Though little is known about early Bengali oil painting, a fairly large number of works in this technique are now available for study. The medium was obviously one learnt from foreign artists, but in the latter part of the 18th and in the 19th century it was used to paint pictures which were largely indigenous in subject, iconography and style. As no literary references to these works exist, and they are not mentioned in art histories, the only sources of information are the paintings themselves. Traditionally they have been labelled “Dutch Bengal School” which suggests that the medium may have been learnt from the Dutch. The existence of a number of oil paintings originating from Chinsura, Chandanagar and Calcutta confirm that the technique was in any event European and perhaps even the materials were imported.
However the oil paintings of this type are clearly a part of the Bengali heritage. In the 18th and 19th centuries many styles of painting obtained and the oil paintings are a facet of this multiple production. Further they are typically eclectic and not pseudo Western as were works painted after the middle of the 19th century. The greater portion are devoted to Hindu subjects and were therefore probably made for Indian patrons.
Though it may be hazardous to date these paintings without adequate proof they seem to be stylistically earlier than Kalighat paintings and may even have influenced them. Foreigners of many nations (the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British) had already founded settlements in riverine Bengal and it would seem reasonable to surmise that their influence would have begun to permeate Indian society by the middle of the 18th century or earlier. These Western influences can be noticed in architecture, furniture and costume. The idea of decorating a home with hanging pictures also became popular at this time.
These early oil paintings were evidently painted for the Indian rich and presuppose the existence of an artistic production that was comparatively sophisticated. The painters may not have lived exclusively on such works but as was generally the case, may have practiced other arts and crafts. The patronage that could sustain such a well-developed art leads us to conjecture that there was a class of people, merchants, aristocrats, zamindars and perhaps urban elite, who were interested in ostentatious living. If not as extravagant as the Nawabs and Maharajahs they imitated their life-style to some degree. Such people were important in maintaining creative workers and craftsmen. The high level of workmanship of weavers, jewellers and other artisans is proof of a demand for finely made products; such patrons also probably supported musicians, dancers, poets and artists. It would seem that this category of persons belonged to an earlier traditional elite and were not the new rich of the 19th century for the latter display a different westernised taste. The patrons of the early oil paintings belong to a period of those who preferred religious art, an art that was related to their traditional life-style. (The economic changes in the early 19th century led to the emergence of a new class who became rich because of British business and trade. These 19th century patrons imitated Western styles, many of them had drawing rooms with foreign-style furniture, mirror, chandeliers and neoclassic or romantic paintings that were either imported or painted in India.) This commercial reorientation and change in taste in the 19th century Leads one to suppose that the early oil paintings we are discussing can be assigned to the 18th century. Further they do not show any influence of the British painters like Tilly Kettle or Hodges who were already working in India in the late 18th century. The large number of works extant lead one to assume that the style was basically Indian and had crystallised into a unique contemporary language before any large-scale western influence penetrated it. Bayley in his book Rulers Townsmen and Bazars takes the period of development of indigenous trade and a certain stability in local fiscal conditional from about 1740-1830 when there was a continuity of earlier dominant groups.
Oil painting generally dictates a large format. The Bengali oil paintings are generally not of the same scale as 19th century European works. They range in size from a modest one and a quarter feet in height to approximately three to four feet. Some works are horizontal. They do not follow Western models in their application of colour, in the rendering of light and shade and general treatment though we do notice the absorption of other European features and influences. One may say they are painted in an Indian style which incorporated some selected visual ideas from western art in order to make the works acceptable to changing contemporary taste. These characteristics are fully integrated in the style and do not disturb its character. The sacred subject matter, an even timeless light, decorative treatment and Indian ethos continue to be indigenous. These paintings are generally not imitations of life, they are conceived as memory images that are sometimes iconic and sometimes narrative.
Exceptional works are portraits or secular pictures. The illustrations or paintings based on mythology are perhaps the most innovating and pleasing, they attempt to show the figures or characters in a ‘real’ setting. They often depict landscape with recession, heavy trees with lush foliage and distant mountains. These features stem from a westernization and are elements of the new way of seeing. We notice an interest in rendering distance, in low horizons and a blurred effect in remote trees and hills which are characteristic. The legendary scenes or narrative pieces are the most successful of the early oil paintings because they are less rigid than the formal images of the deities. Though the subject matter here too is sacred it is treated with a new humanism. The gods seem to have descended from their thrones and are often imagined like mortals in an earthly environment. A strange tenderness, sweetness and even humour is perceptible which is new.
