Today, the success of Indian art is a recognised fact. But how is its neglected cousin, printmaking, faring? Dibyajyoti Sarma finds out
Following WB Yeats (‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’) can we ask, “If printmaking is the art from, are the artists printmakers?” Artist Subrat Kumar Behera has an answer. The artists are not printmakers, he says. “It’s just a technique to explore your art to reach the masses.” In other words, a printmaker is primarily an artist, and printmaking is the technique.
The history of Indian printmaking has an illustrious past, with names like Raja Ravi Varma, the Tagore family and even MF Husain. Yet, in the context of modern Indian art, its existence seems to be relegated to the corner. There are a number of reasons. Unlike earlier, when all production work was done manually, these days, technology has made everything easier and faster. This, according to Behera has blurred the line between commercial print and fine art printmaking. The other problem, he says, is that printmaking is a very younger medium in India. So, of course, it will need some more time and awareness before it finds a solid ground.
According to art historian Lina Vincent, the Tagore family would be an appropriate way to begin the discussion of Indian fine art printmaking. Raja Ravi Varma followed the process of mechanical multiplication of imagery that he wanted the masses to have access to, mainly the iconography of Gods, Goddesses and mythological characters. He made paintings, which were then copied and printed as oleographs by German technicians. But, under the aegis of the Tagore family, Santiniketan became a centre where influences from the east and west came together. “Different techniques of printmaking, like etching, dry point, lithography, wood cut and linocut became popular among artists. Artists like Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore used printmaking and its strength of making multiples in a politically significant way,” she says. “During the 60s and 70s, most artists (including MF Husain) experimented with printmaking as it was an integral practice in the institutions and studios.”
The waning of printmaking could perhaps be connected to the international success and recognition of painters, Vincent argues. “Indian modernity was deeply associated with painting. I think (and this may be debatable) that this attitude filtered down into the institutions and ultimately to Indian galleries. Combined with a lack of awareness of printmaking among buyers and the rise of other printing technologies that became confused with printmaking processes, and inertia among artists too, printmaking as an artistic process lost its attraction,” she explains.
“I personally think there are several factors responsible for this,” says artist Kavita Shah. “I would say the first one is cultural conditioning. Most middle class Indian household will not think of putting up some image of painting to decorate their house. At the most, they will hang calendar with image of God. Or frame an image of god or landscape or flowers from some magazine or calendar. Secondly, in India, the buyer is elite, who thinks the work art should be unique and no one should have the same thing that he has. So, multiples in print becomes a disadvantage. Plus, a rich person who can afford to buy a unique piece of canvas for Rs 10 lakh finds a print of Rs 10,000 something less of value and significance.”
Shah says to promote print is not economically viable for mainstream galleries. “Mounting an exhibition involves lot of hidden costs, such as invites, catalogues, openings, gallery rents, staff, follow up with clients, etc. So, commission received from the sale of prints may not cover the costs at times,” she adds.
Another reason why young printmakers are giving up prints and turning to other mediums, Shah says, is that at times buyers are not really looking for good prints or work but names. “I do get calls asking for a print by certain artists. If yes, how much? If price is okay just book it without seeing the work,” she says.
Artist V G Venugopal says over the years, printmaking in India has reduced to just an academic fulfillment at art institutes, rather than being a parallel fine art medium. “The commercial interests of the galleries are also a reason. Thus, it becomes difficult for artists to sustain by practicing only printmaking,” he says.
Print collector Waswo X Waswo begs to argue that there is a great misunderstanding about fine art printmaking. “A print is different from a reproduction. A reproduction is basically a photograph of an original piece of art which has then been mechanically reproduced on paper or canvas. A fine art print, on the other hand, is never a copy of some pre-existing artwork. Rather, it is made to exist exclusively as an etching, woodcut or lithograph and there is no pre-existing artwork that has been copied. The print itself is the original. That is something hard for many people to understand, so sadly many people assume that a print is bought because the collector cannot afford what they imagine is some ‘original’ that has been copied. This misunderstanding has grown even worse since there are many people marketing reproductions and miscalling them “fine art prints”.
