Artists: Notes on Art Making

Lithography, a method of printing from drawings made on stone, was adopted by Indian artists and used for the creation of popular pictures. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Calcutta market was flooded by such prints; the style of these pictures was somewhat western and largely instrumental in changing Indian taste. The development of the lithograph in India coincided with the beginnings of photography here and with a new wave of western academism which through the art schools changed Indian artistic aims. The coloured litho print by its cheapness, availability and ‘modernity’ overwhelmed all the existing art media emerging triumphant as a dominant art form. It was not only important as a catalyst but is of historical interest being the forerunner of the ubiquitous calendar picture which is a principal kind of mass-oriented art even today.

In order to understand the revolutionary role played by lithography and the art schools in disseminating a new taste one has first to consider the historical background. Western influences had arrived in India and some two hundred years earlier and foreign and Indian patronage had brought into being an eclectic style, that of the “Company School.” However, the company style was a kind of artistic symbiosis, it was born when the Indian tradition absorbed what it desired from western sources to form an amalgam that was not without skill and charm. The Company School in spite of what it owed the West, still remained an indigenous technique, Indian in imagination and feeling. What was noticeably new was the subject matter which was dictated by the patron. Even the new media that were learnt were handled in an experimental way and not strictly according to European practice. Some elements of Western art were incorporated in the style as a concession to modern fashion and demand. The artists of this period selected those aspects of European art that they needed with the aim of making their works closer to life. At the same time we find them a certain idealism, a world view and a view of art different from that of Western art. These pictures are informed by a certain innocence and in spite of being made for commercial ends have the qualities of a labour of love.

Lithography and mezzotint were discovered or invented by an Austrian, Alois Seenfelder, in 1978. In a short time it became a vogue especially for making copies of plays and music. As it developed it was found extremely useful for illustrating books, for caricatures and posters. A number of important artists enriched the technique by making truly creative works using this new medium. Daumier and Goya left a legacy of lithographic cartoons while Toulousse-Lautrec immortalised the night life of Paris by his daring and delectable posters.

The lithographic process is described as planar to distinguish it from woodcuts, etchings and other kinds of graphic prints. Here the drawing is done with a wax crayon on a particular kind of soft stone (mostly obtained in Bavaria). Water is then brushed over the stone wetting the non-waxy parts. Printing inks or colour applied to the surface with a roller adhere only to the waxy drawing. A sheet of paper is then laid on the surface and a print taken by passing it through a press. The grainy surface of the stone on which the crayon has been used gives the printed drawing a characteristic texture. Infinite variety is possible by varying the tones and contrasting them with lines, bare spaces and deep velvety blacks. After an edition of prints has been made the stone can be rubbed and reused by erasing the drawing completely. Colour lithographs require a number of stones for the different colours and careful registration so that the colours fall in places the artist intended.

The lithographic process was brought to India in the 1820’s and was at first strictly functional. The medium was used to reproduce maps and charts for the British. The Asiatic Lithographic Press was set up in Calcutta in 1825. A number of early printed books had pictures printed by this process which was therefore confined to works in black and white. In fact, lithographed line drawings were used even by the Kalighat painters as a quick method of reproducing the outlines of their pictures which were afterwards painted by hand. By the middle of the nineteenth century the process began to be used for portraits. These pictures in black and white were on fairly large single sheets and besides an interest in the person portrayed, there was in due course an interest in the process and in the technique of drawing on stone in terms of textures and tones. A comparatively early lithographic portrait is that of David Hare, now in the Victoria Memorial Museum, which is little more than a drawing in a new medium. In the space of a few decades we get handsome portraits such as those of the Tagores, Dwarkanath and Debendranath, which show that the technique had been completely understood.

Chromolithography reached India in the 1860’s and was an immediate success. Lithography caused a revolution in Indian art styles not so much by its subjects as by adopting the appearance of western academic art. This was made possible by the opening of the Schools of Art in the 1850’s where Western methods were taught by foreigners to budding Indian artists. The art school students were taught to see in a new way; in terms of light and shade, in terms of anatomy, perspective and a whole gamut of rules which according to the system were necessary to describe the world. The aim of this Victorian art was principally to record reality, an oriental reality that was exotic and picturesque. Drawing was taught by copying foreign models, the drawing was tonal not linear. Colour was related to what obtained in nature though there was a predilection for soft dull tones. Thus from the 1860’s was turned out a body of artists who preached and practiced the imported media in a foreign way, a way which was considered to be rational and progressive. The new art was thought to be the counterpart of scientific education, also it was language encouraged and supported by the ruling elite.

Most of the artists who learnt lithography appear to have taken to the foreign style without the selection that was noticed in the works of the “Company School”. We notice a gradual change from the early prints which are comparatively traditional to the late prints especially those of the Calcutta Art Studio which are the most westernizing. By the 1870’s colour lithography had become quite popular and numerous workshops flourished, catering to a vast urban audience. It replaced such art forms as wood engravings paintings on glass and traditional paintings. It captured this mass clientele because of its subject matter which was conservative, that is, paintings of Indian myths and gods. And secondly because it was at that time the only medium which could provide inexpensive reproductions in colour.Thelithographicpresses produced firstly prints of religious or legendary subjects and secondly prints in black and white principally portraits.

Lithographic presses were also established in other cities in India and led to regional variations in style. Here, however, I wish to notice only some examples characteristic of the work produced in Calcutta.


