Printmaking is an art form that thrived in India till the late 80s. It then lost its sheen due to the advent of new media and digital technology. To bring back the focus on this specialised genre, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi has organised an exhibition titled Celebrating Indigenous Printmaking — a special exhibition of graphic prints, which will boast of original prints from its own collection.
Says Prof Rajeev Lochan, NGMA director, “The exhibition showcases over 200 iconic prints of more than 100 eminent artists mapping the history of printmaking from the colonial period till contemporary times. A special section has been dedicated to international prints that were made in India by foreign nationals. This exhibition, along with 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.”
Printmaking has been an important part of contemporary art practice in India, which has been mostly misunderstood as either digital reproduction or posters of the original work. In reality, prints are works of art which allow multiples in almost identical forms of the initial image.
According to information shared by the NGMA, printmaking in India gained prominence with the Portuguese bringing the printing press to Goa. British artists Thomas and William Daniell made a six-volume series of aquatints titled Oriental Scenery. 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 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, the most popular being a lithographic press established by Raja Ravi Varma towards the end of the 19th century. The Ravi Varma Press gained prominence with him copying many religious and secular paintings and printing them as oleographs for mass consumption.
During the second decade of the 20th century, a transformation of the role of printing as a creative medium was established by Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Samarendranath Tagore. They collectively formulated the Bichitra Club to explore new forms of painting and printmaking with woodcuts and lithography.
Printmaking became popular in India in 1921 with Nandalal Bose introducing it to the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. From his visit to China and Japan in 1924, he brought back Chinese rubbings and Japanese colour woodcut prints. Owing to this, students of Kala Bhavan established a direct contact with the original prints of the Far East.
Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij experimented with this medium from the 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. In Delhi, with the establishment of the printing press by Kanwal Krishna and Devyani Krishna in 1955, a renewed energy was imparted to outlining techniques of multi-coloured intaglio. Other important artists like K G Subramanyan, Jyoti Bhatt, Jeram Patel and Shanti Dave have made important contributions in this field.
(Poonam Goel is a freelance journalist who contributes articles on visual arts for unboxedwriters.com)