No historical overview of the Bengal art scene would
be complete without mentioning the region's pioneering
role in the evolution of Indian art prints.
Early Indian Prints and engravings in Bengal have
no spiritual connection to modern Indian art prints.
Nevertheless we shall touch briefly on the subject
for its unique historical, topical and cultural interest.
Printing of pictures from blocks began in India at
the same time as the printing of books on paper, after
the printing press was introduced from the West. The
printing press reached Calcutta towards the latter
part of the 18 th centurry. But art-in-print or fine
prints as a self-expressive art form developed much
Daniells Print Solvyns
Several peripatetic professional European artists
had settled in Calcutta at this time - including engravers
scouting for prospects. Calcutta thus became the center
for the publication of the first famous books of prints
- few though these numbered. They included Thomas and
William Daniell's 'Twelve Views of Calcutta', William
Baillie's 'Twelve Views of Calcutta & Fort William',
Robert Mabon's `Twenty Sketches Illustrative of Oriental
Manners and Customs' and Frans Baltasar Solvyn's `A
Collection of 250 Colored Etchings descriptive of “Manners,
Customs and Dresses of the Hindoos'. Local artisans
must have collaborated in the processes of engraving
and printing – though some print makers disclaimed
this; otherwise printing presses could not have multiplied
as swiftly as they did in the `Black Town' where the
The early relief printed pictures by Indians in the
first half of the 19th Century were all textual illustrations,
made mainly with wood or metal engravings or sometimes
lithographs. The printing, stocking and selling of
these publishing outfits being located in the 'Bat-tala'
area of North Calcutta , these prints came to be known
as ‘Bat-tala' prints. They were low-priced, cheaply
produced books printed in bulk on coarse paper. From
this eventually evolved the famous Battala wood block
print in the second half of the 19th century.
Innovations first evolved in theme and design. The
Bat-tala engravers started handling other assignments
such as the cutting of large letters for billboards
and posters, designs for advertisements, labels for
various commodities, etc, with a wide range of flourishes
and thematic variations – even including, in a cosmopolitan
spirit, portraits of Nelson and Napolean on biri' packets.
The woodblock prints that developed from this are
in a sense a variation of the Kalighat paintings -belonging
technologically to the age of printing, but spiritually
to the style of the Kalighat Pat, in subject, imagery
and other elements.They were triggered by economics.
The enormous pressure faced by the traditional ‘patuas',
who themselves took very occasional recourse to lithography
to cope with increasing demand. The woodblock prints
developed in ‘Bat-tala' – in a competitive spirit – therefore
had an excellent market. Unashamed copying of Kalighat's
secular pictures, satirical pointers, and comtemporary
themes gave these prints a distinctively modern feel,
and ensured their wide circulation. The difference
was that while the Kalighat ‘patuas' can be classified
in the category of the ‘true artist', the ‘Bat-tala'
engravers were craftsmen.
Another genre of print also developed from this area.
Ramdhan Swarnakar's “Shri Shri Bindubasini” and other
similar themes conceptualize the deities innovatively,
with Europeanised images of winged angels, unicorns,
armed sepoys, etc, in a more sophisticated, contemporary
Both the Bat-tala and later Kalighat died later a
natural death in a market burgeoning with newer, more
competitive technologies and marketing processes. None
of the various schools and styles of print that flooded
markets in Calcutta and elsewhere thereafter, left
any impress on the map of Fine Arts in India , though “calender
art” and the popular “Ravi Varma” style of litho prints
that developed after Calcutta , in the Bombay-Poona
region of Western India, daily beseige the shelves
of our popular culture.
Contemporary Indian Art Prints originated in the efforts
of 20th Century Indian artists to develop and refine
print-making into an independent medium of artistic
expression. The father of modern lndian prints is generally
acknowledged to be Bengal artist Somenath Hore, who
worked and experimented widely with the medium after
receiving preliminary guidance from another reputed
artist, Krishna Reddy – who had in turn been initiated
into the basic processes while working in the studio
of master print-maker William Hayter.
Somenath Hore engraving
The Indian art market is far less open to Graphics
as an art form than more discerning Western markets.
Yet, there are textures and visuals that can be produced
through different processes like lithographs, etchings,
monoprints and woodcuts, which would not be possible
in paintings or drawings.
Veteran Bengal artist Paritosh Sen says, "You
cannot be a good print maker if you are not a good painter." And
many in fact of today's famous Indian painters are
also eminently creative printmakers who are responsible
for the proliferation of print-making into diverse
techniques mediums and technologies, and the growing
demand for prints in the current market.
These include, senior masters like Amitabha Banerjee,
Lalu Prasad Shaw, Laxma Gaud, Paramjit Singh, Sanat
Kar; and more recent artist-print-masters like Swapan
Kr. Das, Anupam Sud, Shukla Sen Poddar and Anita Chakravarty.
Each has added an additional dimension to the art.
Sanat Kar for instance pioneered wood intaglio, cardboard
intaglio and sun mica engravings. And Swapan Das leads
the international coterie of print-makers in the multiplicity
of colour gradations that can be introduced into a
single linocut – upto 130 in his case.
Swapan Das Linocut Sanat
Few people though know the difference between a commercial
and an original print. Though prints are cheaper than
paintings, they are exclusive art forms in their own
right, made in limited editions and bearing the artist's
signature. Printmakers must abide by the rules passed
by the international convention of printmakers, by
which the number of editions made from each plate is
limited, and the matrix is thereafter broken or cancelled
by slashing through with a diagonal line. In fact,
most artists take a proof of the cancelled palte to
establish their adherence to the rules.
And making prints by any process is an arduous descipline.
In India , unlike the West, there are no professional
printers who ‘finish' an etching; the entire process
is executed by the artist himself. Acid fumes and physically
stressful work conditions often cause older printmakers
to opt out.
To sum up, every genre of the non-performing visual
arts – whether painting, sculpture, or print – in modern
India , is gradually and confidently coming of age.
The point of departure for the original artist in any
medium is no longer the subject matter. The concern
is to create abstract values and an art object which
is “an addition to reality, or is itself a new reality”.
In other sections we shall trace briefly the evolution
of innovative trends and concepts as they developed
and transformed in the work of representative contemporary
Indian artists. While Bengal will remain our focus,
we shall also give brief sketches of eminent artists
and art trends in other areas of the country.
Contemporary Indian Art: Historical
Contemporary Art Movements in India
Contemporary Indian Art Prints
Contemporary Art in Calcutta & Bengal