Art News & Views



Under the Banyan Tree - The Woodcut Prints of 19th Century Calcutta

by Dr. Paula Sengupta

The Bat-tala woodcuts, together with the Kalighat pats, were the popular art of the Black Town of 19th century Calcutta. They comprise perhaps the only indigenous art activity of the time that may be termed a 'school', so prolific was its impact and so far-reaching its influence.

The art of the Black Town catered essentially to the semi-educated masses that thronged the suburbs of the city and the mofussil towns. These patuas and engravers were of a different breed from the 'gentleman' artists who catered to the drills and demands of British commissions. The term 'Bat-tala' is earned from the area of north Calcutta where this indigenous school of printmaking developed. It soon became a flourishing trade and picture-production outfits began to mushroom all over Shobhabazar, Dorjitola, Ahiritola, Kumurtuli, Garanhata, Simulia and Baghbazar.

The Bat-tala relief prints made their maiden appearance in the first half of the 19th century as book illustrations. Bat-tala books consisted of a huge volume of crass literature that was cheaply printed on cheap paper. With the sizeable increase of the literate or semi-literate public of the 1850's, there was an ever-growing demand for printed material. Books on the natural sciences, history and law were no longer as much in demand as were pauranic mythology, pedagogical literature, narrative fantasy, historical and legendary romance and the like. As Bat-tala literature was aimed at the semi- educated reader, the publishers, cleverly enough sought to supplement the text with interesting visuals. Thus the publisher's demand for the engravers and printers who clustered around the presses began to grow. As more and more publishers and printers sprouted, printmakers increasingly began to set up studios in the vicinity and were employed to illustrate the literature churned out by them.

It is these same printmakers who in later years, perhaps the late 1920's or early 1930's, began to turn out big single-sheet wood engravings and woodcuts.

The engravers at Bat-tala mostly belonged to the traditional artisan castes of the sutradhars and the shankaris though there were occasional exceptions. For generations they had practised their skills as metal engravers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths. They were well versed in cutting, furrowing, carving and chipping in various metals. Though it is often assumed that their woodcut skills were learnt from European printmakers who worked in India at the time, this is highly unlikely for various reasons, the first and most obvious being that intaglio printmaking was the preferred European medium. Secondly, it can be proved from the character of the lines of the Bat-tala wood engravers that they did not use the bully or the burin of their European counterparts. Rather, they used jeweller's needles both for wood and copper plate engraving, employing the traditional jewellers techniques for engraving.

Thirdly, until the advent of Bengali printing presses in the early 19th century, the English-owned presses established since the last quarter of the 18th century, employed goldsmiths, ironsmiths, coppersmiths, carpenters and wood-carvers from traditional artisan communities to work their presses.1 Regular printing of maps and charts began in 1792. It is certain that these were printed in the intaglio process. It was in these presses that the artisans learnt to put their traditional skills to new applications and also learnt to take impressions. The rudimentary training that they received at these printing and publishing outfits taught them the technology of a new art, but not an art itself.

The 'new' art was perhaps born of the social milieu in which these printmakers lived. At the time, the colonial presence was the predominant presence. The subject people were greatly impressed and influenced by all that was held in high esteem by the European. This was a time when the Europeans were strengthening their political and economic hold over Bengal and the printed word, naturally, became of great importance. Coupled with this was a steady influx of art objects, paintings and prints from Europe. To make the printed word more effective, the demand for book illustration grew. The traditional craftsmen had before them European art objects as role models. However, coupled with this was their tradition-bound outlook. Putting their inherent skills to new use, these artisans developed a technique and a style that is unique in the history of printmaking the world over. While European artists had practically no role in effecting this alchemy, British imperialism played the role of the prime mover in transforming the traditional craftsman. With the advent of the Bengali printing presses in the beginning of the 19th century, this school of printmaking, by now identified as Bat-tala, received a fresh impetus.

The second half of the 19th century saw the entry of art school products into the fray of Bengali book illustrators. Though many of them hailed from the traditional artisan communities, they were, nevertheless, products of European academic art education. They brought about a considerable change in the content, style and technology of the Bat-tala reliefs.

Thematically, the Bat-tala reliefs may be divided into five categories --- iconic representations of pauranic divinities, mythological pictures of pauranic and syncretic divinities in action, the social pictures, the narrative scenes based on memories of stage productions and finally, the visuals of advertisements.

The first category is by far the largest and includes both book illustrations and a large number of single-sheet display prints. These include among others, images of Parvati in her many manifestations, Vishnu's Dasavatara, the Hindu Trinity, the legends of Ganga, and even, very occasionally, unusual representations of Christian icons such as the Infant Jesus.