The oil painting can be divided into a few types firstly by subject and again by the place of origin. In course of time it may be possible to identify a Chinsura, a Chandanagar and more roughly a Calcutta School. For the present we can categorise the paintings according to their content:
a. Iconic pictures of the Hindu pantheon,
b. Paintings with narrative themes,
c. Portraits and secular paintings.
Below is a description of some characteristics of each type with examples.
(A) Iconic Paintings
These paintings of the deities may have been meant for display in thakurdalans or chapels. The subjects are conventional and followtheiconographic rules in describing the gods. The style is a local Bengali style as also the choice of subjects, aspects of Durga are the most preferred. The style is heavy and monumental, though in another type the figures are slim and lithe. The single figures are rather static but in some others there is some movement or anecdotal interest. The palette is limited to rich and sombre colours. It is important to note that there are no strong enclosing lines as in Kalighat patas. The contours however are graded from dark to light expressing the solidity of the figure. The main colours of the body are modelled, the image is clothed in drapery and ornamented with jewellery both of which are very delicate. The face and ethnic types are based on Bengali features with large eyes, rounded limbs and slow gestures or movement.
Kali (Ashutosh Museum)
The deity is portrayed dancing on the prostrate body of Shiva with her legs wide spread. The figure is heavy, four armed and carrying the typical attributes. In one hand she holds a human head. The colour of the goddess is a deep indigo blue, the overall palette is of grey and blue contrasted with red. In the background is a rudimentary landscape with a row of distant diminutive trees. Though Kali has a protruding tongue and her usual garlands she is dignified and not terrible. Her dark hair and limbs are set off by a suffused red in the background. The body of Shiva is grey with the contours graded to a darker shade. The jewellery depicted in dots and fine lines of black or white do not disturb the main image which has tremendous monumentality and power.
Annapurna (Ashutosh Museum)
Durga as Annapurna is seated on a black divan, with a bolster behind her. To her right stands Shiva as mendicant. The colour of the painting is restricted more or less to tones of pink changing to red contrasted with blue. The figures are heavy and placid. The dark to light gradations of the contours depict the roundness of the body and its solidity. The body is conceived in an additive way as in folk art, so that the modelling tends to differentiate its parts, the upper trunk, abdomen, arms, and so on. While this folk tendency is perhaps a vestige of earlier habit the gradations of colour are broad and suave. Over the body is the drapery with delicate decoration, and upon it the jewellery rendered in a fine spidery web of lines and dots.
There is contrast of the broad modelling in the body and the delicate ornament over it. Annapurna’s pink saree is embellished with gold flowers like a Benares saree and ends in a sumptuous anchal or pallo. The figure of Shiva is rather stout and nonchalant, he wears a tiger skin around his waist and carries a pink bag. His body is painted grey with a high modelling. He is shown extending both hands to receive food from Annapurna. The palms of both figures are painted red. Annapurna is ochre coloured with shading in a reddish tint. She holds a vessel in her left hand and a ladle in her right with which she offers Shiva food. Though highly ornamental the delineation of her jewellery is so delicate that it does not disturb the picture. The two figures are massive and simple and fill the space with their presence. The deities are shown in an interior, on the floor is a summarily rendered carpet with a design of red flowers and black foliage. The overall colour and background is indigo blue. The palette and treatment have restraint and quietness combined with monumentality.
(B) Narrative Paintings
As mentioned earlier a large number of early oil paintings are based on mythology and exhibit a new kind of illustration. They are not as stagey and theatrical as the later 19th century lithographs and paintings, but depict characters and anecdotes with a new humanism. The greater portion of there events are seen in nature and so the landscape receives a special treatment. The colours are mostly soft and mixed and so forms do not have the sharp definitions that they have in miniature painting.
Durga Laughing at Shiva’s Discomfiture
The scene is laid in a romantic open landscape with mountains extending into the distance. The colouring is muted and gentle, the subject an incident of unusual interest. Durga’s lion roars at Shiva’s bull, the dignified Nandi takes fright and bolts tail in air casting Shiva who was riding him to the ground. Shiva lies on the meadow in the centre of the picture, his body which is portly is painted in light grey. On the right is Durga in a red saree gaily clapping her hands at this ludicrous scene. Durga is adorned with a large cream coloured halo. Her two children Ganesha and Kartikeya cling to her skirts on either side. Below is the text written in five lines. The drawing of the bolting Nandi is vigorous, the animal is shaded white to grey and has a red saddle cloth. The lion is tawny and shown roaring. The landscape has the soft woolly brushwork characteristic of some of the 18th century European landscapes, the colours are mixed rather than clear. What is most memorable is the event and the humour in the story.
