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How the Museum of Art & Photography is preserving Bengal’s printing history

The art museum is digitizing its collection of 19th-20th century Bengal prints

‘Saraswati’ by Hiralal Brahmakar, 1850s.
‘Saraswati’ by Hiralal Brahmakar, 1850s.

While the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), one of South India’s first major private art museums, will open in 2020 in Bengaluru, it has already begun archiving its collection of over 15,000 artworks. As part of this project, MAP is also digitizing its rare collection of Bengal prints, which date back to mid-19th to 20th century. These function as milestones in the history of Bengal’s printmaking, throwing light on the techniques used. The collection (a total of over 100 prints, including five almanacs) comprise Battala woodcut prints (the first mass-produced artworks in Bengal), industrial lithography, the pre-Bengal School, as well as oleographs produced in Europe for the local market that were known as “German" prints and lithographic stones.

The Battala woodcut prints, for instance, surfaced in the early 19th century in Battala, Kolkata (then Calcutta), where the first Bengali printing press was established. These prints were made on low quality paper which could be afforded by commoners. A majority of them reflect dominant religious beliefs and Puranic myths of the time, but also depict how traditional Indian aesthetics merged with foreign styles. For instance, Saraswati (1850s) by Hiralal Bhramakar, is a print that shows the goddess standing on a lotus-petalled base, accompanied by celestial escorts. “However, these figures are featured in typical Neo-classical archways that are topped by European cherubs and an eagle—the majestic bird associated with the Roman empire and adopted in the late 18th century as a symbol for America," says Cecila Levin, MAP’s US representative.

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