Battala and Before: The Development and Demise of the Woodcut Prints of Calcutta

by Pritha Mukherjee

Nabin attacks Elokeshi. Nabin kills Elokeshi. Kalighat pats of the Tarakeshwar affair. (Courtesy Pikspost)

Battala, often considered the earliest hub of printing and publishing in Kolkata, is now all but lost from public memory; Bengal’s print culture is now generally associated with the thriving book market around College Street and the printing presses running at full throttle in the adjoining alleyways. Starting in the late 1770s, Battala near Chitpore Road in North Kolkata saw a thriving business in the production of ephemera — pamphlets, novellas, satires, erotica, textbooks, and so on — that was popular with the masses, especially the poorer and lower middle-class sections of Bengali society. In the mid-1800s “Battala culture” began to signify all things popular, cheap, and often “indecent,” which made it the focus of disciplining or civilizing actions from both the British administration and the highly educated Bengali upper-class baboos.

Nritya Lal Datta, Kali (ca. 1860–1870), woodblock print, 16 1/2 x 10 7/8 inches, Calcutta. (Courtesy Art in Print)

The 1800s saw a massive change in how information was circulated in Bengali society, triggered by the introduction of the printing press and the development of a distinct print culture. The very ability to produce multiple copies of the same thing made written materials cheaper and more accessible to a broader cross-section of people. Some of the oldest printing presses in Bengal were in Hooghly, and then in Serampore. These establishments were initially controlled by missionaries and colonial officers. The first native-run printing press in Kolkata was Babu Ram’s Sanskrit press in Khidirpur, established in 1807. It later moved north to Pataldanga, close to the College Street area. The early publishing industry ran into technical troubles: the quality of the paper was always in question and the secondhand printing presses often produced less-than-perfect printed material. Paper was initially imported from England by the Serampore missionaries, but this was not a commercially viable option. To sustain these publishers, a paper mill was opened and a new type foundry was set up by Panchanan Karmakar, one of the first native typographers in Bengal. Bengali typefaces were created and soon vernacular publishing became a huge commercial success. This growing absorption of the public, which had become “sufficiently” literate through the work of the early educational institutions, with “books” translated into a thriving area of publishing businesses in Battala by 1857, when Revered James Long published a survey of the Bengal publishing scene.

Until the introduction of mass publishing, Bengal’s popular culture was more performative, featuring kobiyals (poet-debaters), forms of public theatre, and patuas (scrollmakers and performers). The arrival of the printing press, and especially the Bengali typeface created by Panchanan Karmakar and the Orientalist scholar Charles Wilkins, suddenly made it possible for written publications to meet the daily demand for popular fiction and detailed accounts of current affairs. Alongside the growing popularity of texts, visual culture in the form of woodcut illustrations for these books also came to be part of public life. Battala illustrations were woodcut engravings of folksy themes, often bold and vivid, with strong outlines filled in with watercolors. These illustrations made printed matter even more enticing for larger sections of the society. The first illustrated Bengali book was Bharatchandra’s Annada Mangal, with six full-page illustrations.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any copies of this text. Battala publications are very difficult to come by — because they did not enjoy acceptance of the “refined” sections of the society, and more importantly because Bengal’s climate is not conducive for the long-term storage of paper or wood. Where visual performances had once been a welcome relief from the humdrum of daily lives, these cheap, more accessible forms of literary production now provided an alternative form of escape. The accompanying woodcut prints gradually become collectibles in their own right, independent from the text.

Battle between Ravana and Rama, from Ramayana. Done by Shri Hiramani Karmakar of Barhtala. (Courtesy Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta)

Unfortunately, studies of Battala woodcuts are few and far between, and often merely accuse them of being cheap copies of Kalighat pat paintings. Traditional Bengali pats are visual narratives, often vivid mythological drawings, painted on scrolls that are unfurled as the storyteller or patua sings or recites the stories. This tradition continues today in rural parts of Bengal. As Calcutta came to be recognized as THE urban center of colonial rule, it attracted enterprising people from more distant, rural parts of Bengal. Kalighat pat paintings are the result of this migration by one such group of performing artists, whose work evolved through their struggle for survival in the environs of the increasingly modern city of Calcutta. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, pat artists converged on the religious center of Kalighat, the late medieval Kali temple in south Calcutta, and started selling paintings on individual sheets of paper, rather than scrolls made of layers of fabric. These drawings were often outlined by a master painter, whose family and assistants would later fill them in with colors. This change in the mode of pat production was probably not immediate. The time-consuming tasks of painting lengths of coarse cloth and composing chants to accompany the images were modified, instead focusing on creating single images on standardized folio-sized sheets of imported paper (often 7 inches by 11 inches) without an accompanying song.

Around the same time, in the 1840s, the e