Patna Kalam : These migrating artists established a rising art-market in the 19th century.

    In the 19th century, aside from being an important political, trading and manufacturing centre, Patna emerged as a thriving hub for artists. Here, artists migrating from Delhi and Murshidabad’s royal courts received patronage from the East India Company’s officials, local elites – administrators, merchants, lawyers, doctors – and even travellers. Adapting their skills to European tastes, the artists produced a new, hybrid art style. The ‘Patna Kalam’ as it came to be known, is thus considered by art historians to be an important branch of ‘Company Paintings’ (or firangi paintings) – that assimilated the complicated interplay of European and Indian culture of the period.

    Here’s a deeper look into the art and its characteristics, and the city’s artists who’s work attracted connoisseurs from Britain & India alike, in the 19th century.

    Patna Kalam painting dance party
    Nautch girls in a court (1860) – Shiva Lal | V&A Museum

    Many of the Patna paintings featured here are from the V&A & British Museum collection; the latter was bequeathed to the museum by Mr. P. C. Manuk – a barrister in Patna and an avid collector of Indian miniatures credited with the “discovery of Patna paintings”. While investigating Mughal miniatures in Patna City in the early 1900s, he stumbled upon the examples of the work of Shiva Lal, one of the prominent painters of the school. Manuk’s collection paved the way for all subsequent collections and it is to his enlightened taste and scholarship that we owe the preservation & knowledge of these paintings. His research, and that of the art historian Mildred Archer’s work based on (the last known practicing artist), Ishwari Prasad’s memoirs that enable us to understand Patna Kalam paintings.

    Patna Kalam : Origin, Style and Influences

    The origins of Patna Kalam are obscure and largely known from Ishwari Prasad’s account : the artists, a family of Kayasths, first lived in the Partabgarh district of Udaipur Rajputana, then migrated to the Mughal court around the 16th century. Declining patronage during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb (1658 – 1707) was probably why the artists migrated to Murshidabad where, in addition to painting for their Nawabi patrons, they also created portraits for the European gentry.

    Patna Kalam painting showing an Ekka - vehicle.
    Passenger in an Ekka by Shiva Lal (circa 1820-80). Patna, circa mid-19th century.

    However, in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey (c.1757), Mir Jaffar’s son Miran alias Mohamed Sadiq Khan – ‘Nasir-ul-Mulk, Ala-u-Dowlah’ – drove the Hindu artists, amidst others, to migrate once more – this time to Patna. This group of migrants laid the foundation of what is now known as the Patna School of Painting.

    This watercolour painting of the Chhat Festival of Bihar is believed to be one of the earliest examples of painting made for the British by Indian artists in Patna.

    Chhat Puja, 1795, Unknown Artist, in the collection of the British Library. It was made for Ephraim Pote who served in Bengal from 1773 to 1800 while he was stationed at Patna.

    In the painting, you see women gathered at the banks of the river, making offerings to the Sun God. The British Library identifies the style to be similar to the work of Murshidabad artists – with elongated figures wearing costumes with jagged folds- who might have migrated to Patna to work for the British.

    Style and Influences

    The style of the Patna paintings is a melting pot of two influences – the Mughal and the European art.

    Patna paintings have a formalized precision, and are characterized by the perfect contours in facial features. These paintings rarely have any landscape, foreground or background. The somber color range too, is undoubtedly an influence of the European prints and watercolors of the period.


    These pictures were painted directly with the brush, (without being drawn in pencil first). This technique was known as Kajli seahi. The Patna School tradition developed an individualistic style and technique, very different from the usual Mughal School (due to the the Persian influence) and the less formal Rajput School. Moreover, the Patna artists made their own pigments, brushes and paper as their ancestors did in the Mughal courts.

    Color pigments

    Pigments used to paint the subjects were derived from readily available natural sources. The figures were usually painted in deep sepia and a muted red ochre. Clothing in the paintings were dull white with soft grey shadows enhanced by pools of deep crimson and sometimes touched with dull gold and deep peacock blue.

    The color scheme of the Patna paintings underwent a change over the period of its evolution. The bright Mughal colors gave way to the fashionable somber hues of the print (when the picture was intended for a European market).

    Another development was in the shading of solid forms. In the early pictures shadow was painted by the old Mughal technique -darker tones of the same colour were applied. In the later versions of the painting, the shadow is shown with soft washes of color, just as in an English watercolor.

    Use the slider below to compare these two images. Can you tell the difference?


    For very fine work, the artists used a brush made from the tail hair of squirrels. For bolder and broader work, they used hair from the tail of a goat, neck of a hog or the neck of a buffalo. All these hair, except those of the squirrel, were first softened by being boiled.


