Poster printing

19th Century Woodcut – Works of Bengal

#Did you know that a very active printmaking art scene existed in the 19e Century Bengal in North Calcutta (now Kolkata) that was accessible to everyone? These are the “Battala prints” made in different forms on cheap paper. There were brochures, posters, book illustrations, ephemera, artwork, advertisements for the jatra, (a form of theatre) appreciated by all. This art form made in the form of woodcut or metal engraving which evolved from the “pat” of Kalighat was an excellent leveler and seems to have had no boundaries. The innovation was very well accepted. Let us know more about this art form and take a nostalgic trip!

What is a woodcut?

Rabindranath Tagore, Linocut on paper by Chittaprosad, 8.5 x 11.5 in., DAG Museums. Wikimedia

According to Encyclopedia British“Woodcut is a relief printing technique in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood – usually with gouges – leaving the parts of the print flush with the surface while removing the unprintable parts.The areas the artist cuts out do not contain any ink, while the surface level characters or images carry the ink to produce the print.The block is cut into the direction of the grain of the wood (unlike woodcut, where the block is cut in the direction of the end grain) The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving the ink on the flat surface but not in the non-printable areas.From its origins in China, the practice of woodblock printing has spread around the world, from Europe to other parts of the Asia and Latin America Wood engraving, which appeared in the 8th century in the East and in the early 15th century in the West, is the earliest known method of relief printing. Although woodcuts are usually designed in bold lines or large areas, variations in tone can be achieved with textures, a variety of marks made with gouges, chisels or knives. In contemporary woodcuts, many other methods, such as scraping, scraping, and hammering, are also used to create interesting textures. The standard procedure for making a woodcut with two or more colors is to cut a separate block for each color. If the color areas are clearly separated and the block is large, a block can be used for more than one color. All blocks must be the same size to ensure that in the final print the colors will appear in their proper relationship to each other, i.e. correctly registered.

Travel of Bengal Woodcuts

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Chitpur Road, Old Calcutta, published in 1867 in India: ancient and modern by William Simpson. – Wikimedia

The woodblock printing took place at Bat-tala, which literally means the lower area (tala) of a banyan tree (bat or “baut”) or the surroundings of a banyan tree grove. The area probably had a number of trees at that time. Now they are nowhere to be found. The art of printing took place in the alleyways of this area in North Kolkata, in fact it was the birthplace of Bengali printing presses in the early 19th century. Loggers lived around Chitpur and Shovabazaar regions. Stone and baked clay were also used in printing. Battala was an important center for woodcuts. The area was a melting pot of cultural activity that included jatra; music programs, also printing on various subjects including religion, mythology, current affairs, mystery and suspense, books on history, biographical plays, even erotica, printing almanacs and calendars, artists’ studios and markets.

Woodblock printing on fabrics has been around in India for centuries and has even been traced back to Egypt in the 6e and 7e centuries. Woodblock printing on paper came much later. Battala owned many printing presses in the 19e century, around 46 led by Indians. In 1857, 322 titles in Bengali came out of these presses, including 19 almanacs. In fact, Biswanath Deb was the first to establish a press in 1818 and published the first title. Battala prints could not last very long due to new technology called lithography. Very few of these prints survived due to humidity and the quality of the paper used was not very good in order to reduce its cost, so many people could buy the same. The Battala region became known for prints in the early 19th century. They made their first appearance in the 1820s as book illustrations; in the middle of the 19th century, engravers began to print the smaller prints, which often depicted paintings by Kalighat.

Battala woodcuts were made by people of all castes. The products covered a plethora of topics. Books were carried by peddlers to small towns and villages. It should be noted that in addition to illustrating books, Battala artists made large letters for flyers and posters, also designed for advertisements and labels.

