Memories of a Master
An interview with Sanat Kar
by Soumik Nandy Majumdar
Sanat Kar was born in 1935 and graduated from the Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1955. He began his career as a painter and went on to become one of the most inventive printmakers of India. A founding member of the Society of Contemporary Artists, early in his life he was enchanted by the immense prospect printmaking held as a creative medium and over the years made exemplary contributions to this field. His technical expertise, coupled with his unique formal and thematic concerns, is the hallmark of his work. He joined the Department of Printmaking, Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan in 1974 and was at the helm of the department till his retirement in 2000. He has been honored with the prestigious designation Professor Emeritus. An avid reader and a prolific artist, Sanat Kar still enthralls his listeners with reminiscences that steer down the memory lane with great élan. In this interview he speaks about his early days of struggle and experimentation with printmaking, and his emergence as an eminent printmaker in the 60s.
Soumik Nandy Majumdar: To begin with, how did you get drawn to printmaking, Sanat-da?
Sanat Kar: As you know, I was originally a student of painting. While in college I did a few prints in drypoint but they were feeble attempts of no consequence. Later in the late 50s we came to know about the modern printmakings of Europe. A new horizon opened up for us; at least for some of us. Somnath-da (Somnath Hore) was one of the first persons to get highly enthused by this medium. So, we began to procure books on European printmaking and started dabbling with this hitherto unknown medium. At that point in time Somnath-da left Calcutta to join the Polytechnic College in Delhi. Rest of us continued with our newly found enthusiasm and without any substantial knowledge or infrastructure. It was like beginning from scratch and in the dark. Then we, from the Society of Contemporary Artists, applied to Lalit Kala Academi for a printing press and other accessories required to set up a printmaking studio.
SNM: When was that?
SK: Few years after I passed out from the college in 1955.
SNM: Ramendranath Chakravorty, the pioneer in modern printmaking passed away the same year, right?
SK: Yes, he was our principal. Incidentally, mine was the last certificate he signed before his demise.
SNM: We know that Ramendranath Chakravorty took initiative in introducing creative printmaking in the art college. So I suppose as students you all got introduced to this technique already?
SK: Of course! But that was a different kind of printmaking, focusing mainly on wood-engravings. But we were trying to grasp the techniques of intaglio. Eventually we got that grant from Lalit Kala and we began the hunt. Hunt for the materials and the press. After long and continuous effort we could acquire a small press. I began setting up the printmaking studio of the Society at Dharmatala Street and some of us started to work, with an inadequate knowledge and plenty of enthusiasm.
SNM: Tell me more about the setting up of the studio and how did you equip and inform yourselves about modern printmaking?
SK: On the one hand we were going through trial and error, and on the other we were desperately trying to collect books on modern printmaking. It was deemed very important to update ourselves with the latest happenings, both on the technical and aesthetic frontiers, in the printmaking studios of the West. I knew about William Hayter and his studio. I was frantically looking for his book which was called About Prints. I searched at every possible bookshop in Calcutta, but couldn't find it. I was truly worried. I did not even know how to prepare the ground on the etching plate; we applied stop-out and somehow managed to pull out some prints but not to our satisfaction. We continued nevertheless. Finally there was a breakthrough. It was a hot summer afternoon and I was entering the Society building after a tiring and frantic search for the books. There used to be a small printing press unit on the ground floor, beside the staircase, right at the entrance of the building. Exhausted and upset, as I was taking rest in the press, the owner Kali-babu asked me, "Whats up?" I told him that I was worried because I was unable to find the proper ground the acid-resistant ground required for etching, not even a single book that could instruct me how to make it. I even went to Haren-da (Haren Das) who told me that it was not available here; only option left was to import it from abroad. Hearing this, Kali-babu the owner of this press told me, "Printing-ink itself is acid resistant. Have you ever thought of that?" I sprang up from the seat, rushed back home, took out some old zinc plates which I had received from my teacher and smeared the reverse side of the plate with printing ink. Using a matchstick I did a drawing on that ground and immersed the plate into the acid tub. The biting went on very well and I pulled out a successful print. That was my first etching print using the printing ink as the ground.
SNM: So that was a major eureka moment for you?
SK: Ha ha… In fact all the twenty-four odd prints in my first solo show at Delhi in 1969 were done in this process. At this point, I must tell you that when I was teaching at Calcutta Boys School I bought the press, engraver and other materials originally belonged to Ramendranath Chakravorty. Most of my prints for that first solo show were printed in that press.
SNM: Where is that press now?
SK: I gave it to Kala Bhavana.
SNM: Coming back to the use of printing ink as the etching ground, what else could you do with it?