The second category of mythological pictures is comprised of narratives based on episodes from the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Krishna legends from the Bhagvatpurana, the Devipurana, the Kalikapurana, the Chandi and the Chandimangal provided the most popular subjects for illustration. The myths concerning Shiva, particularly from the Shivayana, were also popular. Other popular subjects of illustration were stories from the Annadamangal, the medieval Bengali ballads and the Durga legend.

The third group of social pictures deals with contemporary social life. They are often satirical comments in a narrative vein on the babu and bibi culture of the time or visual reports of contemporary social scandals and occurrences such as the Elokeshi and Mahanta prints. Some are simply straightforward descriptions of contemporary rituals and practices without sarcasm or comment. Others are representative of the mounting friction between the colonial rulers and the native population. Yet others, such as the sophisticated print of a Hand holding tiger prawns are subtle comments on the eccentricities and opulent lifestyles of the middle class Bengali.

The fourth category of prints came into vogue in the latter half of the 19th century and, in all faithfulness to the theme represented, they are highly dramatic. They represent the academic style of the Art School products who had by now entered the fray of commercial printing activity in Bengal. So too the last category of prints which comprise some of the earliest illustrations in advertising.

Thematically, particularly in the aforementioned third, fourth and last categories, there was a fair degree of Europeanism visible in the conception of indigenous themes. The influence of the rural pat tradition of Bengal, however, remained much stronger other than in the stage narratives and the advertisement visuals.

While technologically and thematically, European influence on Bat-tala reliefs remained minimal, stylistically, there were several foreign and indigenous influences that contributed to the unique nature of this ingenious art form.

With the influx of European art in India in the 19th century, the Indian artist, for the first time, became aware of the lack of three-dimensionality in his indigenous art. His major preoccupation became the effort to endow his pictures with this quality, which meant “composing with motifs in perspective, imparting of volume to individual motifs and foreshortening to indicate the movement of a voluminous body…. But since they did not know the optical principal of the vanishing point, the principle of distance-size interrelationship, the effect of light from a single source in the revelation of volume and distance and anatomical drawing in light-and-shade, they could never achieve what they were trying to do." 2

This struggle to create spatial distance in the picture by the Bat-tala printmakers is seen in each of the thematic categories previously described. The earliest examples of the iconic representations of pauranic divinities are two-dimensional with neither background nor inward depth. Marginal progress was seen in later years when some attempts at introducing a foreground have been made in occasional prints by drawing the furniture or architecture in linear perspective or by placing a bird or animal therein. However, despite being in the foreground, the trees, peacocks and deer are smaller in size than the people or the deities housed within the temple or on the pedestal. This may be due to the Bat-tala printmaker's ignorance of European perspective or, alternatively, it may be due to his indigenous practice of representing the divinities and earthly beings in their correct hierarchical order. However, the very fact that he attempted the use of perspective at all is indicative of European influence.

However, as the traditional artisans who made these prints were unfamiliar with the correct manipulation of relative proportions of the motifs according to distance and with the principal of foreshortening, these attempts fell flat. Far more successful aesthetically are the naïve iconic representations of gods and goddess placed in background spaces or surrounding environments that have been created without any consideration towards proportion or perspective. The only consideration here is design and the level of sophistication achieved by the Bat-tala printmaker in this regard is more than evident in the skilful and uninhibited arrangement of various pictorial elements. So too in the case of the icons placed flatly in an unadorned picture-space.

In addition to this effort to create dimension in the picture space, the Indian artist was also concerned with the endowment of volume and effecting liveliness in physical gestures in his representations of objects of the phenomenal world all through the 18th and 19th century.

The endowment of volume was attempted by defining the figure or represented object with contour lines and then filling it up with hatching. These hatchings were often curvilinear lines, concentric to the contour lines that further accentuated the volume of the body. However, more often than not, the technique of cross-hatching was used, thus endowing a decorative tonality rather than volume. The Bat-tala woodcuts soon became, not merely linear representations, but rhythmic organisation of decorative areas lineally enclosed in a flat space to form a composite whole. This unique adaptation of a basically atonal medium by the Bat-tala printmakers reached its peak in the 19th century. However, with the entry of the Art School products after 1858, this element of decorative design so admired in the Bat-tala prints, began to disappear. The figures were now defined by semi-anatomical contour lines and motifs were conceived in light and shade, defined in tones and masses with chiaroscuro effects typical of western academic art traditions.

The Bat-tala printmakers effected liveliness in physical gestures by resorting to caricature and exaggerating facial features and physical actions. This is typical of classical and rural Indian art traditions. Battle-scenes are fine examples of exaggerated physical action. Fierce battles are seen in progress, opposing armies locked in combat, arrows flying to and fro, charging elephants and steeds, dismembered bodies strewn across the field of battle, and blackbirds flying ominously across the sky. However, the Art School come-outs of the latter half of the 19th century discarded this naïve, but effective ploy of the traditional artist, and took to anatomically correct representation of figures and objects. They thus resorted more to dramatic compositions and theatrical chiaroscuro effects so as to bring about liveliness in the figures.