(Institute de Chandanagar)
A very fine small oil painting of Yashoda dressing the boy Krishna’a hair. Beside him is Balarama and the three figures form a triangular group. They are shown outside a typical Bengali village home, behind them is the mud wall and main entrance to the courtyard. The wall and gate recede diagonally, giving a touch of realism. The figures are convincingly drawn in a natural stance, based on life. the divine characters are dressed conventionally with jewellery and crowns the gems rendered as dots. The usual gradations of colour appear to express solidity and the roundness of forms. Altogether a picture of great charm freshly conceived in terms of reality.
(C) Portraiture and Secular Paintings
It is difficult to come across secular paintings and portraiture in the early oil painting style, though portraiture was quite popular especially at the native courts. The portraits while they do not have the developed academic manner seen in the 19th century do show a westernisation in composition, treatment of drapery and a limited type of chiaroscuro. These portraits were probably done from life and are not freely imagined as the illustrations were.
Secular paintings were also rare and were probably confined to early landscapes.
River Landscapes (private collection)
This painting shows a river in the foreground on the farther bank of which is a beautiful temple standing amidst large gloomy trees. Above the trees is a luminous and spacious sky. In the lower foreground on the nearer bank of the river are seen a few European figures preparing to embark on a boat. The boat juts into the river, it is well equipped and above its prow on a pole hangs a huge union jack. The paintingasa whole has a very fine feeling of space, it is full of light and air. The artist is using the oil medium in a new way though there is a tinge of hardness in the rendering of the temple and boat. The general effect is pleasing, one feels that a complex subject has been beautifully handled.
From the paintings just described early oil painting in Bengal can be considered indigenous in visualization and a forerunner of the 19th century styles. It probably appeared even before the Kalighat patas of which the early works are not dated before 1830’s. indeed it would seem that many features of this school were simplified and carried over into thew Kalighat style. The large figures occupying and filming the compositional space is especially characteristic of the iconic oil paintings. The broad modelling or shading is very sophisticated in the oils and is boldly transferred to the water colour medium in Kalighat, the drawing of the anatomy and details is similar though the Kalighat figures are more sharply delineated whereas in the oil paintings the images are comparatively well finished and elegant. The necessity to paint quickly and sell cheap did not allow for the niceties of detail and background or even the lyrical and emotional content of the oils to be carried into the Kalighat style.
Now one may distinguish rather broadly between the Chinsurah and Chandanagar styles. In some instances the colours are very rich as in a fine composition of Rama’s Durbar where the entire background is red. The principal figures, courtiers and Jambavan and Hanuman are rendered without crowding. The painting is finished with gold and the effect lyrical.
In the Chandanagar paintings the figures are comparatively heavy and occupy the compositional space giving the painting a sense of fullness. The colours tend to be more mixed and less rich. The paintings are characterised by monumentality and dignity. The painting of Yashoda and Krishna described above is an example.
The paintings which may have been done in Calcutta seem to be an amalgam of the above styles. Sometimes one comes across some urban features in them. All these types have yet to be further differentiated as the material at hand is miscellaneous and inadequate.
In conclusion one may venture to state that the early Bengal oil paintings are an important category of art that has so far not been noticed. Some of the museums in Calcutta and private collectors have works of this type and if they could be collected together in one place we should have some idea of the range of the school. However one has to keep in mind that oil painting was only one of the types of art being practised at this time and therefore only a few artists may have attempted handling the new technique. It is noteworthy that while incorporating realism the style did not succumb to being realistic. There is an understanding and proportion in assimilation of the natural which does not destroy the illusory or imaginative in the rendering of legendary themes. There is a gentleness in the depiction of figures and nature and a general restraint. We have not come across paintings with violent or dynamic subjects or garish or loud colour schemes. In fact the poetry of the themes and the lyricism of the treatment are complementary and balanced and a harmony achieved between the language and content.
The works extant show that these experimental oil painters had attained a high level of achievement and forged a new dialect. Perhaps one might go so far as to say that the style they evolved was probably the most sophisticated kind of painting obtaining in Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries. Above all it was entirely a local product in a new medium. It was addressed to an Indian audience and succeeded in expressing Indian ideas and feelings.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary 32