Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, Volume XVIII, Nos. 1-4, 1976, pp. 86-96

Just like the 16th, the 19th century was a period of transformations in our national history. Notwithstanding the fact that the blue heavens had crushed on our heads - the ancient Indo-Islamic culture was not immediately reduced to rubble and shambles. It indeed made a last ditch stand gallantly, hopelessly at odds, betrayed by the very people whose combined genius had produced it and sustained it from the 13th to the 18th century. From the 16th it was nationalised by the Mughals. Religious intolerance ceased, but degradation of culture with all that had stood for through the millenniums commenced. Persian continued as the court language, while Urdu survived as the lingua franca all over northern India from Bengal onwards. Mughal Painting, which had hastened along the declining slope, decentralised into Awadh, and Murshidabad. The latter again gave birth to Patna School. This history was repeated all over the Western Himalayas. In the field of architectural practice, though the stately homes of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa like the Hazar Deorhi took definitely a western orientation, the old idioms survived as far as masjids and temples were concerned. Only the dalan type infiltrated. From the parasltic city of Calcutta, a new culture diffused like a spider’s web. Finally it was carried to far corners of the sub-continent. But throughout the vast rural areas there were little changes as far as food, customs, costumes, music and dancing were concerned.

A sociological approach now enables us to determine the phenomenon. The so-called new deal was to be ushered in by English educated. Indians championed by David Hare and pupils of the Anglo Indian poet and teacher De Rozario. The political battles were lost. But time-honoured cultural traits remained in their cul de sac. The Tols and the Maktabs continued to educate the people. Hafiz, the Bostan, the Mahabharata and the Puranas were still studied and ghazals were composed. New productive factors were being born in the womb of the old society. Dawn was near at hand. Feudalism in all its worst aspects was still supreme, but was being dispossessed by Zamindars who held the lands by Collectorate auctions. They were being swept away by officers of the East India Company illiterates in the jungle of revenue records whose keys were only known to the Patwaris, Chaudahris and Kanungoes. The best illustration is the appointment of one Navakissen (sic.Navakrishna) to liquidate portions of the vast Burdwan state of failure in payment of revenues. The auctioned lands were purchased according to Sir W.W.Hunter by the Banerjis of Telinipara, Mukherjis of Janai,Boinichi,etc. This ultimately led to the promulgation of Regulations VIII of 1819 [1]

So did the sutradharas or the mistris, the patuas etc., of Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa. The itinerant architects happily remained ignorant of the dark clouds in the distant horizon. The economic strangulation had just commenced along with other revolutionary innovations. In fact, it was a class struggle, successful in displacing the obsolete vested interests by more energetic and more ambitious have nots. The history of India from its very dawn is full of such relations, such as the foundation of the sudra monarchy in eastern India, rise of the Mauryas, and the Guptas, etc.

The next point that calls for clarification is neither archaeology nor art but definition of science. Pranab Roy has even included sixteenth century manuscripts and book covers as archaeology, which must have made generations of field workers from Schlieman to Marshall turn in their caves. At the other end is an I.A.S. Officer who feels that post-Muslim temples are archaeology. Another school feels that history, archaeology, and the study of ancient and mediaeval arts are all arts forgetting that the study of origin and development of art a scientific discipline with well-defined frontiers. If it had been otherwise then the fact that long before Van Gogh and Matisse the art was not concerned with imitations of nature which had been demonstrated by ancient Indians, any Asians.

In my previous contribution I had discussed a few monuments of my native district - Murshidabad. Majority of these belonged to the 19th century but a discussion of their art contents and style critical were not attempted. The practice of this art was not, however, confined to that district only but all over Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh such as the octagonal temple at Nator. And, this art was several foci: paintings, temples, terracotta, ivory works, and painted pottery. In fact, they are abstract but spiritual in function and themes. The common Indian life was dominated by the temples although our knowledge about their social and economic backgrounds till recently was very meagre. There were indeed births and marriages on which occasion the temple was always a safe refuge - the house of God, the infinite - one ultimate universal being resided as their friend, philosopher and guide. Herein lies the difference between the conception of godhood of eastern India and that of the rest of India. The canons did make the shrine a human being but to every villager and man in the street like Vishnupur Kalna or Guptipara, it was the centre of all their lives, where they worshipped in token of gratitude for their affluence, to supplicate for better days when in adversity, to seek spiritual grace for his or her sufferings. The God, if mute, was the patient listener of all his joys and sorrows. Unlike Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon the temples were not an unpleasant institution, excepting the tyrannical mahants. The paganism which replaced the Vedic worship was catholic, liberal and tolerant to a degree.