The compositions of the Bat-tala prints are widely varied, though lacking perspective almost altogether in any conventional sense. In some narrative compositions, motifs are arranged in a row on a single flat picture plane, or in two consecutive rows, one behind the other or one above the other. At times, motifs are decoratively arranged all over the picture surface, the ground seen as a meandering path zigzagging across the picture-plane. While the narrative sequence is not necessarily maintained, some hierarchical order is maintained in the arrangement of motifs. In yet other compositions, there is an assumed three-dimensional space not necessarily visible in terms of perspective but indicated as open spaces that could be oceans or battlefields. Some compositions are multi-perspective and arranged in a decorative manner. Yet others display an isometric perspective as in the Maharas prints. All these methods of composition are derived from our rural pats of Bengal and Orissa and from our classical conceptions of perspective as seen in the miniature paintings of the Rajasthani or Provincial Mughal schools where perspective is assumed rather than effectively achieved.

However, the late 19th century Bat-tala prints were of a different nature having been effected by the Art School come-outs trained in British academic art traditions. These compositions, conceived with a vanishing point in mind, contained both background and foreground, motifs arranged accordingly in decreasing or increasing sizes at different distances, spatial depth created by an appropriately placed horizon line, and light and shade effects to enhance volume and movement. Thus, towards the close of the 19th century, the Bat-tala woodcuts increasingly came to be executed in accordance with Western art tradition and lost much of their innovative appeal.

The last sphere of influence lies in the elements of the phenomenal world that were used as motifs in the Bat-tala prints. These motifs are a peculiar conglomeration of European influences and Indian art traditions that gave the Bat-tala prints their unique imagery and language. For example, while the use of stiff, doll-like figures with exaggerated facial features and physical gestures are reminiscent of the Bengal terracotta or wooden dolls, they are dressed in the north Indian ghagra seen in Rajasthani miniatures rather than the sari worn by the women of Bengal. So too with the rich decorative patterns that crowded the Bat-tala prints - the richly decorated costumes, the carefully delineated flora and fauna, the architectural detail are all derived from the miniature tradition.

However, the intrusion of European influence is evident in the new visual vocabulary that the Bat-tala printmakers developed. Often the babu is seen in his traditional attire of dhoti and kurta but with the English 'pump' shoe on his feet. At times these intermingling influences even made their way into the mythological pictures, though more evident in the social pictures. The Nayak and Nayika, resplendent in their Indian attire, are seated on European furniture respectively strumming an Indian stringed instrument and smoking a hookah. A step further is the picture of a European couple in exactly the same setting but with a liquor bottle and glass in the hands of the gentleman and a violin in the hands of the lady. To the right of the gentleman stands a kitmatgar in Indian dress. The furniture and the objects d'art are all Victorian. It would seem that the Bat-tala artist had an overwhelming desire to include the European in his art for sometimes, he found his way into the most unexpected places  as heralds atop a temple or even as guardian angels and doorkeepers! Scalloped curtains and Corinthian columns frame many an interior scene, while Palladian mansions are peopled by gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Even bidi label designs began to sport portraits of Nelson and Napoleon.

The Kalighat pats too had their influence on or interaction with Bat-tala woodcuts. While the linear quality and sweeping contours of the Kalighat pat-chitras had their impact on the wood engraving and woodcut drawings of the Bat-tala printmakers, the assumption that the Bat-tala prints were a mere cheap translation of the Kalighat paintings is incorrect. It is true that the Kalighat patuas had their paintings replicated by the Bat-tala printmakers to enable cheaper and more voluminous production and, therefore, greater circulation. However, this interaction between the two marks neither the beginnings nor the growth of the Bat-tala school, which developed on its own impetus as an independent and unique art form. Nevertheless, the impact produced a style, which is neither Old Chitpore nor Kalighat, the exponent of which was Gobindachandra Ray. His highly individualistic style, though it was derived to some extent from pre-Renaissance European portraiture, consisted basically of woodcuts with white dots and minute decorations done by engraving. The Kalighat patuas and the Bat-tala printmakers vied with each other through the 1860's and 1870's. The engravers gradually invaded the market of the patuas with their new improved technology. However, this same factor soon led to the rapid decline of the craft and trade of the Bat-tala printmaker himself when lithography and oleography entered the popular art market in the 1880's, thus ushering in a new model of urban commercial art.


1  Shaw, Graham, Printing in Calcutta to 1800. Published in London in 1981. p.32

2  Ray, Pranab Ranjan. Printmaking by Woodblock upto 1901:A Social and Technological History, chapter from Woodcut Prints of 19th Century Calcutta edited by Asit Paul.  Published by Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1983. p.87.

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