - whose subjects were mainly God, court, royalty and other aristocratic themes - the subjects of Patna Kalam Paintings were common work-men and their mundane affairs such as the working artisans, market-scene, local festivals, iron smith etc.

Though known for its highly stylized Mithila painting traditions in art sphere, Bihar is also home to an equally acclaimed school of miniature painting, akin to Mughal miniatures, known as ‘Patna Kalam’ or ‘Patna School of Painting.’ However, not known to many is the fact that the tradition has survived in the region for more than 200 years under the patronage of local Nawabs and English officials. Also known as Company Painting, Patna Kalam flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries of India and grabbed the attention of connoisseurs for its unusual use of natural or watercolors and their stylistic applications.

The Government of Bihar made a brilliant effort to revive this 200-year-old Patna school of miniature paintings by publishing them in its official calendar in 2010 for the first time post independence. “The objective behind publishing this theme-based 2010 calendar is to highlight Bihar’s rich heritage of art and culture,” remarked the then Bihar government’s Secretary of Art & Culture, Rajesh Bhushan. He further added, “It will make people aware of the exquisite paintings of Patna Kalam that lent a unique cultural identity to Bihar.”

Bhushan goes on to add that“one of the salient features of Patna Kalam was that all paintings depicted the contemporary socio-cultural life of Bihar with special emphasis on the common man. Most of these paintings depicted the lives of the deprived sections of society, such as the washer man, barber, cobbler, cook, street performers and so on.

Events touching life of the common folk – celebrations of Durga Puja and Holi – also did capture the imagination of these accomplished artistes”.

Mughal, Anglo-Indian and Pahari were the three most recognized schools of Indian miniature paintings that flourished during 18th and 19th century in India. As an offshoot of these schools, Patna Kalam captured the imagination of experts and patrons for its rich realism and visual perspective. Different from other contemporary paintings of the time, this school of painting combined the elements of the Mughal and British styles in a manner that earned it another interesting title, Feringhee Kalam (the White man’s art).

This school of painting was the world’s first independent school of painting, which dealt exclusively with the common folk at work and delineated the lifestyle of ordinary people. Unlike Mughal and other miniature painting traditions - whose subjects were mainly God, court, royalty and other aristocratic themes - the subjects of Patna Kalam Paintings were common work-men and their mundane affairs such as the working artisans, marketscene, local festivals, iron smith etc. The distinctive style and form of the painting gradually helped it to occupy distinct shelves at art galleries in London and museums in Prague.

Light colored sketches and lifelike representation characterize the paintings of Patna Kalam. Main characteristics include the pointed nose, heavy eyebrows, lean and gaunt faces, sunken and deep-staring eyes, and big mustaches. Second unique feature of the Patna School of Painting was the development in the shading of solid forms. The painters used to extract colors indigenously from plants, barks, flowers and metals. The canvases were made up of glass, mica and ivory sheets. These paintings were mostly made on the papers, generally recycled from the waste paper, and the brushes were made of the fur of animals. The tail of squirrel was the most famous choice of artists. The papers were treated with vitriol and arrowroot to supply the shinning edge along with making preservatives to survive longer. Patna Kalam paintings are painted straightway with the brush without marking with pencil to delineate the contours of the picture. The technique is commonly known as "Kajli Seahi".

After attaining the fame and glory for about a century, Patna Kalam faced gradual decline due to shrinking of patronage from the government of the day. The advent of photography also contributed to the decline of this celebrated school of painting. Dr. Abdul Haidi has written a beautiful account on Patna Kalam narrating all of it. Patna-based artist Amaresh Kumar insists that “the eponymous painting school was far superior compared to the more popular Mithila paintings. But Mithila paintings were marketed in an organised manner both at home and abroad, and it was lucky to receive patronage of very influential political functionaries in post-independent India.”

Some acclaimed signatures of this school of paintings were Sewak Ram, Hulas Lall, Jairam Das, Fakir Chand, Shiv Lal, Shiva Dayal, Mahadeo Lal and Ishwari Prasad Verma and Nisar Mehandi. Hulas Lall was known for his naturalistic paintings, while Nisar Mehandi used his brush on portraits and landscape. Among the last flag bearers of Patna Kalam were Ishwari Prasad Verma. Radha Mohan Babu left no stone unturned to make this school of painting popular. He was the founder of Patna Art School. In Bihar, the collection of Patna Kalam paintings are exhibited in Patna Museum, Patna Art College and at Khudabaksh Library at Patna, whereas a good number of them are also on display in London’s Art Gallery and Prague’s museum.

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