Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, volume 1, June 1962, pp.70-72
The various graphic arts like woodcut, engraving, etching and lithograph - have acquired increasing importance among artists and art-lovers from the time of Renaissance in Europe.
The beginnings of contemporary ‘graphic art’ are linked with efforts to reproduce drawings on a large scale. This led to the invention of the woodcut around 1400 A.D. in Bavaria (though the Chinese used it much earlier for illustrating Buddhist scriptures. One of the earliest Chinese woodcuts appeared in a Buddhist manuscript dated 868 A.D. and was discovered by Sir Aurel Stein at Tun-Huang). “ The East that expresses itself in prints is China and Japan; the graphic arts for one or the other reason did not flourish in India, Persia, and the Mohammaden countries”, though the technique of designing and cutting a wood-block had already been perfected for the printing of textiles.
Before giving an exposition of the general trends of the graphic art by artists of the Bengal school, it might be well to give a brief background out of which it was shaped in our country.
The tradition of wood-engraving was introduced in India during early 19th century, when its principal field was illustrating mythological or popular literature. The traditional artists of the Mughal and Rajasthani Schools, whose degeneration resulted in what is known as the Company School, now took a step for another fall. These artists this time learnt wood-engraving under the European Missionaries who started the Sreerampur Press near Calcutta around early 19th century. The artists were employed there not to reproduce anything special which we can class as creative graphic, but to help in producing blocks for economical reproduction. Although the missionaries never imposed any style on these craftsmen, the result lacked aesthetic conventions. The creative faculty was already stunted during the preceding years due to changing art standards, lack of patronage, etc. But the limitations of the new technique disciplined their expression to simplification of forms. However, the outcome was neither graphic art nor refined book illustration.
By the end of the 19th century, more presses were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and there followed more or less the same type and standard for book illustrations. There were only variations of local costumes, ornaments and manners. Religious and secular subjects formed the subject-matter of these book-illustrations. Some stray book wood-block prints of religious deities with colors added by hand also made their appearance. Some of them were large sheets suitable as wallpapers. Around the end of the 19th century a lithographic press was also established in Bombay. At the beginning they made Chromolithos of Vaishnavite deities copied from the popular Nathadwara paintings. Out of all the contemporary graphic-art work the engravings from the studies of Ahiritola and Kalutola (Calutta) did possess some artistic qualities.
Then came in the field the craftsmen trained in the art schools started in India by the British. They had attained commendable skill in technique at these schools but had neither the capacity to create nor had any link with the tradition. These artisans worked for a long time in the presses as block-makers for text books, etc, till the photomechanical reproduction technique were introduced in India.
The real print-makers, who followed a graphic rather than reproductive tradition and who tried to make use of the aesthetic possibilities inherent in the art, were the artists working at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta (formed in 1905), and at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan (started in 1912). Now the subjective illustrations disappeared almost completely and a liberated graphic art got into formation. Although the products of most of these artists can in no way be vouched for vitality, boldness and subtlety, they are important for creating a tradition in artistic graphic art of today.
The first artist, to put this art to pictorial use was late Chanchal Banerjee of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta. He learnt around 1920 the technique of woodcut and wood-engraving in Paris. His output, purely academic in style, was meager due to his short span of life.
About the same time (1920-24), etching and woodcut techniques caught the fancy of artists working under Nandalal Bose at Santiniketan. Mr. W. Pearson had a collection of some wood-engravings and etchings by the British artist Muirhead Bone. This was a period of experiments at Santiniketan under the inquisitive and liberal guidance of Nandalal. The students of Nandalal both were anxious to learn the technique of etching and engraving since they saw Pearson’s collection. Luck came to them soon, when the French woman artist Andre Karpeles came to Santiniketan. She not only demonstrated the technique of the graphic artist to the staff and students here but proved to be the much needed incentive to graphic art for reassessing of its individual values. But only a few artists took a fancy for this media for pictorial expression-the late Ramendranath Chakravarty being one of them.
