19th Century Swadeshi Art in Bengal Woodcuts, Woodblocks and Lithographs by Ashit Paul

19th Century Swadeshi Art in Bengal  Woodcuts, Woodblocks and Lithographs by Ashit Paul

Photo by : Incredible India Info

Exhibition now extended till 17th June 2018

The art of printing could be traced back to the lanes of Battala in north Kolkata, the birthplace of the Bengali printing presses in the early 19th century. A literary genre documenting struggles of the underprivileged, found voice in the print media. The texts coupled with themed illustrations, underwent severe transformations. Some of the illustrations bear precise resemblances to patachitras developed around similar subjects. Apart from the discernible lines, typical of woodcut illustrations, there are barely any noticeable difference between woodcut illustrations and patachitras.

The nomenclature, ‘Battala’ probably derived from a banyan tree at the heart of the locality, functioned as a hub of various social, trading and cultural activities. The place could be imagined as a forerunner of the present-day College Street; an area in the northern part of Calcutta, dotted with several colleges, universities, publishing houses, printing presses and bookstores.

Battala soon came to be associated with the sphere of literature exploring social scandals, with undertones of an intensely eroticized language. Since a serious division of Battala literature treating social issues and transitions was framed in satires and farces, the corresponding images were portrayals meant to cocoon the visuals in one frame, in order to convey the core narrative. The changing social phenomenon was quite substantial. Although the facial expressions remained largely stylized, impressions of gradual transformations were noticed in book illustrations of the second part of twentieth century.

The prints were not coloured, unlike the pats. The outlines for the images were printed from wood, whereas the insides were filled in with the primary colours--- red, blue and yellow--- and secondary colour--- green. The application of colours involved cotton wool, unlike paint brushes. The colours were mostly natural and organic. A number of scholars and academics have pondered over the uncanny resemblances in patachitras and woodcut prints, the depiction of features, the application of colours, the formats, the use of architectural motifs etc. Thematically, the focus of woodcut prints was on social issues concerning the morally corrupt babus and bibis (satires on privileged men and women who received western education). Although woodcut engravings, for the purpose of book illustrations or display print, had to rely on such topics, the chief focus was on the depiction of flora and fauna besides biotic themes.

The urban bourgeoisie commissioned European artists to draw landscapes and portraits of the rajas, maharajas and sultans as well as, self-portraits and portraits of those living in the inner quarters of their mansions. Portraits of nude women and sculptures were in consistent demand.

Possessing paintings of gods and goddesses were a practice among the middle-class households. The lower-middle class could not afford the luxury of owning original paintings. The homely majlis or heroes in the woodcut medium were effortlessly sold, contrary to the sale of the framed prints of Bhaiphonta, Lauchingri, Beral Tapaswi and Circus.

With the modern-day dependence on technologies, the market for traditional art began dwindling. The glorious days, which witnessed large prints adorning the walls of several homes, came to an abrupt end though illustrations in books and panjikas continued to survive for years. Kalighat pats gradually disappeared from the market. The identity of such art--- short-lived but impactful --- was given a column in history because of a handful of contemporary native and foreign connoisseurs. The medium of woodcut art is still used in the making of prints, now known as, ‘graphic art’. The woodcut artists of low-cost, popular prints and their existence may remain a secret to many, but their creations live on.

Born on June 15, 1950, Ashit Paul spent his early days at College Street, Calcutta. Nurtured in the charm of the city, Paul fell in love with the heritage treasured by North Calcutta; the essence in its architectures, old lanes, shops, trading houses, music, ancient art form, vendors, woodcuts, Panjika houses, etc. He is an ardent collector of objects, which are of historical importance. He is a thorough researcher of art forms and historical objects.

He has edited the book, Woodcut Prints of 19th century Calcutta published by Seagull Books, 1984, the art journal Artist and the literary journal Samakalin Kolkata for many years. He has written more than 500 articles on art and old Calcutta. His other publication is about the pioneering woodcut  artist of  19th century Unish Sataker Kathkhodai Shilpi Priyagopal Das, 2013 published by Signet Books, Kolkata. The book Adi Panjika Darpan,2018 published by Signet has been authored by him. He curated the exhibition ‘Swadeshi Art’ at Akar Prakar, New Delhi, 2017. 


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