An ode to the dying art of etching

Breath of life

An ode to the dying art of etching

Practitioners of visual arts rarely ever earn a fortune from their vocation. All that they are driven by is a burning passion for their craft and the desire to leave a ‘print’ on the sands of time. But how often have you come across an artist who has already lost an eye in the pursuit of his art and is still willing to practise it to the end?

Monideep Saha – a resident of Salt Lake in Kolkata – has already damaged one of his eyes in the hazardous process of producing ‘etching prints,’ but he has no plans to stop as yet. The 58-year-old artist in fact says he is willing to give away even his life if that can lend longevity to the dying art of making ‘etchings.’

Etching is one of the oldest techniques of print making known to mankind. In late 15th century Germany, armoury and weapon decorators discovered that they could engrave metal to produce artistic prints on paper as well. Soon, artists took to recreating Biblical motifs through etching and it became the preferred way to illustrate books of faith. Cartographers also took to etchings to produce maps.

But this process came with its own perils. A plate of copper was first coated with wax and needles used to create a sketch on it. Acid was then poured to create fine lines where the cut wax would leave the plate exposed, and later dabbed with ink to create prints. This reaction produced toxic fumes that left many artists blinded and ailing. Resultantly, its popularity went down over centuries, and today, only a handful artists practise it across the world.
  “In fact, nobody creates such detailed and expressive etches in India anymore as Monideep,” informs Atul Marwah, owner, MEC Art Gallery in Khan Market, which is showcasing his works now, “Monideep is also the only artist who creates technicolour etchings which take even more time and skill, though in the hands of a master like him they come out even better than paintings. The last time we exhibited his works was in 2008 since when he has produced 27 more works which we are now showcasing. That’s how labour intensive it is,” he adds.

But Monideep’s etchings are not just a tribute to the craft but to his city as well. In fact it is remarkable how the fine lines of etchings, combined with understated, washed-down colours, conjure up images of the mouldering Kolkata. One can distinctly identify old churches, gothic British structures, crumbling buildings of Dharamtala, College street, Victoria Memorial and Metcalfe Hall. The 1984 alumni of Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, says, “I have lived my life in Kolkata. It is only natural for me to paint my city.”

But this persistent soul, who takes nearly two months to produce one plate of etching, is saddened by the near demise of his craft. “Over two decades ago, the Banaras Hindu University invited me to establish their graphic art department. But today, I am dismayed to see very few art students take up an exciting form like etching.”

“In fact, I am told that even in those universities where the Government is willing to provide equipment, there are no teachers to teach etching. I hope more and more youngsters see the potential in etching beyond its difficulties. Anybody can pick up a brush and paint. But can you produce a fine etching?” 

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