College Street in Kolkata today is a book lover’s paradise. The entire stretch of this historic road thrives with printers, bookbinders and sellers, and is easily dubbed the hub of everything books in the city. Having a 200 year old rich history and being the second largest book market in the world, it isn’t wrong for one to assume that this boi para (book colony) is where the journey of Indian printing and bookmaking began. That, however, is far from the case. The story of the earliest printing presses in India actually began a few kilometres ahead of College Street in the cramped colonies and bustling bazars of Chitpur.
Kolkata (then Calcutta) was the capital of colonial India from 1722 to 1911. During this period, it was also the seat of a growing print industry. The earliest presses located in the ‘white town’ (just opposite Fort William) were run by European missionaries and administrators and often functioned to serve their respective vocational needs. Although controlled by Europeans, these presses often hired local men as authors and translators for the printing of vernacular material.
It is these local men who would eventually make printing history in Bengal. Having gained enough knowledge of the trade, they began to move out of their employers’ offices and establish their own presses that sold easily affordable reading material in Bengali.
By the mid-19th century, the commercial market for Bengali literature had arrived – there was a constantly growing demand, an abundance of cheap printing techniques and the ingenuity of this prodigious group of printers. All this was centred around a mysterious banyan tree and a neighbourhood simply called Battala.
Patal Ahiravan Vadh (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s), after Nritya Lal Dutta, Dutta PressMuseum of Art & Photography
Under The Banyan Tree
Battala literally means “under the banyan” and referred to spaces in every Bengali locality that were used for resting, gathering, worship or business. Under one such battala in the ‘native’ quarters of Chitpur (North Kolkata), this local print industry mushroomed up and thrived like no other.
Today, there is no sign of the banyan tree and no way to know exactly where in Chitpur this industry began. But it is without doubt that in the mid-19th century, the area saw a proliferation of Indian-owned printing presses.
In 1857, Reverend James Long, appointed by the British government to prepare a survey of vernacular printing in Bengal, recorded a total of 46 Bengali printing presses operating in Kolkata and 571,670 books printed for sale.
A circus scene (Lare) by Unknown Maker(s), after Nritya Lal Dutta, Dutta PressMuseum of Art & Photography
The battala presses thrived on the production of ephemera – pamphlets, novellas, textbooks, almanacs and erotica, among others.
Written in Bengali and produced quickly on cheap paper, this material was extremely popular among the semi-educated population of Kolkata.
As more and more vernacular presses began to crop up in neighbouring areas, the term battala came to encompass everything cheap, popular and even obscene in Bengali literature.
Visualising The Word
The battala industry catered to a wide readership and published an astonishing variety of books. From the humble panjika (almanac) to the ubiquitous Hindu epics, from schoolbooks to erotica, from technical manuals to advertisements and labels, and from poetry to crime thrillers – these presses published almost everything. At some point, the publishers began to illustrate them with woodblock prints.
Bangal almanac of the year 1875-1876, 1875 (Late 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
As if on cue, a large cluster of woodcarvers and printmakers grew in this area setting up studios close to the bookmakers and churning out material in collaboration.
The most widely sold battala publications were the almanacs, sometimes being modelled on the European diary to increase functionality and demand.
Ananga Manjari (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s), after Gobinda Chandra RoyMuseum of Art & Photography
Battala and Obscenity
The presses also published genres termed ‘questionable’ in the polite circles of 19th century Bengali society – erotica, sensational current affairs and guptokotha (secret stories). The last of these genres gained unexpected popularity courtesy the inclusion of the very gossip, crime and taboo topics that were frowned upon by the English-educated Bengali bhadralok.
The illustrations in the guptokothas had a unique voyeuristic quality to them – one could peep into house interiors, accompany a babu on his sexual escapades in the bordello district or walk along with the protagonist as he encountered murderous criminals or licentious women.
Dancing Sundaris (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s), after Nritya Lal Dutta, Dutta PressMuseum of Art & Photography
Battala and The Stage
Another collaboration that the battala print-makers continue till today is that with the Bengali stage. Bengal’s history of public theatres and jatras (mobile folk-theatre) is notable. In the 19th century, when theatre literally occupied centre stage in the entertainment industry of Kolkata, the battala printers provided these companies with publicity material and jatrapalas (the narrative text).
