In this first person piece, Haren Das, whose woodcuts are undoubtedly the finest in the land, writes about fascinating craft.
My life has followed a more placid course than that of many other artists. Except for one big struggle. The determination to study art in spite of the family’s wish that I should be an engineer.
I was born in Dinajpur in Bengal and had from my earliest childhood an inherent desire to paint. This love for painting persisted even after I completed my matriculation. My elder brother was keen that I do engineering as I was good at mathematics. But I felt differently I was keen on art. Fortunately I had my way I joined the Government School of Art in Calcutta in 1938 (It is now the Government College of Art and Craft). In the six years I spent in college I topped every annual examination. I was indeed thrilled that my decision had been a good one.
I really enjoyed my work at the art school I studied mural painting under the late Manindra Bhusan Gupta, who influenced me considerably. But the six year course at the art school did not satisfy me. After completing my final examination in 1944. I was determined to continue with my studies I enrolled for the two-year teacher training course at the school. Since I had already learnt painting I decided to opt for graphics which included woodcuts etching and lithography.
It was during this time that I had the opportunity to study graphic art and fresco painting under the tutelage of the late Ramendra Nath Chakravarti, who was then the principal of the school. His graphics were excellent especially his woodcuts. This form requires tremendous patience and hard work. It is also very time consuming. A single work could take two or three months. As a result few artists opted for this form.
But I have never regretted my choice. Under expert guidance I began my voyage of learning I was introduced to woodcuts, etching and lithography. During the summer vacation, when everyone went home, I stayed back in college discovering the subtle nuances of this form. It was only when I bought an etching machine and a litho machine that I began to work at home.
After completing the teaching course I was posted as a teacher of graphic arts in the art school I was initially placed in the woodcut department. This form was to gradually become my forte. It is really special to me.
As a poet or musician expresses his emotions and his interpretation of life through words and sounds, similarly, the artist visualises the phenomenal world around him in the receptacle of his mind and expresses it in colour and form. An artist who is obsessed with woodcuts sees life from a special point of view and must work with the great masses of light and shade composing them into a picture and adapting his medium to their presentation.
A woodcut strictly speaking is a print from a flat piece of soft wood that is plank wood. The craftsman carves out a design in such a manner that it may be inked and printed upon paper. The carving is done with a small knife or a graver. The craftsman either draws directly or traces an existing drawing on the surface of a plank of wood sawn parallel with the grain and carefully planned. The cutter then makes his incisions along the lines of the drawing, so that after removing the superfluous wood with a knife the design stands out raised from the ground and ready to be inked. A piece of suitable paper is laid on the inked surface and subjected to pressure. This is a rough outline of the traditional method employed in the making of woodcuts.
This form has not attained the status it deserves in India owing to a lack of adequate knowledge I find that the few artists who practice this art are not adequately encouraged. Also, I would like to emphasise that though a woodcut may be called a print, it has the same status as that of an original painting. That is why they are called original prints. These are not mechanical reproductions. From start to finish print is the product of a craftsman’s labour. It is a general impression that prints can be churned out in unlimited numbers and so they have no particular value. But that is not the case. These prints cannot be produced in an unlimited quantity. It is a very difficult process to pull out a print successfully. Artists discard many unsuccessful prints before the successful ones are selected which they sign and keep as originals. After these prints are made, the plate is destroyed.
In order to truly appreciate it, a casual glance at a print is not sufficient. Anyone visiting the print section should minutely observe and try to understand how these prints are made. In Europe and America they have a special print room for this purpose. They have a huge collection of prints of old and modern masters which are available for scrutiny.
Prints pulled out by Rembrandt, Meryon Durer are available and one can spend hours studying them with a magnifying glass. Though in India graphic art has not developed as it has abroad, I can say with certainty that the art of print-making has been considerably successful in Bengal because eminent artists like Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy and Ramendra Nath Chakravarti worked in this form.
I encouraged my students to master this form and help woodcuts attain the status they deserve. No other form can give me greater satisfaction I feel most fulfilled in depicting rural life the romantic surroundings of remote and obscure villages.
Published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, Weekend, January 12-13, 1991, pages 24-25