Chromolithography, or the technique of "printing in colours", had a dazzling and meteoric life. After centuries of black ink on white paper, chromo-lithography burst onto the art scene in mid 19th century and then vanished by the 1930s. But during these hundred years chromolithography revolutionised the printing industry and intoxicated the world with lush colourful hues.
Chromolithography done at the Calcutta Art Studio, set up by the famous painter Annada Prasad Bagchi in Bowbazar Street, opened a new chapter of printing technology in the country. But before that the Royal Lithographic Press set up by Dinanath Das, Nabin Chandra Ghosh, Hiralal Ghosh and Teenkari Mazumdar in the middle of 19th century was the first printing press established by the natives which began lithographic printing. Previously, all printing presses which had expertise in lithographic printing were run by the Europeans.
Bagchi’s chromolithographic press printed eye-catching pictures of gods and goddesses and Hindu mythological characters in colours which became immensely popular. He was also a pioneer in printing calendars. Taking a cue from him two more chromolithographic printing presses were set up in north Calcutta; Kansaripara Art Studio was established at 26, Kristodas Pal Lane while the other, Chorbagan Art Studio came up at 24, Bhuban Banerjee Lane. Since both were situated at Burtola area the sketches printed here were called Burtolar chhobi. These were considered to be obscene as they depicted Sundaris or prostitutes.
Some of the artisans of Potuapara in Kalighat were great painters and during off season they drew portraits of prostitutes who, true to the Victorian era, were attractive and voluptuous and the artisans called them Sundaris; for instance, Golapsundari, Manadasundari, Tablasundari. Since the sketches were made by the artisans of Kalighat they were called Kalighater pot or Kalighater poter bibi. The Bengali landed aristocrats or the babus were bulk purchasers of Kalighater pot. But the production of Kalighater pot was limited. Hoping that the spread of Babu culture in the city and the outskirts would lead to a brisk business, the chromolithographic presses at Kansaripara and Chorbagan began printing poter bibi in colour. The middle class and lower middle class people also bought the printed pictures of the Bibis which were hidden away from public eye and kept in trunks. It became a raging fashion among all strata of people within a short time.
The babus often enlarged the pictures to decorate the walls of their garden houses or nacch ghars. Even the Europeans were great connoisseurs of this art and collected the pictures.
The Sundaris or Bibis were christened by the artisans. For instance Golapsundari, the most popular among the pots posed like a baiji, holding a rose in her right hand. In fact many prostitutes were named after Golapsundari. Nalinisundari or Tablasundari playing tabla, Ranisundari holding a hookah in her right hand or Kamadasundari, depicted as writing on paper, were all equally famous. Pots were also indicative of women liberation. Tabla is essentially a musical instrument played by male artists even today. Again, majority of the women during those were not educated due to the belief that they would become widow at an early age.
“The pots of Kalighat tell the story of the existing society and a study reveals some amazing truths,” said collector Mr. Parimal Roy. It is amazing to note that the pictures printed in the press at Chorbagan show Sundaris attired in Western clothes, ornaments and furniture and their sitting posture also reflected the European style. Sushilasundari is seen combing her hair in front of a mirror held in her left hand. Similarly, Gyanadasundari is found to be wearing an ear ring, seated on the floor and the chair on her right is a typical low European-styled one, said Mr. Roy. The Sundaris printed in Kansaripara looked essentially Bengali while those in Chorbagan looked like European women.
Kazi Anirban, an artist and an expert on pot maintains that long before Hemen Majumdar painted a woman in wet clothes, a pot depicting an aristocratic woman holding a clay pot with her left hand and wrapped in a wet sari, was found in one of the photographs printed in Kansaripara.
Mr. Roy said Radha Prasad Gupta was the first collector to put up the sketches at his south Calcutta residence. “As the pictures were of prostitutes who were both attractive and voluptuous even the collectors did not display in the open. But Shatulda (Radha Prasad’s pet name) was a real lover of the pots,” said Mr. Roy.
It is interesting to note that women like Kamalasundari and Mokshodasundari who were famous prostitutes in Babu Calcutta often decked up like the Bibis. Kamalasundari, in particular, performed in the garden house of Chatubabu and Latubabu and wore Benarasi saris and gold ornaments made fashionable by the pots during her dance recitals – a classic case of life imitating art.