The Spread of Printmaking
So, each print produced via a technique of printmaking is an original artwork, just like a painting on canvas is. Yet, unlike the work on canvas, which only one person can own, a fine art print can have more owners, making it the most democratic of all visual arts. It can have a bigger reach and it can be affordable compared to other art forms.
However, the Indian reality seems different. Vincent says this very advantage of printmaking, its ability to be multiplied by the artist into limited editions, and therefore achieve a larger outreach, has become its disadvantage, due to the lack of a historical discourse around printmaking processes and the absence of information for people. “People assume they are ‘copies’ like photocopy or digital or offset copyprinting,” she says.
However, all is not lost. With the practice of printmaking taking a backseat for a long while, there has been a resurgence of interest in printmaking over the last four years. Waswo X Waswo has been instrumental in this move, along with a few others. In 2010-11, Art News and Views (Art Etc), a magazine published from Kolkata, ran three solid issues on printmaking practice, guest edited by Waswo, which showcased a lot of art and included interviews, discussions and critical essays on the historical and contemporary practices in printmaking.
Later in 2012, the planning and the display of the show ‘Between the Lines…’ at the Indian Habitat Centre in Delhi drew plenty of attention, as it garnered more viewership at NGMA Bangalore and NGMA Mumbai.The showcase ‘The Printed Picture – Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking’, curated by Paula Sengupta for Delhi Art Gallery provided an excellent view into the past of Indian printmaking. These shows encouraged many artists (old and young) to talk about and practice printmaking, and inspired several other shows, including the latest ‘Celebrating Indigenous Printmaking’, a special exhibition from the collections of NGMA in Delhi in 2014.
Talking about affordability, Waswo X Waswo says prints are not always as affordable as people imagine. “I have paid several lakh for certain prints in my collection. Tyeb Mehta’s lithograph of a bull, ‘Kultura’, sold at the Christie’s auction in 2013 at over Rs 27 lakh. A rare early etching by Akbar Padamsee or a rare lithograph by Ram Kumar can easily sell for more than one of their drawings. It depends on quality and period, provenance, condition, and all the other criteria that go into valuing any art form,” he says.
If you go by auction results, and what the galleries are beginning to ask, the prices are certainly going up, he adds. “When I first started collecting, etchings of even well-known Indian artists could be bought very inexpensively, for say Rs 6,000 or Rs 10,000. Now, I find even beginning prices for such works are at a minimum of Rs 60,000, and prices in lakhs are not uncommon. What is still a great thing to do is to buy from the young printmakers just developing their careers. Young artists like Soghra Khurasani, who makes marvellous woodcuts and etchings, or Subrat Behera, who is an imaginative and skilled lithographer. The woodcuts of the young artist Jagadeesh Tammineni are incredible, as are the multi-panel works of Maripelly Praveen Goud. There are still great bargains to be found among the young artists, and by supporting them, you help them continue their practice,” he adds.
Shah offers the reasons why printmaking is being relegated to the corner. The artwork itself is not important for the masses. All they want is a name. “Unlike Europe, where due to harsh weather, people spend long hours indoors, and therefore, they decorate and put up images that they like to see or associate with. In India, there is no such culture. Also, there is an obsession with canvas, which makes an average art lover rejects print because it is on paper. Nowadays for prints very good quality acid free, 100% rag contained papers are used, which would not turn yellow over many years. But this information has not reached the buyers,” she adds.
Shah explains the situation on the ground. In a mid-range city like Vadodara, known for its Fine Arts College, there are approximately 2,000 practicing artists. The city has seven or eight art centres that give space to young graduates to pursue their work. “Many of them have bought etching presses, but none of them are in working condition. Every year, if 16 students do masters in printmaking from Baroda College, I doubt if 10% will continue to do print after six months, in spite of availability of printing studios,” she says.
