Calcutta Woodcuts


BY: SUN STAFF 6.8 2019

Transcendental art: the rare woodcut prints of nineteenth century Calcutta.

Calcutta is not one of the older cities of India. It is quite new, in fact, if compared to Benares or Delhi. Calcutta emerged as a modern city only towards the close of the seventeenth century. Contemporary political, economic and military considerations drove the English merchants to settle on this jungle-infested spot sitting on the banks of the river Hooghly.

Due to its geographic position, Calcutta had obvious merit as a trading outpost and eventually became one of the most prosperous cities in India. The British quickly made Calcutta one of their greatest economic outposts. Though funded in large part by the British, Calcutta always remained very much a part of Bengal. Society and culture in Calcutta bear the distinct imprint of the Bengali personality and spirituality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rare woodcuts of Calcutta.

Calcutta's woodcut artists explored a host of social and cultural imagery, but had a particular fondness for depictions of Lord Krsna in his varied Forms and Pastimes. Thanks to Calcutta's close proximity to Navadvipa, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu also appears in these woodcut prints, which capture beautifully detailed images of the Lord's Form, Pastimes, Paraphernalia, and Associates.

Following the British invasion into Bengal, Calcutta was sharply divided into "Black Town" and "White Town". Black town was basically the Bengali culture. As the city grew, Bengal's traditional caste system was significantly altered and hereditary status gave way to monetary and educational status. A distinct urban culture emerged, and from it a culture of artists.

These artists became known as the Kalighat pats, many of whom were rural artists who had resettled in the city. Out of this community of artists, the Calcutta woodcuts emerged. Beginning as book illustrators, they moved on to create independent art works that were most often depictions of various Deities. Later, social and current events scenes were increasingly portrayed.

Due to the substandard quality of paper and inks available during those days, very few examples of the Bengali woodcuts have survived. In fact, they are now quite rare in this world, and scant academic research has been done to document this uniquely beautiful form of Bengali art.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will explore a number of excellent examples of 19th century Bengal woodcuts. Today, we begin with an illustration of Sri Sri Radha-Krsna's rasa lila, one of a very few hand-coloured woodcuts. In it, we see Radha and Krsna surrounded by eight gopis, each of whom offers some preparation or paraphernalia. A variety of delightful birds and animals are featured in the scene, including parrots, peacocks, a monkey, and two somewhat mysterious creatures, who are perhaps rats.

The artist has added the traditional touch of red to the feet, highlighting also the Divine Couple's crowns and paraphernalia. Blue, green and yellow color is used to accentuate the surrounding trees, shrubs, and creatures.