    In the early days, the painters made their own paper from cotton or rags (tulat). Later, they used hand-made paper from Nepal created with jute or bamboo saplings (bansaha). In the latter half of the eighteenth century, they began to use machine-made drawing paper from Europe.


    The artists painted numerous specimens that showcased the scenes of every day life in the city. These colored sketches of every day life of Patna folk were admirably drawn as life-like representations.

    • There were the familiar figures of the European compound – washer men, butlers returning from the market, tailors, servants and sweepers exercising the dogs.
    • Then they portrayed the various bazaar tradesmen and craftsmen – pedlars, bangle-sellers, butchers, fish-sellers, basket makers, carpenters, distillers, toddy-sellers, candle makers, sweetmeat-sellers, water-carriers, brass-workers, thread makers and blacksmiths.
    • Many of the paintings feature festivals, celebrations, weddings.
    The day’s provisions – Bani Lal | British Library

    While this demand for snapshots and scenes of ordinary life was being established, a second and further demand based on a second type of European taste had also developed. If certain Europeans were interested in documenting Indian life, others valued a pictorial record of their own families, and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries miniature portraits on paper, vellum, mica, bone, and later, ivory, were in fashion with the upper and middle classes.

    Artists of the Patna Kalam

    Sewak Ram (1770 – 1830)

    Sewak Ram was an artist retained in the Durbar of the then Maharaja of Benares. In 1790, he migrated to Patna after his patron’s death and worked in the city until 1826. An unusual feature of Sewak Ram’s work was the Kajli seahi technique, which required considerable skill in painting what were really ‘miniatures’. The smaller the dimensions of the picture, more difficult was the required brush touch.

    Through his work, we get a glimpse into the festivals, culture and lives of people in Patna. The following image seems to be from a Dussehra celebration; the procession is led by two celebrants dressed as Rama and Lakshmana. Similarly, there are paintings that show the Chhat Festival, Holi celebrations, Cattle Fair (Harihar Kshetra), Muharram and others.

    Sewak Ram (1770/1830) Graphite, watercolor and gouache with gold on laid Indian paper. Public Domain; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

    He seemed to have had different styles of painting, with his larger compositions being closer to European water colors with an emphasis on modelling, transparency and neutral tones.

    Hulas Lal (1785-1875)

    Besides the paintings of Sewak Ram, the work of another artist – Hulas Las – has survived from this early period. Hulas Lal came from Benares and was a cousin of Jairam Das, the painter assistant of Sir Charles D’Oyly. Lal’s ancestors originally came from the United Provinces, and had for many years been working in Benares under the patronage of the Maharajas. Little is known of their painting, but the great-grandfather of Hulas was known as ‘Chandji’. His father – Lalji – is said to have been a pupil of Johan Zoffany. In 1815, there were no European portrait painters working in Delhi. Lalji and his son Hulas had a reputation for producing portraits in a European manner. In a diary entry, James Fraser writes about the father son duo: 

    “…[he] does not disgrace his teacher considering the usual total want of idea of light and shade that the natives in general labour under – his son paints better than himself and it is to him I have got William to sit”

    India Revealed: the art and adventures of James and William Fraser; Archer and Falk, 1989

    Much more is known about Hulas himself, for his grandson, Shyam Bihari Lal, had in his possession of a sketch-book with “Hoolas Lal, Draughtsman” inscribed on the flyleaf. Hulas Lal was employed by the East India Company as a draughtsman, and that he supplemented his income by carrying out orders for both English and Indian patrons. He had instruction in the European technique, for his notebook contains exercises in perspective and sketches of landscapes and boats which are identical in technique with the pen-and-ink drawings of Sir Charles D’Oyly or the well known painter George Chinnery. Art Historians have often indicated that Hulas Lal’s early work paralleled that of Sewak Ram.

    From 1850 to 1880, Patna painting was dominated by the work of two brothers — Shiva Lal and Shiva Dayal Lal.

    Very few of their paintings have survived, but as Shiva Lal was Ishwari Prasad’s grandfather, a great deal is known about their careers. During this period the market for Patna-Kalam reached its peak and the patronage of locals also became of great importance. Musavvir-khanas (artist studios) became popular amidst art-connoisseurs.

    Shiva Lal – Shahi Musavvir (1817 – 1887)

    Shiva Lal, the ‘Shahi Musavvir’ (Imperial Artist) was born in Patna. The ‘Shahi’ salutation indicates that his family originally worked for the royal atelier (Mughals).

    He had opened a Studio or ‘Musavvirkhana’ and preferred to remain a freelancer, painting on commissions from wealthy patrons and training his pupils. The studio was visited by eager learners from Patna, Benares, Allahabad, Lucknow and even Murshidabad. The studio produced ‘snapshots’ of scenes of Indian life, trades and costumes on paper & mica, as well as pictures of birds in large numbers.

