Like western India, the eastern zone has produced examples illustration and painted book covers dating back to the earliest period of any surviving in India. The subject of these manuscripts are, however, invariably Buddhist. Surviving from a couple of centuries later (sixteenth century) are a group of Hindu manuscripts with decorated cover boards. Examples from Bengal are now housed in London (British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum) and Calcutta (Asutosh Museum). Scenes from the Krishna-lila or of the ten avataras of Vishnu are the preferred subjects.
The coastal strip of Orissa has, for a long time, had its own tradition of painting, especially that associated with the cult of Jagannatha at Puri. Paintings of this popular god, who is now looked on as a form of Krishna, are produced as holy souvenirs for pilgrims to carry home with them. A common type shows the god flanked by his brother and sister - Balabhadra and Subhadra - within their temple at Puri.
Small painted images of the god(s), made of wood, are also produced. The tradition of painting on cloth, at its best, displays a use of bright colours combined with a minute and detailed technique. Other subjects illustrated include deities popular in the region: Krishna subduing the snake demon Kaliya; five- headed Ganesha; and the lion-headed avatara of Vishnu, Narasimha.
The temple souvenirs showing the Gods in the Puri temple again illustrate the important traditional aesthetics of Hindu India which disregards perspevtive, and orders the painting subject according to an hierarchy of importance, rather than one of the realism. Further, architecture is shown in the same painting, in elevation, section and plan. The sacred pattern which all these conventions produce, with the Gods in their rightful place at the centre, makes the painting successful as the powerful icon of the deity.
Calcutta, the capital city of Bengal, located on the banks of the Hooghly, was the gateway for trade into much of Northern India during the British period, and also the location of a school of Hindu painting. This was centred on the temple of Kali, and is known to scholars as Kalighat painting from the district around the temple and its river-bank steps (ghats). Here, during the 19th century, artists prepared paintings of the Gods, specially with those popular with the local Bengali population.
Often brightly coloured and painted on ephemeral bazaar paper, they fulfilled the same function as today's photomechanical prints. They proved especially popular with a wider, non-Hindu audience in this century, because of the discriminating, though unselfconscious, way in which the artists pared down all details to minimum number of lines. They thus speedily produced bright and fair images at a very low price.
The Kalighat artists almost certainly belonged to the rural caste who had traditionally been the painters of scrolls used by travelling story-tellers. They set up at the temple, attracted by the wealth of the thriving new city. The function of these story-telling painters has today been taken over by Cinema and television, but the recitation of the traditional and local story, accompanied by the showing of the scroll with its many registers, has had a long history in eastern India. Indeed, texts records that this was once a pan-Indian tradition which has now dwindled to rural Bengal and only a few other locations.
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