‘Battles and Dalliances’ – Online exhibition exhibits divine plays etched in 19thC woodcut prints of Kolkata

Organized by Akar Prakar, the exhibition includes 13 ‘Battala’ woodcuts depicting scenes from Indian mythology. The popular urban art tradition of 19th century Calcutta was short-lived but intensely vital which recorded the evolution of a culture that was a mix of the Western and Eastern.

The technological history of printmaking by woodblock in Bengal carries an immortal aesthetic value that folk artists created and left behind for their successors and the iconography of the wood prints. It is often linked to the better-known Kalighat pats, a parallel tradition.

Made on low-quality paper, Battala woodcut prints surfaced in early-19th-century Calcutta and were affordable to people of any rank in the urban society.  A majority of them reflect dominant religious beliefs and puranic myths of the time but also depict how traditional Indian aesthetics were merged with foreign styles.

The exhibition organised by Akar Prakar (view here) portrays scenes from Indian mythology, including the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and Krishna Leela along with images of Durga and Jagatdhhatri. All 13 woodcuts are stunningly intricate and portray entire narratives in a single scene.

They project an image of Calcutta never before revealed in such graphic candour and richness, with a whole history of manners, mores, traditional beliefs and conflicts, often with humour and invariably with a sense of down-to-earth realism.

Intriguingly, the influence of Bengal’s public theatres and jatras (mobile folk-theatre) is perceptible in these prints, especially in the manner the stage is set and the cast placed around the paper. It bears mentioning that in the 19th century when theatre occupied centre stage in the entertainment industry of Calcutta, the battle printers provided these companies with publicity material.

The sartorial choices in these prints reflect the indigenous crafts of Bengal to imported European paintings, a range of factors contributed to creating a unique visual vocabulary for these woodcut prints.

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