Print History: Aundh State Press - Art-litho in the mofussil

A hundred years ago, a chromolithographic press was established in Aundh, a small-town in south-west Maharashtra. How did this technology reach a remote corner of princely India?

31 May 2024 | By Murali Ranganathan

When the Bombay Samachar, a Gujarati newspaper published from Bombay, carried a news item on 29 August 1825 about a payment made to the ruler of Baroda for the favourable resolution of a caste dispute, he complained formally to the Bombay Government about this transgression. This incident underlined the wariness with which Indian princes, whose territories were not annexed by the East India Company, viewed the printing press and its products. Though the three presidency towns – Bombay, Calcutta and Madras (now Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai cities) – had a thriving print culture from the 1790s, the printing press made a hesitant entry into princely India only from the 1860s. There were a few exceptions though, especially among princes in the Maratha cultural sphere.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Raja Serfoji II Bhosale (1777–1832) of Tanjore established a printing press. Most of its imprints were set in Marathi type. The first available imprint from this press is from Śaka 1728 (1806–1807), a Marathi collection of fables titled Balabodha Muktavali. Just a year earlier, in Śaka 1727, a Sanskrit book, the Bhagvad Gita, was printed using copperplates under the patronage of the Maratha sardar, Gangadharrao Patwardhan of Miraj. His nephew, Chintamanrao Patwardhan (1774–1851), the ruler of Sangli, acquired a lithographic printing press in the early ’30s. The first imprint of this press was Bhagwat Purana. The Raja of Satara, Pratap Singh (1793–1847, deposed 1839) also established a printing press in his kingdom.

The kingdoms of Satara, Sangli and Miraj were located in a region then known as the Southern Mahratta country. In their vicinity was the small principality of Aundh. Its territories, dispersed over a large area – a village here, a few villages there – extended to a mere 500 square miles. In a system where hierarchy was denoted by the number of gun salutes (the highest for an Indian princely state was 21), Aundh was a non-salute state. In spite of its diminished status, Aundh and its ruling family, Pant Pratinidhi, who were the hereditary chief ministers of the erstwhile Maratha state, were held in high esteem. After the governor of Bombay confirmed the accession of Bhavanrao Shrinivasrao as the Raja of Aundh in 1909, the state came into the public eye more often than before. The colourful imprints issued by the Raja became a talking point across India. At a time when printing in colour was a complex technical process, why were sumptuous portfolios being issued from Aundh, a nondescript town in the middle of nowhere?
The Painter Prince
Bhavanrao Shrinivasrao (1868–1951), commonly addressed by his alias, Balasaheb, had the distinction of being the first royal to acquire a university degree. After studying at the Deccan College in Pune, he was awarded the BA degree by the University of Bombay in 1894. Balasaheb moved to Bombay to ostensibly pursue a degree in law, but mainly, he wanted to experience life in the metropolis. He was a man cast in the scholarly mould, genuinely curious about a wide variety of subjects, and willing to assiduously pursue his passions. He was very interested in the arts and was a fairly competent painter. In Bombay, he was introduced to Raja Ravi Varma, who was already very famous across India for his portraits. From 1894, Ravi Varma also spent a large part of the year in Bombay and maintained a studio. Balasaheb took to visiting the studio everyday to watch Ravi Varma paint.

Balasaheb would have gladly become his disciple but Ravi Varma was not inclined to play the guru. Though in awe of his talent and discipline, Balasaheb still possessed a critical eye to evaluate his work. He spent hours watching Ravi Varma paint, even arriving at six in the morning so that he could see the first strokes being applied to a blank canvas. At around the same time, Ravi Varma established a printing press in Bombay to reproduce his paintings in large numbers. And Balasaheb had a ringside view of its initial years. In his autobiography written fifty years later, Balasaheb recalls the first art-litho press established by Ravi Varma:

Bhavanrao Shrinivasrao, Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, Chief of Aundh (1868–1951)

 Around 1892, Raja Ravi Varma began to think of establishing a lithographic press in Bombay which would be operated by skilled German printers. The Indian market was flooded with prints of the highest quality from Germany, France and England; they retailed for a rupee or two. Ravi Varma’s intention was to print lakhs of copies of his paintings and sell them at similar prices to the Indian public. The press was established in partnership with a rich Bhatia merchant of Bombay. Skilled lithographic artists from Germany, including Schleicher and Gerhardt, ran the press. The first chromolithograph to be issued from the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press [in 1894] was the Birth of Shakuntala. It was merely a copy of a French painting in Indian garb. This painting was printed in about 30-35 colours. It was very well done but it had to be priced at four rupees. It was about 24×36 inches. Prints of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Mohini and many others followed and they sold in large numbers.

