Mousumi Roy Chowdhury

Arts Research and Documentation

Mousumi Roy Chowdhury is an independent scholar, with a special interest in visual arts and performance traditions, who has extensive experience of researching and teaching gender and postcolonial themes. This grant supports her research on the work of an artist Kalam Patua, which will track the journey of the artist and the trajectory of the traditional ‘folk’ form of patua or the art of scroll painting as it relocates to the city and transforms itself into a ‘modernist’ practice. In her reading of Kalam Patua’s paintings, there are multiple threads that come together to create an exciting visual arts tradition that has largely been ignored by art researchers. Mousumi is interested in detailing the economic and cultural contexts within which Kalam Patua’s art has emerged and flourishes. Her discoveries are expected to further the understanding of how the crystallisation of a hybrid aesthetic posits a challenge to both the folk and the modern. Kalam’s advancing of the ‘modern’ style already established by the urban Kalighat pat paintings is marked by a singularity of style and authorship that reinvents both the folk and the modern.

Linked with this, Mousumi’s detailed reading of Kalam Patua’s iconography will give us insights into how the patua moved from the locale of the sacred to the profane as a fallout of its relocation within the city. According to Mousumi, the polyphony and multiculturalism of the city, and particularly its market economy, functioned as ‘contact zones’ for a traditional artist such as Kalam, sparking off a hybrid aesthetics, marked by multiplicity of styles, themes and medium. For instance, Kalam’s representation of women’s sexual bodies, male and female nudes and semi nudes—though working within the aesthetic economy of the traditional patua—reveals a modernist interiority unknown in the Kalighat pat paintings. Also interesting is the wide range of subjects and sites that have become part of Kalam’s contemporary oeuvre, such as the exploration of homosexual and homosocial relations, the figuring of apparatuses of viewing such as mirror and camera, images of the 9/11 tragedy, rickshaw pullers in the city and so on.       

But what Mousumi is most interested in is the tension between the folk and the modern inscribed in Kalam Patua’s life and work: when an artist such as Kalam forays into the modern, somehow he continues to be identified within the folk idiom rather than through the (more privileged) lens of ‘autonomisation’ afforded to the modern artist. This containment of Kalam within a collectivist folk identity by art institutions and museums ends up marginalising his work in a two ways—not only is he cut off from the lucrative ‘modernist’ art market, but also denied a space for self-representation in public platforms on patua art. The latter is underscored further when the artistic legacy of Kalam Patua is contrasted with the modernism of artists such as Jamini Roy and Pablo Picasso who similarly experimented with folk idioms without sacrificing their modernist credentials.   

Following from this, Mousumi intends to read Kalam Patua’s paintings as the site of ‘ceaseless and manifold’ conflict between the folk and the modern that layers the paintings with complex messages. In some of Kalam’s paintings, notably ‘Sneaking Into the Mirror’ and ‘Nectar of Her Body’,  the satirical ‘babu’ figure of the patua tradition undergoes a second self-reflexive, parodic shift, where the nude babu affords a comment on the patua itself, which then becomes the site of recovering Kalam Patua’s signature modernist style. A similar modernist motif of irony is at work in other paintings in the way Kalam takes on the male gaze of the patua tradition with its proliferation of voluptuous female bodies intended for a lowbrow market. In Kalam Patua’s rendering, the voyeuristic gaze of the male and female nude subjects is reflected back through the mirror into which they gaze, thus offering the possibility of modernist subjectivity, as well as a critique of modernist self-absorption.

For her study, which will be completed in one year, Mousumi will interview Kalam Patua and collect prints and copies of his paintings. As outcomes, Mousumi hopes to publish a book or a series of journal articles.