We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of NSW stands.


Matsya, the fish incarnation of Vishnu



Kalighat style


circa 1830 – 1930

  • Details

    Other Titles
    Matsya, the fish avatar of Vishnu
    The god Narrayon, as an incarnation of a fish
    Place where the work was made
    Kolkata (Calcutta) West Bengal India
    Media categories
    Painting , Watercolour
    Materials used
    watercolour with silver paint on paper
    42.5 x 27.3 cm
    Signature & date

    Not signed. Not dated.

    Purchased 1959
    Not on display
    Accession number

    Reproduction requests

    Artist information
    Kalighat style

    Works in the collection


  • About

    Images such as this are known as Kalighat paintings, after the famous Kalighat temple in Kolkata (Calcutta) dedicated to Kali, the fearsome goddess of time and death. From around 1830, distinctive, quickly painted souvenirs were produced in large numbers for visitors who flocked to the temple. The images were intended to aid domestic worship and typically illustrate Hindu deities. Later, mass-produced prints replaced Kalighat paintings.

    Images of Vishnu in one of his ten incarnations or avatars were particularly prevalent. This painting shows Vishnu as his first avatar, Matsya the fish. Vishnu took the form of a fish to save humankind and the ancient texts during an enormous flood. As part of the enterprise Matsya killed the conch demon and when he blows into the conch shell, the balance of
    the earth is restored.

  • Exhibition history

    Shown in 4 exhibitions

  • Bibliography

    Referenced in 7 publications

    • Rachel Barnes, Guardian weekly, 'Indian inklings', pg. 26-27, Manchester, 08 Mar 1994. General reference

    • Kate Brittlebank, TAASA Review, "Postscript: Kalighat's Missionaries', pg. 23, Sydney, Dec 2006.

    • Kate Brittlebank, TAASA Review, 'Unexpected Connections: An Australian Kalighat Album Reunited', pg. 4-5, Sydney, Jun 2006, 5 (colour illus.).

    • Kate Brittlebank, Journal of the History of Collections, 'Anthropology, fine art and missionaries: The Berndt Kalighat album rediscovered', pg.127-142, Oxford, May 2008.

    • Elizabeth Fortescue, The Daily Telegraph, 'Indian history through art', pg. 91, Sydney, 28 May 2004, 91 (illus.).

    • Jackie Menzies (Editor), The Asian Collections Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'Folk Paintings and Souvenir Pictures', Sydney, 2003, 48 (colour illus.).

    • Jill Sykes, Look, 'Artworks from India under the British Raj...', pg.30, Sydney, Jul 2010, 30 (colour illus.).

  • Provenance

    Lucy Thompson, 1890-1951, Adelaide/South Australia/Australia, purchased in Kolkata between 1890 and 1913.

    Hans Heysen, pre 1953, Hahndorf/South Australia/Australia

    Stefan Heysen, Jun 1959, Hahndorf/South Australia/Australia, by descent

    David Jones' Art Gallery, Sydney, 24 Jul 1959, Sydney/New South Wales/Australia, purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 24 July 1959

Other works by Kalighat style

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