Calcutta woodcuts were quite similar to Kalighat ‘pat’ artworks. The ‘pat’ Kalighat was a reflection of the time and the social mode that then existed. Battala prints were a variant that flourished the most around the 1850s and continued well into the 1960s and 1970s. They were less expensive than the Kalighat ‘pat’ made by the patuas. Some were imitations of the ‘pat’. Subjects included Hara-Parvati, Annapurna, Gaur Chaitanya and Krishna-leela. Krishna-leela had a Rajasthani influence. Other than that the love story Bidyasunder was in fashion. Battala’s artwork was named after the artist with an emphasis on signature styles and individuality. There were many artists; Gobindochandra Rai and Hiralal Karmakar to name but two. Kalighat “pat” declined in 1930, while Battala woodcuts declined in the 1890s. As mentioned, demand for prints began to decline with the introduction of color lithographic printing. However, for a few decades Battala had book engravers for illustration and poster making for the jatras.

Some previews of the works

Goddess Durga as Mahishasuramardini, Battala print, circa 1860, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Wikimedia

Let’s discover some prints preserved in different places and appreciate these picturesque, beautiful, arty and quirky works. The first artwork depicts Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura as he emerges in his human form. Goddess Durga is flanked by Lakshmi and Ganesha on the left and Sarasvati and Kartikeya on the right. This work depicts Durga as she is worshiped during the Durga Puja festival in Bengal.

The work entitled “Untitled” does not seem so easy to decipher. It is colorful and shows a Ravana-like figure probably fighting with a Hanuman-like figure from the Indian epic Ramayana. It could probably have served as a poster for a jatra.

Untitled, Bengal woodcut, late 19th century, DAG Museum, India. GIF IT UP India / Flickr

The Met Museum says of the following artwork in two columns – “This double image printed from two metal plates on a single sheet of paper is one of the pioneering images of Calcutta printmaking. They are called Battala prints, after Battala, a locality in the Hooghly district of Kolkata, where many local presses had been established in the early to mid-19th century. Print engravers worked on both sheet metal and wooden blocks. The left print depicts the goddess Kali standing over the reclining figure of Shiva, brandishing a sacrificial blade in one raised hand while holding her victim’s severed head by a tuft of hair in her lower hand. His expression, with large eyes, a bloodstained mouth and a protruding tongue – meant to strike terror into the disbeliever – is a source of comfort to his devotees.

The second print (right) depicts the goddess Jagadhatri, a form of the Hindu goddess Durga, in an almost identical setting of a Europeanized columned pavilion. Like Kali, to whom she is related, Jagadhatri is also honored lavishly in an annual puja held in the Hooghly district of Kolkata in the month of Kartik (mid-November). A third eye on his forehead and a serpent rising above his right shoulder signal his allegiance to Shiva. The goddess is seated on a lotus cushion, resting majestically on her lion vehicle (vahana), brandishing her divine weapons. She is flanked by two guardians and at her feet kneel a couple of worshippers. The two goddesses are framed by a Victorian cusped arch supported by slender openwork pillars with Ionic capitals, all evocative of the cast-iron architectural decor that was so characteristic of British Calcutta”.

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Goddesses Kali and Jagadhatri approx. 1850–70, by Sri Hemchandra Das, Battala print, Met Museum, New York.

The image of the “Lady reclining with a man” looks very similar to a painting by Kalighat. It depicts a Bengali Nawab with his bibian upper class lady who is in a reclining posture.

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Reclining lady with a man, woodcut by Battala, 19th century, Wellcome Collection, UK.

The Wellcome Collection image shows Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda standing under a canopy and flanked by Advaita Acharya and Srivasa Thakura, made by artist Govind Chander Rai.

Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda flanked by Advaita Acharya and Srivasa Thakura, Battala woodcut, 19th century, Wellcome Collection, UK.

A very unique image of Lord Krishna leading a mayurpankhi (peacock head boat) with gopisthe cowherds and an old lady, Radha can be seated in the enclosure.

Krishna steering a peacock-headed boat carrying seven gopis (milkmaids) and an old lady, Battala woodcut, 19th century, Wellcome Collection, UK.

Although this art is more or less obsolete and few people know about it, it remains an art that was for everyone and had a democratic appeal. He left an indelible mark in the art history of Bengal and cannot be forgotten. Museums and private collectors still hold extant examples of this unique art form from the 19e century.

References –

Paul, Ashit, ed. Woodcuts of Calcutta in the 19th century. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1983. (Accessed October 7, 2022) (accessed 20.10.2022)
The images used come from Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome images (public domain) and Flickr.