Victoria Memorial Hall & Akar Prakar present 19th Century Swadeshi Art in Bengal Woodcuts, Woodblocks & Lithographs.


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.

[read more=”+ Read more” less=”- Read less”]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. In its formative years, Battala had printed and published different series of literature including almanacs, religious books, epics, children’s literature, literature on music, theatre, medicine, astrology, lexicography, linguistics, art and craft etc. The production of which were economical, as the quality of paper was obtainable at a reasonable price.

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 primary objective of Kalighat pats lay in creating religious souvenirs, later diversifying into display prints. During the course of time, the rising popularity made it difficult for patuas to keep up with the ever-increasing demand. To meet the requirement, the patuas began outsourcing the making of outlines to the lithograph artists. Records of printing in lithographs are abundant; the business was deemed sporadic. Owing to the fact that the prices of the woodcut prints were economical, they were printed on low-cost, finer papers, unlike the patachitras. In the course of time the woodcut prints grew more popular than the patachitras. Artisans as well as producers discovered how reasonable the prints were.

One of the earliest red light districts of the city germinated in Kalighat, a centre of pilgrimage. Popular themes revolved around the culture of Kalighat. The images were sexually suggestive in nature, meant to be hung in the confines of the women of the red light district. Their rooms were frequented by the noveaux-riche men of the city who often purchased the gratifying illustrations.

Another genre of images, consisted of paintings of nature and beasts, found hanging in the living rooms of middle-class Bengali households.

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.

There was a growing insistence on voyeuristic content at the time. Writings were crafted around subjects ranging from the household interiors to baiji para (red light district) escapades; the sexual adventures of the babus, and the smell of sensuality, floated across the city. The income derived from such content made several publishers wealthy. The patachitra artists were punctual to jump into the fray upon realising the opportunity. In order to manufacture pictures in a shorter time than usual, they printed the outlines applying the ‘litho technique’ and filled in with colours. Studying the technique, the battala woodcut artists printed some of their pieces using cotton to colour the prints. They were cheaper than the pat paintings. The technique was followed in certain instances, not all.

The patchitras did not boast of finer details, since the details were not considered an imperative. The woodcut artists were fond of cutting finer details in their pieces as they felt the colours, strokes and subjects of the pats might attract buyers, speeding up the sales.

Nrityalal Dutta was a practicing woodcut artist and printer; his works were printed by his own ‘Dutta Press’. The dimensions of large prints were either 27 x 35 cm or 23 x 37 cm. Prices varied from 1 paisa to 1 anna. The prints had the artist’s name and address towards the end. Quite often, directions leading to the stores selling the prints were included in the prints. Krishnachandra Karmakar mentioned in one of his compositions, “An array of pictures of Calcutta and Serampore by Krishnachandra available at House No. 72, Churamani Dutta Para, Shovabazaar and Dakshin Raoji’s shop, Battala”.

To bring alive the images or personified emotions, the patuas played with strokes and colours, which were limited in number. The woodcut artists were in need of more strokes. Fascinatingly, the strokes of the Chitpur woodcut artists stand out among the rest. A unique form was unconsciously constructed. For a gourmet Bengali, the print media remains unparalleled.

Many of Nrityalal Dutta’s woodcut works and prints (printed by his press) circulated in the market. The wood works were printed according to its demand. The acclaimed artist, Annada Prasad Bagchi, apart from being a student of Government Art School, was a teacher who established the Calcutta Art Studio in Bowbazar in the year, 1878, raining the market with innumerable lithograph prints, watercolour and oil paintings. Perhaps, Nrityalal, did not receive formal education; the press made pictures according to their own dictates and distributed the same in the market. The character of the Dutta Press and whether there were other presses of similar nature remains unknown to this day. Woodcut prints for room décor, known to be printed by the press, were an effort put together to boost the sales. The advertisements for this selection of pat and lithograph prints could be seen in the pages of the panjikas.

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.

Curator’s bio: 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 was trained in fine arts from Govt. College of Art, Calcutta and spent several years at ABP media group as an art director. His participations include Triennial International art exhibition by Lalit Kala Akademi, 1975, 11 solo exhibitions and various national and international art camps. He was one of the initiators of the arts awareness activities through ‘Dynamic Art Movement’ in Calcutta from the year, 1974 to 1977. He was the Joint Secretary of Calcutta Art Fair, 1971, and one of the conveners of Metropolitan Art Festival and Biswa Banga Sammelan.

Elected from the North East India, he was the General Council member at Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi for a period of five years and the former Vice President of Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta. He established ‘Mukta Shilpa’, an organization for artists and ‘Charuchetana’, an organization for underprivileged children.

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. He was the chief coordinator for the documentation of the history of Chitpur ‘Native Art of Chitpur and allied area of Calcutta’ for Lalit Kala Akademi under Ministry of Culture from the year, 2013-2015.

He has written the book on 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. Among other achievements, he has also delivered a lecture on ‘Popular prints of 19th century Calcutta’ at the Civil Services Officers’ Institute organized by The Raza Foundation, New Delhi.[/read]

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