Increasing levels of literacy among children, a growing concern to educate children outside classrooms and the
need to provide them with suitable modes of instructive recreation were agencies that propelled the genre of
children’s books in Bengal to grow out of its fledgling state and step into the wider fold of leisure culture. An
overview reveals its inception through school-books and didactic literature early in the nineteenth century, an
expansion through miscellaneous periodicals in the latter decades and a subsequent explosion into a wider market
of leisure books for children by the twentieth century. Books, suitably designed for children, became the means of
a pleasurable pastime that was considered to be at once entertaining and instructive for the young readers.
Between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries the genre broadened to include a flood of books
from diverse fields. There were fairy and folk tales, nursery rhymes, books on epics, mythologies and historical
legends, original fiction, poems, song books, stories of the natural world, tales of adventure and volumes on
popular science and sport. As in England, with increased commercialisation, the use of book illustrations –
scarce in the earlier text books - became ways of making the books more attractive for the young readers.
Utilising the various techniques of reproduction that became progressively available through the nineteenth
century - like wood-cut, wood and metal engraving, lithography and later photomechanical process engravings
- the illustrations changed from the crude wood cuts in the 1820s to the immaculate half-tone plates around
the beginning of the twentieth century. The typical visuals in children’s books were sketches of animals and
birds, scientific diagrams, portraits of great men and women, amusing illustrations to fictions and poems, tales
in pictures, reproductions of well known paintings by great artists and occasionally photographs.
Initially, for reasons of economy, the missionaries used old and rejected wood blocks acquired cheaply from
London to embellish their Bengali primers and readers. Using borrowed blocks, the early illustrations,
juxtaposed with indigenous settings and subjects, were visibly foreign. Simultaneously there developed a
skilled band of indigenous block makers and engravers in and around Calcutta, ‘the future Wests & Lawrences
& Wilkies of India’ many of whom mastered the art and went on to become fine artisans. Towards the turn of
the century, with the generation of a Swadeshi nationalism in a larger social context, and amply enriched with
original contributions by stalwarts like Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri and Abanindranath Tagore, children’s
books and the art of book illustration too acquired an indigenous texture and expressed an eastern style.
Along with such a trend in indigenous art, there came into business several art studios excelling in photo
engraving, half tone and lithographic printing –– like U. Ray & Sons and K.V. Syene & Brothers who were
visible in the juvenile publications not only through the lustrous plates but also frequently as advertisements.
The books themselves became more decorative with ornate page borders, intricately designed initials and tail
devices. The City Book Society, Bhattacharya and Sons, U. Ray and Sons and Sisir Publishing House became
distinctive names in the world of Bengali juvenile publishing. Surviving copies of originals like Yogindranath
Sarkar’s Hasi-khushi, Abanindranath Tagore’s Bhut-patrir Desh or Nagendranath Gangopadhyay’s Buno Gappo
are still of pieces outstanding beauty. Designed with care and flawlessly printed, such neat and pretty books
speak volumes about the passion that went into their making.
Harish Chandra Haldar’s famous lithographs had decorated the pages of Balak (1885) while Upendrakishore
Raychaudhuri’s illusrations had enlivened much of the scientific contents of popular periodicals like Sakha
(1883) and Mukul (1895). In 1896 Abanindranath Tagore had added his own illustrations to Ksheerer Putul.
The fantastic representations of ‘Akanore’ and ‘Hushur Mushur’ in Khukumanir Chhara (1899) embodied the
unearthly creatures from the imaginary world of nursery rhymes. In 1907, Raychaudhuri’s illustrations for
Rabindranath Tagore’s Nadi and his own Chheleder Ramayan were printed using the half-tone process, a
technique that was perfected by the illustrator himself. Unlike the prevailing methods, it allowed the fine
shade gradations of the original work to be reproduced faithfully in print. In the same year arrived
Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s illustrations for Thakurmar Jhuli (1907). Transferred to wood blocks by
skilled engravers like Priyogopal Das, Aurobinda Das, Kunjabehari Pal and Hemchandra Bandyapadhyay, they
remain inimitable in their Bengaliness and have become, like the tales, part of an immortal heritage.
Two of Raychaudhuri’s children inherited their father’s talent in drawing. The eldest, Sukhalata Rao, herself
painted the pictures for her book of fairy tales while the brilliant Sukumar Ray effortlessly wielded his pen for
the muses of nonsense poesy and caricature. Some of the more well known illustrators of later children’s books
include illustrious names like Rabindranath Tagore, Asit Haldar, Nandalal Bose, Charuchandra Ray and
Gouri Bose. In a few cases, like Ho-der Galpa (1921), children’s drawings were also used to illustrate books
Through the course of the nineteenth century, from the Pashwabali woodcuts to the half-tone colour illustrations
of Chheleder Ramayan the art of Bengali children’s book illustration had travelled a long way. The journey was
shaped by and in turn reflected socio-cultural developments from a wider sphere. These include modern ideas of
childhood, pedagogic concerns, fine arts movements and new technologies relating to the press and reproduction
of images. Further, as all of these developments were engendered in an uneasy blend of colonial influence and
nationalist enthusiasm, a study of children’s book illustrations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century
Bengal, therefore becomes especially significant.
Bandyopadhyay, Chittaranjan. Ed. Dui Shataker Bangla Mudran o Prakashan.
Majumdar, Kamalkumar. “Bangiya Grantha-chitran” in Ekshan Vol 10 No. 4 & 5.
Mitter, Partha. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations.