The Gaur Collection of modern Indian works on paper is particularly notable for a remarkable variety of prints made by many of the subcontinent’s most influential printmakers. These include intaglios, lithographs, serigraphs, and relief prints by such master printmakers as Zarina, Krishna Reddy, Anupam Sud, Laxma Goud, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Haren Das, Somnath Hore, and Jyoti Bhatt. The collection also possesses a number of prints by moderns best known for their work in other media, including Arpita Singh, MF Husain, FN Souza, and Anish Kapoor. The high representation of prints in a collection of works on paper may be linked to the surface qualities of handmade paper that lend themselves remarkably well to the tactile nature of print. This essay lays out a brief history of printmaking in India, with particular reference to artists in this collection.

From reproductive to creative

Printing arrived in India in the mid-1500s as a colonial import, first for evangelical purposes, and later to further economic and political ambitions. From “printing” emerged “printmaking” or “the art of the printed picture,” as the demand for printed illustrations grew. By the mid-18th century, there was a thriving printing and publishing industry in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of the British Raj in India. The advent of European artist-adventurers on Indian shores around this time led to the emergence of broadsheets, as opposed to illustration. Over time, a gradual infiltration of technology into the indigenous artisan community occurred, leading to the emergence of a vernacular print culture that manifested itself both in text and image. From the 19th to the early 20th century, we see vibrant schools of bazaar printmaking in the subcontinent, such as the Battala reliefs in Calcutta and the Punjab lithographs from Amritsar and Lahore.

The 1850s saw the establishment of five art schools in Calcutta, Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), Jaypore (now Jaipur) and Lahore. All these imparted instruction in printmaking as an industrial art, with the intention of developing an indigenous workforce to man British presses in India. Creative enterprise was discouraged, even though printmaking had been an active contributor to artistic enterprise in Europe since the Baroque period. However, the instruction that these students received in the art schools led them to establish art studios that practiced planographic printmaking for an Indian clientele. This gave rise to a huge wealth of popular pictures called the “Art Studio Pictures,” catapulting artists such as Ravi Verma to fame and demand.

The first example of artistic printmaking occurred in 1917, with Gaganendranath Tagore publishing the lithographic cartoon album Adbhut Lok at Bichitra Club, the avant-garde salon in the Tagore residence in Calcutta. This marked a significant breakthrough, with printmaking being considered a medium of artistic exploration, rather than merely for purposes of reproduction.

Quest for a new language

Explorations began in earnest with Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore’s young prodigy Nandalal Bose assuming the reins at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan as its first Principal in 1920–21. Nandalal’s search was for a versatile new language in art that did not differentiate between “art” and “craft” as being synonymous with “high art” and “low art.” His keen interest in printmaking was founded not merely in its techniques, processes, and grammar, but also in its democratic nature and aesthetic possibilities. He sought a new spontaneous language in printmaking that was concise, simple, and uncluttered. Instead of attempting to create the illusion of a three-dimensional surface in the print, Nandalal developed a relatively flat, two-dimensional perspective, evenly distributing black and white areas.

The resultant prints are unusually crisp, the lines swift and taut, the blacks and whites in perfect unison. Despite continuing to remain subjectively realistic or representational, Nandalal’s prints, due to their two-dimensional design, border on abstraction. By the 1930s, the mature Nandalal started to make significant reliefs, such as Bapuji, and the later lithographs of domestic pets and poverty-stricken humanity. Apart from artistic printmaking, Nandalal realised the potential of the medium as a means for mass communication. During the 1930s, Ramkinkar Baij and Nandalal printed political posters for the Non-cooperation Movement from cement blocks.

"Bapuji" (1931) by Nandalal Bose. Image courtesy: Christie’s Images Ltd.

Of angst and fury

It is in light of Nandalal’s graphic work that we will consider the work of Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, better known by his first name, who had wanted to study under the master at Santiniketan. Though this desire did not materialise, it would seem from Chittaprosad’s prints that Nandalal was his role model. Not only did Chittaprosad reference the two-dimensional design sensibility and crisp chiaroscuro of Nandalal’s reliefs, but his later work resonates with Nandalal’s references to folk and classical art traditions, and also the master’s later preoccupation with human suffering. It would seem that Chittaprosad seized upon Nandalal’s realisation of using printmaking as a medium for the masses in a manner that could be applied to political campaigns, as well as, later, to peace themes and children’s book illustrations.

In the turbulent years following Independence and Partition, Chittaprosad, with his strong socialist convictions, added direction and an unprecedented vitality and vigour to the idyllic art of the Santiniketan school. As Prabhas Sen describes him, Chittaprosad “was an artist of the people – the great multitude of India, poverty-ridden, exploited, but of unbounded vitality, keepers of its unique cultural heritage with a legacy of hundreds of years of stoic survival against all odds.”

Chittaprosad’s work inspired the young Somnath Hore, who acknowledged him as his first mentor. As a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Hore traveled together with his comrades Chittaprosad, Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hasan through famine-stricken Bengal, drawing and exhibiting to raise awareness of the widespread starvation. These years left an indelible impact on the psyche of the young artist, scars that haunted him and became his life’s quest. An unbroken train of thought runs through the entire body of Hore’s prints, right from the early reliefs to the final pulp prints – a preoccupation with “wounds.”