    Shiva Lal was a capable businessman apart from being a good artist. As a painter of miniature portraits he built up a large clientele of European as well as Indian customers, and at the height of his career was making appointments much as a portrait photographer made back in the day. Besides painting miniatures, Shiva Lal also painted scenes of contemporary life for private patrons, and in this respect his wide network was of great importance.

    One such European contact was Dr. D. R. Lyall, Personal Assistant in charge of Opium. Lyall also had an enthusiasm for painting, and it was through his efforts that a scheme for wall-paintings in the Gulzarbagh Opium Factory was worked out. Shiva Lal prepared a series of drawings showing the manufacturing process of the opium trade; he even prepared a series on the history of opium trade, but never executed the paintings.

    Sir Charles D’Oyly, the Opium Agent in Patna in 1873, also bought pictures from Shiva Lal, and is said to have given him a certificate on leaving Patna.

    Shiva Dayal Lal (1820 – 1880)

    Shiya Dayal Lal’s career and type of work in Patna were similar to those of his cousin Shiva Lal. However, he was less of a business man and his clients were mainly Indian. He also painted miniature portraits on ivory and had a large clientele. Like Shiva Lal, he also painted scenes from daily life. This master artist was retained in the Durbar of Rai Sultan Bahadur, a Rais of Patna City.

    Moreover, Shiva Dayal Lal also had a workshop in which he trained young artists, the two best known of his assistants being Bahadur Lal II (1850-1910) and his brother Jamuna Prasad (1859-1884). This workshop never reached the proportions of Shiva Lal’s, nor did it produce so many paintings. However, it remains an important factor in later Patna paintings.

    Little is known about the actual organization of the Patna school between 1850 and 1860, but names of six artists from later on are known — Gopal Lal (1840-1911), with his elder brother Gur Sahay Lal (1835-1915); Bani Lal (1850-1901) and his cousin Bahadur Lal I (1850-1933); Kanhai Lal (1856-1916); and Jaigovind Lal (1878-1908). Other minor artists probably drifted through the ‘shop’ from time to time.

    The two artists about whom most is known are Gur Sahay Lal and Bani Lal. The former was the older man and his style retained something of an earlier period — the large eyes and curved lashes, the heavy brows and deep folds, the early feeling for a simple geometric pattern. His color scheme is limited and rarely moves outside a gingerish brown, blue-grey and occasionally crimson and yellow.

    Bani Lal (1850 – 1901)

    Bani Lai was a pupil of Shiva Lal. His style is quite distinct and his work, like Shiva Lal’s, included three types for different markets. Bani Lal’s style is far more natural than his contemporary, Gur Sahay Lal (featured in the birds-animals gallery below), and there is no exaggeration of any kind.

    Bani Lal’s skill is evident in the second depicting midday-rest in which the composition and drawing is excellent and the colors subdued.

    Flora and Fauna of Patna Kalam

    Explore the ‘Birds of India’ in company paintings with this exhibition organized by DAG.

    Ishwari Prasad (1870 – 1949)

    Ishwari Prasad was born in the house of his maternal grandfather, Shiva Lal, in Lodikatra, a quarter of Patna City. His father and paternal grandfather hailed from the Allahabad district, but neither of them were artists. Ishwari Prasad’s mother, Sonabai was learnt the art from her father and further passed it on to Prasad.

    Decline of Patna Kalam

    In the last decade of the 19th century, after the death of Shiva Lal and Shiva Dayal Lal, their studios too ceased to exist. One of the main reasons for the collapse was the advent of photography. The new technology fascinated everyone and reproductions of ‘Indian life’ became quicker and were surely more reliable.

    Ishwari Prasad too, moved to Calcutta in 1904 as a Professor of Fine Arts and Indian Painting at the School of Art. With his death in the early years of India’s Independence, the Patna Kalam ceased to exist.

    Detail a lady in a white robe by Ishwari Prasad (on silk), 20th century; Indian Museum, Kolkata

    The Patna painters didn’t conform to Mughal or European styles as they recorded the everyday life of common folk in their works. Across generations, these painters continued to celebrate the cultural fabric of 19th century Patna that would have otherwise remained unknown and only imaginary.

    In India, you can see Patna Kalam paintings at:

    Jalan Museum in Patna City, Chaitanya Pustakalaya at Gai Ghat (Muzaffarpur district), Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library (Patna), Bihar Museum (Patna) and Patna Museum (Patna).

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    References + Suggested Reading:
    1. The Patna School of Painting by P. C. Manuk – The Journal of Bihar Research Society, Vol. XXIX, 1943 (
    2. Patna Painting by Mildred Archer ([/bg_collapse]

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    Arunesh Varade
    Arunesh Varade
    Art enthusiast. On a pursuit to discover and learn more about Indian culture and heritage.

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