Balasaheb acquired a portfolio of the output of the Ravi Varma Press. Much later, when Ravi Varma paintings became prohibitively expensive, he regretted that he had acquired only a handful of the original paintings. When the Ravi Varma Press moved to Malavali a few years later, Balasaheb made a point of visiting it too. In Bombay, Balasaheb also learnt the art of photography from Ravi Varma’s personal assistant, Shrirampant Joshi. This interest in photography also contributed to the development of printing in Aundh in later years.

On returning to Aundh in late 1895 after giving up his legal studies, Balasaheb was appointed the Chief Secretary of Aundh. He held the post until 1901 when his father, the ruling chief died. After the accession of his elder brother to the throne, Balasaheb was forced into exile. In spite of his peripatetic lifestyle, Balasaheb continued to paint daily. He kept himself updated with the latest developments in photography, subscribing to the Penrose Annual, and became proficient in colour photography. He returned to Aundh only in 1909 after he was confirmed as the successor to his nephew. With the coffers of Aundh under his control, Balasaheb could adopt a more lavish lifestyle and pursue his dual passions of painting and photography with ardour.
Chitra Ramayana
A printing press was first established in Aundh in 1892 during the reign of Balasaheb’s father, Shrinivasrao Parshuram (1833–1901). It was a lithographic press where “all forms required by the Judicial, Magisterial and Revenue officers are printed.” It was housed in a part of the state jail at Kinhai as most of its workers were inmates of the jail. The printing needs of the Aundh state were minimal and hardly a few hundred rupees were expended annually on printing operations. This lithographic press was inadequate to realise Balasaheb’s vision for his first printing project.

The Ramayana had been a part of Balasaheb’s life from his schoolboy days in Satara. His father had presented him with a manuscript of the Adhyatma Ramayana, a spiritual interpretation of the Ramayana, with instructions to read a few shlokas everyday in the morning. This was a practice he kept up until his last days. From as early as 1902, Balasaheb had been considering painting scenes from the Ramayana. But he could not visualise the aesthetics which would suggest the period of the text. He then perused the Nirnayasagar annotated edition of the Valmiki Ramayana which contained detailed descriptions of the clothing, jewellery and cultural mores of that era. His initial plan was to render the paintings in oil on canvas but he settled for watercolours on paper.

By the time he returned to Aundh, he had completed twenty-five paintings based on incidents in the Ramayana. By 1912, sixty paintings were ready, ten each for every section of the Ramayana. When he began to consider a printing project, his initial plan was to himself photograph the paintings using his three-colour camera and then use the photo negatives for printing. But this was not a workable proposition for a book-length project. He approached the Government Photozincographic Press at Pune and had a few blocks made but they proved unsatisfactory. A few paintings were sent to England for blockmaking. It was only in 1914 that Balasaheb heard about the British India Press in Bombay.

One of the largest printing presses in India at that time, the British India Press could print texts in a dozen languages and had expertise in colour printing. Balasaheb went to Bombay to meet its proprietor, Hussonally Abdoolally and its printing superintendent, B Miller. He was impressed by the print infrastructure at Mazgaon and signed a printing contract with them. Each of the sixty paintings would be accompanied by the relevant Sanskrit verses from the Ramayana and a short explanatory note.

The Chitra Ramayana would be printed in seven languages: Marathi, English, Kannada, Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi and Tamil. Translators were identified for each language. The foreword was written by Lord Sydenham, who had been governor of Bombay until 1913. The printed book was an object befitting its royal publisher. While a few hundred copies were printed in Marathi and English, only a hundred copies were printed in the other languages. A second Marathi edition was printed in 1925. His experience with this book gave Balasaheb the confidence to emulate Raja Ravi Varma and establish a printing press in Aundh which could print chromolithographs.


Printing in Aundh
The old lithographic press at Aundh was proving to be very inadequate to cater to the increasing printing requirements of the state with the accession of Balasaheb to the throne. The situation changed within a few years as noted in The Annual Administration Report of the Aundh State for the year 1917–18:

Shivaji album (1930)

The necessity of a type printing press was felt for a long time. It was found very inconvenient to send any work to Poona or Bombay for printing and to get it done at high rates at the will of the press manager. Much time was wasted in sending and receiving back the corrected proofs by post. In order to remove this difficulty, a type printing press with all the necessary materials is newly brought from Mumbai.

The new press was purchased at a cost of six thousand rupees. More investments were made in the next few years; for instance in 1919–20, new type and other articles for the printing press were purchased. Three years later, a new treadle printing machine was bought because the older machine was too cumbersome to set up for short print-runs. In 1923, the press was moved to a new building which had been custom-built for it. Compared to 1892, the work of the press had considerably expanded: “All kinds of forms required by the several departments of the State, the court fee and general stamps, the Aundh State Gazette, a monthly publication, the Annual Administration Report of the State, the History of the Pant Pratinidhi family and other miscellaneous work are printed in this press. No newspapers or magazines are printed in it.”

