India Design Motifs, Part 12

BY: SUN STAFF - 12.7 2017

Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai 
Chore Bagan Art Studio, Calcutta, c. 1895

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

Among the many wonderful lithographs produced by Chore Bagan Art Studio of Calcutta in the late 1800's, this standing image of Sri Sri Nitai-Gauranga is exceptionally beautiful. In the folio collection we mentioned yesterday, of paper prints mounted on cloth pages, this chromolithograph is actually a double-plate, meaning two images are presented on one page. The image of Their Lordships is entitled, "Nitai Chaitanya" in English, and "Nitai-Gaur" in Bengali. The second half of the plate, which pictures Lord Caitanya standing alone, will be featured in tomorrow's segment.

Chore Bagan Art Studio was one of the earliest ateliers in Calcutta to pioneer chromolithographic prints. Many of the devotional images in their collection were later copied by other artists, who were inspired by their mastery in producing such brilliant colors.

This genre of printworks, which continued on in popularity through the 1940's, was preceded by Calcutta's famous Kalighat school of painting. Unfortunately, the wonderful Gaudiya Vaisnava themes eventually gave way to other religious and social content, political propaganda, calendars, pilgrimage maps, travel posters and advertisements.

Some of the better known studios producing prints similar to Chore Bagan's were the larger Calcutta Art Studio as well as the Kansaripara and Chitpur presses, both of Calcutta, Brijibasi & Sons of Mathura, and Chitrashala Press of Poona. Many lithos and oleographs from all these studios have appeared in the Sampradaya Sun over the years.

Following these print houses came the famous Ravi Varma Press of Bombay, run by Kerala artist, Raja Ravi Varma. Better known as a fine art painter than a printmaker, the content of Varma's work tended towards sentimental scenes from Mahabharata and other popular epics. Still, the Ravi Varma Presses did produce many narrative lithographs and figural prints like Chore Bagan's. We'll explore some of Varma's Lord Jagannath images in comparison to Chore Bagan versions later on in this series.

As we will continue to demonstrate in segments to come, in the Chore Bagan lithographs we find traces of many traditional design motifs, rendered in unique regional and art school styles. Both the Kalighat and Brijbasi styles are recognizable in their works, along with other influences. Today's print, for example, has a subtle Asian style reminiscent of some Manipur paintings. This would not be surprising, given the extent of Bengali settlements in Manipur and the history of cultural exchange between the two regions.

The Nitai and Chaitanya print is one of the few images from the Chore Bagan collection of Vaisnava prints that we have seen elsewhere over the years, but even so, we know of only one other digital version of it, shown below. This might be a copy rendered by another artist, but more likely it is a very poor, washed out copy of the original Chore Bagan print, with great loss of color and clarity.

Competing studios often duplicated images as very true copies, having them rendered by artists who were skilled at duplication. The give-away that one is a reproduction is often found in the color and crispness of the print itself, rather than in the proportion or detail of the drawing. In this case, however, the faded print appears to be true in every respect, as a copy of the original Chore Bagan. Either way, we have always loved this unique pose of Nityananda and Gauranga, and are delighted to now see it in full, brilliant color.

There as several things of note about this rendition of Nitai-Gauranga. First is Their pose: Nityananda's right hand is the only one that is raised. When Their Lordships are pictured side-by-side like this, they typically both have two hands in the air, in sankirtan pose, or three arms are raised (two of Gauranga's).

Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai
Kalighat, Calcutta, c. 1870

However, there are some other interesting images that differ. The first, shown above, is a Kalighat school painting which likely preceded the Chore Bagan print. In it, both Nitai and Gaura have just Their right arm raised.

The second example, below, is a South Indian print that is more recent. In it, as in the Chore Bagan print, only Nityananda's right hand is raised, but here He is holding an offering. He is also carrying a lota with garland, and the two personalities are in reverse order. We see that in both the Chore Bagan and South Indian versions, Lord Caitanya is wearing a red dhoti. In all three images, Their Lordships are standing upon lotus pedestals.

Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai
South Indian print, c. 1930

Also of note in the Chore Bagan lithograph are the two small figures in the upper corners – Balarama on the left and Krsna on the right. The Bengali script appears to label the print, "Nitai-Gaur". According to British Museum curators, hand-written captions in English were added to the Bengali letter-press of the majority of plates in this folio, with some titles also being given in Hindi.