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OF HISTORY AND INTAGLIOS: NGMA

From the profound cross-hatched brilliance of Krishna Reddy, to the evocative prints of Jyoti M Bhatt – the dynamic collection at NGMA's Print Biennale is a visual respite – a salvation for the senses, writes Uma Nair.

Imagine artists who were great mentors – artists such as Jyoti Bhatt, KG Subramanyan, Somnath Hore – who helped ferment the minds of generations of artists and printmakers in India. To see their prints under one roof at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is to be invited into the journeys of the mind and the hands that powered intaglios and the printmaking idioms in Indian art history.

Women printmakers
Where does one begin? Perhaps with the finesse of the mentor and mendicant Devyani Krishna, who was deep into spirituality; or the hybrid lush-lipped feminine creatures of Gogi Saroj Pal; or the lithe lines and juxtaposed metaphors of Arpana Caur; or the matrix of minimalism of Zarina Hashmi; and, then, rest your eyes on Anupam Sud's human facets with perfect figurative personas. The Print Biennale at the NGMA is many things to art lovers. Somewhere you will glimpse a reclusive modernist, somewhere a socialist, somewhere a spiritualist and somewhere a humanist.
Archival history
But, if you want to first look at archival history then it must begin with the NGMA collection, with Krishna Reddy's vortex of cross-hatched brilliance born of colour viscosity, adjacent to a stunning ochre-toned work by Laxma Goud and a pair of works by KG Subramanyan. Somnath Hore is quickly distinguished by the visceral, almost haunting presentation of human fragility. Hore's figures are 'neither sentimental nor shocking, just [the] anatomy of the suffering body realised in its intimate sensuality… Like a majority of his figurative prints, they were fundamentally iconic… they came charged with the poignancy of a Madonna or a Pieta'.
A pair of Chittoprasad prints speak of human vocation and vulnerability – the universal ethos of labour which he became an ambassador of. Emotive facial expressions are made universal, in the work of their mask-like maximalism, be it the weaver or the fisherman, while the strokes are left deliberately imperfect. Contours become the corollary of character – he also celebrates the idiom of small is beautiful.
Haren Das presents aquatints of the firsthand impression of the boats on the river, while the birds sitting atop their cages, evince their beauty and their existence – and, man's complete helplessness in the face of it. Hore's works reduce human figures to their essential physical features, and in doing so, they approach 'the bristly starkness of the drawing and the skeletal economy of the etching'.
Prints by invitation
The NGMA collection leads onto prints and woodcuts from the invitation collection of present-day practitioners. Jyoti Bhatt's inkjet prints of his early works are a testimony to his devotion and his passion for the medium and the technique. Bhatt studied woodcut, linocut and lithography as elective subjects, from 1950 to 1954. He did his first etching when he went to Italy in 1961. He pursued it later, first in the US for two years at the Pratt Institute from 1964 to 1966, and then continued to pursue the parameters under modern technology.
"The reason for my liking and later taking up printmaking could have been that it was a relatively new medium," said Bhatt to me a fortnight ago. "Not many artists in India considered printmaking worthy of creative expression. Printmaking allowed me to use my graphic strengths and print an image in multiple ways in various colour combinations and printing devices. I could not do anything similar to this in my paintings without scrapping off the previous stages."
Bhatt values printmaking as an important medium, it has given him wings to explore and experiment. Bhatt considers collectors as a benchmark of artistic appreciation. "As printmaking mediums allowed me to make a desired number of copies, I thought they could reach a larger number of people. This might have been wishful thinking at the time, but now I would guess that the number of people who have my prints is larger than the ones who have my paintings."
In the vast sea of printmakers, Walter D'Souza's woodcut of the longitudinal portrait of Gandhi is a stunning work, while Hemvathy Guha's woodcut - Rhythmic March is a tenor of collective symbolism and character in composition. Curator of the steering committee of the Print Biennale, Ananda Moy Banerji's work is a reflection of deep intensity and inchoate perspectives.
The end the exercise showcases a dizzying array of faces, subjects and tropes in their self-contained, frames. Each printmaker, though engaged in personal identities, overlap, intertwine and spill into the neighbouring entities. The beauty of seeing so many prints together speaks of interconnectedness, resulting in a quest for the common thread running through various forms of life. In the series of woodcut portraits of different social stereotypes – the vital thread is the beauty of varying textures of paper.

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