India Design Motifs, Part 18

BY: SUN STAFF  - 8.7 2017

Lord Caitanya's Sankirtan 
Chore Bagan Art Studio, Calcutta, c. 1895

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

Today we continue our exploration of the beautiful Vaisnava lithographs composed and printed by Chore Bagan Art Studio of Calcutta in the late 1800's. Today's scene will be familiar to most devotees – it is Lord Caitanya's Sankirtana party, in beautiful full color. In this segment, we offer two very similar scenes of the Sankirtana party, produced by two of Calcutta's competing art presses of the day.

The print shown above is a fine example of Chore Bagan's chromolithographic technique. Although the print that this particular digital image was derived from was not of the finest quality, more sharply registered versions of the print undoubtedly exist, i.e., with crisper lines and detailing. For our purpose, we are mainly interested in the composition of the piece, and how it compares to a similar print that was published just prior to it in the Calcutta market.

The comparative print, which follows, is a circa 1880 lithograph produced by the Calcutta Art Studio. This beautiful rendition of Caitanya Mahaprabhu's Sankirtana was one of twelve colored lithos in a folio entitled 'Hindu Sacred Pictures - Series A'. The exact publication date is not known.


Lord Caitanya's Sankirtana Party 
Calcutta Art Studio, c. 1880


In his mongraph entitled, "Appropriating Realism: the transformation of popular visual iconography in late-nineteenth-century Calcutta" (2006), author K. Mukherjee describes the state of artistic affairs in Calcutta during the late 1800's. This period follows the era of Batala woodcuts and Kalighat bazaar paintings discussed previously in this series. Mukherjee writes:

"As already mentioned, along with the range of bazaar art operating within the autonomous space of the Black Town [Calcutta], the period saw the widespread introduction of academic art through the various arts schools and colleges which were indirectly controlled by the departments of public instruction as part of the imperial policy (Mitter 1994:29). With the mushrooming of several printing presses, public taste for academic art now began to be reinforced. Thus, several established artists who were products of the government art schools now opted for the more commercially viable venture of mechanical reproduction of pictures for the popular art market. As printmaking became a common ground for both the local painters who were not trained in the formal aspects of art practices and the art school students,

Thus the adoption of westernisation and new pictorial norms and conventions did not remain confined to the realm of art institutions, but now spilled over into the domain of popular bazaar art.

The Calcutta Art Studio Prints

As printing technology developed further, the popular art market of Calcutta was flooded by the hand-coloured lithographic prints produced by the Calcutta Art Studio on Bowbazaar Street. This lithographic press was founded in 1878 by one of the first ex-students of the Calcutta School of Art, Annadaprasad Bagchi, along with four other art school products, namely Nabakumar Biswas, Phanibhusan Sen, Krishnachandra Pal and Jogendranath Mukhopadhyay (Sarkar 1984:5). Their art school background gave these artists an edge over other artisan-run presses, because they were well equipped with sophisticated techniques and were able to adapt to the Western styles of representation and pictorial conventions.

By 1879, "the studio seemed to be operating at full force, advertising to undertake a wide range of work: 'Portrait painting, landscape painting, oil painting ... all kinds of decoration and lithographic works ... Hindu [legends] and historical pictures, and also stage scenes and prosceniums'" (Guha-Thakurta 1992:79). The majority of the Calcutta Art Studio prints drew directly from the artists' training in drawing European antiquities and from their more direct familiarity with European neoclassical and allegorical paintings."

"there occurred a sweeping transformation of visual tastes and aesthetic norms across the social divide. This change centred around the ascendancy of oil painting, and the increasing demand for a tactile, three-dimensional naturalism in a picture." (Guha-Thakurta 1992:35)

Mukherjee is describing the transition of traditional folk art in Calcutta towards a more western-influenced style of realism. As previously discussed, this reached an epoch with the popular works coming out of the Raja Ravi Varma presses. But in the Vaisnava themed lithographs that preceded Ravi Varma, including the works of Chore Bagan and its predecessor, Calcutta Art School, we do not find much room for complaint about westernization. The narrative scenes were true to the mood of the day, as evidenced by both these renditions of Lord Caitanya's Sankirtana party.

In our next segment, we'll offer some detailed commentary on the similarities and differences in design motif found in these two almost mirror-image scenes of the Sankirtana party.