Kalighat Paintings: Murder in the Collection

Posted: April 5, 2018 - 00:31 , by Deepali Dewan

Written by Piali Roy.

A notorious murder case is one of the subjects of the ROM’s collection of mid-nineteenth century Kalighat paintings, an urban folk art style that developed around a popular Kali temple in Kolkata, India.

Elokeshi holds a flower while the Mahant (priest) fans her, Unknown artist, watercolour on paper,
Kalighat, Kolkata, Bengal, India, 19th century, ROM 996.117.7 Gift of Cawthra Mulock

The Kalighat paintings were the sort of souvenir one could buy after a visit to the temple. The artists had once been itinerant scroll painters who had switched to hand-made paper sheets (instead of cloth) after they moved to the British imperial capital of India, Kolkata, in the 1830s. The “pats” were painted rapidly in bright water colours and by families of artisans. One artist would paint the outlines which would then be coloured in by women artists, each one assigned a different colour. In this way, it is said, 200 to 300 paintings could be completed in one hour.

So it makes sense that many of the seven paintings from the ROM’s collection, donated by Cawthra Mulock in 1996, show straight-foward representations from Hindu iconography such as Krishna with his consort Radha, the elephant god Ganesh, and the goddess Durga killing the demon Mahishasura.

996.117.4_1.jpeg     996.117.3_1.jpeg
[left] Painting of the goddess Durga kills the demon Mahisasura, Unknown artist, watercolour on paper,
Kalighat, Calcutta, Bengal, India,19th century, ROM 996.117.4 Gift of Cawthra Mulock
[right] Paintig of Radha Krishna, Unknown artist, watercolour on paper, Kalighat, Calcutta, Bengal, India,
19th century, ROM 996.117.3 Gift of Cawthra Mulock
But what is particularly astonishing about these works is the presence of Elokeshi, a young woman murdered in 1873 by her husband over her “affair” with a Mahant or high priest of the Tarakeswar Shiva temple outside of the city. The temple was known as a pilgrimmage centre for childless women who prayed for a change in fortune. The Kalighat painters told the story of this scandal in a series of paintings, including the barren Elokeshi’s introduction to the Mahant by her sister, the seduction and implied rape, the murder itself, the trial and the punishment. In fact, both men were sent to trial and ultimately punished.
The ROM’s paintings show two different scenes from the series. One painting has Elokeshi holding a red flower as the Mahant fans her. They are alone together, a sign that the seduction has begun. In the other one, it appears as if the Mahant is offering a drink to a reluctant Elokeshi as he grasps her arm (the Victoria & Albert Museum also has a copy of this painting but with a different tonalities – the information card suggests that he is about to drug her). The art historian Jyotindra Jain considers an alternate reading – Elokeshi is recovering from a fainting spell after drinking the “childbirth medicine” the Mahant had given her.
Interestingly enough, both scenes also have one of the subjects seated in a chair, showing the subtle impact of changing lifestyles due to the British presence in India.
The Mahant (priest) offers Elokeshi a drink, Unknown artist, watercolour on paper,
Kalighat, Kolkata, Bengal, India, 19th century, ROM 996.117.6 Gift of Cawthra Mulock

The Kalighat painters, most of whom are unnamed, straddled the sacred and the profane in other ways too. They used their art for other kinds of social commentary: mocking upper-class Bengali men for their newly adopted British manners; depicting the world of courtesans whose clientale were sometimes shown as lapdogs; and even painting scenes of wives beating their husbands to show the upside down-ness of a changing world.

But it is the “Tarakeswar Affair” paintings that catches one’s attention. They remind us that our obsession with the salacious story, whether it is the latest Trump rumour or a nineteenth-century murder case in Bengal, is nothing new.


Piali Roy is a member of the Friends of South Asia Committee.