The fundamental factor which decided the character of the Nineteenth Century art products, and what is more its course, was its inability to justify its forms and units of expression which often differed from accepted notions from which they had originated and upon which the craftsmen have always depended for communications.

All his varieties involved by religion, authority of tradition and style were thrown into a crucible and the writers in the case of literature and artists were no longer able to estimate the reactions of his patrons to his creations, particularly their symbolism. The answer to the problem is complicated. It is necessary to examine more closely and with greater precision the relation between aesthetic experience as available from specific experience Vis a Vis social and economic context in which the experience took place. But that role has been assigned to prosperity, because we have long passed the phase in our national life which worshipped the colonialculture. A better knowledge of history and growth of a new kind of critical attitude to society - past, present, and future. A critical acumen which has saved us from timeless utopias of irrationalism and wrong assessment of Pranab Roy on Sahityacharyas which have enabled us to soberly examine the tide of history and cause and effects of antecedents and justifications. David Mc Cutchion however could not in his small span of life complete that assessment.

The nineteenth century’s occupation seems to have been with the discovery of progressive representation of space, surface, shapes and colours etc., and in the inclusion of every item to increase the horizon of observation and augment the values of the art motifs as a record of the contemporary world. No culture can develop without socio-economic basis a source of stable income to the craftsmen. In judging the concepts and ultimate results, one cannot remain indifferent to possible avenues of patronage which was provided by the elite and the plutocrats. This century again provides a mass of data about the background the patrons. The art of the people for the people, and by the people was at this time patronised by the well to do classes. The bourgeois were yet to come to its own. Since it is not possible to deal with the units individually lying all over Bengal (in the old sense) the survey is based on chief centres of building activity. Ilambazar and Hetampur in Birbhum district, Kalna and Nawabhat in Burdwan district. Boinchee, Guptipara and Antpur in Hughly district and finally Baranagar and Kandi in Murshidabad district.

Both in economic and social fields, this century was not merely a period of frustration, economic strangulation and disappearance of traditional institutions like indigenous banking, etc., but incubation too. It was not due to shyness of capital but for lack of imagination on the part of colonial exploiters. Nevertheless, the age was not barren, as if totally lacking in efforts on the part of the sons of soil. Industrial entrepreneurs existed like Dwarkanath Tagore, Gopaldas Manohardas the builder of the celebrated Manohardas Katra of Burrabazar, Calcutta; and ancestor of late Dr. Bhagwandas or his more celebrated son Sri Prakasa. The agrarian system underwent revolutionary changes leading ultimately to the Permanent Settlement. But before that Mughal feudal lords with their old ways were made extinct and Zamindars who purchased their titles in in collectorate auctions like Ghoshals of Bhukailas, Mukherjis or Uttarpara or Chakrvartis of Hetampur replaced them. Amidst all these darkness the most significant was the emergence of the middle path as condition precedent to the rise of nationalism. As Edmund Burke pointed out that a powerful middle class is the backbone of democracy. They acted as a safety valve for conserving a disintegrating society facing a bottomless chasm. The rigidity of the caste system was lost, but not for the first time in Indian history. It took place when Kshttriya Mahavira and Gautama became successful founders of two religions. It happened in Northern India when Nanak and Kabir preached their messages of salvation in an unpropitious climate both political and spiritual. Chaitanya in Eastern India tried to break the caste system. Not only Yavana Haridas but almost all the saints of early Vaishnavism were low caste men. There were not great deal of disturbances or revolutionary changes. The Hindu Society had yet to lose its age old power of absorption of shocks. The caste structure no doubt received a violent jolt but not yet shaken to its very foundation. The poison tree of urban culture did intrude paving the way for dissolution of rural society, the final coup d’grac was given by ‘Burdwan fever’ (Malaria) and the great famine. The real blow to this “Dreamthorp” like existence was launched by the railways (1853 A.D.) which killed slow wheel transport and river borne traffic. All these seemingly irrelevant factors are reflected in temple building activity.