The influence of the theatre is clearly evident in the visual aesthetic of the prints. Many of them (including this one) were accompanied by stage lights and scalloped curtains in the background.
In the same illustration, an attempt has also been made to create a stage setting with pillars, a horizontal line demarcating the edge and miniaturised figures of musicians positioned in the foreground.
Mahadev (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
The battala artist's love for theatre was evident in his treatment of non-theatrical subjects as well. In this image of a Hindu deity, for example, one can see the scalloped curtains and stage lights. In some ways, these additions heightened the visual impact of encountering such religious images – as if the gods were really performing an act of darshan and presenting themselves in front of the devotee to be propitiated.
Narasimha (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
Battala and Religion
The battala printers also created single-sheet illustrations that were sold in their own right as collectibles. By far, the largest in this type were representations of Hindu divinities and mythological stories.
These were bought by sections of society that could not afford expensive paintings, and were used as home decor or in personal shrines.
Ghor Kali (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
The Social Pictures
A second group of pictures also developed in the single-sheet type. They are today clubbed under the umbrella term of ‘social pictures’.
They were often satirical comments on the emerging ‘babu culture’, political propaganda by nationalist groups for mass circulation or straightforward visual reports of current affairs and scandals.
Of the last category, the Elokeshi case involving an adulterous affair and a murder that created waves in 19th century Kolkata was by far the most in demand.
The Elokeshi Murder Case was about a priest of a Shiva temple in Tarakeshwar, West Bengal and a young housewife Elokeshi who was involved in an affair with him.
Once Elokeshi's husband Nabeen found out, he chopped her head off in a fit of rage. A court case ensued, the priest was jailed and Nabeen was given bail due to a public petition.
Story of Elokeshi and Mahantesh (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
The murder and the following case generated so much public interest in Kolkata that the local painters began making single-sheet drawings of the events and selling them outside Kalighat, among other temple souvenirs.
Over time, the battala artists also took up the theme and continued to use the same visual language developed by the Kalighat artists.
In this print, for instance, one may notice a certain iconography being developed for each episode of the story and passed around artists working in different mediums.
Set within theatrically parted curtains and the slight hint of a stage, the first and the last 'scenes' of the narrative are illustrated - Elokeshi meeting the priest (on the left) and the fatal blow of Nabeen (on the right).
Advertisement for a tea brand (Late 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s), after Ramdhan SwarnakarMuseum of Art & Photography
Battala and the Advertising Industry
Another interesting category of single-sheet illustrations were those used in product publicity. These labels and posters advertising all kinds of products from hair-oil to tobacco rolls were accompanied by images inspired both from the European visual repertoire and from those familiar to the people of Bengal.
This advertisement has a representation of the Jagannath Temple of Puri. This is a familiar sight for most across Bengal and Orissa, but the primary content of the advertisement is at the bottom half.
Outside the temple, everyday life goes on – somebody smokes a hookah and another lies on the ground getting his pulse checked. He has probably fainted due to the heat. The text at the bottom is a conversation encouraging people to drink tea.
This is an advertisement selling 'Co-operative Salsa', a kind of medical supplement that was popular in Bengal. The text proclaims this brand to be the best of all and one that can be consumed in any season. The accompanying illustration interestingly portrays a female figure inspired by European classical art. She wears a gown-like draped garment, her hair is tied in a bun and holds up the bottle of the said supplement.
Babu (Late 20th century) by Unknown Maker(s), after Nritya Lal Dutta, Dutta PressMuseum of Art & Photography
Learning From The Everyday
The social milieu in which the battala industry developed played a discerning role in the creation of its distinct aesthetics. From the indigenous crafts of Bengal to imported European paintings, a range of factors contributed in creating a unique visual vocabulary for these woodcut prints.
Those working in the battala printing industry were traditional artisans – goldsmiths, carpenters and woodcarvers. For generations they had practiced their skills in cutting, furrowing, carving and chipping in a variety of surfaces. In the altered economic scenario, they began to adapt their skills to suit new needs.
Bhai Phota (Late 19th century) by Nritya Lal Dutta, Dutta PressMuseum of Art & Photography
However, traces of their original craft survived, thus lending their products a unique visual quality. For example, the continued use of the chisel tool and the jeweller's needle is evident in the hatching, floral motifs and the kalka (mango motif) also used in jewellery and clay idols in Bengal.
