Artists: Notes on Art Making

The Punjab was one of the last provinces to fall to the British and western influences percolated there only in the second half of the nineteenth century. Peace prevailed after many decades of turmoil. Under the new administrators, the state rapidly became productive and progressive. The people were adaptable; they did not resist change, on the contrary they were quick to learn the norms and conventions of the aliens. Among the many new inputs was the introduction of printing. Printed books, newspapers and pictures made from lithographed drawings. The latter heralded an early urban popular art, urban because it was created in the towns and popular because it was fashioned for the people.

The technique of printing from lithographic stones had been introduced to India much later. In Calcutta, by the second half of the nineteenth century, lithographic prints had achieved a distinct regional style of expression. Lithographs in Punjab were very much simpler, they were usually line drawings reminiscent of the Pahari Schools and were primarily traditional in subject and treatment. The early prints may have only been a quick method of producing miniatures, for in some of them the lithographed outline functioned as a drawing over which the colours were brushed in and the picture was sometimes finished with gold work. The workmanship though casual was probably easier to reproduce and pointed to a remarkable demand for contemporary pictures. The adoption of lithography as a medium was also perhaps related to the fact that the Urdu script, which is calligraphic, was not conducive to the letter press. Many of the early newspapers were written and printed from lithographic stones.

The lithographic prints were quite varied. Most traditional amongst them were illustrations of the Indian epics and legends especially those from the Ramayana and the Krishna Leela. The most modern were prints of trains and soldiers and of contemporary architecture. Between these two styles were illustrations of romantic tales such as the Laila-Majnu or Sohni-Mahiwal stories, or again secular satirical subjects, and finally Sikh themes, pictures of the gurus and portraits of Ranjit Singh and his courtiers. Some of the lithography artists were clearly professional, others were folk artists who adopted themes for which there were no prototypes and drew in a native manner, whatever attracted or interested them. Line was the basis of this art and was used not only to delineate forms but also to enhance the decoration and texture. Many prints were partly tinted by hand. Later these coloured pictures led to folk stencils. This art of lithography flourished in Punjab all too briefly. It never achieved an independent style. It was superseded by photography and coloured printed reproductions which dominate the urban scene even today.

Lithographic prints were drawn on stones with crayons and then printed on paper. The scarcity and expense of paper forced artists to make the prints on very cheap, fragile paper or on used paper from government ledgers and other official forms that were discarded by the railways and such offices. The latter are of special interest because of the written or printed matter on them like dates, which give us a clue to the probable date of lithographic prints. Some of the prints have a text or title in Urdu or Punjabi naming the artist or press, the subject of the picture, sometimes even the name of the patron. Portraits had captions that revealed the identity of the subjects.

Comparing Punjabi lithographs with other popular art, it has its own distinct flavour. The western impact is technical and not aesthetic. The prints are addressed to a local audience and therefore did not incorporate many western elements in terms of themes and characters.

The style is a late form of the Pahari and Sikh Schools and the prints are the work of bazaar artists, delighted to find a new medium through which their works could be easily multiplied and mass produced. There was a demand for such prints, a desire to own pictures simply as a source of pleasure. Satirical themes, landscapes and even sacred subjects and portraits were not meant for any other purpose and were the visual equivalent of popular songs and folk stories. They were a kind of collective expression projecting the ideas and interests of society. The lithographic print was the first art form that stemmed from the new technology of printing. It was part of the great change that welcomed modern times and its small way, it recorded visually, a period now past, a small but authentic part of history.

Published in India Magazine, Sept 1983
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