The position has been clarified by Sri Hitesh Sanyal, by bringing to our notice the statistics, economic and technical groups responsible for construction of temples from 1600 to 1900 A.D. [2] Instead of repeating the data garnered by him we may emphasise the “Passing Show”. The castes concerned were Brahmins, Kshattriyas, Kayasthas, Navasakhas and jalacharas. The occupational differential is still more striking. From the very dawn of recorded history the landed aristocracy took the land, but that did not prevent other humbler beings and lower castes from erecting temples, and performing social services and integrating society in their villages. Traders and men of commerce, including the people whose water was not accepted, were not prohibited. The best proof of the liberality of the Hindu society, and usage. Sometimes as pointed out by Sanyal near the place of residence or within the jurisdiction of powerful high caste landlords. Weavers (tantuvayas or tantis. Modaks (Sweet, meat dealers), tambulikas, Sadgopas, Telis,etc.,performed these sacred obligations. And Brahmins as priests, cooks, and attendants accepted services under them.

Between 1600 to 1650 the following percentages were available. Brahmins 67% ; Businessmen 38% ; and Technical castes 1% ; but by 1651-1700 Zamindars 81% ; Tradesmen 9% ; Technical castes 4% ; Between 1700 to 1750 Zamindars 60% ; Tradesman 32% ; and Technical castes 9%. From 1751-1800 Zamindars 48%; Tradesmen 45%; Technical castes 5% [3]. Sri Tarapada Santra has collected data of various peoples who built temples - district wise distribution of technicians. [4]

Having attempted to clarify the background of the class of people who founded these temples and technicians that were employed to erect and decorate these ornate shrines; we have to evaluate the qualities of architectural practice and plastic arts. But before that we must emphasise the point, that unlike classical and mediaeval times the thematic contents and the representations were no criterion of the cult objects in the fanes. Irrespective of the sectarian affiliations of the temples, we meet with an eclecticism, conditioned by time. In Sridhara temple at Bankura, we find on its walls the marriage of Siva and the birth of Karttikeya. On Lakshmi Janardana temple at Ilambazar, the Birbhum district, we find dasabhunja Mahishasuramardini, just like Ananta - Vasudeva temple at Bansberia, which is earlier in date. [5] Each of the four Ek Bangla temples known as Char-Bangla at Baranagar in Murshidabad district have Bala-lila and Dana-lila of Krishna like the Kali temple at the same village. On the same shrine we have the Ramayana episodes depicted; we have also the Birth of Krishna and transfer of the child to Gokula.

In the field of architecture, apart from traditional three styles of chaja and ratna temples, they added successfully new formsand utilised old ones with novel layouts.

1) Exploitation of single do-chala or Ek Bangla in a rectangular layout as at Baranagar.

2) Use of 108 or 109 at-chala Temples in concentric circles as at Nawabhat or Kalna both in Burdwan district.

3) Utilisation of Vamana or dalan tye of temples to represent Mt. Govardhana at Kalna in the compound of Pratapesvara Temple.

4) Introduction of octagonal temples at Baranagara and Nator, in Rajshahi district.

5) Increase in the amount of ratnas at Laljis and Krishna Chandras temples at Kalna.

6) A mixed (Misra) type of temples in which Rekha, Chala and ratna of styles have been used. For example, the sanctum is of Chala while the superstructure is Rekha variety. [6]

7) A spate of peculiar dola-mancha or rasa-mancha along with dalan type.

8) An evolved type of Rekha deuls with bulbous tower covered with series of superimposed ribs in relief as we find on the pratapesvara temple at Kalna (1847 A.D.) and Siva temple of Dewanji at Babupara, Hetampur.

9) Siva-Chandranatha temple at Hetampur in Birbhum district with Kalasas as ratnas. In this class the gandi or the mulaprasada is disproportionately high.

