The holiness of the cow has led to a doctrinal and political discourse in India. Though the animal is making headlines now, it has intermittently garnered attention for long. Back in 1917, Gaganendranath Tagore, known for his satirical depictions, had depicted bovine concerns with ink in his lithograph Purification by Cow-Dung.
A Hindu priest, dressed in dhoti and with the pious teeka, is seen purifying flowers with cow dung, even as a cow in the backdrop sneers.
It is one of the several lithographs by Tagore that featured caricatures on life in Bengal. On display at Galerie 88 in Kolkata, the print, gallerist Supriya Banerjee notes, exemplifies that some issues remain constant. “The concern seems as relevant now,” says Banerjee. She adds how the other caricatures by Tagore that mock the imprudence and idiocy that he saw around him, are as contemporary.
In Imperishable Sacredness of a Brahmin, a priest is seen stuffing himself as religious scriptures are thrown out a window. In Purification By Muddy Water, another priest sprinkles muddy water on three women, with a sack of money in his hand.
Another comment on the inequality of the caste system comes in the work, Millstone of the Caste System where a priest sits on a millstone, guided by a skeleton, as ordinary masses are crushed underneath.
The exhibition, titled “Graphic Prints”, which is on till June 30, also features prints by three other Bengal artists — Mukul Chandra Dey, Ramkinkar Baij and Rani Chanda — all members of the Bichitra Club, established by the Tagores to explore styles in painting and printmaking.
The artists in the exhibition have varied oeuvre. The exhibition has works in drypoint etching by Dey, pioneer of this form in India. If Filling the Pitchers has two women collecting water in the foreground and a minimalist backdrop, Festive Season has folk musicians of Bengal.
Dey’s sister Rani Chanda’s woodcuts on paper present scenes from rural Bengal. Known best for his sculptural forms, Ramkinkar Baij’s woodcuts are more dark and respond to the movement for independence that was at its peak during the 1940s. In the 1942 work Do or Die, for instance, he inscribes the slogan for freedom, with a lean figure facing upraised sticks.
“Several of these works might have been seen in books, but not many in the present generation would have seen the originals, this is an opportunity for them to see them together,” says Banerjee.