WOODCUT, WOOD-ENGRAVING AND LINOCUT
Chakravarty was the first and one of the few Indian artists who swung to graphic art with devotion. In his earlier work (this was mainly woodcut) the combination and distribution of black and white created a pattern and the texture was used only to add variety in the pattern; but after his return from the West his woodcuts and wood-engravings became more textural. His themes consists of landscapes, Bengal rural life and other genre scenes. Chakravarty helped to establish the vogue of print-making among the students of the School of Art, Calcutta. Mention must be made of Haren Das, who followed the tradition of Chakravarty and translated his (Chakravarty’s) idiom in his own way in his wood-engravings-both in black and white and in colour.
Ramendranath’s contemporary, Manindra Bhusan Gupta, is another figure worthy of mention, although he is limited both in quantity and variety. His work is distinguished for its bold and meticulous landscapes and figure work.
Another artist who had made a significant contribution to woodcut as well as other graphics is Benode Behari Mukherjee. His studied maturity, kinship with the medium and link with the tradition and his ever-experimenting outlook may be seen in his scores of woodcuts and linocuts he made during 1930-1950. He paints landscapes, familiar scenes and things in daily life and we find the same themes in his woodcuts as well. His austere and well-knit woodcuts, whose dimension is rarely large, make him perhaps the finest all around the graphic artist in our country. His prints are intensely felt and executed by methods all his own. The use and division of black andwhitein his work is more to create a pattern than chiaroscuro. The texture adds vitality and vivacity. All these are well thought out yet spontaneous, there is not a thing of mechanical outlook in his prints.
Our assessment of the beginnings of the graphic art and contribution of the Bengal School will be incomplete without considering the work of Nandalal Bose, the man who inspired the movement constantly.
Nandalal would not take up to an idiom or a technique just as a fashion, he would not indulge in it unless the process of assimilation was complete in him. So Nandalal was solving the problem of assimilating the medium, alien to our country, while others ventured hurriedly into it. When he was sure in his mind, he did some linocuts (his woodcuts are very few). His best works perhaps are the illustrations for Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengal Primer for the children ‘Sahajpath’. We can at once see that he was successful in Indianizing the medium. The bold yet decorative black and white patterns of these small size illustrations (appr. 5”×7”) are ample proof of his sensitive rendering and fully understood handling of the medium. His other great prints are studies of ‘Gandhiji’, ‘Abdul Gaffar Khan’ and a few other scenes from rural life in which he shows a fine use of his calligraphic line coupled with an appropriate decorative patterns.
The tradition of woodcut, linocut and wood-engraving, though restricted to the above few artists, there were a few others whose names must be mentioned as pioneers in the field. D.P.Roy Chowdhury, late L.M.Sen and Samarenderanath Gupta are important among them. Roy Chowdhury made a restricted use of it, just out of curiosity and has the same tendency in the use of contrast and light and shade as we find in his paintings.
Samarendranath Gupta and Sen, following their western training used the technical skill for making prints with Indian themes. The late L.M. Sen is important as a versatile printmaker and is known for his fine renderings of village scenes, portraits and stray illustrations. In trying to evolve his personal idiom he sometimes made use of a flat pattern in white line on black ground. Also important are the few prints of ‘Gandhiji’ and ‘Christ’ by Masoji in which well organized bold white arabesque are used on a black ground.
Three other artists who have made ample contribution to the printmaking history of India are Smt.Ranee Chanda, Smt. Kamala Mittal and Sudhir Khastgir, all of whom studied at Santiniketan under Nandalal ; the first with her linoprints of landscapes, scenes from Tagore’s dramas, and the second for her woodcuts which are pregnant with a naïve charm, and the third for his linocuts of dancers and musicians. Khastgir’s prints are only decorative line-drawings in white translated into prints.
Coming to the later Bengal School’s achievement in the medium of woodcut, wood-engraving and linocut we have to see the many changes that followed and nurtured the later movement. Graphic art as practiced by the Indian artists till now was only the art of ‘black and white’, the technique of colour prints was not known to them.
When Nandalal Bose sent his son Biswaroop Bose to Japan he learnt thoroughly this art at the famous Koka Studio. He returned to Santiniketan about 1940 and later taught there the art of woodcut, both colour and black and white, to scores of students. Though this formed part of a regular curriculum since 1942, only a few students showed a leaning towards this media. Mention may be made of Narra Venkat Ramam, Dinkar Kowshik, Kripal Singh Shekhawat, K.G. Subramayan, and the author, all of whom produced many works which display variety in subject matter, technical skill and feeling for the media.
