If one were to visit Ronald and Catherine Berndt’s residential home in the late 1960’s and further venture into the couple’s sunroom they would have been embraced with a wall of Indian watercolour paintings depicting religious iconography and mythological characters.

Known as Kalighat paintings, works such as these were created in the Kali Temple area on the ghat (bank) of the Burin Ganga canal, in Kolkata (formally Calcutta). Made by the Bengali Hindus of the patua (painter) community, these works were created in the latter half of the 19th Century. Calcutta during this period was a booming metropolis and Kalighat paintings were created and sold as pilgrim and tourist souvenirs to those flocking temples or visiting the British India capital for trade or tourism. These inexpensive, mass produced images, executed with swift brush strokes and bold homemade dyes on mill-made paper, were intended to aid domestic worship and therefore typically depicted Hindu deities and scenes of religious life. With the rise of a Western presence in Calcutta, Kalighat paintings soon developed to reflect the world of the Westernised babus (Hindu gentlemen), with the Kalighat patuas at times using the art form as a powerful instrument of satire – to mock westernisation.

Regardless of their sometimes satirical nature, the Kalighat paintings were popular items with Europeans, who brought the inexpensive works as either curios or as a symbol of Hindu iconography. Christian missionaries also acquired these works to understand the beliefs of their potential Hindu converts, as Hinduism in the Christian faith was considered polytheistic and the idolatrous beliefs depicted in Kalighat paintings evidence of the ‘need’ for conversion. Many Kalighat paintings were hung in Christian churches behind the altar as a reminder of missionary purpose, whilst others were bound in scrapbooks and taken as mementoes back to their missionary homeland. To the Bengali Hindu’s however, the Kalighat served as a powerful testament of their underlying Hindu worship.

For Ronald and Catherine Berndt, the attraction to the Calcutta Kalighat’s was based on the imagery of Hindu iconography, praising the swift executions of the Kalighat patua to reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the Bengali people. Ronald Berndt acquired the collection of Kalighats from an Adelaide antiques dealer around 1963. They were purchased as a set pasted down in a Victorian album, the entirely religious nature of the album suggesting they were collected and inscribed by early Baptist missionaries and brought back to Adelaide as either a memento of missionary service in Calcutta or as an education tool to inform others of this far away religion and its many gods. From here the album spent some time in the hands of the renowned landscape watercolour artist Hans Heysen before they were sold to Mogul antiques of Adelaide, and subsequently purchased by the Berndt’s. Of the original album, ten where acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria and six by the Art Gallery of New South Wales where they remain as part of their collections today.

Ronald Berndt painstakingly removed each Kalighat painting from the Victorian album to breathe ‘new life’ into each work – to Ronald and Catherine Berndt culture was never ‘frozen’ nor ‘dead’ and by displaying the Kalighats in their household for so many years and later bequeathing them to the museum dedicated to their name, was to reignite Bengali 19th century culture and belief. The Berndt’s collection of Kalighat paintings remain an object of study at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology and are one of the largest holdings of Kalighat painting in any Australian public institution.