Bengal served the independence movement and was the centre of social, cultural, intellectual, artistic and philosophical movements that spanned the 18th and 19th centuries. Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) used to be the capital of India during this period under the British Raj. There are many kinds of art that helps us in understanding the city’s significance in the history of Indian art. Battala woodcut prints are one such significant set of artworks to aid in an understanding of Calcutta’s social culture during the colonial period. This popular art form of colonial Calcutta creates a rich visual narrative. The battle between Rama and Ravana | 28.5 x 40 cm The banyan tree (bat in Bengali) and the suffix tala might refer to the space underneath or the entire neighbourhood. Battala woodcut illustrations started in the early 19th century, and thrived in business in the pre-print era. Books published in this format represent a wide range, from panjika (almanac) and the ubiquitous Ramayana–Mahabharata–Puranas, to schoolbooks and primers, biographies, plays, poetry, novels, jatra texts, animal husbandry, recipe books, and even manuals on photography. There were some significant illustrated books such as Anandamangal, Pashvabali, Sangeet Trang, Batrish Simhasana later printing took two new directions one is periodicals and another one is panjika (almanacs). Battala was popular among the lower-middle classes in Bengali society because their production was economical. According to Ashit Paul, “apart from the discernible lines, typical of woodcut illustrations, there are barely any noticeable difference between woodcut illustrations and pattachitras.”1 Battala artists were essentially engravers — people who would chip away at a block of wood to create prints. If we look at the prints carefully, they show that the Battala engravers were extremely dextrous in their work. Apart from engraving, the idea of signature, designing the theme and various ornamental details are important things to notice in terms of creating a professional piece of work. Some of the well-known engravers were Nrityalal Dutta, Kashinath Mistry, Hiralal Karmakar, Harihar Bandyopadhyay, Gopinath Swarnakar and Kartik Chandra. Colonial Calcutta’s earliest printing presses were European-owned, and primarily located in the area opposite Fort William. Saptrathi Abhimanyu Yuddha | 27.5 x 40 cm It was Nrityalal Dutta, who was a woodcut artist himself, who set up the Dutta Press. Interestingly, Battala engravers used to write their name, or an abbreviation, name of the press, and the place it was engraved on the final woodcut print. Woodcut blocks prints and presses are now hard to find. The reason possibly is Bengal’s high humidity climate that makes it difficult to store paper or wood for long. Another reason is that the print used to be on super thin and acidic paper that has more risk to damage the prints. Annada Prasad Bagchi, who was a teacher at the Government Art School, established Calcutta Art Studio near Bowbazar with some of his fellows such as Nabakumar Biswas, Phanibhushan Sen and Yogendranath Mukhopadhyay in 1878. At this juncture the demand for the lithographic prints became more famous by the early 1880s which contributed to a decline in the market for woodcut prints. We now turn to the question as to how Battala woodcut prints reached Akar Prakar? It is a journey of collector and gallerist Reena Lath who grew up listening about the Battala prints and pats in her native Bengal. She wanted to educate herself about the prints, and learn more about the art form which is hardly visible in our country nowadays. This search led her to meet the artist and designer Ashit Paul. Ashit Paul had been conducting research on Battala for a long time and published a book titled Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta in 1983. While he was writing the book, he happened to meet a few engravers of Battala who were still alive. He wanted to preserve the art which had already been dead for some time. Apart from Ashit Paul, there are many private collectors from that generation who had collected Battala woodcut prints. Mrs. Lath says, “when I happened to know about it, I just wanted to collect them and showcase them to wider audiences. It is unfortunate that we came to know/see our artworks through foreign collectors”. She collected 10 editions, each with 13 sets from Ashit Paul, along with the blocks of wood. So far, several institutions and art galleries have procured works from the collection at Akar Prakar. She recalls the initial phase of the gallery when she was more interested in Indian prints and that’s perhaps why the first newsletter of the gallery was on Indian prints. Gradually, Akar Prakar expanded into the domains of modern and contemporary art from South Asia. These 13 prints represent popular versions of Puranic myth, romantic stories between Radha and Krishna, episodes from Mahabharata, episodes from Ramayana, ten-armed Durga etc. Engravers, or perhaps it is better to call them ‘artists’, gave an ingenious shape to the artistry of woodcut prints which have almost completely disappeared from our society. Pre-print culture can be seen to be back and is now trending in the landscape of contemporary Indian art. It is in this connection that I borrow the notion of ‘sentient knowing’ from the writings of Natasa Eaton2. She says that the act of copying has more power than the original. Therefore, the engravers who had the ability to mime the original as Battala engravers in the pre-print era is an act of legitimization that brings self-awareness about a tradition that died long back from the contemporary art world. Robert J. Del Bontà has mentioned that artworks from India used to travel to Europe and artists and engravers used to copy them and circulate3. Keeping this in mind, these woodblock prints which have been copied from the original have more value than the original and they are unique in their own way. Mahabhanjan | 29.3 x 39.3 cm These prints carry their own power of representation. For instance, take the print titled Maanbhanjan, an episode from Krishna Leela. The composition looks like it is inspired from Indian miniature painting. In the centre Radha is sitting on a chowki and Krishna is holding her feet. Seeing this scene, the gopis, who are standing on the right side, can be seen in different expressions. The artist tried to portray the emotions through gestures like the way few have put their hands on the mouth out of sheer amazement and some can be seen wondering while looking at each other. There are a few gopis on the left who seem like they have just come out from the house to see the incident between Radha and Krishna. However, the architectural representation is important to notice here. The house looks like an upper-middle-class home from colonial Calcutta. In the background and the foreground, the representation of trees in different kinds and shades show that Radha is sitting in the garden of the home. This and other prints in the collection at Akar Prakar give us a creative representation of neo-literate and suburban Calcutta during the colonial era and therein lies the importance of Battala woodcut prints. Writer’s Bio Shaista Anwar is an independent researcher with an interest in Islamic art and architecture. She has been teaching Art, Aesthetic and Design at the National Institute of Fashion and Technology, New Delhi since 2018. 1 Ashit Paul (ed.) Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1983), 32. 2 Natasha. Eaton, Between Mimesis and Alterity: Art, Gift, and Diplomacy in Colonial India, 1770–1800. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 46(4), 816-844. doi:10.1017/S0010417504000374 3 For more discussion, see Robert J. Del Bontà, Engraving India in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, Art in Print, Vol. 4, No. 4 (November – December 2014), pp. 20-25.