Lithography and its Significance in Indian History
While the rest of the world was moving to typography, the lithography technique of printing had gained immense popularity in India. Although the reproduction of written material dates back to Indus Valley times, ‘printing’ in India is less than 500 years old. Today, India is one of the largest print markets in the world. Lithography, typography, and recent techniques such as screen printing, intaglio, and 3D printing have created new possibilities for the print medium as an art form.
Lithography is a medium which introduced art to the common people of India. Over time, its status changed from the mere reproduction of art to the development of art itself. Let’s look at the lithographic process, its history in India, and its contribution to Indian art.
An Overview of the Printmaking Process
Lithography is one of the four major classes of printmaking techniques. This method uses stones to carry out the printmaking process. The printmaker applies grease, wax, or oil to certain parts of the stone to make it ink-repellent. They then treat the stone with a weak acid to make the remaining parts more ink-absorbent. When the stone is dipped in oil-based ink, the ink will coat only the remaining parts. The stone is thus used to print images and text.
Lithography was more accessible than typography, and as it used less equipment, it was favoured by amateurs and small-scale operators. In the art context, a new lithographic stone is used to depict each colour and tone in the painting. About 12–24 different stones could be used to print a single image. Art that was created or reproduced through this technique is called a ‘lithograph’ and this term is not used for other lithographic works.
Lithography and its Introduction to India
James Nathaniel Rind brought lithography to India. He carried a lithographic press with him from Scotland to Calcutta and suggested that the East India Company establish an official lithographic press in India. This led to the establishment of the Government Lithographic Press at Calcutta, and James became its Superintendent. Limestone for the printing process was found in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, and was considered of higher quality than stones imported from European countries. Indian lithographic presses printed maps, books, and images of mythological figures.
Portraits in black and white were a common feature of early Calcutta lithography. Early coloured lithography was used for prints of individual gods and goddesses. Lithography also spread from Calcutta to other Indian cities. It became the most popular method of printing and largely replaced handwritten books.
In 1827, John Gantz opened a commercial lithographic press in Madras. Sir Charles D’Oyly established the first mofussil lithographic press at Gaya in 1826. José M. Gonsalves was one of the first lithographers in Bombay and specialised in topographical and environmental depictions of the city. He published a series of six black-and-white lithographic prints called the Lithographic Views of Bombay. Following this series, Gonsalves released a book of coloured lithographs of Bombay in 1833. Coloured lithography is also called oleography or chromolithography.
- Did you know? Deenanath Das, Hiralal Das, Nabin Chandra Ghosh, and Teenkari Majumdar founded the Royal Lithography Press in 1857. It was India’s first indigenous lithography press. One of the few surviving specimens of this press is Ghosh’s lithographic portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Raja Ravi Varma: The Painter Who Contributed to Indian Oleography
The Divan of Travancore, Raja Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao, asked the artist Raja Ravi Varma to create lithographs of his paintings as a means of reproducing them. In a letter to Varma, Madhava wrote that there was a massive demand for Ravi Varma’s work, more than he could produce by hand.
He suggested that Varma send a few of his paintings to Europe and have them made into oleographs. Ravi Varma took his suggestion a step further and, instead of sending his work to Europe, established a lithographic printing press in Mumbai in 1894.
Raja Ravi Varma used lithography as a means to give the general public, i.e. the common man, access to fine art and painting. The Birth of Shakuntala is rumoured to be the first image printed at Varma’s press. Soon after, Ravi Varma began printing gods and goddesses such as Lakshmi, Ganpati, Vishnu, Saraswati, etc. His lithographs gave people of all classes and castes access to religious imagery and provided them with a means of worship. His oleographs also feature women from Hindu mythology and folklore, as well as beloved personalities and saints.
- Did you know? The Ravi Varma press kept printing lithographs even after his death. We estimate that about 134 of his paintings were converted into lithographs.
Lithography and its Contribution to Fine Art
Printmaking as an art form gained popularity through the Bichitra Club of The Bengal School Of Art, which experimented with new painting and printmaking techniques. Several members of this club contributed to the field of lithography in India. Gaganendranath Tagore was interested in lithography and established a lithographic press in 1917. His cartoon album, Adbhut Lok, was the first example of artistic lithography in India. His lithographs of satirical cartoons and illustrations featured in several books, such as Realm of the Absurd, Reform Screams, and Play of Opposites.
Another club member, Mukul Chandra Dey, learned etching from James Blanding Sloan and also studied engraving and etching techniques from Muirhead Bone. Dey was a member of the Chicago Society of Etchers and primarily practised the drypoint etching technique. The use of printmaking techniques in India underwent a paradigm shift at this time. Artists began to use lithography as a medium of fine art instead of a technique of mass reproduction.
Nandalal Bose used lithography and etching in his work. He illustrated the handwritten version of the Constitution, which was later published using the photolithography technique.
Lithography in the 19th Century
Some of the Indian artists responsible for the enormous interest in printmaking during the 1930s and 1940s include Ramkinker Baij, Manindra Bhusan Gupta, Ramendranath Chakravorty, Binode Behari Mukherjee, and Biswarup Bose. They freely experimented with various lithography techniques, producing a number of intaglio and relief prints. The artist Kanwal Krishna studied painting at the Government College of Art in Calcutta. He learned the multi-coloured intaglio technique of lithography from renowned printmaker Willian Hayter. His lithographic prints were popular due to their rich colours and textured surfaces.
G.V. Venkatesh Rao, Vasudeo Pandya, Dadasaheb Phalke, M.V. Dhurandhar, and C.G. Ramanujam were other Indian artists who used lithography in art. Some of them initially worked with the Ravi Varma Press and later became well-known artists.
KG Subramanyan was an eminent artist who incorporated lithography, etching, and serigraphy into his artistic process. He would also create single-sheet display prints and children’s book illustrations. We find his work filled with a range of lithography and serigraphy. Jyoti Bhatt, Jeram Patel, Shanti Dave, V. R. Patel, and P. D. Dhumal are some other well-known artists who contributed to this field.
- Did you know? Many Indian artists and printmakers experimented with newly discovered Asian and European printing techniques, often incorporating several of them in a single print.
The Decline of Lithography in India
Lithography in India flourished in the 19th century and gradually declined in the 20th century. Eventually, new printing techniques replaced it. Present-day Indian artists are experimenting with a wide range of new elements, like fusing images with other print media. They are also exploring mixed techniques and mediums.
Printmakers have shifted their focus away from paper and towards other materials like silk, cloth, leather, plastic, and plaster casts. New methods of printing and displaying art have contributed to the evolving printmaking industry in India.
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By Melissa D’Mello