If you want to get a glimpse of rare prints by European and Indian artists from the 18th and 19th centuries, walk into The Harrington Street Arts Centre.
A number of the 170 works on display document what the country looked like in those days.
Rare prints, done by European artists like FB Solvyns, Thomas and William Daniell and Indian artists like Bisumbher Auchorge and Panchanan Karmakar, document the time and style of print work then and are part of the show, The Printed Picture: Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking, running at the gallery.
“European artists like Solyvns, Thomas and William were artist adventurers. In those days preceding photography, prints of the ‘exotic’ East and colonised countries were much in demand in Europe. These artists travelled the length and breadth of the sub-continent, producing prints of what they saw and earning a livelihood by it,” said Paula Sengupta, assistant professor in printmaking at Rabindra Bharati University, who has curated the show.
While a 1799 coloured etching by Solvyns, titled ‘Koummars’, shows dhoti-clad neatly shaved potters in a hut, an earthy coloured engraving by the Daniells shows an excavated temple in Salsette, Maharashtra.
The purpose of these works was to document aspects like ‘exotic’ architecture, landscape, festivals, flora and fauna of the land.
“The works were both in demand among people back in Europe and by the colonisers who wanted to document what they had achieved here. But unlike in the West there was no infrastructure available for printmakers in India. Therefore, printmaking was a difficult task,” said Sengupta.
When Europeans came to India, the indigenous printmaking industry primarily comprised block printing on textiles. With the introduction of new modes of printing — including etching, lithography, oleography, intaglio and linocut — Indian artists were trained in the medium by the colonisers.
“It was introduced in the Government College of Art and Craft too. But back then, printmaking was encouraged to build the workforce and for technicians needed to sustain the print industry, not as a fine art,” said Sengupta.
Printmaking developed as an art after Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose encouraged it as an art form and taught it.
“At that time, Kolkata was the hub of activity for printmaking since artists and art schools were here as it was India’s capital. So we have a lot of prints from Bengal,” said Sengupta.
Among other important early works at the exhibition are illustrations used in Bengali books.
Since the modern printing technology was absent, prints made by artists were used inside books.
Two of these rare works are in black-andwhite — an untitled wood engraving from early 19th century by Karmakar showing Radha and Krishna with dasis fanning them, and a metal engraving from the same time by Auchorge with mythology as subject – and are part of the exhibition.