There is another trend. Shah says, to cater to the market, many artists pull out just one print, as buyers object to editions and some artists even do one print on canvas as buyers do not like paper. This makes me feel sad. I have nothing against canvas or one print, but if one conforms to demands so much, one will lose the freedom and creativity,” she adds.
The same is the case with an artist like Behera. “I find myself a little nervous if someone asks me, where is the original print? It’s a wrong question, because fine arts prints, as they are known collectively, are considered original works of art, even though they can exist in multiples,” he says.
Behera says, nowadays, etching, woodcut and digital mediums have become very popular. “Medium like lithographs is losing its glory because of the extensive technicality, which makes it time-consuming. To add to it, there is a lack of studios which provide facilities for lithography,” he says.
Every medium has its own character. It depends on the artist. “I always ask myself whether printmaking is totally a different art, or whether it’s not an art form. Then I find my answer. When I was a kid, I was not aware about anything. I just used to draw anything and everything, and everybody called me an artist. Now, when I use mediums like wooden engraving and lithographs for expressing my language, then why does everyone call me only a printmaker? Print processes are just mediums like others (oil, acrylic, etc),” he says. However, Behera agrees that things are changing. “Many young artists are now focusing on the image and new ideas. Many new art lovers like Waswo X Waswo (who is also an artist) and Amit Jain, have started collecting prints and are promoting graphics art,” he adds.
According to Venugopal, the understanding of printmaking as a fine art medium should start from a very young age among school students. “In the general school curriculum, there are courses on drawing and painting, along with the basic sculpture medium like clay modeling, along with craft. Basic printmaking like linocut and woodcut should be taught in a secondary school level. There should be more workshops and exhibitions to spread the awareness among the public and buyers of art. Both galleries and artists play a big role in this process,” he says.
Venugopal says there are artists practicing printmaking, but, most, including him, are finding it difficult to practice consistently. “There are hardly any platforms to show prints. Very few galleries are interested in promoting prints,” he says. There are, however, exceptions, such as the artist initiative programmes Print Portfolios, Print Exchanges, the recent Mini Print show in Goa and exhibitions like Bharat Bhavan Print Biennale, he adds.
Waswo X Waswo
Art collector and artist Waswo X Waswo is an American who has lived in India for the better part of 16 years. “I have a love of the country, and a deep engagement with its art scene,” He has well over 200 prints in his collection by well over 80 Indian artists. “The collection will eventually be donated to an educational institution, he says, “I’ve never collected for investment, though I must admit it has been satisfying to see the prices rise. I take this as meaning that Indian printmaking is gaining more awareness and status in art circles.”
His Facebook page, The Waswo X WaswoCollection of Indian Printmaking, has 3,286 likes.
“My collection focuses on traditional techniques, and does not include digital prints, though I know digital prints are becoming more and more common among young artists,” he says. Artists such as Viraj Naik and Gouri Vemula have perfected their skill in etchings to an astounding level. Certain lithographs by Ravikumar Kashi and Sachin Naik rival the best, and Moutushi, an artist from Kolkata, has been doing very interesting work with silkscreen that explores feminism and women’s identity, he says.
“I’m not sure if printmaking itself affects a person’s art, but it is a process that requires more forethought. Errors are not easily erased or painted over, so advance planning and skill in execution is a must. Printmaking is a difficult medium. It is much more difficult than drawing or even painting. There is tremendous and complex work involved,” he adds.
What does it means to be a print collector? “You need to have a mind that is willing to share, knowing that others will have the same print from an edition that you have, he says, adding, “If you need to feel like you have a one-of-a-kind object then printmaking is not for you. But for me, this element of holding one of a small edition is exciting. You feel like you’ve joined a select club. And for older prints, you might be holding the last surviving one.”
Waswo is not worried that digital printing is posing a threat to printmaking. “It is just a new technique, he says. “I don’t include it in my collection though, as many digital printmakers start from photo-based imagery. I wonder if it is a print or a manipulated digital photo. That line is blurry to me, I don't understand it yet. For this reason, I do not collect digital prints. I limit my collection to the traditional techniques of etching, drypoint, lithography, woodcut and silkscreen.”
