THE HISTORY OF BLACK & WHITE RELIEF PRINTMAKING IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT.
The advent of relief printmaking in the popular sphere
Have you ever seen a mehndi artist transferring patterns on hand or palm using wood blocks? Yes, it is often seen in India. The very process of imprinting using relief woodblocks has been perfected in India over centuries. There is evidence of woodblock-printed textiles in the 13th century on the Western coast. Yet the art of using blocks to print on paper was an entirely alien method adopted by Indian artisans during the Colonial era. Goldsmithing, wood engraving, metal engraving, and ironsmithing have all been practised as traditional craft skills in India for generations, as they have been in many other countries. As a result, the artisan community nimbly adapted wood engraving techniques from the Europeans in India. In the mid-19th century, several indigenous presses came into existence in Bengal. Chitpur, in North Calcutta, saw the emergence of a vernacular printing industry. Illustrated literature, stories, magazines, and textbooks began to be published. The use of wood engraving by indigenous artists cropped up in these publications as illustrations, “which may be regarded as the first step towards the commencement of artistic printmaking”. ‘Oonoodha Mongal’ is the first illustrated Bengali book published in Calcutta in 1816, featuring four wood engravings in a heavy, ponderous style by an anonymous engraver. Subsequently, in 1830 the first Bengali illustrated magazine, ‘Pashwabali’ or Animal Biography was published, containing six animal illustrations in a combination of woodcut and wood engraving. Respectively, in 1862 and 1881, caricatures first appeared in ‘Hutum Painchar Naksha’and ‘Bangabashi’ newspaper in woodcut. In the last quarter of the 19th-century, single-sheet woodcut prints began to be produced independently. As a result, an indigenous relief printmaking school emerged in North Calcutta, popularly called the ‘Bat-tala’ reliefs. The engravers of Bat-tala, using jewellery needles, put their traditional skills to new use, to produce black and white relief prints on cheap paper. Their unique approach, decorative textures, and lack of shading and volume, were significantly different from the European academic style. Images of deities, mythological pictures, social pictures, and other popular imagery are represented in Bat-tala reliefs in an admixture of Bengali folk and British academic style.
The voice of the activist
In addition to woodcut and wood engraving, lithography was also widely practised in India in the 19th century. Raja Ravi Varma and Bamapada Banerjee established lithography studios in Bombay and Calcutta to reproduce their paintings as oleographs. As graphic art became more popular in India, art schools began to integrate various printing techniques into their curricula. In contrast to the Madras and Lahore schools, the Bombay and Calcutta art schools emphasised academic fine art training. Academically trained “native” students did not consider the Bat-tala reliefs “worthy of the ‘high’ art they practised.” These trained middle-class gentlemen artists were patronised by Bengal’s wealthy families. The Jorasanko Tagore family was one among them. The three Tagore brothers, Gagendranath, Abnindranath, and Samarendranath, established the Bichitra Club at the South Veranda (dakshiner barandah) of the Jorasanko Thakurbari. It became a platform for creating and sharing dialogues on art, literature, music, and theatre. In 1917, Gagendranath Tagore set up a lithography press at the Bichitra Club. He was the first artist to employ printmaking as a means of creative expression. In 1919, Rabindranath Tagore established Santiniketan. In 1921-22, French artist Andre Karpeles, practically demonstrated wood engraving techniques at Santiniketan. In the following year, Kala Bhavan was founded (1923), marking the beginning of creative relief printmaking in India.
Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), is regarded as the father of modern Indian printmaking. He has essentially worked in all the conventional printmaking mediums, but was particularly experimental in his approach towards relief printmaking, employing conventional and unconventional surfaces to their full effect. He even obtained prints from a concrete matrix. Taking inspiration from both Eastern and Western relief prints, Bose developed a powerful visual vocabulary in black and white graphic printmaking. He was closely attached to the Nationalist movement. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-violent Satyagraha movement. To mark this moment in history, Bose produced a linocut print, titled ‘Bapuji’, or Father of the Nation. Gandhi is rendered in white lines against a black background. His taut muscles represent the strength of his convictions, and his dynamic stride the hope of a nation. To achieve a solid black, he chose linoleum rather than wood.
 Sengupta Paula, Foreign & indigenous influence in Indian printmaking, LAP LAMBERT Academic Publication, Germany.
Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980), a pupil of Nandalal, better known as a sculptor, brings forth his bold and vigorous approach to sculpting in his black and white woodcuts, portraying India’s call for freedom.
In 1943, the Great Famine befell Bengal. Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-1978) responded to the crisis generated by the Bengal famine. Abedin’smonochromatic woodcuts portray the misery and suffering of Bengal’s people caused by starving and malnutrition. Abedinlater migrated to Dacca, then in East Pakistan (now in Bangladesh) when India was partitioned in 1947. He was the pioneer of the modern art movement in Bangladesh.
