As the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, mounts a special exhibition of graphic prints, Dibyajyoti Sarma soaks in the history of Indian art and its romance with print
Art has always been the prerogative of the rich, a select few, not the common man. Raja Ravi Varma is credited to be the first to have brought art to the public sphere, when he started to print and sell his own works on the streets.
Today, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), established in 1954, seem to be doing the same thing, bringing art closer to people. While owning an art piece continues to be an expensive proposition, NGMA offers art enthusiasts a chance to appreciate art at close quarters and that too almost free of cost.
Based in Delhi, with regional centres in Mumbai and Bangalore, the main focus of NGMA is to create awareness and understanding among the public towards Indian art expressions. It also showcases international art and promotes modern and contemporary art abroad.
The comprehensive collection of NGMA comprises around 17,000 art objects – painting, drawing, sculpture, prints, photographs and installations, essentially by Indian artists, and currently represents works of about 2,000 artists from India and abroad.
This September, the gallery mounted a special exhibition of graphic prints from the collection of NGMA. Titled, ‘Celebrating Indigenous Printmaking’, it is the first time that such an extensive show on printmaking is on display from the collection of NGMA, New Delhi, including many prints that have rarely been displayed before.
Prints are works of art which allow multiples in almost identical forms of the initial image, says Prof Rajeev Lochan, director, NGMA, New Delhi.
Lochan adds the current exhibition on printmaking showcases over 300 iconic prints of more than 100 eminent artists, mapping the history of printmaking from the colonial period till the contemporary times. “A special section has been dedicated to International prints from our own collections which were made in India,” he says.
According to Lochan, the exhibition, along with its accompanying texts, journals and printmaking tools on display, will benefit students, researchers and scholars to get an intimate understanding of printmaking practices, techniques and developments of the last two centuries in India.
“We are also organising printmaking workshops under the guidance of noted printmakers of India, along with regular screenings of documentary films on the art of printmaking in India,” he adds.
This exhibition is accompanied with the release of a set of three portfolios showcasing the prints of some of the iconic masters, among other memorabilia produced by NGMA, New Delhi.
History of Indian Printmaking
The history of printmaking in India from 1556 may be outlined as an era for this form of art gaining prominence with the Portuguese bringing in the printing press to Goa. “Seen in the international context, this form of art started making its mark in India almost a century after Gutenberg’s Bible,” says Lochan.
Noted artists such as Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) and William Daniell (1769-1837) made six volume series of aquatints titled as ‘Oriental Scenery’ in India. In 1786, the Daniells published an album of their monochrome etchings, ‘Twelve Views of Calcutta’. “This was the first time that the possibilities of single sheet printing were explored on a large scale in India. The first lithographic single sheet print was printed in 1822 by a French artist De Savignac,” Lochan adds.
The demand for printed images for calendars, books and other publications grew in the 1870s, which resulted in the increased popularity of single sheet display prints. Eventually, several art studios and printmaking presses flourished throughout India. Bat-tala, in the Shova Bazaar and Chitpur areas of Kolkata may be viewed as prominent centres for printmaking in the 19th century.
Munshi Newal Kishore founded the Newal Kishore Press and Book Depot in 1858, the first press in Lucknow. It is recognised as one of the oldest printing and publishing establishments in Asia where newspapers and books were often printed with stone blocks. The other major centres were set up in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, with Raja Ravi Varma establishing a lithographic press towards the end of the 19th century. The Ravi Varma Press gained prominence with him copying many of his religious and secular paintings and printing them as oleographs for mass consumption.
During the second decade of the 20th Century, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Samarendranath Tagore established a transformation of the role of printing as a creative medium. They collectively formulated the Bichitra Club to explore new forms of painting and printmaking with woodcuts and lithography. Another prominent student of this club was Mukul Chandra Dey, who was taken to America by Rabindranath Tagore in 1916 to learn the technique of etching from James Blinding Slone.
Printmaking became popular in India during 1921 with Nandalal Bose introducing it to Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. From his visit to China and Japan in 1924, he brought back Chinese rubbings and Japanese colour woodcut prints. Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij experimented with this medium from 1930s to 1940. Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore used linocuts and woodcuts to disseminate leftist ideologies, reformist concerns and socio-political critique of events like the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Tebhaga movement.