As in the prints in the Gaur Collection, Hore’s journey begins with reliefs of famine-stricken victims, poverty-stricken rural Bengal, political rallies and meetings, victims of communal rioting – all images from Hore’s impressionable years with the CPI. The middle phase is constituted of lithographs, etchings, viscosity prints, and metal engravings, with the artist moving progressively from indirect to direct processes in printmaking in his quest to realise his concept. The wounds grew deeper and more vicious with further forays into intaglio processes. As the acid bit further and further into the plate, the human figures struggled to survive. The form gradually disseminated, becoming a dark silhouette.

What stood out were the deep wounds in embossed white. Gradually, the intaglio was almost done away with, both the figure and the wounds being printed in white on white, representing the final transition from the intaglios to the pulp prints. What followed were the pulp prints at the end of the 1970s. Hore had successfully done away with all representational elements, including form and color. What remained was the wound alone: a gash inflicted on the paper.

Of yearning and nostalgia

Haren Das, better known by his first name, was a contemporary of Hore, though radically different in temperament. He learned printmaking at the Art School in Calcutta, under the tutelage of Ramendranath Chakravarty of the Santiniketan school. In later years, Haren joined the faculty to teach printmaking. Educated in the strictest traditions of British academic art, Haren worked almost entirely from sketches from life, imagination rarely, if ever, playing a role in the conception of his images. While his avant-garde contemporaries in post-Independence India used their skills to evolve a new identity in art, Haren remained untouched by the turbulence of his times. What attracted him instead was the placid beauty of the Bengal countryside, particularly the lyrical life and landscape of East Bengal. At a time when India was struggling for her freedom, and artists and intellectuals joined ranks with freedom fighters, Haren continued his search for idyllic beauty. Though a calm, faceless impersonality characterizes all his work, Haren’s nostalgic love of his motherland and the simple folk who tilled it is the essence and beauty of his work.

The philosopher-printmakers

Besides Hore, the quite different, though equally masterly, Krishna Reddy is considered amongst India’s pioneer printmakers. Atelier 17, in Paris, where he and master-printer Stanley William Hayter worked, was where they pioneered the viscosity printmaking process. In India, viscosity became a popular method of polychrome intaglio printmaking due to the influence of Reddy, who tutored many an Indian printmaker in the 1960s and 1970s, conducting workshops widely across the country. Reddy, who had his early education in sculpture at Santiniketan, spent most of his career in Europe and the US but remained a frequent visitor to India.

Reddy viewed the worked intaglio plate as a sculptural object – a miniature moonscape, which he sought to colour, exploiting inks having various viscosities or rollers of different firmness, which could reach the middle and lower levels of the plate. To Reddy art, nature and life were inextricably connected.

It was not just Reddy’s technical brilliance that attracted Indian printmakers, but also his abstract imagery and philosophy. It was radically different from the narrative trend that dominated Indian art of the 1950s and 1960s – it presented a new challenge, a new approach to aesthetic understanding. It is the essence of music, often seen as the most abstract of all art forms, that resonates through Reddy’s works, amply demonstrated by the prints in the “Abstraction” section of this exhibition. The prints in the “Narratives” section are no exception, with Apu crawling in a rising crescendo or a rhythmic procession broken by a caesura when the line unexpectedly breaks.

"Jellyfish" (1963) by Krishna Reddy. Image courtesy: Christie’s Images Ltd.

Often seen as an abstractionist, Zarina Hashmi, who preferred to use her first name only, was a deeply political artist and very much a storyteller. One of the Indian subcontinent’s many “midnight’s children,” Zarina lived in nine cities, yet had no place called “home.” Loss was a reality and borders were drawn across her heart. Her politics and her art were shaped by this grim reality that she grappled to make peace with till her last breath. As a nomad or traveler, Zarina had long been a maker of maps and a marker of borders. The maps in These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness, from the Gaur Collection, are both personally and politically significant, rendered with restraint, almost like grids governed by Sufi thought and Zen practice, as in One Morning the City Was Golden.

Geometry, which Zarina regarded as a “sacred practice,” is the basis of almost all her work, composed as it is within the three basic geometric forms of the square, circle and triangle. However, unlike the geometric abstraction of the Russian Constructivists, Zarina’s brand of abstraction remains rooted in Indo-Persian architecture, cultures and language. There is extensive use of both Urdu poetry and script in her work, reflected also in the calligraphic nature of her maps. This is not merely an aesthetic ploy but a metaphor to place her work in a historic moment. To most of her viewers, the script is illegible and the language incomprehensible, even in Delhi where it was once born, indicating the painful loss of what was once a mother tongue.

Excerpted with permission from “A Brief History of Printmaking in India” by Paula Sengupta in Paper Trails: Modern Indian Works on Paper from the Gaur Collection, edited by Tamara Sears, Mapin Publishing.