Putting forth an innocuous image

Visual Arts

By Soumitra Das
  • Published 9.06.18

Once, panjikas or almanacs, apart from deciding which periods of time were auspicious, allowed readers surreptitiously to enter the prurient and titillating world of amours and spells and potions, STDs and mammary gland enhancers that appeared in the form of advertisements in these voluminous tomes. Such advertisements, which were the counterpart of publicity material put out by astrologers, beauticians, hairdressers, cosmetic companies and sexologists in newspapers today, were often greeted with sniggers and nudges, as salacious matter still does.

The exhibition, 19th Century Swadeshi Art in Bengal: Woodcuts, Woodblocks & Lithographs (April 13-June 17), organized jointly by the Victoria Memorial Hall and Akar Prakar and curated by Ashit Paul, in the stiflingly hot central hall of this Calcutta landmark, highlights almanac ads, but of a more innocuous kind. These, mostly copies of the original woodcuts that appeared in the almanacs published by P.M. Bagchi in the early 20th century, are exhibited on the outer walls of the display panels erected around the marble statue of a youthful Queen Victoria. The monarch appears in the lithograph, Bharat Bhiksha. The larger lithographs, once mass-produced by the Calcutta Art Studio, which is still in operation, and Kansaripara Art Studio, are displayed on the inner walls of the panels. Calcutta Art Studio specialized in lithographs of divinities and portraits of leaders, while Kansaripara was famous for the colourful pin-ups of courtesans, some of which are on display. It is widely known that Victoria Memorial Hall has a good collection of these commercially-produced prints. There was no sign of those here. For some unfathomable reason, both iconic museums of this city are averse to bringing to light the treasures in their yet-to-be-inventoried holdings. Sanjeet Chowdhury had held a similar exhibition of commercial prints from all over the country - which have become collectibles today as they are hard to get - in 2006. The current exhibition, on the other hand, brings together exclusively locally-produced prints.

The origin of the woodcuts as advertisements, illustrations and typography is closely related to that of the Battala publications, which played a pioneering role in Bengali book publishing, and Kalighat pats, which pilgrims bought as souvenirs. This native or "swadeshi" endeavour ran counter to the European enterprises in publishing and the introduction of oil painting, whose consumers were mainly the moneyed classes, both whites and natives. Like the 19th-century lithographs that followed their example, Kalighat pats depicted, besides deities, voluptuous ladies of leisure, the hypocrite in a feline avatar, a fistful of prawns, and Bengali women circus performers. So, besides offering voyeuristic pleasure, these images were vehicles of biting social satire, targeting the godless Young Bengal weaned on Western values, the nouveaux riches, scandals that rocked contemporary Bengal, and the cant of the priestly class. Battala penny dreadfuls, whose sensationalized woodcut advertisements appeared in almanacs, dealt with similar themes.

However, there were differences. While the pats were characterized by bold lines that defined volume, the cheaper woodcuts printed on flimsy paper were far more detailed, often creating a dazzling effect. Figuration was stylized, and as in Indian miniatures, perspective was ignored. The influence of Western academic drawing on most lithographs is quite evident, even though the themes were drawn from Hindu scriptures. While most of the lithographs here are originals, a handful are "display prints", and the superior skills of the earlier ones is quite obvious.

Two redeeming features of the exhibition - the woodblock artists, most of whom sank into oblivion, are identified. At a time when anonymity was the norm, the names of Priyogopal Das, P.C. Dutta, Nrityalal Dutta, Madhab Chandra Das and Gobinda Chandra Das stand out. The woodblocks, too, are on display.