The story of India’s Hindu god and goddess prints begins at the start of the 19th century, in the South Calcutta neighborhood of Kalighat, on the streets near a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. The Kalighat Kali Temple, which goes back to at least the 15th century, was a small hut until 1809 when the present temple was completed. With the opening of the new temple pilgrims flocked to Calcutta and artists soon set up shops and stalls near the temple to sell watercolors of Hindu gods and goddesses. Quickly painted, inexpensive, and extremely popular as souvenirs and icons for worship, these Kalighat paintings became an important popular art form.
At the other end of Calcutta, in the Northern neighborhood of Battala, a few publishers of popular books and pamphlets set up small presses during the early 1800’s. By the 1850’s Battala had become a center for Bengali printing, and for the artists whose wood engravings illustrated Battala books. Around this time several Battala engravers began to make large woodblock prints of Hindu gods and goddesses, some clearly based on Kalighat paintings. It is possible that Kalighat artists may have brought their paintings to Battala to have them replicated as prints, we do not know if the Kalighat painters and Battala engravers were collaborators or competitors, in either case these woodblock engravings are India’s earliest devotional prints.
Lithographs of Hindu gods and goddesses appeared by the 1870’s. Like the wood engravings which preceded them, the earliest lithographs were printed in black and highlights in one or two colors were added by hand. By the early 1880’s hand-coloring had become very sophisticated, and by the late 1880’s color lithographs appeared.
The earliest color prints, made from many litho stones inked in different colors and printed in succession, required great care in the registration of stone and paper for each pass through the press. Among the many publishers active during the 1880’s, P.C. Biswas, Calcutta Art Studio, and Chore Bagan Art Studio in Calcutta, Chitrapriyaprakesh Press in Bombay, and Chitrashala Press in Pune, deserve special mention.
Early Hindu mythological prints are rare, chief among the reasons so few have survived are acidic paper, India’s extreme humidity, and a general lack of care. We have assembled a comprehensive and important collection of India’s earliest devotional prints. In addition to our personal collection we have prints available for sale. Prints from our collection have been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The British Museum, and many other public collections.
We are eager to bring greater awareness to this important genre of Indian art and to that end we are happy to have had the opportunity to work with author Richard Davis on the book Gods in Print, with the International Print Center and Davis Museum at Wellesley on the exhibition Seeing God in Prints, and with filmmaker Rachel Fedde who is currently working on a documentary about India’s Hindu god and goddess prints.