There is little to mention about the colour woodcut prints. Biswaroop Bose did not pursue the high technical skill he attained in Japan. He made only a few colour prints of paintings by Abanindranath Tagore and his father Nandalal. Chakravarty made a few original colour prints and from a painting by Nandalal. Similarly Ratnam also reproduced a few paintings by Nandalal in colour woodcut apart from his own landscapes. Haren Das, of course, has shown a consummate skill in original colour-prints from his wood-engravings. The others made only two or three colour prints each. Lack of technical skill required for the media, dearth of print-collectors, and time involved discouraged many from taking up this complicated but charming mode of expression.
It is impossible to enumerate all the artists, or even the variations in their style, but the outstanding characteristic of the Bengal School wood-block prints may be grouped under two types. The first kind is more abstract in construction and here light and shadow or rather the black and white have been put down in extreme contrast. There is no objective shadow, instead the dark part becomes luminous. In the second kind the realistic tendency is more pronounced. Shade and light - not black and white - are important. The colourful world is transformed in two or more grades. There is no intention to create a pattern in black and white.
It may be mentioned that, in spite of all the difficulties, short comings and only occasional ventures into woodcut or wood-engraving printmaking by the artists, the most characteristic and sizable expression of the Bengal School graphic art has been these two media of prints making than in any other.
ETCHING, DRY POINT AND AQUATINT
The art was introduced in India by Mukul Dey, who studied etching under Sir Miurhead Bone at the Slade School of Art, London, and later at Royal College of Arts, South Kensington, London (1922-1923).
When he came back to India he did some work at the newly started ‘Bichitra’ a literary and art club started by Rabindranath Tagore in 1916.
There is an interesting letter, in a witty language so typical of Abanindranath Tagore, attached to an etching. He wrote ‘Here is my first hatching’. This will show that this art was taken very lightly by the artists of Bengal School. When Mukul Dey joined the Govt. School of Arts, Calcutta, there was more scope for him to work in the medium. His works are mostly portraits and a few scenes from the life in Bengal. But there is nothing which can relate them in feeling, style or theme with the Bengal School.
This new media, however, attracted artists like Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and few others in Bengal, irrespective of the fact whether they followed Aban Babu’s ideal (Bengal School) or worked in the academic style taught at the Govt. School at Calcutta. These artists did not, however adopt this as a means of expression but on account of its novelty occasionally did etchings for recreation. Nandalal took a fancy for etching rather late in his life (1936-46). His output, though meager, is noteworthy, in such works as Pine Forest, and Arjuna. He adopted dry-point method of etching. His sureandstudied-drawing put him on safer ground than many others of this school, the main drawback of which was its poor drawing. But it must be admitted that even he could never attain the maturity discerned in his paintings and sketches.
Very few people know that Abdur Rahman Chughtai, a well known follower of the Bengal School, also ventured to do some etchings. Most of which is similar in style to his paintings. He used large plates for his line-drawing type of work. To people who love his work probably for its romantic poetry, there may seem to be an extraordinary achievement, for finer lines than even his brush are used in his etchings. These have all the weakness of his effeminate, lifeless painting, whereas the medium of etching was successful only in bold work with surer drawing. Late Ramendranath Chakravarty, Samarendranath Gupta and Benode Behari Mukherjee have done some distinguished work which deserves attention. Samarendranath also learnt etching in England. Although less known as a Graphic artist, his later work consists mainly of etching and dry-point. Yet we find that though trained under Abanindranath and following the Bengal School for his paintings, his graphics have a distinctly western outlook. Likewise, Ramendranath’s etchings and aquatins, mainly landscapes - are in the western academic idiom. Both of these artists have produced competent works but they lack the technical skill and freedom that may be found even in a mediocre European etcher.
Benode Behari, however, is the most distinguished etcher. His prints are most spontaneous, freer, bolder and more original than those of his contemporaries. In his etchings also we find themes similar to his paintings and woodcuts, though landscapes are comparatively more than figure or animal compositions. His distortion and abstraction aims at emotive effect and organization of formal elements. But in his case as well we do not find him as vital and sure as in his paintings sketches and woodcuts.
