The Linoleum sheet, made with cork powder and linseed oil, was invented by Englishman Frederick Walton. The sheet was primarily used as a floor mat or a substitute for wallpaper in theatres. From the 1890s, European artists used it to make printed pictures that came to be called linocuts. The medium was used as a substitute for the age-old woodcut, which is relatively laborious to make.
A lino print in black colour on a white paper could be produced within an hour or so; other media like the woodcut, wood engraving, copper/zinc plate etching and lithography take more time, are strenuous and even quite expensive. It has been a custom in many Indian art institutions to introduce lino to students while they learn the basics of printmaking. But the product available now in the name of linoleum seems to be made from synthetic material.
Lack of proper documentation of linocuts makes it difficult to credit the adaptation to a particular artist in Europe and India. In German Expressionism, many famous artists and a few others who have become obscure, had produced woodcuts and linocuts during World War I (1914-1918) and also continued to make it later on. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) produced his first linocut in 1939, and subsequently a series of multi-coloured works in the medium in 1953-54.
In India, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) seems to be one of the earliest artists, if not the first one, to produce many linocuts like the Bapuji, widely known to connoisseurs of art. A black and white print can be easily reproduced unlike a colour print or painting and the Bapuji has been reprinted in many essays and books on Nandalal’s life and works. The original handwritten copy of The Constitution of India contains a line drawing (p. 149) of the print either done by Nandalal or one of his pupils. Nandalal was a student of the renowned painter, Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), in the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata, and became the first principal of the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan in 1922.
Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in India from South Africa in 1915 and led the freedom struggle against the British Raj, stayed in Santiniketan for a few days in February in 1915. He again visited the place along with his wife, Kasturibai Gandhi in March 1940. The Bapuji by Nandalal, as incised in the linocut itself, was created on April 12, 1930.
Gandhi wrote a letter on March 2, 1930, and sent it to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, through Reginald Reynolds , the renowned critic of British Imperialism in India. In this letter, Gandhi informed him of his decision to act against the Salt Act (1882), which prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt without paying tax. Gandhi started the Dandi March, also known as the Salt Satyagraha, on March 12, 1930 at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, and concluded it on April 6, 1930 at Dandi, , after walking for about 385 kilometres for 24 days with scores of followers.
A Swiss photojournalist, Walter Bosshard , who was sent to India by the German Photographic Service, had taken many photos of the March, and a documentary film of the event was also made. Many newspapers in India and abroad had covered the event extensively; besides Walter, there might have been other photographers as well on the occasion. I presume that Nandalal was in Santiniketan at the time of the Salt Satyagraha. He must have been deeply moved, like many others in the country and abroad, by the newspaper reports on the March.
In my opinion, he remains unique and stands tall among the rest, for, just six days later, he had produced a linocut on the incident. Most photos of the event show Gandhi surrounded by many protesters. Hence, I presume that Nandalal had not seen any photos of the event, but created an image on his own, which shows Gandhi holding in his right hand, a thin stick which touches the ground, and extending his right leg forward to take a step. Incidentally, in the age-old Indian ethos, taking a step forward with the right leg is considered to bring forth fruitfulness. A thin horizontal line behind Gandhi’s feet, in my opinion, not only demarcates the ground, but also gives a three- dimensional depth to the whole pictorial space on the print.
The artist’s signature in a block indicates the impact of Far Eastern Art. The main figure created with various thick and thin lines, however, is unique in style, and to the best of my knowledge, has not been repeated in any other works by the artist. Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali books titled the Sahaj Path (4 vols.) also contain a few linocuts by Nandalal. Interestingly, the name, Nandalal, is another name for infant Krishna, and the linocut in the first page of the first volume of the book shows Krishna crawling.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam