The exhaustive, informative and beautifully-mounted exhibition, The Printed Picture: Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking (September 9-19), curated by Paula Sengupta and held at the Harrington Street Arts Centre in collaboration with the Delhi Art Gallery, was truly representative of the diverse and innovative manner in which artists down the ages have expressed themselves through this medium. It explored the mediumís infinite possibilities, and it is hoped in the long run it will help dispel the many wrong notions laypersons harbour about it.
People still confuse printmaking with the commercial and mechanical reproduction of images and refuse to accept the validity of prints as original works of art that bear the cachet of their maker. They are unaware of the creation of the matrix from which individual impressions are made, each with an identity of its own. The simultaneous publication of two heavy and profusely-illustrated tomes by the DAG on printmaking will further bolster the case for prints as authentic and one-off works of art that have a vocabulary of expression all their own.
Sengupta, who is herself a printmaker and therefore familiar with the technicalities, not only told the story of this much-misunderstood medium in all its fascinating detail, but also displayed specific prints to which she has referred in her narrative. She covered a huge period of time right from the advent of this medium in India to contemporary practice, accentuating the various periods and phases that came in between. Many of the prints of antiquity were iconic and can often be seen in isolation, but when one viewed them in conjunction with modern ones the impact was quite strong ó as if history was coming alive. It was a treat to see Bat-tala prints and Daniells and Solvyns alongside Sahajpath linocuts, Somenath Horeís tortured Wounds, Krishna Reddyís consummate and contemplative intaglio prints, and Anupam Sudís figurative works (picture) that clearly approach abstraction, all within the walls of a single gallery. If this did not give viewers an idea of the versatility and pliability of the medium, what else could?
The DAG has a treasure trove of prints in its phenomenal collection and it has borrowed some rare ones for this exhibition, which also included the Pradip Bothra collection. There were, for example, wood engravings of Annapurna (1816) from Oonoodah Mongal, and a chapter-ending illustration from mid-19th century, courtesy Gallery Rasa, Calcutta.
Sengupta began the history from the introduction of printing in India in Goa by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, a hundred years after Gutenberg printed the Bible in Germany using movable type printing. Modern book printing was launched in India with the production of a booklet on Christianity by a Spaniard in 1557. Surat saw the advent of vernacular printing, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Bhimjee Parekh. The Dutch, the Danes and the French were all in the fray to spread the printed word all over the Indian sub-continent, and printing technology developed simultaneously.
Bookmaking and printing share a common past, and printmaking came into its own in Calcutta 200 years after its introduction in India. As the capital city of the sub-continent, it became a hub of book production and book illustrations, developments that came hand in hand with what was known as the Bengal Renaissance. Sengupta traced in detail the myriad factors that ushered in this printmaking bonanza, and the many players in this field, including not just the intellectual giants of those times but also those highly skilled draughtsmen, lithographers, engravers and blockmakers, some named, mostly unnamed, who made this irruption of words and images possible.
Calcutta was the favourite port of call for artists from distant shores who came here looking for patronage, and soon found favour with native potentates. This is one of the most exciting periods in the history of Indian art as the academically-trained artists from the West interacted with savvy local practitioners who created the extraordinary Bat-tala prints. Once the local populace was being trained at the art school that, post-Independence, became the Government College of Art & Craft, enterprises such as the Calcutta Art Studio, Chore Bagan Art Studio and Kansaripara Art Studio began to churn out chromolithographs and oleographs that held their own against the pre-eminent Ravi Varma Press in the mid and the late 19th century.
Printmaking came to fruition as it began to be taken seriously as a fine art when it was being practised at important centres such as Santiniketan, Baroda, Kerala and Delhi right from the turn of the century and beyond. Impressions are a marketable commodity today. This exhibition proved that.