The sculpture-painter Ramkinkar made some strongly plastic and dynamic etchings. Several artists, however, deserve further mention. Kripal Singh Shekhawat (who studied and later taught at the Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan upto 1952) and Dinker Kowshik, made some dry points and etchings, like his wood-cuts and wood-engravings are very different from his paintings. His paintings are of two types: one is influenced abundantly by the Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari schools, and his religious and mythological paintings are in this style; the others are in the Japanese style, in which he has painted many flower and animal studies. But surprisingly, in his etchings and wood-engravings, only landscapes are done. It must be admitted that during the period under review relatively few painters took to the etching media.
Lithography has been used in our country since the later part of the 19th century, when it was used for printing mythological paintings and news-papers. The late Annada Kumar Bagchi, a contemporary of the Raja Ravi Varma, learnt the technique under an English painter. He published an illustrated monthly in which he used lithography for reproducing paintings. He produced innumerable prints of Gods and Goddesses in chromo-litho and at the same time made portraits of the national leaders and other important Indians, besides other themes. But his style had a bearing on the artists of the Bengal School.
Nearly forty years after Annada Bagchi, Gaganendranath Tagore made use of lithography as ‘Bichitra’. Many portfolios and drawings of caricature were produced by Gaganendranath himself, and stray drawings by Nandalal and others.
After a short interval Surendranath Kar introduced the medium again into Santiniketan. He had also learnt the technique at London. The inspiration, however, faded after a few attempts by Surendranath, Nandalal and few others. Even with vast possibilities and scope of the media, the lithographic work done by the followers of the Bengal School, could not even attain the standards achieved by them in their engravings, wood-cuts and etchings. Most of these have little artistic merit but the best of them have both decorative charm and the same historical importance.
As one surveys the Graphic Art in India some facts occur as noteworthy.(1) This art started first in Bengal and that most of the followers were the artists who worked broadly speaking in the style of the Bengal School. (2) The media adopted were only wood-cut, linocut, etching, aquatin, and to some extent lithography, but recent techniques as silk screen and colour-lithography were not known. (3) Much of the technique and inspiration was derived directly from Europe. (4) Though some artists did attempt rather seriously one or the other of the graphic arts, the achievement could rarely reach a high watermark. (5) Almost all were painters who only occasionally made prints and none devoted exclusively to this art. (6) They did not produce prints with a specific market in mind, they made them as they painted. It was only to try out new media.
The reason for limiting the growth of this art seems to be that condition of art standards and styles in India as a whole was not stable and any experimental work, as graphic art, was bound to be either mediocre, hybrid, and not worthy of serious attention. As a matter of fact, when even the mature works of the masters of Bengal School like Abanindranath and Nandalal Bose, were not taken seriously or were appreciated by the discriminating few, there was no likelihood of graphic art establishing itself firmly as a recognized medium of art expression. Even in Europe this medium has gained recognition only lately.
Then there was another problem, the black and white prints could not look pleasant to the colour-loving Indian mind. The other stylistic difficulty was that the Bengal School artists preferred atmospheric, decorative, minute and detailed treatment, whereas the best results in graphic art could only be achieved in simplicity and boldness in treatment. These are the essential characteristics of prints and which make them vital.
As the inspiration came to the Indian artists from Europe rather than Japan, which might have had better influence, the conflict in outlook between India and Europe, limited the freedom of expression, although, some artists were seriously fascinated by the aesthetic conventions inherent in the graphic media. It is surprisingly, however, that through Japanese painting influenced the Bengal School painting technique, the influence was absent in regard to the woodcuts. The fact remains that our artists could not translate the style of the Bengal School painting in graphics.
The lack of print collecting habit among Indians has been one of the main reasons for the relatively restricted use of graphics. This point could be better understood when one learns that there was over one thousandtwohundred subscriptions entered for the engravings by Hogarth at a guinea per set (six pictures entitled ‘Harlot’s Progress’) and the famous painter Picasso’s graphic art production has mounted to about 400 prints in all media.
Before completing the round-up of Bengal School prints I must, say that with the increasing contact with the countries abroad, there has been a spectacular resurgence of graphic art activity in India. Like most of the contemporary Indian painting, the prints today have to tell no story, they are merely an interplay of lines, planes and colours.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, volume 1, June 1962, pp.70-72