Besides his interests in painting and photography, Balasaheb was also a fitness freak. As a teenager, he had trained to be a wrestler. However, in his middle age, he preferred yoga. After practising it for twenty years and adapting it to his needs, he was ready to share his knowledge with the world at large. His book, Surya Namaskars (Sun Adoration) for Health, Efficiency & Longevity, was first published from the Aundh State Press in 1928. One of the first books to be written on this subject in English, it proved to be hugely popular. During his lifetime, five editions, each with a print run of 3,000 copies were issued. The book is profusely illustrated with photographs of yogic positions demonstrated by Balasaheb himself.  

The year 1927 marked the tercentenary of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s birth. To celebrate this event, Balasaheb decided to publish a pictorial book depicting Shivaji’s life and career. Titled the Shivaji Album, the book appeared in three volumes in 1930. Each volume contained ten illustrations of paintings drawn by Balasahab and other painters such as MV Dhurandhar. Other imprints from the press included a travelogue based on a 1926 trip undertaken by Balasaheb to study and document the artistic material at Ajanta and Ellora.
Pratinidhi Mahabharata
After completing the Ramayana print project, Balasaheb turned his attention to the other great epic, Mahabharata. His approach to this epic was altogether different. He proposed that a critical edition of the text, based on the oldest surviving manuscripts, be published under the auspices of the Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. He would be the founding patron and donate one lakh rupees to the project. Each volume would be illustrated by one or two paintings either executed or commissioned by Balasaheb. He also identified and nominated the founding editor, Vishnu S Sukthankar, a Sanskritist and philologist. Even as the editorial team began collating the texts, Balasaheb began work on the illustrations. Given his other responsibilities, Balasaheb could no longer work on the paintings himself. He resolved to appoint a suitably qualified painter for the project. The chosen artist was Narayanrao Puram, a young artist trained at the JJ School of Art, who was paid hundred rupees a month. During his seven-year stay at Aundh, from 1922 to 1929, Puram produced fifty paintings depicting scenes from the Mahabharata. Balasaheb was closely involved in selecting the subject matter and the composition of the painting.

Balasaheb resolved to print the illustrations for the Mahabharata at Aundh and assembled the equipment for a printing press. It included “a Hunter Penrose studio camera (for 16 inch glass plates), a metal stand for the camera, Taylor-Hobson Cooke Apochromat process lenses, colour filters, a generator to power the electrically operated lighting apparatus, a printing press, and a cutting machine.” A two-storey building was constructed using reinforced concrete to house the camera room, two dark rooms, a retouching room and the printing press. The total expenditure was about forty thousand rupees. Balasaheb did not want to burden the finances of Aundh State for this project and made this investment from his personal funds. Though he sent two men to Pune to be trained on working the press, they did not rise up to his expectations. He had to hire a printing expert from Bombay named Chaudhari who was paid a salary of three hundred rupees per month.

Balasaheb retained custody of the original paintings as also the blocks from which the prints were made. His relations with Sukthankar, who died suddenly in 1943, were very cordial with the editor referring to Balasaheb, in the first volume of The Mahabharata (1933) as “the liberal and enthusiastic patron of diverse projects calculated to stimulate research, advance knowledge, and enhance Indian prestige.” As each volume of The Mahabharata appeared, Balasaheb contributed one illustration to be used as its frontispiece.


The Mahabharata, Volume 1 (1933)

The art-litho press established by Balasaheb at Aundh proved to be commercial success and it also undertook job printing for other clients. However, by the 1940s, most of the trained employees had moved to Pune or Bombay and Balasaheb found it difficult to keep it operational. He resolved to transfer the printing assets to a company based in Pune which would be known as the Aundh Publishing House. It would be managed by DB Neroy, whose blockmaking skills were famous in Bombay. Not only would it reprint Balasaheb’s earlier publications, it would publish his new writings. Balasaheb’s magnum opus, published in 1946, was his two-volume autobiography extending to 1100 pages. It was printed at the Chitrashala Press, Pune.

After 1947, the villages which made up Aundh were incorporated into the adjacent districts and the state lost its identity. However, the small township of Aundh, where time has stood still for many decades, has many landmarks associated with Balasaheb. His legacy includes an art museum at Aundh which he established in 1938; it has a rich collection of paintings from all schools of Indian painting. Though no trace of the printing press remains, the museum has all the original paintings from the Chitra Ramayana and the Pratinidhi Mahabharata.