Lina Vincent is an art historian and curator currently living and working in Goa. One of her largest interests is working with young artists and students of art. She belongs to a printmaking group ‘Trellis Artists Circle (TAC)’ in Bangalore. “We have produced limited edition calendars and planners over the last three years. My current projects include a large-scale exhibition on approaches to health and healing in India through a cultural perspective, and the inaugural exhibition for the Museum of Goa.
Vincent also curated an exhibition titled ‘Between the Lines: Identity, Place and Power’, of prints from the collection of Waswo. “It was a challenging exhibition to curate, because of the sheer number and diversity of works in Waswo’s collection. The process of curation was organic, and it seemed like the works found their places in dialogue with each other, with me as a mediator,” she says.
She adds that the responses in the three venues to the exhibition, and the accompanying book,were heartening, and due to the collaboration of artists and practitioners, the outreach workshops in the three cities touched a large number of the public, including children. “There were more than 80 artists represented, known and unknown, old and young, dead and practicing. Each one’s work spoke its own story and everyone who came in had something that was a favourite and that they could respond to,” she adds.
On the current trends, Vincent says there is a move towards experimentation with digital transfers, archival photography, combinations of laser printing with more gestural mediums. The matrix (or the surface material used to produce a print) is also becoming varied, from acrylic sheets, and aluminium to compressed mdf boards and steel. Some artists are using prints as a basis for animation.
“The complaint of printmakers that studio machinery is not available is being solved by low-cost presses being made in the country,” Vincent adds. “The practice is evolving and this is a good sign. Recently, a group of Mithila painters from the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani were part of a workshop to produce linocut prints and screenprints for the very first time.These crossover experiments create the space for continually questioning and refreshing the established systems of a particular stream of art,” she says.
Vincent argues that Indian printmaking of today should not be segregated from the rest of contemporary art practices. It takes its roots from the same histories and influences, and continues to respond to the progress and change within India and the world, she says.
Compared to other visual arts like paining, for example, printmaking demands labour and precision. Vincent says these laborious techniques are part of the joy of the process – those particular lines in an acid-etching, or the grainy quality of an aquatint, the bold and organic pattern on a woodcut print cannot come from anything else,” she says. At the same time, like any other processes, this has also evolved and been experimented with. The old and the new go along quite well together, so much so that Vincent does not consider digital printing a threatas long as the distinction is made known to viewers and buyers.
Understanding of the printmaking process is the key, and Vincent requests art aficionados to take the time to understand a little about printmaking when they next get a chance.
Kavita Shah has done masters in printmaking from renowned Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda, and has many solo shows and has participated in international print biennale, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, X1 Triennale India, Small Format show, Chicago, Multiple Encounter, New York and many more. She was invited to print and show in Le Mois de L’estamps, Paris. After working with Robert Blackburn, she returned to India and started a print workshop in Baroda in 1999.
“Many techniques have been innovated since I completed my masters in 1985. Earlier, we had lithography with stone, etching, serigraph, woodcut, linocut in the graphics department. Now, there is paper-making, book-making, cyanotype, solar print, polymer print, plate lithography, photography (now attached to the print department), digital print on archival papers, video art, installations and many more.
Many interesting and faster techniques are being used and I must say the techno savvy younger students do some amazing work with them,” says Shah about the current state of printmaking in India.
Things are, of course, changing dramatically. Shah says the digital world and the social media have changed many things, including aesthetics among people. “Historically, prints were sold on the street leading to the Kali temple in Kolkata, (known as Kalighat prints). Now, they are sold on Amazon, Indiamart, Saffron Art and most artists have their personal websites or blogs. Now, the idea, image and concept are the important aspects,” she says.
Subrat Kumar Behera
Born in a small village called Nuagan in Odisha in 1988, Subrat Kumar Behera was interested in art since childhood. “I even used to steal money for art materials. Seeing my inclination, my father guided me to join a fine arts college. The thought excited me, as I wasn’t aware that I could take it up as a career. I owe a lot to my father for supporting me to chase my dream,” he says.
