Did you know that …..German lithography transformed the visual landscape of India?


Many may not know that lithography was invented in Germany in the late eighteenth century. This innovative technology was called Steindruck in German (meaning 'printing with stone'), and is a process of making a print by using greasy ink on a lime stone tablet which has been treated to accept the ink only where it is required for printing. The technique spread all over Europe and the world in the next decade, and thereby revolutionised the field of text and image printing globally. Due its ability of speedy and sharp reproduction, lithography brought about a sea change in the dissemination of knowledge and image consumption. Lithography, at once, made even the common man knowledgable and image-literate. Offset printing which became popular in the beginning of the twentieth century was nothing but an advanced form of lithography.

Let me tell you the fascinating story of the Bavarian origin of lithography and its overnight popularity in India, initially through German machines, materials and manpower. Susan Sontag once remarked: “A society becomes modern when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images.” Thanks to lithography, in this sense India became a modern society already in the nineteenth century, mass-producing and mass-consuming the printed image in the form of chromo-lithographs and oleographs.

Before I review the impact of lithography on India's social, religious and political life, let me briefly reconstruct the account of its Bavarian roots.

The inventor of lithography, Alois Senefelder (1771-1834), was a minor actor and playwright in Munich whose play Connoisseur of Girls brought him some fame and money. However, the failure of his next published play Mathilde von Altenstein made him financially broke, and he was desperately looking for a cheaper method of printed reproductions for his next play.

As it is said, necessity is the mother of invention, Senefelder began to experiment with using greasy, acid-resistant inks as material for marking out texts or details of an image required to be printed on the fine Solnhofen limestone as surface. This was followed by covering the stone with printing ink and taking out impressions by mounting the stone slab on to a hand-operated press, where a cylinder did the tinting, and impressions were taken out by pressing a sheet of paper against the prepared stone. The basic technique developed by Senefelder was then upgraded, over the years, for multi-chrome image printing by using separate stones for each colour.

The German technique of lithography and the 'evil smelling oleographs' (named after oil-based inks) took immediate roots in India. Besides its use for visual documentation of the people of India, its territorial and architectural maps, its temples, mosques and palaces, its flora and fauna,or its cultural manifestations, lithography became hugely popular in producing images of gods and goddesses as new and easily available objects of worship. In contrast to the more traditional religious images involving lengthy, ritually charged processes of making them from stone or casting them in metal, and then getting them consecrated for worship, the new chromo-lithographic images became at once popular due to their charming colours, more humane (“god-in-the-image-of-man”) look, and cost-effectiveness and easy availability. This also reduced the exploitative dominance of the Brahmin priestly class over the common man, who always had been the mediators for obtaining and sanctifying the cultic images of the Hindus.

This democratisation of the image in India greatly influenced the processes of social change, modes of governance, and spread of the new commodity culture. It also came handy for the propagation of the ideas of the Indian nationalist and freedom struggle.

Originally, Indian artists and traders got their chromo-lithographs and oleographs printed in Germany. Saxony was one of the major centres of its manufacture. Eventually some enterprising Indians set up their own litho presses employing German inks, machines and technicians. One such press was the “Fine Art & Litho Press”, set up by the renowned Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma, who not only imported German machines, but also employed a German master lithographer, Fritz Schleicher, and his assistant P. Gerhard. Schleicher arrived in India in early 1894 and supervised the press for decades, even after Ravi Varma's death in 1905. However, other artists of the early twentieth century, such as Bamapada Banerjea, who was active in the 1920s and 1930s in Kolkata; V.S. Pandya and Chonkar, both working in Mumbai and Gujarat, continued to get chromo-lithographs of their works printed in Germany on account of their superior quality of colour registration and paper.

This is – in brief – the story of how prints 'Made in Germany' flooded the Indian market during the ninetheenth and twentieth centuries and determined the aesthetic sense of its consumers.

Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

© German Embassy New Delhi

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