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An exhibition that spotlights the female figure in early Bengal art

An exhibition in Delhi, ‘The Babu & The Bazaar’, depicts the gendered hierarchies and class differences of the time

‘Bijoya’ (copy), published by P.C. Biswas, lithograph (late 19th century). Courtesy: DAG

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 06.06.2023  |  10:15 AM IST

There are several reasons that the ongoing exhibition at DAG, The Babu & The Bazaar, stands out. For one, it offers a sweeping view of the art in 18th-19th centuries Bengal—from Kalighat pats and oil paintings to early printmaking and the rare reverse paintings on glass. Curated by historian and scholar Aditi Nath Sarkar, the show, and the accompanying publication, also shed light on the sociocultural ethos of the time, be it the class biases, gendered hierarchies, Kolkata’s history or the constant tussle between tradition and modernity. The featured works, all over a hundred years old, have been registered as non-exportable historical artefacts.

The Babu & The Bazaar, in the making since 2018, looks back at a time when people would throng the city for reasons ranging from earning a livelihood to seeking blessings at the famed Kali temple, rebuilt in 1809. “During the nineteenth century, two distinct cultures developed within the city—the culture of the masses and the culture of the moneyed—with stark, at times, rivalrous differences…. Art reacted to this division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures.," write Nath Sarkar and Shatadeep Maitra in the publication.

There is something else that makes The Babu & The Bazaar interesting: The works feature women, highlighting the differences between the elite and the masses. “While the Kalighat paintings were predominantly religious, with images of gods and goddesses made for sale to pilgrims, the bazaar too made its impact felt. As they felt that the babus were too Westernised, the Kalighat painters incorporated satirical elements as well, especially showing the babu with the courtesan," explains Giles Tillotson, senior vice-president (exhibitions), DAG. So, you find a series of five-six images showing a neatly-combed member of the elite visiting the courtesan in the same bazaar that he would otherwise turn up his nose at.

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There is a deeper—and a more disturbing—story behind this. Nath Sarkar and Maitra note that following the abolition of sati in Bengal, widows would be thrown out of their marital home. and would not be welcomed in the parental home either. “Either they had to go away to Vrindavan to spend a life in religious contemplation or get into the sex trade," states Tillotson.

The publication quotes a mid-19th century survey, which estimated that of 12,000 sex workers in Kolkata, 10,000 were widowed Hindu women. “While popular art documented the widowed women’s plight, she was objectified. Watercolour pat paintings and art studio prints from the late nineteenth century depict women as sex workers in a pin-up style art called sundari. Many show the women dressed in the customary white saree with black borders," write Nath Sarkar and Maitra. Tillotson notes that the babus did have a taste for erotica, given that the works show women dressed in translucent saris. “These expensive oils on canvases were commissioned works. Through the exhibition, there is an interesting crossover between the iconography of Kalighats and oil paintings. In both you see women wearing white sarees with black borders," he says.

Some of the works have set traditional iconography in a new context—one, for instance, depicts Krishna dancing with gopis, not on the banks of the Yamuna but in the middle of a salon in a large colonial palace in Calcutta. Tillotson mentions another one, which shows the great snake sacrifice in a Georgian-style mansion.

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“DAG acquired a lot of Kalighat paintings from a single source some years ago and they already had a number of early Bengal oils. A lot of our exhibitions are gestated over long periods. We arrive at an idea and then consistently work towards it," he says.

The Babu & The Bazaar is on view till 1 July at DAG, Janpath Road, Windsor Place, Delhi. Monday to Saturday. 10:30 am - 7 pm