He joined the BK Collage of art and crafts, BBSR, in 2003. “There I started learning new things. Our two-year foundation course taught us all mediums, and my teachers suggested me to choose the painting department. This I refused, as I was interested to learn new techniques. Printmaking was the only department where I could experiment and learn new things,” he says. After two years, Behera took printmaking as his specialised subject and started working on every medium.
“Once I saw some light yellowish stone in a senior department. I asked what it was and came to know that those were limestones and the print medium was lithographs. I realised that this medium will suit my temperament and it will give me all the details that I want to put in my work. During that time, I did some lithographs, including colours,” he says.
When he joined the faculty of fine arts in Baroda for his higher studies, Behera started more experiments on lithographs, experimented with new materials and skill. “My purpose for taking printmaking as a specialised subject was to learn print techniques and utilised them in suitable places. So, beside editions work, I started experimenting with other work,” he says, adding, “Generally, I work on lithographs, woodcut and painting. My works speak the unfolding story I experience form my surrounding, my culture. When I start to visualise, I become my own master and order myself to compose what is my ideas to do,” he says.
He adds, “The thing with art history is that it is constantly in flux. In fact, the ways of using the same techniques have changed. Moreover, with the advent of new mediums and material, we get to see a highly eclectic use of material, medium and perception.”
Behera says an original print is a work of art created by hand and printed by hand, either by the artist or a professional assistant, from a piece of wood, plate, stone or stencil, that has been hand-created by the artist for the sole purpose of producing the desired image.
On digital printing taking over printmaking, he says there are pros and cons to everything. “I personally don’t feel that one should have a tunnelled vision regarding a specific medium. An artist uses a medium which is best suited for the work that he/she does. So, the question of whether it is a threat or not depends upon how an individual looks at digital printing and for what purposes is the technique of digital printing being used,” he adds.
Behera sees a lot of change as the medium grows. “Young artists are being attracted to the medium and there is a gradual change in the way it is being perceived. It will take some time for the medium to make its stronghold. But, from what I have seen and what I have experienced, the future looks bright,” he says.
VG Venugopal has been practicing with a variety of mediums for the last 15 years, and printmaking is one of them. After graduating in painting from Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts in Mysore, he did his post-graduation in printmaking from Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bengaluru. “Though I am not into fulltime printmaking practice, the medium remains one of my favourites, just because of the possibilities of surface exploration and also for the joy of making it, Venugopal says.
His early works after the specialisation both in painting and printmaking were mainly influenced by the urban realities. “Bengaluru has been an inspiration as an outsider for me. Within the metropolitan atmosphere, I started relating myself to the issues like urbanisation, and socio-political and economic conditions as an outsider. My images are caught between complex situations and dilemmas of reality. The recent works are the result of my evolving alternative approaches in dealing with questions I ask myself about changing facets of human relations and sensibilities, environmental issues, struggle for identity in urban reality/context,” he says.
According to Venugopal, in general, among the conventional mediums, etching remains to be the major medium practiced by printmakers. “There are many young printmakers who explore large-size woodcuts. In the recent years, limited edition digital prints are also widely created and exhibited in major shows,” he says.
When it comes to printmaking, education remains an issue. “Many art enthusiasts don’t know the difference between ‘printing’ and ‘printmaking’. They consider them as just another ‘print’, which is not ‘unique’. But strangely, this doesn’t apply for sculptures, because these days many artists create sculptures in limited editions, just like prints,” he says.
When it comes to conventional printmaking techniques like etching, lithograph or woodcuts, the effort remains the same as earlier, says Venugopal. “It involves hard work, time, as well as certain health issues, because some processes involve use of chemicals like acids. On the other hand, we have new techniques evolved within the conventional mediums as well, like photo-etchings, image transfers, etc. In the recent years, digital prints have become part of the wide range of mediums with the evolution of technology and high quality digital printing machines,” he says.