A European couple with an attendant (20th century) by Unknown Maker(s), after Madhav Chandra DasMuseum of Art & Photography
This was also a time of the rapid influx of European paintings and prints into the port of Kolkata. Exposed to this material, the battala artist began to include western components into his art. From winged cherubs hovering over a Hindu deity to a woman playing the violin – the European found its way into the most unexpected of places in these prints.
This particular illustration is a direct attempt at replicating the European visual aesthetic. A couple in western attire is seated across a small table. The woman has a hairdo that is typically classified as 'western' and wears an off-shoulder gown with large puffed sleeves. She also plays the violin. The man on the other side of the table wears a high-collared jacket with an epaulette (an ornamental shoulder piece used as insignia of rank by armed forces).
The table in the centre is filled with eatables and cutlery, special attention being given to a fork and a spoon. The man is in the process pouring a beverage (most likely alcohol) in a glass.
The addition of the server in Indian attire is not to be missed. He stands behind the couple holding a bowl, cut off from the main scene and almost invisible unless called upon by his employer. This is also a subtle commentary on the colonisation of the country and subjugation of the 'native'.
Shri Jagadhatri (Late 19th century) by Shri Hiralal BrahmakarMuseum of Art & Photography
However, the most interesting examples of the European influence on battala artists are the religious images.
In these prints, Hindu gods are often guarded by uniformed soldiers with guns and their palladian mansions are topped by flying cherubs, sphinxes and eagles.
Saraswati (Late 19th century) by Shri Hiralal BrahmakarMuseum of Art & Photography
The attendant figure on the right plays a violin - an 18th century Western import to India.
Lakshmi (Late 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
Lakshmi (Late 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
This exposure to an alien artistic method also led the local artists to experiment with perspective, foreshortening and chiaroscuro.
Attempts at introducing a foreground were made by the addition of railings in architectural set-ups, linear perspective was employed in drawing Victorian furniture and human figures were endowed with volume through contouring and shading.
The artist has attempted to play with perspective here and makes the garment and feet of the attendant figures partially visible through the railings.
Although the influence of European art was tremendous on the Battala artists, another local artform was a close second. The scroll painters of Kalighat were still very much in business around the time that the battala printing industry arrived. There was an unsurmountable demand for the patas, which led the Kalighat painters to sublet their work to the battala printers.
It was a fruitful collaboration leading to an increase in voluminous production and a growth in circulation. This new exposure to a local artform was reflected in the work of the printers to a great degree.
Shri Shri Revati Baladev and Shri Shri Radha Krishna (Late 19th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
In some instances the woodblocks were directly traced from the paintings and the prints then quickly coloured with cotton swabs in an emulation of the patas.
The Kalighat painters and the battala print-makers continued to work in collaboration throughout the 1880s, until print media began to completely dominate the popular art market. This eventually led to the disappearance of the scroll painters.
Continuity and Change
In the early 20th century, the battala industry saw its eventual decline. As the newly established lithographic presses began to churn out prints in colour, the woodcut printers slowly faded into oblivion.
Today, descendants of the battala bookmakers and printers that carry on the trade are few and far between. In the criss-cross alleys of Chitpur, only 22 book stores survived into the 21st century.
The memory of the battala presses, however, is not erased. It has continued to be reinvented in popular culture and in the work of historians and artists. Today, the prints are more than mere illustrations in a small book – they are antiquities collected across the world, primary materials for academic research and themes for virtual exhibitions such as this one.
In so many ways, that nameless banyan tree and those who worked under it, live on.
Google Exhibit | Curation & Content: Shubhasree Purkayastha
References & Further Reading:
Ashit Paul. "Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta", Seagull Books, 1983
Anindita Ghosh. "Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society. 1778 - 1905", Oxford University Press, 2006.
Nikhil Sarkar. "Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta", Seagull Books, 1983
Tapti Roy. "Print and Publishing in Colonial Bengal: A Journey of Bidyasundar", Routledge, 2019
Anindita Ghosh. "Cheap Books, Bad Books: Contesting Print Cultures in Colonial Bengal", South Asia Research, Vol.18, Issue 2, 1998