Among the modern visual media two have seen a spectacular development and evolved complex forms in the twentieth century-- namely cinematography and printing. The cinema is a medium which is entirely new, it has drawn into its fold the other performing arts, but it more than a mere synthesis of these, for it is created in new terms and in a new language Also it is linked with technological processes and its progress is based partly on scientific inventions. Graphic media on the other hand are comparatively old. The processes of printing were for years in current commercial use, supplying documentation and illustration to writing. However, after the invention of machine printing and photographic reproduction graphic processes are no longer used in their former role. Reproduction for commercial printing is clearly separated from graphic prints, the latter are designed by artists and printed by hand. Thus its non-commercialisation has, as a matter of fact, given graphic work a new lease of life. For now it is practiced purely for aesthetic expression and is recognized as a creative art in its own right.
Modern graphic techniques were introduced into India by the British and were practiced throughout the nineteenth and in the early part of the twentieth century. The raison d’etre of this style was to illustrate books and journals. Such work often documented the life of the past or was of religious or epic themes. This type of reporting or copying continued to be in vogue till the1920s and survives even to the present day. Engraving, etching and lithography were subjects taught at the government art schools from approximately 1855 but the style followed there was based on making light and shade studies and showed little originality. Some of the important books published in the latter half of the nineteenth century were actually illustrated by lithographs and engravings done by students from the art schools.
The earliest artist who tied to do something different and original using print medium was Gaganendranath Tagore, though perhaps his interest in it was only partial, since he used the print process for his caricatures, that is, more to spread ideas than as an end in itself. The lithographic cartoons which Gagnendranath created may not be considered very important as art’ however, he succeeded in freeing the process for original work, distinct from the copying and documentation that has prevailed until then.
A genuinely different aim could be seen in the work of the Santiniketan School especially in the work of Nandalal Bose and Binode Behari Mukherjee. A prosaic and genre style developed at Calcutta as exemplified by the portraits and landscapes of Mukul Dey, Ramendranath Chakravorty and Manibhusan Gupta. In Bombay artists of the same period show a weaker or more romantic variation of the prevalent style as instanced by the work of YK Shukla.
The work of Mukul Dey was not influenced by the Bengal School. Though trained in London his portraits in etching are related to the style set by Abanindranath Tagore with its emphasis on drawing and the interest in “character”. Indeed many of them have an unfinished appearance as the artist is only concerned with the portrayal of the head. Mukul De did a great many portraits of the celebrities of his times, most of them have a predominantly narrative interest. His landscapes, which are few, are reminiscent of the work of Muirhead Bone. Ramendranath Chakravorty studied art at Santiniketan, but developed a considerable interest etching. He had a rather prosaic style which delighted in a detailed description of life around him. A later artist of this trend is Haren Das who continues with genre themes embellished with elaborate texture and detail. On the other hand, some if the early practitioners of etching seem to have used the print process only for multiplying reproductions, the works themselves resembling drawings. Samarendranath Gupta’s graphic work simulates sketches done in pink and ink; while that of Roop Krishna is close to wash painting. M.A Chughtai also did a large number of works very like line drawings and incorporating the romantic imagery of the period.
The Santiniketan School benefitted by the visit of the graphic artist Andre Karpeles, However, the artists there practiced print media only occasionally. Nandalal Bose’s work is dominated by a sense of design and clear black and white arrangement as for example in his illustrations to Rabindranath’s book for children, Shahaj Path done in 1929. He also did some stylized portraits of Gandhiji and Abdul Ghaffar Khan (which are quite well-known) in the second half of the 1930s. His interest in etching came later and in this medium he generally chose subjects from nature and treated them in a naturalistic way rather like sketches. A large number of younger artists of the Santiniketan School practiced graphic techniques briefly. Early prints can be seen in the Viswa Bharati Quarterly, VB Patrika and other Santiniketan publications. Nandalal’s son Biswarup Bose studied coloured woodcut and printing in Japan and later taught this medium at Kala Bhavan. However, the most significant work done there was probably that of Binode Behari Mukherjee whose powerful compositions treat both woodcut and etching in a modern way. In them is seen a respect for form and a feeling for abstract values which gives these works a rugged power. Especially notable are his landscapes in woodcut and linoleum done approximately in the decade 1936-45. They have a strong well-knit texture, powerful movement and an organic feel. One is reminded of the work of Jawlensky and other German expressionists. In his later years Binode Behari Mukherjee also practiced lithography, the style of his works in this is rather closely related to his later calligraphic painting. In other parts of India a number of contemporaneous artists also worked with print media intermittently, among the more successful of them mention may be made of L.M Sen of Lucknow.
The disturbed conditions in art in the period of transition following Independence were not a suitable environment for the development of printmaking. We have also seen that hardly any artists devoted themselves to graphic art entirely, there was indeed little demand for prints. Among the younger men working at this time, two have done a body of works sowing strong personal styles, also they can be considered printmakers exclusively -- namely Haren Das and Chittoprasad. Haren Das’s work has already been cited. His subject-matter is usually landscape; the woodcut print displays a pattern of varied textures and motifs forming an over-all pattern. Chittoprasad’s work reflects the inspiration of folk art. His stylized woodcuts have a bold treatment and are sometimes frankly based on folk antecedents. The themes-- dancers, rural scenes or folk images -- are characteristic of the period as a whole.
The 1950s may be considered a period offerment and readjustment in Indian art. In painting a strong movement with varied imagery developed, in sculpture new materials and images were being sought. In graphic art the ground for a development was in preparation. We see a gradual increase in interest in prints, colour began to be used and there was a specific interest in textures, paralleling the textural surfaces seen in painting. Forms become broken up and there was a tendency directed away from reality and towards abstraction. The work of an artist like Kanwal Krishna is typical in displaying these characteristics. A number of other artists also started to use soft ground processes which were capable of a wide range of complex effects. New techniques such as silkscreen, colour lithography, and mixed media were experimented with.
This new phase in printmaking may be said to have arrived with the1960s. if till this decade the output was meagre and individual, after this one may discuss collective styles and schools. The graphic departments of art schools were revitalized giving rise to a large number of artists devoted only to his medium. The number of printmakers now at work whose prints have been seen at the National Exhibitions and other collective shows exceeds one hundred. Needless to say the quality of the work, its technical excellence, its variety and achievement place print media in the forefront of our artistic expression. More than one All India Exhibition of Prints has been held where one could see the range and performance of our printmakers. India is represented at International Print Exhibitions held at Lugano and elsewhere and her artists have won awards. The present situation is therefore one that is healthy and confident and we would not be far wrong to have great expectations of our young printmakers.
In conclusion printmaking can be considered a modern medium par excellence. Firstly, it is a synthesis of the artist’s talent and technical processes, it combines in itself both discipline and play, craftsmanship and imagination, accident and design, and a personal expression strained and filtered through complex processes. Each print far from being a descriptive record of life is a dynamic new reality, increasing life and the areas of our perception. Forms take birth in the artist’s mind, but in the stages of printmaking these forms change and evolve presenting a choice of new variations. The elements which go to make a print are thus selected from many possibilities and grow together in an inevitable relationship forged by the artist’s will. In the end we are not concerned with the processes or the labour of the period of growth, what confronts us is the result -- a work of art which is an original but can be reproduced and which moves us by its aesthetic significance alone.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1974