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 for children.

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.

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