The Forgotten Art of Patna Qalam

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In museums in Europe and India are priceless pieces of Patna’s past, captured for all time by a long-forgotten school of art. While Bihar’s famous Madhubani paintings are well known, the extinct art form known as Patna Qalam sadly draws a blank, except perhaps in art circles.

And yet this school of art flourished in Bihar for close to 190 years, chronicling the lives of common folk. Featuring simple scenes, its artists recorded the everyday lives of regular people, in their homes, on the streets, in the bazaars and celebrating festivals.

Durga Pooja in Patna (1809), Sewak Ram | The British Library

History of Migration

Curiously, Patna Qalam, which derives its name from Bihar’s capital city, did not originate here. Its story is the tale of migration influenced by some of the turning points in India’s medieval history. According to Mildred Archer, author of Patna Painting (1948), the original artists of this school were from Udaipur in Rajputana and they migrated to the Mughal court in Agra under Emperor Akbar in 1585 CE. With the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 CE and the subsequent decline of the Mughals, these artists started to migrate, once again in search of patronage for their work.

In 1730 CE, they left Agra and Delhi and headed for Murshidabad, the capital of city of the Nawabs of Bengal. But they didn’t stay here long. By the 1760s, the power and influence of the Nawabs of Bengal had dwindled due to their power struggle with the East India Company, and these artists set their sights on Patna in the late 18th century CE.

Harihar Kshetra Festival (Sonpur Mela) (1826), Sewak Ram | Victoria and Albert Museum

Patna: A Rich & Vibrant City

An evening procession in Patna, Sewak Lal | Musuem of Fine Arts, Houston

At the time, Patna was the third most important city in the Eastern part of the subcontinent, after Murshidabad and Dacca (now Dhaka in Bangladesh). It was an important centre of trade and commerce, and home to a growing European community as the Danapur cantonment in the city was then the only other British cantonment between Kolkata and Kanpur.

Chhath Pooja in Patna (1800), Sewak Ram

Thanks to the patronage of zamindars and other wealthy Indians, as well as a growing European community in Patna, these painters and their art flourished and the paintings found a new home.

Nautch Girls in a court (1860), Patna, Shiva Lal | Victoria and Albert Museum

What is Patna Qalam?

Patna Qalam is a fusion of the Mughal and Company (a British style of paintings that developed during the time of the East India Company) styles of painting. Borrowing from Mughal art, these artists too used extremely fine brush strokes and bright colours. However, unlike Mughal art, they used plain backgrounds without elaborate landscapes so that the subject remained in focus.

Indian Sports on the riverside by Hulas Lal (1830) | Victoria and Albert Museum

On the other hand, like Company paintings, Patna Qalam artists too used watercolours, various shades of light, and also had a penchant for featuring birds in their works.

The Day's Provision, Bani Lal | British Library

However, unlike Company-style paintings, Patna Qalam artworks were painted directly with a brush without using a pencil to sketch the contours of the picture. This technique was known as ‘Kajli Seahi’.

Stall for the sale of Idols- Shiva Dayal Lal (1870) | British Museum

Patna Qalam is probably the world’s first independent school of painting which dealt exclusively with the commoner and his or her everyday life. Scenes commonly depicted were of regular folk going about their daily chores.

Holi Celebration in Patna (1795), Unknown Artist | British Library

The reason for featuring themes like this is that the British, the biggest patrons of Patna Qalam, commissioned these works to take back to England as depictions of everyday life in an Indian city. The camera was yet to be invented and these paintings were the only tangible representation of their time in India.

Prominent Artists & The Glory Years

Geneological Table of Patna Qalam Painters | Patna Paintings, Mildred Archer

Patna Qalam started to really flourish in 1770 CE and among the earliest artists were Sewak Ram and Hulas Lal. However, the school’s most celebrated artists were Shiva Lal and his maternal uncle Shiva Dayal Lal. Together, they ushered in the glory days of this art form, which was in the first half of the 19th century, when the quality of work, innovation and resultant popularity of the Patna paintings was at its zenith.

Both uncle and nephew had studios in Patna, which employed budding artists who flocked to Patna from across India to learn this art form.

Tamtam by Shiva Lal

Shiva Dayal Lal was the go-to artist of the zamindars and other Indian patrons in Bihar, while his nephew Shiva Lal was the most popular Patna Qalam artist among Europeans. Shiva Lal also was an astute businessman and some of his most prominent patrons were Dr D R Lyall, Personal Assistant in charge of the opium factory in Patna, and Sir Charles D'Oyly, the opium agent in Patna, among others of that standing. The Europeans purchased Shiva Lal's paintings and often even sold them in England.

There were women Patna Qalam artists who too left their mark, the most prominent being Sona Bai and Daksho Bibi. Sona Bai was the daughter of Shiva Lal and she passed on the tricks of the trade to her son, Ishwari Prasad Verma, who is often regarded as the last prominent painter of Patna Qalam.

Decline & Death of Patna Qalam

The arrival of the lithography press in Patna in 1829 was the beginning of the decline of Patna Qalam. Suddenly, cheaper copies of these paintings, printed at the press, could be purchased both in India and abroad. Second, after the Revolt of 1857, the British Crown took over the administration of India from the British East India Company, and Patna Qalam lost some of its greatest patrons and its biggest source of demand.

Next, the death of Shiva Lal in 1887 and of Shiva Dayal Lal in 1880 and the resultant closure of their studios led to an exodus of an entire generation of painters from Patna. Shiva Lal's own grandson, Ishwari Prasad Verma, too moved to Kolkata in 1904.

The invention of the camera as the world moved into the 20th century was the ultimate death blow to this school of art, as the very void it filled no longer existed. Finally, with the death of Ishwari Prasad Verma in 1950, the long line of Patna Qalam artists came to an end. Without any artist to carry the legacy forward, the common man's painting faded into oblivion.

One of the last well known paintings from the Patna Qalam of the Golghar in Patna by Ishwari Prasad Verma

One can still find collections of some of these paintings displayed proudly at the Khuda Baksh Oriental Library in Patna, at the Patna Museum, the Chaitanya Pustakalaya in Muzaffarpur, and other museums in India. Many have been preserved in the collections of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum in London and some other museums in Europe.

It’s all we have left, not only of a forgotten but celebrated school of art but of the vibrant legacy of artists who chronicled a slice of life in Patna and took it to the world.