Similarly in Delhi, Jagmohan Chopra (founder of the Group 8), J Swaminathan, Anupam Sud, Paramjeet Singh, Manjit Bawa and Krishan Ahuja also made sizeable contributions to this field.
With the establishment of printing press by Kanwal Krishna and Devyani Krishna in 1955, a renewed energy was instilled in Delhi, outlining techniques of multi-coloured intaglio and collagraphy. Several young printmakers visited Paris to learn the technique of multi-coloured intaglio under the guidance of William Hayter (founder of the Atelier 17) and Krishna Reddy in early 1950.
KG Subramanyan effortlessly incorporated lithography, etching and serigraphy in his art practice. He transformed them into children’s book illustrations which were published during his stint as a teacher at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. Other prominent artists like N B Joglekar, Jyoti Bhatt, Jeram Patel, Shanti Dave, VR Patel, and PD Dhumal also made their important contributions in this field. After studying in Italy and at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York, Jyoti Bhatt joined the art faculty in Baroda in the 1960s, encouraging young printmakers to experiment in this area of visual expression.
From 1970 onwards, iconic printmakers such as Laxma Goud, Devraj Dakoji and DLN Reddy in Hyderabad, RM Palaniappan and RB Bhaskaran in Chennai and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Atin Basak and Amitava Banerjee in Kolkata have made a significant mark in this area. The techniques of intaglio influenced painters and sculptors in Baroda during this time including Dattatray Apte, Naina Dalal, Jayant Parikh, Vijay Bagodi, Walter D’souza and Rini Dhumal to name a few.
“The works created by Robert Rauschenberg in Ahmedabad and the comprehensive collection of prints at NGMA, New Delhi reflect the diverse practices adopted by the printmakers all over the world, rendering it as one of the richest repositories of prints,” says Lochan.
Printmaking was rekindled with the establishment of the Indian Printmakers Guild in the 1990s, with members including Ananda Moy Banerji, Dattatraya Apte, Jayant Gajera, K.R. Subbanna, Bula Bhattacharya, Kavita Nayar, Kanchan Chander, Moti Zharotia, Sushanta Guha, Sukhvinder Singh, Subba Ghosh, and Shukla Sawant.
“The introduction of digital technology led to a significant transformation in the field of printmaking. In its experimental form, interesting visual vocabulary created by Jyoti Bhatt, Nataraj Sharma, Ravi Kashi, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Ranbir Kaleka, Baiju Parthan, Pushpamala N, Akbar Padamsee, Rameshwar Broota and Gogi Saroj Pal, to name a few has also been realised in this exhibition,” he adds.
More from NGMA
While the gallery has a formidable collection of the development phase of modern Indian art, including the largest collection of Nandalal Bose works, it also has a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory to support its own collection.
The gallery also boasts of other facilities, such as, an art reference library for art lovers, an auditorium and 3 lecture halls. The gallery not only organises special exhibitions but also screens films, has an art-sketch club and runs summer and winter art workshops.
However, the highlights of the gallery’s attempt to bring art closer to the public is its publication programme, which includes printing and selling exhibition catalogs, books, monographs, portfolios, and posters. There are also coffee mugs and coasters, with art works printed on them. These memorabilia and souvenirs are available at the art shop located inside the gallery.
Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of a same piece, which is called a print. Each print produced is not considered a “copy” but rather is considered an “original”. This is because typically each print varies to an extent due to variables intrinsic to the printmaking process, and also because the imagery of a print is typically not simply a reproduction of another work but rather is often a unique image designed from the start to be expressed in a particular printmaking technique.
Prints are created by transferring ink from a matrix or through a prepared screen to a sheet of paper or other material. Common types of matrices include metal plates, usually copper or zinc, or polymer plates for engraving or etching; stone, aluminum, or polymer for lithography; blocks of wood for woodcuts and wood engravings; and linoleum for linocuts. Screens made of silk or synthetic fabrics are used for the screen printing process.
(This feature was first published in PrintWeek India, December 2014.)