Venugopal says Indian printmaking has not received the kind of recognition it deserves. “Many artists are finding it difficult to continue the practice consistently. The major hindrance is the lack of public studio setups. It is required to push the printmaking medium to another level. This is possible by a united effort by all sections of the art community, including artists, patrons, galleries, curators, etc. When we stop treating it as a secondary medium, it will flourish. I sincerely hope it will get the due recognition and support,” he says.
He argues that there should be more participation in printmaking-related activities like workshops for school students and the public. Along with the artists, the responsibility also lies on the government institutions to promote and encourage the medium by providing scholarships and fellowships, organising community events and international exhibitions on a regular basis,” he says.
The Science of Printmaking
Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting.
The process is capable of producing multiples, which are called original prints. Prints are not considered “copies”. This is because each print varies to an extent due to variables intrinsic to the printmaking process, and also because the imagery of a print is not simply a reproduction of pre-existing work, but rather is a unique image designed from the start to exist only as a print.
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 screenprinting process.
Printmaking techniques are generally divided into the following basic categories: Relief, where ink is applied to the original surface of the matrix; Intaglio, where ink is applied beneath the original surface of the matrix; Planographic, where the matrix retains its original surface, but is specially prepared and/or inked to allow for the transfer of the image; Stencil, where ink or paint is pressed through a prepared screen, including screenprinting and pochoir. There are also techniques like collagraphy, viscosity printing, and foil imaging.
Printmaking came to India when missionaries in Goa brought two presses in 1556
A Gujarati businessman at Mumbai imported a press from England in 1674-75
Printmaking reached Bengal via East India Company by early 18th Century; use of metal type casting printed Bengali grammar book
First volume of ‘Asiatick Researchers’ printed by East India Company Press with engravings from Indian Artists in 1789
Daniell brothers published engravings and etchings on ‘Views of Calcutta’ in early 19th Century; local artists added various details, reinforced etched lines with pen and introduced borders with titles inscribed in Bengali
Ramchand Roy was probably the first Indian engraver; native engravers evolved an indigenous style of preparing blocks
Woodcut became popular for rending illustrations by 1820
Single sheet display prints by 1860 became popular and Bat-tala district in Bengal printed them in large numbers; Bishwanath Dev setup the first printing press in Calcutta
By 1870, printing spread to Alwar and Punjab with prints of Sikh spiritual leaders, temples, Sikh battles, etc
Arrival of lithography helped flourish printing in Calcutta; lithographic press established in Calcutta in 1825
Behar Amateur Lithorgraphic press in Patna in 1828
Nawab Nasiruddin Haider of Oudh brought Archer to open the first Litho press and a book was made
Chromo lithography or colour lithography arrived in India in 1860; flooded the market with garish colour prints
Colour lithographs and large theatre posters printed in Litho press in 1880
Kalighat paintings were oleographed in Germany; establishment of art colleges in 1850 in Madras
School of Industrial Art, Calcutta in August 1854
JJ School of Art in Mumbai in March 1857
‘The birth of Shakuntala’, the first print in 1894, from Raja Ravi Varma’s press
Printmaking graduated into an autonomous art form in the 20th century
Prominent Bengal School followers worked in etching and woodcut, using the same theme as their paintings
Until 1940s, printmaking was practiced only by the Bengal school followers
Kanwal Krishna etchings in mid 1950s liberated printmaking from landscape and figure compositions
In the 1960s, printmaking was picked up at Fine Arts Faculty in MS University, Baroda
By the end of 1960s, Baroda Fine Arts produced fine etchers like Laxma Gaud and Dervak Dakoji
By the 1970s, printmaking became well-known and even painters like MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta did some lithographs
In the early 1990s, the Lalit Kala Academy set up many printmaking studios in Delhi, Chennai, Lucknow, Bhuvneshwar, Jaipur and Bharat Bhavan at Bhopal
(Courtesy: Mohile Parikh Center)
(The feature first appeared in PrintWeek India.)