The portraits were mainly of distinguished contemporary men. Though limited to black and white these were exceptionally fine for they achieved a likeness and were also in terms of the lithographic process. The style is entirely borrowed from western models in the grand manner and are either bust portraits or full-length figures formally posed. Large numbers of portraits obtained, some of these may have been based on photographs others on contemporary oil paintings. These prints were probably more popular than real photographs and were available to a mass audience. In an age which produced a galaxy of great men, it was a simple form of homage and admiration.


The early colour prints were based on traditional iconography and were pictures of single gods or goddesses. We notice a gradual development from those with very little colour applied by hand to later full-fledged chromo lithographs where each colour necessitated a different stone and so the print was a complex one with traces of many registrations.

In the early prints the print itself is only in tones of black, sometimes parts of the picture are tinted. In other works the whole surface is coloured with several different shades. Western features include the tonal drawing with shading to render the roundness of forms, naturalistic folds in drapery and the halo behind the head of the image.

Examples are works published by P.C. Biswas at No.11, Lower Chitpore Rd., Calcutta. The “Bhubhaneshwari” reproduced here is one of the Mahavidyas. She is seated on a throne, the black and white print is overlaid with colours that are sombre. In another work, ‘Kurmavatar’, we see Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a tortoise which is submerged in water. This print is also tinted all over. The simple forms of these deities are not without a certain dignity and grandeur, the image itself being the motif and there are no distracting details. While based on traditional prototypes, the treatment is ‘modern’ and the colours rich. In fact, these early prints can be said to be more successful than the later works because they retain something of the spirit of traditional icons. The later chromo lithographs are bright and lush, multi-coloured, with black generally as the base colour though it is no longer important. The style as a whole tends to be theatrical with many figures and an insistence on plasticity. There is an excessive attention to detail and environment ranging from the finishing of marble floors to the decoration in jewellery and costume. The visualization especially in the work of the art school trained artists in almost like that of foreigners imagining the oriental scene. Even the costumes and accessories are unreal though the intention was to be as close to reality as possible. In fact, the paradox was that the “realistic” style was used to depict the supernatural, it was hardly one suited to the depiction of Indian gods and myths. These works cannot be considered important as works of art though the medium has been understood, the images lacking the vitality, spirit and rhythm of Indian art. However, one may say that they express the tendencies of the age. The sad change that overcame Indian imagery can be studied by reference to a print of the Buddha who was also considered an avatar. The figure is realistic and fleshy and wears a heavy mantle. His hair is matted and piled on his head as in some Shiva images. He is seated on a yellow lotus throne in a stage like setting. In the background is a stone arch and beyond it a distant landscape with buildings. Above the scene are red curtains. This pseudo-realistic conception is entirely wanting in the spirit of Buddha iconography. In spite of the elaborate description the image conveys no sense of that profound peace and inner strength associated with the great yogin.

In an illustration from the Ramayana we see the despondent Sita being tempted with jewellery by a princely Ravana. The scene is laid in an open glade and numerous maidens attend the heroine in poses of oriental nonchalance. All the characters are dressed as if for a play and there are quaint westernizations in the costumes, in the way the girls wear flowers and so on. Ravana himself is dark and splendid and not at all terrifying; one almost feels sorry for the villain of the scene. This rendering of the episode seems to lack the very emotions it is supposed to engender.

Chromo Lithographs of Theatrical Subjects

Perhaps the most successful chromo-lithographs are those whose subject matter through ancient is associated with contemporary theatre. Here there was no necessity to dress up the characters, they were already cast as contemporary people. So at last the artists found a theme suited to their treatment, the illustration here was as if from a novel on contemporary life, in a fine coloured litho-print from the Chintamani-Bilvamangal play we see the heroine and hero as contemporary Bengalis. The play itself was a popular one and in an age of romance and melodrama captured the popular imagination. The picture of Chintamani and Bilvamangal is full of youthful charm. The background of a simple courtyard with a snake tail on the wall does not disturb the concern and relationship of the hero and heroine. Everything is depicted in native narrative language that heightens the emotions of the scene. Below the picture is a bit of a printed dialogue:

Chintamani: “Really, you are mad.”

Bilvamangal: “Yes, I am mad. But you are utterly beautiful, beautiful.”

The early lithographs of the types we have been discussing came to an end with the discovery of the photo processes for the making of colour reproductions. Blocks were made from photographs and were used for printing in books, magazines and pictures, so that prints drawn by hand became obsolete. In Bengal, the first centre where it became popular, lithography was soon on the decline. However in a few presses as well as in Western India production continued till approximately the end of the first quarter of this century. The new colour reproductions were even cheaper than lithographs and glossier.

The early lithograph though it faded away left a style which had a mass appeal which was adopted by later day calendar painters. Calendar pictures continue the tradition of depicting gods and mythological subjects in a realistic way through the present “realism” owes a considerable debt to the romanticism of the Indian cinema. Modern artists have so far been unable to reverse this trend, they themselves hardly paint ordevisereligioussymbols which would re-establish Indian aesthetic aims. The moral of the story of early lithography is that art cannot survive in a climate guided solely by commercial ends. Mass production is itself plainly something that denies the originality and imaginative invention of the artist.

However lithography as a medium is now being practiced again by contemporary artists who use the processes to create aesthetic effects and produce only a limited number of prints as works of art. Lithography’s brief flowering in India in the 19th century was guided principally by the laws of demand and supply. The process while it was creative was not used creatively but merely to bring out large editions of pictures cheaply. Today we view the ephemeral productions of this phase simply as a historical phenomenon which in a large limited way expressed the directions of the age.

It was only with the beginning of the 20th century that new artists who were not influenced by the popular demand rejected the Victorian bias and evolved a modern art, Indian in theme as well as in style and feeling.

Published in the Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1981
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