Art

Reading between the lines: On Indian Printmaking

It has been a while since I wrote on art. Here is an account of a recent show that I visited.

Last Saturday, I went for an exhibition of prints from the Waswo X. Waswo’s collection of Indian printmaking at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore. As much as I love the medium, I was almost clueless about the history of Indian printmaking before I got there.

Anyway, let me give you an outline of this show. It is called Between the Lines: Identity, Place and Power. As its curator Lina Vincent Sunish explains, Indian prints are not merely made of lines, with a meaning that can be easily assessed by identifying what you see immediately. Instead, one has to read ‘between the lines’ of the print to understand the deeper significance of each works of art.

The collection has been divided into three main themes – identity, place and power. Identity represents how the artist identifies himself or his subject through his work of art. Place focuses on the place that has influenced a particular work. Power, more or less, seeks to project the politics of power, either through symbolism or the artist defines his power by controlling what the audience might interpret from his work. At least, these are what I gathered from looking at the works on display and the text that accompanied each theme.

The exhibition showcases prints from the 1930s to 2010s. But nothing was displayed in its chronological order. Alternatively, by categorizing them based on themes, Lina shows that these themes constantly reappear in the works, irrespective of their age, region or school of origin. Each artist has interpreted them using different printmaking methods and styles. Some styles are characteristics of the region of its origin. The work of artists belonging to the Bengal school have similarities that make them easy to identify.

The other interesting side of this exhibition is that it has managed to democratize the exhibition for an audience who may not be that well-versed in Indian art history or printmaking. This will be an interesting aspect to look at and maybe write about in detail a little later. Establishments like art galleries that used to have an elitist appeal are slowly changing their ways to attract popular sentiments. I’m deviating.

Between the Lines doesn’t just take you through a quick run of Indian art history by showing you the works of famous artists. The show tries to educate its audience about the technique of printmaking as well as its history. There are videos at the exhibition hall explaining the different methods of printmaking. The tools for these are also on display in a glass case. In order to make the exhibition informative, engaging and enjoyable for a younger audience, there is a pamphlet with questions and puzzles on the works displayed at the show. Families with children could take these with them as they walk around the exhibition hall.

I find all these additional applications in line with the fundamental reasons for the existence of printmaking. Printmaking helped printers make multiple copies of an image. This contributed to a larger purpose. It made information accessible for all. Similarly, Between the Lines, tries to cut down the barriers of elitist art by being approachable. There is an effort put in to help its less-informed audience understand the medium of printmaking and how it has evolved over the years.

The irony lies in the subjects that these artists have printed. A few were easy to understand. Some could be interpreted in many ways. Some were just indecipherable. I saw that most people just skimmed through what was on display. Only a handful, spent time to look at them. The rest, I assumed, were either bored or the images were not compelling enough to tickle their curiosity. The dividing of the exhibition space physically, by themes, did help to an extent but more than half of the work on the floor were from a period or a place that seemed to hold no importance to most of the audience who were at the show. You could say the same for any permanent exhibit, at any gallery in the world, I suppose. Nevertheless, I must say that the collection was thoughtfully put together in the best possible manner.

Waswo’s collection is an extensive one. It has prints by the Bengal school artists like Mukul Dey, Nandalal Bose and Ramendranath Chatterjee that are straight-forward and easier to understand. But as the medium catches on with the Baroda school (Bhupen Kakkar, Laxma Goud and others) and the Bombay-based Progressives (Ram Kumar, M.F Husain and others), they begin to experiment with themes and techniques in a far more layered manner. By the time we reach 2013, things get larger and more complicated. Newer artists like Viraj Naik, Jagadeesh Tammineni, Praveen Goud and Preeti Agrawal, explore far more complex themes and techniques. In total, the show has on display the work of about 70 artists. Interestingly, only 13 among them are women. This is because, for the longest time, printmaking was considered a labour-intensive field and not many women ventured into it.

In addition to being a relatively tedious medium, printmaking requires utmost discipline and care. First, the image conceived has to be transferred onto a metal, wooden or linoleum surface. Depending on the different colours that need to be added on the print, different plates are etched or engraved on. After the plates or surfaces are made ready, they need to be coated with a layer of paint. Using a press, the image on the painted surface gets transferred onto the paper. If the artist is using multiple colours, he will have to make as many surfaces as the number of colours used, to transfer the colour onto the paper. Each time an image is transferred onto the paper, the registration needs to be checked, the print has to align with the previous print that was already transferred on the paper. The print might look simple but several hours and days of planning goes into creating each print.

Electro Sapiens by Praveen Goud

Electro Sapiens by Praveen Goud

Aguia by Viraj Naik

Aguia by Viraj Naik

I could not understand some of the works of the contemporary printmakers, however, their technique and sense of discipline is remarkable. I particularly liked the works of Viraj Naik, for the fantastical creatures that he created and the semi-whimsical series of Electro Sapiens by Praveen Goud. The works of Jagadeesh Tammineni and Too Much of Anything is Good for Nothing by Prathap Modi were powerful and commanded close inspection. These younger artists appealed to me as I could relate to and appreciate what they were trying to convey.

This show is a celebration of Indian printmaking, but for me, it was also a quick rerun of the Indian modern art history. Overall, it is a great show as it encourages a public that does not engage with art to look closely and associate with the art of the past and the present. It is a reflection of a world that was and the world that is. Ultimately, it is a kind of introspection that leads us to think about what the future may hold.

This exhibition will be on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore till the 28th of May. Also, go to waswoxwaswocollection.blogspot.in for more information. I have not written an art review in a while, so feedback of any kind will be much appreciated. I would also love to hear about the other interesting art events that are happening in Bangalore. Thanks for reading!

This is in response to the comment below by Archana. I had forgotten to mention that there are other events that are being organized as a part of this exhibition. There is a Curator Walk by Lina Vincent Sunish on the 18th of May, a bunch of film screenings (the next and the last one is on the 19th of May) and a workshop on woodcut print technique on the 19th of May. For more information go to: http://ngmaindia.gov.in/ngma_bangaluru_forthcoming-ex.asp

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