Kokka Woodblock Reproductions of Early Neo-Bengal School Paintings

— Satyasri Ukil

Feast of Lamps by Abanindranath Tagore, Kokka woodblock print
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Kakuzo Okakura, in ‘The Ideals of the East’ (published by E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1903, p.1) says:

Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.”

More than hundred years ago, in 1901-02, an American disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Josephine MacLeod, brought Kakuzo Okakura to India. Okakura wanted to invite Vivekananda to Japan, who was already renowned in the world after his speech on Hinduism at Chicago in 1893. However, as Vivekananda passed away untimely at the age of only thirty-nine in July 1902, Okakura came more in contact with the Tagores of Jorasanko while his stay in India, and thus began our Karttikeya by Surendranath Ganguly, one of the earliest students of Abanindranath Tagore
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
cultural relationship with modern Japan, which left a lasting impression on twentieth century  Indian art and aesthetics.

In 1903  Okakura sent to India two Japanese artists, Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso, from whom Abanindranath and his elder brother Gagonendranath Tagore learnt the techniques of Japanese brush-n-ink works and watercolor wash.

Abanindranath appreciated and promoted the technique to such extent that most of his students, who later on came to be known as artists of neo-Bengal School, exclusively followed this practice. In the initial days they indeed produced some excellent pictures by repeated washes of transparent watercolor to their paintings .

In 1907 the Indian Society of Oriental Art was established in Calcutta by some influential Europeans who also admired Indian art, and their Indian followers. This ISOA, popularly known as the “Society” much popularized Tagore’s Bengal School, as well as art and crafts of other Asian nations. It held regular exhibitions in India and abroad, and came out with exquisite color reproductions of original paintings by Abanindranath Tagore, Surendranath Ganguly, Nandalal Bose and other old masters of Mughal and Rajput art.

Kaikeyee-o-Manthara by Nandalal Bose. Kokka woodblock print, c. 1907
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Many of these  reproductions were printed in Japan by the expert technicians of Kokka, a well known Japanese art periodical. The images were reproduced by Japanese woodblock printing method. 

Kokka or the “National Essence” was an influential monthly magazine specializing in East Asian, particularly Japanese art. It was jointly founded by the art patron Kuki Ryuichi, art critic Tenshin Okakura (Kakuzo Okakura) and Asahi Shimbun editorial writer Takahashi Kenzo.

As early as 1905, the Kokka was published by The Kokka Publishing Company from 10 Yazaemon-cho, Kyobashi-ku, Tokyo. On the first page of its first issue one finds the famous “Kokka Declaration” wherein the cultural policies of late Meiji Japan were precisely described.

The Kokka Declaration begins with a short sentence:

Art is the Quintessence of the nation”.

This remained the editorial policy of the periodical.

Incidentally, the Kokka had simultaneously patronized and promoted the artists of Nihon Bijutsuin of Meiji Japan and the neo-Bengal School of India by making fine reproductions of their paintings. Artists  like Shimomura Kanzan, Yokoyama Taikan and Shunso Hishida in Japan, Yama-o-Savitri by Nandalal Bose. Kokka woodblock print
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
and Abanindranath Tagore and his illustrious band of neo-Bengal School artists in India had been promoted by Kokka.

Japan has a long tradition of woodblock printing, and Kokka color prints of Bengal School paintings are matchless in their beauty and technical excellence. The first thing that you would notice in a woodblock print iis the total absence of those half-tone screen patterns with their constant disturbing suggestion that the image you see is mass produced by a machine. Next is the tactile sensation of the paper on which the print has been made. Unlike so-called art paper, which was almost exclusively used to print color half-tone reproductions, the handmade Japanese woodblock papers are much pleasant to touch. Combined with this was the superb skill of the Japanese printmakers, pulling each impression with perfect color registration.

True, in India Ramananda Chatterjee and his printers Upendrakishore and Sukumar Ray at their press, Messers U. Ray & Sons, regularly machine printed Bengal School art reproductions for Prabasi, Modern Review; and, subsequently, Chatterjee’s Picture Albums, but that fine quality of a hand printed Japanese woodblock image was unachievable from half-tone color blocks. Even then these printers’ efforts are commendable, because apart from theim, and a few other Bengali printers, there is no other visual documentation of neo-Bengal Detail, Yama-o-Savitri. Note the skull motif on Yama’s crown and sceptre
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
School paintings.

Here, from Mukul Dey Archives collection, are added four images of  early neo-Bengal School paintings. All of these were printed in Japan. Abanindranath Tagore is represented by his famous picture Feast of Lamps, Surendranath Ganguly by Karttikeya, while Nandalal Bose by his two early works titled Kaikeyee-o-Manthara and Yama-o-Savitri. All images were digitized directly from the original Kokka woodblock prints, which are more than hundred years old.

We have  also included here a detail from one original Kokka print in an effort to illustrate the high quality achieved by those ancient Japanese printmakers.

Fine art reproduction being a very specialized field, I would like to conclude by mentioning names of at least three other printers, who were doing high quality printmaking in Europe at a similar point of time. They were Emery Walker, William Griggs and Carl Hentschel, who specialized in chromolithography and collotypes.  About them we plan to write in future.

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