Guess what drew the Britishers to Patna during the early 19th century apart from trade and commerce? Patna Kalam art. Sadly, not many know that Patna was a thriving centre of art during this period, with art-loving colonisers regularly thronging the dark and dingy lanes and bylanes of the city for a glimpse of "Patna Kalam" artists working in their mussavir khanas (art-studios). And these paintings had a seminal influence on their connoisseurs—artists like Richard Cosway and John Smart came to Patna all the way from London to learn the techniques and Sir Charles Doly even tried to commercialise and hardsell the art internationally. Assimilated into phirangi art or "company painting", Patna Kalam reigned supreme in the realm of Indian art for well over 187 years, beginning 1760.
There were three recognised schools of painting in the area during this period: Mughal, Anglo-Indian and Pahari. But Patna Kalam, the newly discovered genre, caught the connoisseur's eye for its clear stylistic difference and soon made its way to the world markets. "For the first time, there was a rich coherence of realism and visual perspective. It was a rare combination and bold concept. All these made it popular in markets as far away as London," explains Sadre Alam, an accomplished artist in wash painting and also the principal of the Patna Art and Craft college.
That it was the world's first independent school of painting which dealt exclusively with the commoner and his lifestyle also helped Patna Kalam paintings gain in popularity. "The subjects of these paintings had always been the common man and his mundane routines. It's basically a miniature form of painting which has, because of its unique style and form, occupied separate shelves at art galleries in London and museums in Prague," says Amaresh Kumar who teaches at the Patna Arts and Crafts College. He adds: "It was a new experiment in the sense that these paintings were neither the known Indian types nor British. These watercolour-based works were essentially court paintings of Mughal and British durbars."
Tracing the history of the Patna Kalam paintings, Alam says that they were unveiled by two painters, Nohar and Manohar, in Mughal emperor Akbar's court. Impressed with their skills, Akbar patronised both of them and promoted this new form of art. "Soon the successors of these two painters came down to Patna and carried out some more new experiments," says Alam. Soon the British rulers christened this new and bold form of painting as Patna Kalam after local artists took it up with unusual fervour: they painted mellow watercolour miniatures of ordinary local people going about their daily chores. "Soon landlords and colonial rulers started patronising these artists and very soon it had made its way to the bustling art markets of London," he says.
But those were the days of patrons. Today this genre of art is fighting for survival. After Ishwari Prasad Verma—the last Patna Kalam artist whose works were recognised worldwide as authentic—died about a decade ago, there's no one practising this form of art. Alam himself is unhappy at the way about 50 such existing paintings have been left to rot in an unguarded gallery in his college. He laments: "All the paintings were stolen from the gallery about two years ago. Thankfully they were soon recovered from the college premises itself. The thieves obviously didn't know the worth of their loot. I have written to the government so many times to shift these invaluable paintings to more secure galleries like the Patna Museum or elsewhere, but nothing has happened yet.These are priceless paintings which we must keep for our future generations of painters. It must be in safe custody. It is only because of the apathy of the state government towards this unique art that our repository is in a sorry shape today."
But unfortunately, like the world-famous and more acclaimed Mithila paintings, Patna Kalam has not received its due share of attention. Patna-based artist Amaresh Kumar insists that the eponymous painting was far superior to the more popular Mithila paintings. But "Mithila paintings were marketed in an organised manner both at home and abroad. Also, Mithila painting is a folk form which could be easily transferred from one generation to another." On the contrary, Patna Kalam was essentially court painting which had to face inevitable death with time, he says.
Today, the few existing miniatures of this rare form lie in unkempt and dusty shelves in a city where it was fondly created and adopted at one time.
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