On Rise of the artist illustrator: A paper by Aratrika Choudhury.

Aratrika Choudhury in her marvelously well researched paper, talks about the rise or claim of the artist
illustrator in Turn-of- the-Century- Bengal. She talks briefly about the rising popularity of the print culture
as indigenous printing presses were set up in and around the Bot-tola region of Kolkata. This lead to the
crude illustrations which eventually started grazing the pages of the books published. The purpose of
her paper was to show us how exactly the artist illustrator rose to popularity and how they created a
new combination Western and Indian art into a strange hybridity in the earlier 20 th century.
Beginning from the earliest illustrated Bengali book, Ananda Mangal, in which artist Ramchand Ray was
responsible for two of the engravings in the book, as the engravings have his name carved. In her paper
Aratrika says that the engravings “do not exhibit extraordinary artistic expertise, their fame lies in the
fact that they were the first to adorn a Bengali printed book.” She also calls the work unimaginative,
which is expected because these artists were mere artisans, metal engravers or silversmiths with no
knowledge of art or improvisation. Prior to Ananda Mangal, there were other illustrated books but they
were either created by British illustrators or published in other languages. However, this improvised
endeavor of the artisan illustrators proved to be great success. Aratrika mentions Kashinath Mistri and
Harihar Bandhopadhya, contemporaries of Ramchand Ray who earned a name through their
illustrations. These proceedings saw the advent of the Bot-tola publications as the indigenous printing
presses started taking interest in these illustrated books, which included Sangeet Tarang, Gauri BIlash,
Ganga Bhakti Tarangini and a few others.

Bot-tola publications, Aratrika says, if looked closely at represented a certain visual excess, if we look at
the books as a visual material object, we will see that the advent of illustrations was an addition to that
object, something in excess. Until lithography, these illustrations were made with the use of cheap ink
and paper, this is because these publications essentially cater to a particular class. The concept of paying
for the book but receiving art too enthralled the reader as the illustrations provided a welcome
digression from the bland text, thus leading to the immense popularity of these texts. The content of
these illustrations remained secondary qualifiers. The illustrative art can be read as that element which
filled up the gap left after taking away the orality from what was essentially an oral culture.
As the urban cultural art flourished in the late 19 th and earlier 20 th century, there is a change in the claim
or role of the artist. The elites of the society took charge of the art and publication, replacing the local
Bot-tola fame. The educated artist illustrator thus caused the gradual usurping of the art and pushed the
artisan illustrators to the shadows. Almanacs we buy today contain art by these artisan illustrators.
These illustrations were not only new but real and a peculiar hybrid. The Bot-tola illustrators gilded their
names into their art but the artist illustrators’ identity was a very important part of their art. An
association of name of power began as we see the new art of the Turn of the Century Bengal by these
artist illustrators.


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