His contemporary, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, was born in Kolkata. In the early 1930s, he moved to Chittagong with his family. Chittaprosad was closely associated with the Communist party, leading him to portray the struggle and sufferings of the common people during the Famine. With vigorous gouging, Chittaprosad delineated the festering wounds of social anorexia taking over humanity. Chittaprosad was the first printmaker in India to understand the democratic power of relief printmaking, employing its reproductive ability as a tool for mass communication and social transformation. Chittaprosad’s dynamic representation inspired a generation of artists in Bengal, Somnath Hore and Quamrul Hassan being prominent amongst them.
Somnath Hore (1921-2006)is one of India’s most influential printmakers. He conceptually appropriated the aesthetics of printmaking mediums to portray the struggle and suffering of the proletariat. He was closely associated with the Communist Party in his youth, which paved the way to his close encounters with the common people. One such experience is documented in numerous sketches in his ‘Tebhaga Diary’. The ‘Tebhaga Andolan’ or ‘Tebhaga Movement’ was a protest by Bengali sharecroppers in the mid-20th century, demanding two-thirds of the harvested yield from landlords as their share. Nearly six years after the movement, Hore’s diaries were published as a travel journal titled ‘Tebhaga: An Artist’s Diary and Sketchbook’. Hore transfigured some of his sketches into wood engravings to publish them as illustrations. Night meeting scenes were common among them. Hore brilliantly rendered illuminating effects on the portraits, gouging networks of sharp lines, and chiseling them out of the darkness. Compositions are delineated in the sharp contrasts of theatrical light and shadow.
Hore’s contemporary, Quamrul Hassan was born in Kolkata in 1921 and graduated in 1938 from the Government Art School at Calcutta. Hassan designed and published many posters in black and white relief during his association with the Nationalist movement. Taking inspiration from Chittaprosad and Kathe Kollwitz, Hassan plays powerfully with black and white distribution in figurative modulations.
A parallel voice – landscape and genre scenes
Apart from being the common people’s voice for social injustice and facilitating mass movements, Indian artists exploited black and white relief printmaking to depict the different moods of nature and everyday life. Ramendranath Chakravarty (1902-55), a student of Nandalal Bose, produced a wide range of works in conventional relief printmaking. Following a trip to Europe in 1937, his work became more textural, monochromatic, and expressive. Appropriating a variety of tools, he successfully captures the character of each individual landscape in strokes, flickers, and crosshatching. In 1931, Ramendranath published an album of twenty black and white woodcut prints at Santiniketan. Artist Jagadish Mittal, alumni ofKala Bhavan,depicted landscapes in the harmony of two contrasting colours, black and white or red and white in his woodcuts. He employed bold yet simple styling for illustrating juvenile literature. An account of Indian relief printmaking is incomplete without mention of Harendra Narayan Das’ (1921-1993), an artist of vivid scenes from the Bengal countryside, for which he was both criticised and adored. During Bengal’s Great Famine, he remained cloistered in the idyllic beauty of nature, depicting the rural milieu in eloquent black and white chiaroscuro. He was trained in the strictest traditions of British academic art at the Government Art School, Calcutta. His woodcuts and wood engravings were executed in both monochrome and multicolour techniques. ‘In the Kitchen’,is one amongst his black and white woodcuts, depicting a familiar rural scene of a woman cooking. To distinguish objects, surfaces, and middle tones, Das implemented a variety of strokes in different orientations. Shadows and highlights are contrasted in wonderful adjustments to silhouettes and whites.
One of Haren Das’ classmates, Shaffiuddin Ahmed (1922-2012), was also a proficient relief printmaker. In sensitive light and shadow, he depicted fragments of Bengal’s rural life, paying great attention to surface texture. In the aftermath of the partition, he moved to Dacca. He, along with Zainul Abedin and others, established the Dhaka Art College in the years to come.
Zarina Hashmi (1937-2020) was born in Aligarh. She was only ten when her family migrated to Lahore in the aftermath of the partition. In August 1947, after three hundred years of British domination in India, the Colonisers finally retreated with a final blow – the Partition. Erstwhile India was divided into two independent nations, Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. As a result, a mass migration of populations took place across the new borders. This had a lasting impression on Zarina’s work. For the rest of her life, she was in search of defining borders through her art practice, especially in woodcuts. Her approach was minimal and often contains bits of Urdu calligraphy. Throughout her career, she experimented with varying approaches to relief printmaking. One of her influential series was black and white maps in woodcut. Zarina’s maps reveal how individuals associate memories to a particular place or geographical location. For instance, a contorted vertical line printed with black ink on handmade paper dividing the space is a woodcut print by Zarina, titled ‘Dividing Line’. Nobody could determine which side belongs to which nation. There was little distinction in culture or religion. Only a stark black division, standing alone against a white background, as witness to loss. Loss of life, belongings, and memories.
