Even as printmaking has established itself as arguably the most democratic medium of artistic expression, it has always struggled to garner similar magnitudes of respect given to painting and sculpture. Contemporary printmaking was introduced in India in the mid-16th century by the Dutch as a medium of colonial documentation. Although there have been various documents and illustrated works mass-printed in India over the 400+ years since, printmaking as a medium of artistic expression emerged only about 80 or so years ago. Raja Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist to establish an independent fine art printmaking studio, towards the end of the 19th century. Ravi Varma’s contributions are often sidetracked with arguments that suggest he did not use the print as an independent medium, but merely as a method of copying his paintings. But the fact of the matter is that it was the oleographs produced in his printmaking studio that popularized his paintings, and to such an extent that virtually every Hindu household in India today has a print of a Ravi Varma painting. The developments that have since occurred in printmaking, such as the introduction of offset lithography, serigraphy (more popularly known as screen printing), photography, and digital printmaking, have established the status of the medium in Indian history as the one that has had the most profound impact on the visual culture of its people.
The establishment of Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan by the Tagores (Rabindranath, Abanindranath, and Gaganendranath) in 1919 was a springboard for the medium of printmaking to launch itself. Abanindranath and Gaganendranath were instrumental in the setting up and functioning of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, in Calcutta, as a counter measure to the hegemony of Western tradition of oil painting. ISOA’s influence carried over to Kala Bhavana, where Oriental techniques like Chinese water colour, and ink drawings were included in the curriculum. Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of an unorthodox and liberal approach to education was instilled in the structure of the art institute of Viswa Bharati as well. Unhindered by straitjacketed and rigid regulations that were characteristic of Imperial schools and traditional forms, the freedom and flexibility of practice was a breeding ground for innovations in fine arts. The Bichitra club, which had functioned out of the Tagore residence in Jorasanko before Kala Bhavana was opened, was an art salon-esque space where new possibilities in painting and printmaking were explored. Mukul Chandra Dey, a prominent member of the Bichitra club, was the first Indian artist to travel abroad to study graphic art. Nandalal Bose, another of Bichitra Club’s associates, took charge of Kala Bhavana when it opened in Santiniketan. Bose’s linocut print of Mahatma Gandhi marking the protest against the British tax on salt in 1930 became one of the most iconic images of the entire Satyagraha movement. Artists such as Ramendranath Chakraborty, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, Manindra Bhushan Gupta, and Biswarup Bose, who were teaching in Kala Bhavana through the 1930’s and 40’s, experimented with various techniques in printmaking, and normalized its study as a medium on par with painting and sculpture. The Bichitra Club and Kala Bhavana were instrumental in de-linking printmaking from its label of ‘medium of reproduction’ and helping it gain attention as a pure medium of fine art.
It is a confusing facet of the Indian art community that two of the most influential artists with regards to the medium of printmaking in India, arguably, are the most under-appreciated – Ravi Varma, and a certain Krishna Reddy. Using lines and texturizations on the plate’s surface, Krishna Reddy conjures intricate grid-like patterns that are curiously reminiscent of fractals – which he defines as a meditation on the infinite mysteries of nature and natural phenomena. The spectrum of colours he uses in his prints speaks volumes of his technical mastery of the intaglio medium. Alongside KG Subramanyan, whom he studied with in Santiniketan, he mentored a new generation of pioneering printmakers in the India – such as Somnath Hore and K Laxma Goud. Reddy’s experiments in Atelier 17, where he worked alongside many of Europe’s Modernist masters, are a major part of his legacy and contribution to the world of printmaking.
Krishna Reddy was born into a family of farmers in Nandanoor village, near Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh in 1925 – headquarters of the eponymous district (and North Arcot before that), which has been a home for many eminent poets, scholars, artists, and freedom fighters. Historically governed by the prominent south Indian dynasties – the Cholas, Pallavas, and the Pandyas – and thanks to its proximity to modern day Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, the region is diverse in its literary, visual, and cultural tradition. Among the decorated figures of Indian history, P Anandacharlu, the president of Indian National Congress (1891), Jiddu Krishnamurti, the influential new-age philosopher, Sir CR Reddy, a prominent educationalist, scholar, poet, and literary critic, Tharigonda Vengamamba, a revered 18th century poet, Chittoor Subramaniam Pillai, a gem among the greats of Carnatic music, and freedom fighters such as Parthasarathy Iyengar, and Papanna Gupta, are just a few names that have emerged from Chittoor. Chittoor, and Arcot before it, have been prominent centers of Carnatic music and Devadasi tradition. The origins of the Reddy caste is sometimes traced to the Rashtrakutas – traditionally a diverse community, occupying positions of land-owning aristocracy of the villages, engaged in trade, and cultivation.
Krishna’s engagements and activism during his youth was informed by a compulsion to overturn the established order. The Indian struggle for independence was gaining momentum during this period, with Mahatma Gandhi calling for the complete end to British rule in India – and Reddy joined the protests. Following Reddy’s involvement with the Quit India Movement, for which he printed hundreds of posters and was jailed a couple of times, he moved to Santiniketan – where, under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and Ramkinkar Baij, he studied sculpture and water colour. Drawings from this period of Reddy’s life show a spiritual engagement with the landscape of Santiniketan – where he stayed until graduating with a degree in Fine Arts in 1947. Soon after, he was invited to take up the mantle as the head of the Arts department at Kalakshetra in Madras – established in 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale, who is considered one of the most prominent figures in the revival of Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam, and theosophist George Arundale. Kalakshetra was opened with a vision to precipitate the renaissance of traditional Indian arts, and was patronized by Annie Besant, one of the leading figures of Theosophical Society.
