India Design Motifs, Part 17

BY: SUN STAFF - 4.8 2017

The Car Festival of Jagannath at Puri 
Chore Bagan Art Studio, Calcutta, c. 1895 

A study of the historical, spiritual and cultural elements of Vedic design.

Today we are presenting a Chore Bagan lithograph not from the Vrindavan or Gaura-lila series, but this time of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra in Puri Dhama. Marked as plate number 51, the title of this print is "The Car Festival of Jagannath at Puri". Like the previous examples, this litho was printed at Chore Bagan's Calcutta press.

As we described in the previous segment, prior to the emergence of presses like Chore Bagan, who were pioneering new print technologies like chromolithography, one of Calcutta's most popular art forms were the Kalighat prints. And in another segment, we talked about the transition from the transcendental themes Chore Bagan produced to more western-influenced 'realist' and other contemporary works like those produced by the Ravi Varma presses.

Today we hope to further illustrate this progression using images of the Jagannath Deities, as created by the Kalighat school, by Chore Bagan, and by the Ravi Varma press. From the standpoint of design motif, religious and social influence, and printmaking artistry, these three serve as an interesting example of how devotional art has been progressively interpreted over a period of several decades.

Before commenting on the specific design elements of note in these three images of the Jagannath Deities, we offer some further comments from author K. Mukherjee, who wrote the following academic study of Calcutta arts:

"Appropriating Realism: the transformation of popular visual iconography in late-nineteenth-century Calcutta":

"With the city's changing printing technology, however, the Kalighat painters now faced stiff competition from the metal and wood engravers of Battala--the centre of early Bengali book printing of nineteenth-century Calcutta. Like the Kalighat pictures, the Battala prints were flat, two-dimensional decorative prints that were produced in bulk in tones of black and white. Like the rotund figures of Kalighat imagery, the figures of the Battala wood engraving wood engraving were stylized in composition and non-naturalistic, with the emphasis on heavy, black curvilinear lines which gave a sense of volume to them.

Not only stylistically, the Battala artists remained loyal thematically to the genre of Kalighat iconography. In theme, they replicated the same stock of stereotyped representations of the bibi, the courtesan, contemporary social scandals, etc."

Mukherjee goes on to describe the great field of artistic possibility these new printing methods held for Calcutta artists, and some of the religious themes produced by the Battala artists, like the four-headed Mahadeva and the goddess Kali of Kalighat name and fame. But a great many Krsna and Gaura-lila prints were also produced by artists of these woodblock print schools, which we featured in a 2005 series in the Sun, "Calcutta Woodcuts". (See also the subsequent 15-part series under Editorials).

Next, Mukherjee describes the transition from the black and white world of woodcut prints to the full color lithographs and oleographs that preceded, and were produced by, studios like Chore Bagan and their successors.

New genres of chromolithographs from the art presses of Kansaripara and Chorebagan

"By the 1870s, the Battala woodcuts were on the decline before the competition being posed by lithographic prints and oleography. The introduction of superior technologies of mechanical reproduction of pictures in colour threatened the earlier genre of bazaar pictures. With the advent of the first means of mechanical reproduction, in Walter Benjamin's words, "the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility" (Benjamin 1973:218). This brings to mind the instance of the Kalighat painters who later had recourse to lithography in order to make several copies of their own work. Thus, the new order of printmaking ensured the democratization or accessibility of the reproduced works to several consumers, which in turn held better potential for urban commercial art production.

While Benjamin argues that what was lost in the age of mechanical reproduction was the 'aura' or authenticity of the work of art, it is possible to imagine ways in which this new genre of chromolithographs would produce and circulate a new type of 'aura' around the glossy tactility of the colour print. This becomes evident when one moves from the corpus of Kalighat and Battala pictures, which faced rapid extinction with the emergence of new printing techniques like lithography, chromolithography and oleography, to the new modes of shading and three-dimensional perspective that were employed. By the 1870s, the popular art market in Calcutta was invaded with the new kinds of standardised mass-produced 'realistic' pictures with their glossy colour and texture, which ultimately drove the Kalighat and Battala pictures out of the market.

The category of popular picture prints coming out of the Kansaripara and Chorebagan Art Studios not only drew on the visual vocabulary of the Kalighat style of paintings--marking a continuity with it--but also broke away from the latter towards an even greater realistic, illusionist style."

