DAG Mumbai: Bengal’s Babus and Sundaris

The Babu and the Bazaar: A Journey Through Bengal Art

Exploring the rich tapestry of Bengal art, the exhibition The Babu and the Bazaar takes us on a captivating journey through the cultural landscape of bygone Calcutta. In the 19th century, Calcutta stood as the bustling commercial hub of British India, its streets filled with the sights and sounds of a thriving mercantile trade. Ships lined the Hooghly river, carrying precious cargo of fine fabrics, tea, jute, opium, and rice.

The Contrasts of Calcutta

Calcutta was a city of stark contrasts, where opulence and poverty coexisted in harmony. Here, the wealthy elite flaunted black Victorian boots with traditional dhotis and saris, while bejewelled courtesans adorned themselves with lace parasols. The newly affluent class, known as babus, embraced English education and indulged in hedonistic pleasures, oblivious to the struggles of the less fortunate who toiled in the bustling bazaars catering to pilgrims, soldiers, and immigrants.

The Evolution of Kalighat Art

At the heart of this cultural melting pot were the artists known as patuas, who gave birth to the iconic Kalighat pats. What began as humble cloth paintings evolved into intricate watercolors on paper, capturing the essence of Bengali life with wit and charm. These humorous depictions of everyday scenes resonated with audiences, leading to the emergence of Kalighat painting as a unique art form blending styles, mediums, and inspirations.

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A Glimpse into the Exhibition

The exhibition curated art from the 19th and 20th centuries into three distinct segments: original Kalighat pats and their inspired prints, oils on canvas reflecting Kalighat themes, and reverse glass paintings from Canton, China. Each piece offers a glimpse into the vibrant cultural heritage of Bengal, showcasing a fusion of diverse influences and artistic expressions.

Exploring Iconic Artworks

From the depiction of the goddess Lakshmi in traditional Kalighat style to the fierce Goddess Kali adorning oil on canvas, each artwork embodies the rich cultural tapestry of Bengal. Vibrant Rath Yatra scenes and whimsical portrayals of deracinated babus capture the essence of 19th-century Calcutta, showcasing a city in transformation.

Delving into the social fabric of Bengal, the exhibition reveals the dichotomy between White Calcutta’s colonial splendor and the struggles of Black Calcutta’s marginalized communities. Images of widows in white saris with black borders symbolize abandonment and societal taboos, shedding light on the harsh realities of 19th-century Bengal.

Inspiring Future Generations

As the exhibition unveils classic Kalighat pats and intricate glass paintings, it pays homage to the artistic legacy of Bengal. Influencing modern artists like Jamini Roy, these timeless pieces continue to inspire and captivate audiences, bridging the gap between tradition and innovation.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

From erotic chromolithographs to intricate glass paintings, each artwork tells a unique story of Bengal’s cultural evolution. By preserving these precious artifacts, we honor the rich artistic heritage of Bengal and ensure that future generations can cherish and learn from the vibrant tapestry of Kalighat art.

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Experience the magic of The Babu and the Bazaar exhibition at DAG, The Taj Mahal Palace, and immerse yourself in the rich artistic heritage of Bengal until June 29. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to witness the legacy of Kalighat art come to life before your eyes.

Embark on a journey through time and culture, as you delve into the captivating world of Bengal art and discover the hidden treasures of bygone Calcutta.

The writer is the founder-director of Eka Archiving Services.