The repertoire of the silpins of the 19th century artists were greater and an analysis is worth the trouble. The primary purpose as in the preceding centuries was decorative, and we find the continuation and survival of traditional clichés but possibly due to difference in blueprints of the itinerant guilds we find different treatment of one and the same influences and contacts, as well as iconology are indeed active agents in the definition of any style of sculpture or painting. It will be waste of space and energy to attempt to analyse these characteristics since good deal has already been written. The art as in classical period of our national history was dedicated to the service of religion with their wealth of diverse mythology, for the imagery by being condensed and epitomised in the individual examples. What we find in them are not series of episodes, nor the scenes of particular myths and legends but symbolism rich in its intimation that has influenced Indian art throughout the centuries. By the same token there is no question, of distinction between narrative, religious or secular. They mingle in spite of occasional contradictions that are met with in the subject matters, making the art a rich storehouse of contemporary life customs, industries, and crafts etc. the basic elements of human society were already in existence and in addition communication of aesthetics.

First the iconography as already stated unlike the practice in Pre-Muslim, times has no sectarian affiliation but were resorted to irrespective of the nayaka (cult object) to which the farnes were dedicated. Because the principle objective was to make them sculpturesque. For example the Sridhara temple at Bankura, Lakshmi Narayana temple at Ilambazar we find this Catholicism. In the Palpara temple at Chakdah in Naida district we find Saiva, Vaishnava and folk cults enjoying unthinkable equality. Again, in the admitted Saiva shrines we find Vaishnava themes, which, may be briefly summarised as follows:-

a) Ramayana

b) Krishnalila

c) Chandi mahatmya

d) Pauranic

e) Saktism

In the 19th century, it was the practice to decorate the facades of the temples with scenes from the Ramayana, especially battle scenes of war between Rama and Ravana and the monkey army; but the methods of presentation differed between different guilds. Thus at Lakshmi Janardana temple at Ilambazar, the composition consists of rectangular panels. Somewhat similar composition is met with on the Saiva temple at Kumarpara, Hughly district, near Shahganj with the difference that in the latter where there are series of temples [7], with lingams inside each of the miniature shrines. In the eastern Ek Bangla of the Char Bangla group at Baranagar in Murshidabad district the engrailed arch is different, more decorative and the temples are present. In the Jayadeva temple at Kenduli in Burdwan district long horns (singa) are being played. At Surul the miniature shrines occur without the lingams inside them. On the Palpara temple at Chakdah,in Naida district, the shrines are occupied by male and female figures which have affinity with the second Shahganj Temple.

Nowhere this square and rectangular panelling creates any discord in the harmony of the representation and the concentric curves of the Sridhara temple ultimately interbalances with the chala roofs. Blond European forms are found on the Lakshmi-Janardana, where above the engrailed arch symmetria frisca which is as old as 2nd century B.C., is noteworthy. On the central façade the theme is divided by the finial of the arch.

This art is intimately concerned with the prose and poetry of life in the 19th century enjoying the first blessings of a tolerant rule and distinguished by humanism. In spite of lyricism which characterised it in the 16th and 17th centuries the vitality of this narrative art with a clever introduction of a dramatic element in the traditional scenes, contributed to imagination and mass education due to chromatic values having being cleverly exploited to accentuate the symbolism. Since the dramatis personae were contemporary they were costumes which were in use thereby revealing the character of the colonial society at its very commencement as well as the attitude of the so-called elite Indian society. Bengal thanks to Chittagong, Sonargaon and dying Satgaon was well acquainted with Dutch, Portuguese and finally the English. In the Ananta-Vasudeva temple at Bransberia, in Hughly district, the figures of Europeans wearing tall helmets and hunting dogs are met with. [8] But, after Plassey and liquidation of mediaeval feudalism, a new type of landed aristocracy made their entrance. The age of Singhs of Paikpara, Devs of Sobhabazar, Mukherjis of Boinchee and Janai, Banerjis of Telinipara, Jaikissen Mukherji of Uttarpara and Chakravartis of Hetamper held public imagination.

It was in Birbhum that the climax was reached to please the new Guardians of India by a family patronised by them. The European figures are easily recognizable not merely by their faces but also by their dresses; the voluminous skirts are totally different from ghagras (lehengas) of the preceding centuries. This is the case with Chandranatha- Siva temple, where even some classical episodes are found. The Siva Temple of Dewanji at Babupara is typologically similar to that Pratapesvara (1849 A.D.) and possesses European costumes in Radha’s sorrow.

