Art News & Views

Permanent State of Suspension

The viscosity of the history of the Indian printmakers guild

by  Johny ML

Ten years, ten shows, abundance of audience attention, patronage and critical appreciation...if someone searches for the history of the Indian Printmakers Guild one comes out with this feeling. The Indian Printmakers Guild (IPG), with Anand Moy Banerji, Bula Bhattacharya, Dattatreya Apte, Kavita Nayar, Kanchan Chander, Jayant Gajera, Moti Zarotia, Shukla Sawant, Sushant Guha, Sukhvinder Singh, Subba Ghosh and K.R.Subbanna as its founding members, brought a new energy to the scene of printmaking in India during the last decade of the 20th century. The date of birth of the IPG, as its members vouch to say, was on 15th August 1990, exactly on the 43rd anniversary of Indian Independence. The activities of the IPG formally came to an end in 2000 with a grand exhibition at the British Council, New Delhi.

In fact, the anniversary of Indian independence did not have anything in particular to do with the formation of the IPG, however, so long as Indian Independence Day is celebrated, at least the people who were associated with the group would remember the delivery pangs of the IPG. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the birth of the IPG was rather smooth and was a natural fruition of certain collaborations and combinations between/amongst a group of artists who had been working in the printmaking department of the Garhi Studios run by the National Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi. With established painters and printmakers working quite actively in the Garhi Studios, the printmaking department had by the 1980s already become a hub for young printmakers from all over India (See my article (Hi)Story of the Garhi Printmaking Studios in the previous issue). The presence of Manjit Bawa, Arpana Caur, Gogi Saroj Pal, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Himmat Shah along with Devraj Dakoji as the master printer, enlivened the activities of this department and for the youngsters in the studio, who later formed the IPG, it was the most conducive atmosphere for debating the pros and cons of printmaking as a genre within the scope of the other visual arts.

If we look at the works of the members of the IPG from their first show to the tenth and final one, one could see that for the member-artists printmaking was not just another medium to be practiced to eke out a living or to establish him/herself as a visual artist. It was more than that. With the debate on the interface of modernism and post-modernism already in the air, for the members of the guild, forming a group completely devoted to experiment with various printmaking technologies was a discourse in itself. “We were like a family, with members having different opinions on the same issue but working towards a common goal. Our common goal was to gain autonomy in printmaking. We were not thinking of money as we knew that graphic prints were not too much in demand amongst art patrons,” says Anand Moy Banerji, one of the founding members of the IPG.

When the IPG started with this single goal of gaining autonomy for the medium, contrary to the expectations of the members, the galleries and other art promoters came around to support them wholeheartedly. The review cuttings from the decade of the IPG tell us how the art critics were taking the activities of the IPG seriously. They were reserving no words while praising it to the heights. The energy of the group was so high at that time that they found sponsorship for their first exhibition catalogue. From the next year onwards it became a norm that each page of their exhibition catalogue was a sponsored page either by a gallery or by a group or a corporate house. But the last show of the IPG at the British Council in a way chartered the future course of the IPG. It declared, at least to the audience of Delhi, that it was going to cease its activities as a cohesive body. And this declaration became a reality when a few of the members walked out of the group. The IPG has never again shown together since 2000.

Today, if you ask whether the IPG had a birth, rise and fall, or origin, growth and disintegration, some of the former members like Subba Ghosh would really take up cudgels against you. “Rise and fall are militaristic terms used more in connection with empires, dictatorship and regime,” says Subba Ghosh. “Such a title already presupposes an aggressive and negative approach to the whole concept on which the guild was formed. I can assure you that there was no attempt to create a domain or syndicate. It was a mere collective of artists who happened to be practicing printmaking together at Garhi and at that time felt that the Indian art scene needed to consider this practice on par with others. Our awareness campaigns were to basically address misconceptions about printmaking and our belief in the fact that printmaking was a viable option of creating affordable art for those who were interested in it but couldn't afford it. I still believe in it even though many of the galleries have ceased to consider that,” opines Ghosh.

