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The History of Printmaking in India
A look into the development of fine art printmaking in India
Contemporary printmaking came to India in 1556, about a hundred years after Guttenberg's Bible was first printed. At this time, printmaking was used merely as a device to duplicate and reproduce. There is, however, evidence that the use of the concept of mass duplication dates even further back in India, to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. For instance, grants of land were originally recorded by engraving the information on copper plates and etchings on different surfaces like wood, bone, ivory and shells have been documented as an important craft of that time. Nevertheless, printmaking as a media for artistic expression, as it is recognized today, emerged in India less than eighty years ago.
The book, Compendio Spiritual da Vide Christaa (Spiritual Compendium of Christian Life) by Gaspar De Leo was printed in Goa in 1561. This book has been recorded as the earliest surviving printed compilation in India. A few years later, in 1568, the first illustrated cover was printed in Goa for the book Constituciones do Arcebispado d'Goa (Constitution of Archdiocese Goa). The illustration, an image of a traditional doorway or entrance, was done using the relief technique of woodblock. Thirteen such books were printed in Goa between 1556 and 1588.
The process of intaglio printing was introduced in India by the Danish missionary, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg. He published a book titled The Evangelists and the Acts of The Apostles, which was printed in Tranqueber (a district in Tamil Nadu, which was then a colony of Denmark). The opening page of this book had an etching printed in a shade of brown. This became one of the first recorded instances of colour printing in India. Another book of Ziegenbalg's, Gramatica Damulica, displays the earliest example of plate engraving.
In 1767, the British painter Tilly Kettle traveled to Madras. Several other artists followed soon after, and between 1767 and 1820 about sixty amateur artists from other countries visited India. A number of these artists worked and eventually settled in Calcutta, then the capital of British India. Two prominent artists from this time were William Daniell and Thomas Daniell. In 1786 the Daniells published the album, Twelve Views of Calcutta, containing twelve original etchings of William's drawings of the city. All the etchings were printed in monochrome and individually stained in colour ink. This was the first time anyone had explored the possibility of single sheet printing on a large scale in India.
The earliest printed illustration (a woodblock print) can be found in the book entitled Balbodha Muktavali, printed in Tanjore in 1806. However, the first example of an illustration printed by an Indian artist was part of the Bengali book, Onoodah Mongal (a compilation of tales of Biddha and Soonder). The book was published by Ganga Kishore Bhattacheryee and printed at the Ferris and Company press, Calcutta, in 1816. There are two engraved illustrations in this book, which are accompanied by the inscription 'Engraved by Ramachand Roy'.
After studying publications of intaglio prints in Calcutta, it is evident that intaglio print presses were well established in the city by 1780s. However, the first lithographic single sheet print was printed there only in 1822 by a French artist, De Savignac. Savignac re-created, as a lithograph, a portrait of Hastings originally painted by George Chinnery. The first examples of lithographic illustrations were printed for a book, at the Government Lithographic press in Kolkata in 1824.
As the demand for printed pictures for calendars, books and other publications grew in the 1870s, and as single sheet display prints (fine art prints) gained popularity, several art studios and printmaking presses flourished all over India.
Bat-tala, a name derived from a giant Banyan tree in the Shova Bazaar and Chitpur areas of Kolkata, and presently the name of a police station in the city, was the hub of Indian printmaking activities in the 19th century. The printing and publication industry that developed in the vicinity of the banyan was also known as Bat-tala, and maintained its reputation as one of the country's most important publication centers until the end of the 19th century.
During their time spent in India, the British were keen to introduce their education system and encourage the talent of craft and design-oriented artists. This in turn provided them with a means to fulfill the demand for Indian crafts in the foreign market they supplied.
The art school in Madras was founded by Dr. Alexander Hunter in 1850. Other schools that were established during the same period by the British included the School of Industrial Arts in Calcutta, in 1854; the Sir J.J. School of Arts in Bombay, in 1866; the Jeypore School of Industrial Art in Jaipur, in 1866; and the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, in 1875.
Raja Ravi Varma was the first artist in India who used printmaking, not as an artistic medium in itself, but as a means for his art to reach the masses. To achieve his purpose, he set up his own lithographic press towards the end of the 19th century, known as the Ravi Varma press in Ghatkopar, Bombay. Here he copied several of his religious and secular paintings and printed them as glossy oleographs.
The practice of printmaking as a fine art medium gained immense popularity with the establishment of Kala Bhavan founded by the Tagores in 1919. An earlier organization, also established by the Tagores, was the Bichitra Club - where new styles of painting and printmaking were explored. The three Tagore brothers, Abanindranath, Gagendranath and Samarendranath (nephews of Rabindranath Tagore), transformed the veranda of their Jorasanko residence into a meeting ground for the club and frequently hosted art salons there. Of the three brothers who spearheaded the Bichitra Club, artist Gagendranath Tagore took a special interest in lithography, and set up his own lithographic press in 1917. He later published an album of his prints.