SK: Gradually I extended the possibility of printing-ink by using it also in the transfer process. Furthermore, I discovered that if I mixed turpentine with printing ink and immersed the plate in water one could get an effect similar to aquatint. Then you could even manipulate that effect by changing the quantity of the water. You could also have different qualities of line including brush-like line which is otherwise difficult to get in normal etching. Use of printing ink opened up the possibilities of a whole range of tonal effects akin to watercolour. By then we had heard about the viscosity method and we followed that technique to some extent but my own method happened to be a bit different from Hayter's method.
SNM: What is the main point of difference?
SK: Hand-wiping. I began to do hand-wiping. As a result, I was able to achieve a finer tonal quality compared to Hayter's method where it was mostly flat color without any gradation. Hence, right from the very stage of plate making my method turned out to be quite different. I continued persistently with this method and my first solo show of prints in Delhi (1969) was entirely a product of this endeavor. Incidentally, my first buyer of prints was Mulk Raj Anand who bought three of my works from that show.
SNM: Beside these innovations in etchings on zinc plates when and how did you begin to explore previously unknown mediums like wood-intaglio and board-intaglio?
SK: During that time price of the zinc plate was getting steep and was becoming unaffordable. Though we used to buy plates from the secondhand market at a cheaper rate I was looking at a more cost effective method. Then it suddenly struck me, why not wood? I took a plank of Segun tree. I needed a different set of tools and even adjusted the press to carry out the printing from it properly. When I was about to take the first print I was challenged with the problem of inking. Wood plank would surely soak the ink. To solve that problem I applied a coat of Fevicol before inking and then pulled out a print, quite successfully.
SNM: Why didn't you continue with wood intaglio for long?
SK: It was the cost again. Moreover, you often didn't get the size you wanted. So, I thought about using plywood instead. But the problem with plywood was, neither could you cut with the normal tools nor could you use a burin. So I got the kind of files the goldsmiths used and tried that out on plywood. To my great amazement and fulfillment I was able to have the finest lines on plywood using that kind of file. I went on producing a number of works in plywood intaglio.
SNM: And sun mica?
SK: My first experiment with sun mica was at Kala Bhavana. I did a series of engraving on sun mica. It was another successful experiment indeed.
SNM: Is it possible to get tone in sun mica?
SK: Why not? I used to rub sand on the surface thus making it coarse and consequently get a tonal effect - simple! Later I began to use cardboard as another intaglio surface as well.
SNM: How would you do intaglio from such a fragile material like cardboard?
SK: Simply get it coated with Fevicol which makes the board stiff. Now it is ready to be worked upon. I improvised appropriate tool to get different kinds of lines and textures on cardboard. You can actually pull out any number of prints from this fragile board.
SNM: As a printmaker it seems that your entire journey is guided by experiments, improvisations and thus making it unconventional in many senses. One should remember that you are basically a self taught printmaker.
SK: Yes, I don't belong to any gharana. I have evolved through trial and error. I have no guru.
SNM: We know that you have even used most odd kind of materials like pencil, crayon to prepare the ground on the etching plate. This must have been a very exciting discovery again?
SK: Oh yes! The story of this discovery is quite interesting. Once I planned to do a large etching and bought an enamel plate to work on. After dipping the plate into the acid tray suddenly I observed that the price written in the old fashioned red-blue pencil on the enamel plate remained safe from acid bite. Why not then use pencil as the ground on the plate? I tried with crayon and with normal lead pencil as well. I discovered that if you prepare a weak acid then even the graphite lines stay on the plate. In this technique of course you get a negative image of the drawing because the portions untouched by pencil remain vulnerable to acid and those are the areas that eventually constitute the final image.
SNM: You joined the Printmaking Department of Kala Bhavana in 1974. Somnath Hore was already there and it was a full-fledged department. Did you bring any change in the curriculum?
SK: I upgraded the etching part. I demonstrated the various possibilities of intaglio and etching and encouraged the students to explore. I insisted that every student in the department should study the methods and materials of printmaking as a separate paper. I made that compulsory.
SNM: Finally, as a teacher in an art college like Kala Bhavana how did you use to inspire your students?
SK: I used to work myself almost whole day till evening in the department. This itself could be very inspirational for the student, to see the teachers working with them in the same space. I never imposed any particular style or method on the students but my involvement with what they were doing was perhaps unavoidable. I was and still am in favor of interdisciplinary pedagogy. Students in the printmaking department should also do painting, sculpture, mural and have a holistic exposure. I have great faith in Nandalal Bose's idea of a complete artist. In fact I myself have come back to painting again. I have done sculptures as well. Being an enthusiastic reader myself, I have always been encouraging students to read. It is so important to nourish your mind all the time.