Technically the 19th century represents unbroken cultural and plastic continuity with closely packed networkof figures in relief. They were alive with vitality of high order, because god himself was immanent in each figure remarkable for homogeneity of the style which was in its purest form elegant but the themes never lost variety. The design was mainly linear, with wide surfaces. The movement of the figures became mainly the device of the composition and were applied with virtuosity. Throughout, this art betrayed a popularity, revealing a love for design for its own sake and on the other hand a physical reality. The isolation of the units (figures) did not destroy the narration. In this century the technical achievements of the previous centuries were exploited but without the aspirations of those periods. Piety replaced the vigour and just like Kishengarh paintings, the plastic activity of Bengal (Bihar, West Bengal and Assam) do not betray the troubles of the age, but betrayed by a gaiety of the truly devout, modelled with complete confidence and brought to an extraordinary perfection of finish, though lacking in originality. Their monumentality is too evident to require any explanation. Light and graceful, remarkable for well-defined contours (Mahishasuramardini of Pratapesvara Temple) the contrasts of light and shade, the logical gestures accentuate the rounded forms.

A combination of serenity and forcefulness as in Kali and other samhara-murtis are their chief qualities. In 19th century a plastic activity emerged which with all its derivatives possessed an individual character of its own not merely in its style but in its thematic matters, depicting secular subjects for which no incident was trivial enough, yet betray a cold formalism they enriched the majesty of architecture.

The word plastic is valid here in its practical applications. First, it stands for the fact that the sculptures were creative and were capable of producing continuous transformations. The imagery is based upon Homo sapiens, animals, and vegetal world, like the national plastic art of two millenniums ago were based upon the conviction that life was carried on by breath (prana) and pulsation of sap (rasa). The 19th century succeeded in continuing these immemorial practices before it went down to new creations of Kumartuli to be worshipped on public highways, near filth bearing drains without iconometry, without the flux of life.

One word more. There is no, perspective in neither in terracotta applied sculpture not in art in general. For long centuries it was an obsession amongst sculptors, painters, and art critics that it was one of the principle functions of art was imitation of realism. The artists by a mathematical system of foreshortening, perspective was expected to create convincing illusion of three dimensional effect on his two dimensional forms. The schools that did not adhere to these principles were not considered art. Yet all art from Carolingian to mediaeval scholasticism like Meister Eckhart did not utilise the theory of perspective. All European art before renaissance lacked it. Throughout ancient Asia in its arts never applied it.

In the 19th century, apart from sculptures there were schools of paintings from Orissa to Assam. These were mainly, pata paintings generally ascribed to Kalighat, but practiced elsewhere. Then there was the Patna or Company art in Bihar, there were also paintings in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi even at Tanjore.

The Patna school of paintings originated by refugee artists from Murshidabad. It rose on the rubble and shambles of Plassey and soon converted itself into real “Feringhi” school since the natural inquisitiveness led many of the Europeans seek landscape and realistic productions of social life and animals. Then there was the Murshidabad schools due to disintegration of the Mughal ateliers at Delhi.

The pata paintings of Bengal, aesthetically fills a gap in the history of Indian painting, conserving many traditions of classical heritage. The present idea that there were only patas is wrong. They practiced murals as well as miniatures of manuscript. Besides there was an art of Europeans for them by Europeans.


[1] Statistical Account of Bengal, Vol. IV 1%, 78-9 and 141-42.

[2] Social Aspects of Temple Building in Bengal etc. – Man in India Vol.48 (1968) pp. 201-224.

[3]Sanyal – op.cit.pp.221 ff.

[4] Chatushkana (in Bengali), 2th year, No. 11, pp.1036.

[5]Cf. writers Folk temples of Bengal – in Hughly district JAS, Vol. IX (1967) no. 1, p 16.

[6] I am indebted for this information to Sri A.K. Banerji, IAS (Retired).

[7] Journal of the Asiatic Society, Vol, IX (1967) plates 1-2 and 6 and 11. REFERENCES: 1. JAS. Vol. IX (1961), Plate III. Some is the case with the Antpur temples erected in 1736-17 A.D. 2. P.C. Dasgupta – The Terracottas of Hetampur. 1966. Plate III.
Published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, Volume XVIII, Nos. 1-4, 1976, pp. 86-96
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