According to Anand Moy Banerji, Shukla Sawant, a young member of the group at that time, provided the theoretical support to the movement. "Printmaking was a medium of pain and pleasure", was how Sawant qualified the group's medium of expression. Though a very articulate proponent of printmaking during the 1990s, by the end of the same decade she had turned one of the severest critics of the IPG. Though Sawant does not formally articulate in public the theoretical differences within the group, from various sources within the IPG one could gather that the 'disturbances' within it started as the 'purity' of printmaking became a contentious issue. Pain became more palpable than pleasure amongst group members as the differences on the issue of purity became the eye of the storm. While a few members stuck to the idea of purity, another set of artists in the group insisted that they should go for multiple experiments.

Practically speaking, each of the members of the IPG were experimenting with their respective formats from the very beginning. “Though the premise of forming the IPG was printmaking, we were not averse to experiments,” says Sushant Guha, one of the former members and one of the acclaimed printmakers. “Our internal decision was not to exhibit paintings along with prints or the other way round. It was an ethical decision. None dictated the terms and none insisted that the artists should not extend their parameters,” adds Anand Moy Banerji. Extending parameters of printmaking was already there when twelve of them came together to form the group. Shukla Sawant was already using hand-painting in her prints. Bula Bhattacharya was experimenting with photographs and newsprints. Dattatreya Apte was using paper pulp.

There still seems to be some unresolved issues in the history of the IPG that the members are not ready to speak about. While Jayant Gajera accuses that some of his colleagues in the IPG were using printmaking as a front to promote their paintings, others do not agree with this. “We were not just printmakers. We were also trained painters. But it was our conscious decision to promote a medium of our choice. That did not mean that we stopped all other activities,” counters Anand Moy Banerji. Jayant Gajera, who also does painting as a part of his practice, insists that if they were striving for the autonomy of printmaking, then they should not have indulged in those other practices that eventually caused the dissipation of the Guild.

Another theory that has been doing the rounds on the eventual dissipation of the IPG is all about the changing times and the individual artists' decision to focus on their own careers. “After the show at the British Council, and also after a few major group shows in Delhi, the idea of moving on in our respective path became quite clear. The times were changing. Perhaps, the kind of innovative technologies evolved in printmaking had actually raised certain debatable issues, including the relevance of a group like ours. We needed time to thrash it out and I would pin the reason for our 'freezing' the activities of the IPG as a group to that,” observes Anand Moy Banerji. When one hears Shukla say that though the IPG doesn't remain a group they are still all for each other, it is quite evident that there is still a lot of emotional and intellectual investment remaining from the groups interactions.

This emotional and intellectual investment is extremely high. Guild members believed in what they were doing, and seen in retrospect their activities were justified. For example when Art Today (now defunct) published a lot of reproductions signed by artists and passed them off as 'prints' the IPG members protested on the basis of theory and ethics. Vadehra Gallery in New Delhi did a show of lithographs by M.F.Husain and sold the signed multiples. But according to the former IPG members what was marketed were not 'lithographs' but simply high-quality offset prints done in America. “We were dejected as it was ethically not correct,” says Dattatreya Apte. And his observations further put the idea of the IPG in perspective. “Our aim was to make people aware of authentic prints through prints! We wanted to make people understand what was an original print and what was a reproduction. In printmaking what you get is an original work of art in multiples.”

Approaching the formation, growth and eventual 'freezing' of the IPG from an art historical perspective, one comes across the debate of the reproducibility of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Perhaps, this issue has not been theoretically tackled by the group members while they were debating on the extension of parameters and being inclusive in their practices. However, one cannot overlook the fact that the collapse of the image of a 'printmaker' from being an original artist to someone who strives with some traditional printing materials might have accentuated some members to opt for more cutting-edge mediums and practices emergent during that time, and it might have led to the eventual freezing of the activities of the IPG.

Perhaps I am more interested in the IPG and its theoretical orientations than the works of art they produced as a part of their shows. One can see most of them still employing a lot of contemporary technologies in their graphic as well as painterly works. With a conscious decision to push the parameters of printmaking, the IPG is one point in our recent art history that could provide a platform for further analysing and theorising art forms that employ printmaking as a tool, a medium and an idea.

Images Courtesy: The Artist

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