Another prominent member of the Bichitra Club was artist Mukul Chandra Dey, who went to America in 1916 to learn the technique of etching from James Blinding Slone. He traveled again, in 1920, to England where he studied etching and engraving under Murohead Bone before returning in 1926. Dey was the first Indian artist who went abroad to learn graphic art.
Nandalal Bose was another artist closely associated with the Bichitra Club. He left Calcutta to take charge of Kala Bhavan, which was newly established at that time. Initially, only a few artists demonstrated and taught the various processes of printmaking at Kala Bhavan. However, with time, more and more artists grew familiar with printmaking as an art form and pursued it frequently. Ramendranath Chakravorty, Binode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinker Baij, Manindra Bhusan Gupta and Biswarup Bose are some of the Indian artists who generated and sustained the great interest in printmaking during the 1930s and 40s. They experimented freely with its various techniques and created several intaglio and relief prints. This was the turning point for printmaking in India, as artists no longer associated the techniques with their reproductive value, but instead, concentrated on using them to make fine art.
Kanwal Krishna is another important Indian printmaker who deserves a mention here. Krishna initially received his training in painting from the Government College of Art in Calcutta. In 1951, he went to Europe to further his education. While in Paris, he learnt the newly developed printing technique of multi-coloured intaglio, under the guidance of renowned printmaker William Hayter. When he came back to India in 1955, Krishna set up his own printing press where he practiced the processes of multi-coloured intaglio and collography. Krishna's prints were vivid in colour and had highly textured surfaces, qualities that made his work tremendously popular amongst his contemporaries.
Somnath Hore is another artist who contributed greatly to the development of printmaking in India. During his time as a student at the Government College of Art in Calcutta, Hore printed just a few wood engravings. After his graduation, however, the artist continued to research and experiment with various processes in the field of practical printmaking, mastering many of them including relief, multi-coloured intaglio and lithography.
K.G. Subramanyan is an extraordinary artist who effortlessly incorporated several printmaking processes and materials into his already diverse oeuvre. A large range of lithographic prints make up the portfolio he produced during his time at Santiniketan. Besides lithography, Subramanyan is also fluent in serigraphy and single sheet display prints. He has also printed illustrations for several children's books, which were published during his stint as a teacher at the M.S. University in Baroda.
Another artist who has made an outstanding contribution to Indian printmaking is K. Laxma Goud. Originally from Hyderabad, Goud spent his student days at the M.S. University in Baroda, studying under masters like K.G. Subramanyan. He excelled in printmaking and went on to play an important role in the evolution of the field, especially in etching and aquatints. Other prominent printmakers of period immediately following Indian independence include Sanat Kar, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Amitava Banerjee.
The 1960s and 70s brought to the fore printmakers like Jyoti Bhatt, who also received his training in Baroda. Jyoti Bhatt went on to study at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York, where he mastered the various techniques of intaglio printing. On his return in 1966, he created a studio for himself in Baroda and dedicated himself entirely to printmaking.
In 1990, the Indian Printmakers Guild was established. Over the years, it has been successful in building awareness about the medium and creating appreciation for it. The members of the group include Ananda Moy Banerji, Dattatraya Apte, Jayant Gajera, K.R. Subbanna, Bula Bhattacharya, Jayant Gajera, Kavita Nayar, Kanchan Chander, Moti Zharotia, Sushanta Guha, Sukhvinder Singh, Subba Ghosh, and Shukla Sawant. They are all devoted printmakers, and apart from being practicing artists, they run several programs and workshops for aspiring printmakers.
Chhaap, literally meaning stamp or impression, is a printmaking workshop in Baroda established on a cooperative basis in 1999. Chhaap is promoted by the artists and printmakers Gulammohammed Sheikh, Vijay Bagodi and Kavita Shah. The organization aspires to promote printmaking and continually offers new work opportunities to artists, enabling them to investigate and experiment with the different techniques. The infrastructure of Chhaap is well equipped for all mediums of printmaking and is often visited by many senior and international artists. The facilities are also open to art students and other printmaking enthusiasts.
Other such printmaking collectives and spaces include the Garhi and Lalit Kala studios in New Delhi; the Rashtriya Lalit Kala Studio in Lucknow; Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal; the Print Studio and Academy of Fine Arts in Mumbai; and the Kanoria Centre for Arts in Ahmedabad, among several others.
In recent years, with the advent of computer graphics, different software programs, scanners and printers, the notion of printmaking has changed dramatically. The classic hands-on approaches have now been replaced by entirely automated ones. Prints of images created or manipulated on a computer can now be created at the push of a button. This technology has led to some interesting variations on traditional prints, as can be seen in the works of artists like Bharti Kher, Jyoti Bhatt, Nataraj Sharma, Ravi Kashi, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Shukla Sawant amongst many others. Whether such works can be classified as fine art prints, however, is a never ending debate.