Printer’s proof

A public airing of a private collection of prints could spike interest in an underappreciated medium ♦

“Print Show” by Jagadeesh Tammineni

When people in the Indian art frat hear the details of collector Waswo X Waswo’s first encounter with printmaking, they sometimes “express a little shock.” The son of a grocer, American-born Waswo once had a job in an industrial press. “People hear the word ‘collector’ and assume that you were born to a wealthy family and never did manual work,” he observed. “I got my hands dirty with printing inks and solvents.

Waswo, who now lives in Udai­pur, went on to do other things, including becoming an artist himself and amassing a collection of Indian prints from as far back as 1916. A hefty selection of these forms Between the Lines: Identity, Place, and Power. Waswo and curator Lina Vincent Sunish organised the display at the Visual Arts Gallery according to the title’s three broad themes (simplistically: figures, landscapes, political engagement), rather than chronologically or by artist.

The thematic break-up – and the lack of emphasis on different printmaking techniques – makes sense given the wide scope of the collection, and allows for a relatively unfiltered viewing experience that lets the prints speak for themselves. And it’s certainly an enjoyable tour through the last century: there are sepia drypoint prints by Mukul Dey; Haren Das’s luminescent engravings, and Somnath Hore’s tortured ones; ribald etchings by Bhupen Khakhar; and contemporary artists as well, whose work belies a rich genre that is very much alive, kicking and open to experimentation. While most are not solely printmakers (a rare species in India), they’ve all spent significant time exploring the medium.

There are 79 artists in all, and given the centrality of shared workshops and apprenticeships to the printmaking world, the attentive viewer might draw some interesting connections between them. Bengal, particularly Shantiniketan, and Baroda are two of the hubs, but the work spirals out beyond these. “There are beautiful connections to be found,” Sunish agreed, “batches of students have become teachers themselves, their students have become teachers and so on… one can make a fine lineage, a family tree of printmaking crisscrossing the country.”

“The history of Indian print­making pretty much began in Bengal,” Waswo pointed out, and Sunish elaborated that the state’s association with printmaking could be traced back to the “set­t­ing up of formal studios in the 19th century for the production of ‘picturesque’ aquatints and engravings by British artists; to the development of illustrations for commercial book printing; following through to the locally made graphic ‘bat-tala’ prints of the bazaar, and finally the adap­tation of fine art printmaking in Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan.” After Independence, Baroda’s importance grew. Waswo and Sunish pointed to other centres: government funded ones like the Lalit Kala Akademis across the country and New Delhi’s Garhi, as well as private initiatives like Kavita Shah and Vijay Bagodi’s “Chhaap” studio in Baroda. Waswo admitted that “one of the problems with the collection are some pretty huge gaps that need to be filled by artists from the Indian Printmakers Guild and Group 8.”

Competition for collecting these might heat up soon – both Waswo and Sunish believe that printmaking is poised to become a more commercially viable medium in India. Sunish pointed out that only “a handful” of galleries have actively supported print sales, but added that “the recent downturn of the art market possibly did a favour to printmaking. It allowed the time and space to explore art forms that normally don’t get discussed. Art Etc. recently devoted three whole issues to printmaking. To a certain ex­­t­ent people started looking at [prints] as a possible purchase, considering they are lower priced that their counterparts (of the same size) in painting. Currently we are at a significant bend in the growth of the medium.”

A show like this, which will travel to NGMA Bengaluru and hopefully beyond, certainly has the potential to hook other investors and collectors, especially as a better-informed market begins to understand the difference between digital prints and the labour-intensive process of fine art printmaking. The challenge will be to ensure that growing proceeds from sales don’t just benefit the gallery or the individual artist, but funnel back to the communities and studios that are crucial for the medium’s survival.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2012.