| Kaaliya Daman, an exhibit at the show
God comes in many avatars. But one of the most surprising shapes in which he manifests him/ herself is that of the porcelain deity who still presides over the puja rooms of many a Bengali Hindu household. Be it a pot-bellied, white and pink-cheeked Shiva, Lakshmi seated near her owl, or Jagaddhatri ensconced on a lion, all these porcelain figurines were imported from Germany, Austria and England, or even Japan.
Worshipped as these fragile china images were for generations, one never really gave a thought about their aesthetic qualities. With alabaster skin and fine features, they were certainly quite pleasant to look at. It did not really matter whether or not they were artistic enough. One accepted them as they were, no questions asked.
One feels the same way about the exhibition of lithographs and oleographs from 19th and 20th Century India from the collection of Sanjeet Chowdhury mounted by Birla Academy. One does not appreciate and enjoy it so much for the aesthetic qualities of the exhibits as for the manner in which it documents and places in the right context certain artefacts that could be seen and are still seen everywhere, from homes and temples to private buses.
However, since these prints have of late become collectibles worthy of being exhibited, they have acquired an altogether different status, that would not be wrong to describe as exalted. Art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta has treated them with the seriousness due to them in her authoritative introductory essay in the catalogue.
She divides the prints into three distinct categories, depending on their provenance ' prints from Calcutta, western India and from other Indian presses. Fortunately for the curator, the names of the artist, publishing house, and place where printed are stated on each print. At the tailend, there is another essay on the techniques of lithography, chromolithography and oleography, which will help viewers appreciate the exhibition better.
The history of these prints, as traced by Guha-Thakurta, began in Calcutta around 1878, when a chromolithography press opened on Bowbazar Street, followed by Kansaripara Art Studio and Chorebagan Art Studio. The artists who created these were often trained in Western academism, yet the gods and goddesses churned out by the presses inhabited a mythical world beyond the bounds of realism. Many such prints were closely linked to the freedom struggle, depicting nationalist leaders, as well as Bharatmata in fetters.
Thereafter, such presses proliferated in western India, most notable among which was the one opened by Ravi Varma and its many clones. From then onwards, prints were being produced in other regions as well.
Krishna and Radha figure in many prints and it is interesting to note how the ones produced in the 1930s closely followed filmi fashions. Bollywood had already cast its shadow on divinities.