Lord Jagannath, Baladev, Subhardra
Kalighat Painting, c. 1875


Having heard from academia on the subject, let us now consider first-hand this transition in artistic style and design motif, with the three examples of Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. Immediately above is the Kalighat version, which is first chronologically, dated circa 1875. Next on the timeline is the Chore Bagan version, printed about 20 years later, around 1895. Finally, the Ravi Varma studio print, circa 1920. There is a span of about 45 years between the three artworks, but as we can see, there is a tremendous amount of difference in all aspects of the prints.

The Kalighat rendition of the Jagannatha Deities is done in the typical flat, two-dimensional style, colored in translucent shades. In all three prints, the artists keep to the traditional motif wherein Jagannath and Baladev are the same height, with a shorter Subhadra Devi between them. In the Ravi Varma print, however, Subhadra is quite non-traditional. While Her face is the usual yellow color, she appears to be mounted on a pole that is suggestive of Sudarshan.

It's also interesting to note how Their Lordship's arms are depicted. In the Kalighat print, the Deities have short, unfinished arms, rounded at the ends and upraised. The Chore Bagan print shows the arms in a relaxed position, at Their sides, with a flat surface where the hands would begin. The use of white accentuates the fact that the Deities are without hands. In the Ravi Varma print, the Jagannath and Balarama Deities not only have hands, but also feet. But in addition, behind them are stylized unfinished arms, upraised.

Naturally, the Deities are smiling in all three images. We see differences in the eyes, however: Jagannatha and Balarama have round eyes in two prints, but all three siblings have almond-shaped eyes in the Kalighat. This is a very traditional motif in Calcutta, associated with images of the goddess Kali's eyes, which the artist has infused into these Jagannatha Deities.

In describing the general stylistic differences between the three prints, the Kalighat is of course simplest and most technically primitive, while the Chore Bagan is complex in drawing, coloration and embellishment. The Ravi Varma print has a much more modern mood, with the Deity clothing in an entirely non-traditional print, what to speak of Their horizontally striped unfinished arms and the Subhadra staff figure. It is very nice, however, to see an image of the Deities with hands and feet, and this is certainly not a Ravi Varma innovation. Many such images are found in Puri and elsewhere in India.

Also in the area of design embellishment, the Varma print shows small flames around the heads of Jagannath and Baladeva, reminiscent of some of the Puri tantric images of the Deities.

While the Chore Bagan print has the greatest degree of ornament and embellishment, at the same time it presents Their Lordships in the most traditional, formal pose of the three prints: standing between pillars, on a pedestal with ornate railings, a highly decorated arch above Them. The shape of Their Lordships faces is also most traditional in the Chore Began print, being long and oval rather than round or short-ovals.

Yet for all the traditional elements of the Chore Bagan print, we also find the greatest complexity in mixed artistic styles. As we pointed out in yesterday's image of Krsna and Balarama tending the cows, where the sharply drawn figures of persons were set against a softly shaded landscape, we see a similar combination of styles in the Jagannath print. The artist has used a great many brilliant colors all together in the clothing, and head gear that's traditionally styled. The design motifs in crowns, pedestal, pilaster and arch are all quite traditional, but the pillars themselves are very unusual pastel stripped, and the flowers on the arch are somewhat abstract. We also have the distinctly unusual star shining above Subhadra's head, indicating the divinity of these personalities.

Both the Chore Bagan and Ravi Varma prints show several additional transcendental personalities beneath the Deities. The Varma rendition follows a motif typical of Jagannatha Puri temple paintings in the patachitra style, with the row of simple, brightly colored figures in separate shrines, with pillars between them. In the Chore Bagan print, the subordinate deities are much larger, in open space on an ornate floor, and drawn with more distinctive features. In both prints, the same personalities are depicted (left to right): Lord Brahma, Lord Visnu, Garuda, and two forms of Lord Shiva.

Without a doubt, all three images of the Jagannath Deities are beautiful, each in their own unique way. Each one emphasizes different attributes of the Lord of the Universe and His Siblings, suggesting to the viewer so many of the Lord's worshipable qualities and forms. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and each individual will likely be attracted most to one of the three prints.

From the standpoint of printmaking technique, all the qualities that make Chore Bagan Art Studio prints exceptional are certainly present in this lithograph of Their Lordships. While innovative in their use of color and chromolitho technique, Chore Bagan again presents the Deities of Puri Dham in a fashion true to Vaisnava tradition.

Jagannath Deities
Raja Ravi Varma, c. 1920