Krishna Reddy pursued his graduate studies at the Theosophical College, and frequently visited the nearby Rishi Valley School, where he was exposed to the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a protracted world-teacher of a new era, groomed from a very young age by the Theosophical Society (Adyar) after Charles Webster Leadbeater (former priest of the Church of England, and co-initiator of the Liberal Catholic Church) found him, under the watchful eyes of Annie Besant. The Theosophical Society was initially formed in New York in 1875, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky along with Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge. Olcott and Blavatsky moves to India in 1880, bringing the Society and its teachings to the subcontinent. Blavatsky and Olcott converted to Buddhism in 1885, while they were in Ceylon, becoming the first Europeans to officially do so. Jiddu Krishnamurti was the head of the Order of the Star in the East (OSE), and gave lectures and talks on Theosophist philosophy and spiritualism, until the death of his younger brother Nityanada disillusioned him – whereby he dissolved the OSE, and withdrew from the Theosophical Society, preferring to educate the society through opening schools. One such school was the Rishi Valley School, established in Madanapallae, nearby Chittoor. Krishnamurti remained a key figure in the intellectual and spiritual development of Reddy. Krishna Reddy’s tenure in Kalakshetra was brief (1947-50), following which he travelled to Europe to further his education at the Slade School of Fine Arts, where he was mentored by Lucian Freud and Henry Moore during his time in London, from 1951-52.
In Europe, he turned to a formalist enquiry of visuals, studying the textural qualities, and plasticity of different media. In 1953, Krishna Reddy received a scholarship to study sculpture under Ossip Zadkine, a Russian sculptor, in Paris. It was while working with Zadkine that Reddy met Stanley William Hayter – the British printmaker who had founded Atelier 17 (‘Atelier’ means a workshop or studio). Hayter first opened his studio in 1923, and later moved it to No.17, Rue Campagne-Premiere, in 1933, where it came to be known as Atelier 17 and became a hub for artists like Kandinsky and Joan Miro. Hayter moved his studio to New York at the onset of WWII, where Atelier 17 was instrumental in reviving printmaking techniques among a new generation of artists like Jackson Pollock, Mauricio Lasansky, and Mark Rothko. Returning to Paris in 1950, Hayter took Atelier 17 back with him. Krishna Reddy’s association with Hayter brought about radical changes in his work – Hayter’s work with automatism and form possibly resonated with Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings earlier in Reddy’s life. The works Reddy executed in Atelier 17 contributed massively to the development of the viscosity technique, which he pioneered alongside Hayter. He has been a co-director of Atelier 17 since 1965.
When Reddy joined Atelier 17, it was already a thriving hub for stalwarts like Joan Miro, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti. This provided a platform for him to break new ground in intaglio printmaking. In collaboration with Hayter, Reddy developed a new technique in multi-colour printing by utilizing the variable viscosities of the printing inks. The usual copper/zinc plate is etched using lines and textures. The plate is inked in multiple stages – a first, fairly thick, ink is applied in similar fashion to the intaglio process. It is forcibly rubbed into the grooves and recesses and then wiped off the surface. The second colour is the least viscous – usually thinned out using oil – and is applied to the plate’s surface using a hard rubber roller, in a single pass. The hard roller only transfers the ink to the topmost layers of the plate, usually the un-etched surface. A third, more viscous colour is applied to the plate’s moderately etched surfaces using a soft rubber roller. The varying viscosities of the inks prevent intermixing of colours. A fourth colour can also be applied by preparing an even thinner ink, and rolling it over the plate using a hard rubber roller with minimal pressure. While this process eliminates the usual registration errors, as in other multi-colour printmaking techniques, it is deviously complicated to get right nonetheless.
Krishna Reddy is known to be meticulous in his craft, and treats the plate like a relief sculpture. The editions created using this technique are unique in their textural quality and three-dimensionality – his prints can be viewed as two-dimensional impressions of a sculpted surface. Informed by the philosophy that ‘Truth is a pathless land – which a man has to find it through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through silent observation rather than through analysis or intellectual dissection’1, Reddy’s impressions are extremely meditative in nature. The abstractions have a peculiar power to evoke imageries of a sense of creation at celestial levels, almost resembling modern deep-space photographs of astronomical phenomena. Reddy’s use of colours has noticeable similarities to Oriental palettes. Strong arguments can be made with regards to his exposure to the Chinese water colour and ink techniques – influences of which are clear in his ink drawing of ‘Buddha’ while in Kala Bhavana. Curiously though, his images are passive about the turbulent political discussions of his time. Krishna the activist, who was wanted by the colonial police, is visible in his engagement and practice as an artist – not in his images. In this sense, the semi-abstract bronze sculpture he executed in 1969, titled “The Vision”, in the aftermath of the Paris civil unrest, is an anomaly of sorts; here, we see an overtly political image, rather than the stoic contemplation that permeates his prints.
By the late 60’s, Reddy was travelling for most of the year, conducting workshops and giving lectures in educational institutions. He moved to New York in 1976, where he joined as Professor and Director of the Department of Graphics and Printmaking in the New York University, and set up a special workshop for working artists and teachers called Colour Print Atelier.
The Indian penchant for unnecessary cynicism is visible in the alienation of Krishna’s genius – often suspending this master printmaker in a state of limbo, only rarely and begrudgingly acknowledging him in the same line as KG Subramanyan, Laxma Goud, Somnath Hore, and Jyoti Bhatt. An exceptional artist, who is now in the twilight of a stellar and dedicated career, Reddy’s innovations in this field, where even establishing a personal signature is difficult, is nothing short of iconic. His work, which unquestionably marks printmaking as a medium on par with painting and sculpture, deserves much more respect and recognition in Indian art.