Artist Suranjan Basu was a printmaker who produced a large body of extraordinary woodcuts in his short life. Born and brought up in Santiniketan, Suranjan Basu graduated from Kala Bhavana and went on to Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara for postgraduate studies. He returned to his roots at Kala Bhavana, where he taught for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he died very young. Taking inspiration from Käthe Kollwitz and Somnath Hore’s works, he was conceptually deeply rooted in the realism of social classification and policies. Basu attempts to portray this realist ideology in his art, particularly in large-scale woodcuts. His compositions are essentially figurative. The ‘Lunchbreak’ is an example of the same. Three mournful human figures are rendered against a construction site. His formal approach towards human figures is delineated with the substantial musculature of the limbs, representing the working classes. There is no stark contrast of black and white. Rather, the entire composition is circumambient in a gloomy middle tone. Basu achieved this by gouging networks of lines, dots, and by employing the tactile quality of wood in his print.
Trained under the tutelage of Somnath Hore, Pinaki Barua’s practice examines the complex socio-political structure of the metropolis in monochrome. He was a master printmaker, proficient in handling all traditional printmaking mediums. His stark black and white distributions, spontaneous gouging, and bold approach to relief printmaking are reminiscent of masters like Picasso and Georges Rouault.
The primary distinction between painterly and graphical quality is that in prints, a hard edge line exists between colours, forms, objects, and surfaces. Partha Pratim Deb encapsulated this spirit in his black and white linocuts, improvising elements with extreme simplicity and playfulness. His linocut prints are a wonderful interplay of black and white distribution, rendered in dynamic and rhythmic gouging.
Parag Roy’s black and white visual vocabulary is primarily inspired by his father’s passion for shadow puppetry. The young Roy grew up witnessing the playfulness of silhouettes against white. Later, during his training at Kala Bhavana, he came across German Expressionist relief prints, Satyajit Ray’s black and white films, and rediscovered Nandalal’s illustrations in Sahaj Path. Taking inspiration from them, Roy’s printmaking practice evolved around the fundamental principle of positive and negative equilibrium. His woodcuts and linocuts are rendered in stark black and white contrast. He also designs illustrations in the relief printmaking medium.
Being Catholic, Walter D’Souza experienced printmaking for the first time in Biblical illustrations in his youth. Later he pursued his graduation in Painting and postgraduation in Printmaking from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. His interest in Pop Art drives him to examine in black and white woodcuts how common people relate to daily life objects. His black and white relief prints are rendered in a sombre tone; there is no stark contrast or excitement as in Pop Art. Rather, his visual approach encapsulates the more mundane or inane characteristic of the objects, asserting their social-economical hierarchy. Besides his conventional practice, Walter is keen on exploring the sculptural aspect in printmaking, such as the possibility of transforming matrices into relief sculptures. In his ‘Ticket to Ride’ project, he juxtaposed his metal reliefs alongside conventional black and white woodcut prints.
India being the world’s second most populated country, sixty per cent of her citizens live below the extreme poverty line. Artist Subba Ghosh’s works deal with this harsh reality of social disparities and the prevalent class structure of India. He works in almost every conventional medium including printmaking. He is also keen on animation and video art. His relief prints are essentially figurative, rendered in stark black and white contrast with crosshatching and flickers of light. ‘My Sister’s House’ is one amongst his large-scale installations in linocut. The lino prints were installed like the wall of a house, printed both in monochrome, and black and white.
In India, printmaking emerged as a fine art medium over two decades after its inception in Goa in 1556. The intaglio and planography printmaking techniques were entirely foreign courses adopted from the Colonisers. The relief printmaking technique, on the other hand, was an easy adaptation for the artisan community, since they are traditionally trained in engraving in diverse materials. The practice of black and white relief printmaking that emerged in North Calcutta in the 19th century, has evolved with modern and post-modern influences. Contemporary artist Srikanta Paul’s works are pertinent in this context. Srikanta’s family belongs to the goldsmith community of Chitpur. He absorbed skills in engraving as a part of his family tradition. Taking inspiration from Bat-talareliefs and modern printmakers, Srikanta contextualises the cross-pollination of wood-engraving and woodcut techniques, juxtaposing iconography from Indian mythology and contemporary socio-politics. Rajesh Deb, on the other hand, conceives his work as a beautiful fusion of myths from the East and the West. In some of his series, Deb reimagines the popular iconographs of Bat-tala reliefs in the light of contemporary social and political contexts.
Sengupta Paula, Foreign & indigenous influence in Indian printmaking, LAP LAMBERT Academic Publication, Germany.
By Nilanjan Das