The Orunodoi and Nineteenth-Century Wood-block Prints from Assam:
A brief overview
Dr. Raj Kumar Mazinder
During the first half of the nineteenth century known as the 'Orunodoi Era' in Assam, mechanical printing was introduced and began to flourish in Assam. But this particular topic has not yet been discussed by artists, writers and scholars extensively. There are various evidences to show that the visual arts including painting had been practiced in Assam since very early times. Sculpture, particularly wood-carving, was highly developed. The main centres around which art activities went on were the satras and the royal court. The satras are Vaishnava monasteries representing the religious doctrine and order established by Sankaradeva, the great medieval saint reformer. One of the main ideals of the satra institution was to unite religion and art practice in terms of an integrated social structure in Assam.
The nineteenth century can be said to be a period of resurgence in the art and cultural scene of Assam. In 1826, after the Yandaboo Treaty, the British took over power from the Burmese. The first Assamese book in printed form brought out by the missionaries was the Bible (The Assamese New Testament) in 1813, published by William Carey of the Serampore Mission near Calcutta, produced the Assamese version with the help of an Assamese pundit named Atmaram Sarmah from the Kaliabar region of Assam.
Captain F. Jenkins, Agent to the Governor-General and Commissioner of the Assam Valley, actually invited American Baptists in Burma to work in Assam. At his invitation on 23rd March, 1836, two American Baptists, Nathan Brown and Oliver T. Cutter (a printer) arrived with their families at Sadiya, the easternmost point in Assam (now in the Lohit district of Arunachal). They also carried a small printing press along with English and Bengali font. The very next year they were joined by Miles Bronson, a linguist, and Cyras Barker to help the Mission. After some initial work in Sadiya and Jaipore, On 15th November, 1845 the missionaries established a printing press at Daikolongia gaon of Sibsagar on the bank of the river Dikhow under the name of ‘Sibsagar Mission Press’. Thus printing technology entered Assam for the first time.The most positive symbol of their beneficial role towards the people of Assam is the Orunodoi, the monthly news paper-cum –magazine. To the people the Orunodoi (means sunrise) was almost an encyclopedia of knowledge.
The magazine was published for the first time in January 1846 and continued its service till December, 1880. Initially the magazine bore the following declaration: "A monthly paper, devoted to religion, science and general intelligence, is printed and published at the Sibsagar Mission Press, by 0. T. Cutter for the American Baptist Mission in Assam, price one rupee per annum, in advance or one and a half at the end of the year". From January, 1846 to December, 1850 it was called Orunodoi Samvad Patra and from January, 1851 onwards the title became simply Orunodoi. It was of penny magazine size (27 cm. 18 cm.) and each issue consisted of between 8 and 16 pages.
In spite of the propagation of the protestant faith being their primary aim, the missionaries set about to first make the magazine popular among the people, by not only using the Assamese language as the medium but also by illustrating the magazine with wood-block prints so as to make the reported facts easily communicable. With this the missionaries added a new chapter in the art history of Assam -the beginning of graphic art. And the result was that without giving primary stress on religion, the magazine began publishing various materials of general interest. New scientific inventions, facts of geography and the stars of the sky, various folktales and religious legends of Christian faith, news of prime events in India and abroad began to be featured in the magazine-cum-news paper, as its pages went a long way to extend the intellectual horizon of the readers.
Dr. Nathan Brown, Appleton How Denforth, Reverend Samuel A Whiting, William Ward, Edward Q. Clark, Mrs Susan R. Ward and Rev. A. K. Gurney acted as editors of the Orunodoi magazine from January, 1846 to December 1880. Dr. Nathan Brown, the first editor of the Orunodoi was an excellent wood-engraver also.
We know not much about the people who carved the wood-blocks for printing except for some names- Dr. Nathan Brown, Tanuram, Mr. Rudford, Tuleswar, Young (a Khamti youth), Mohiram, Bhogai, Monroe Wood, Mr. Sepping, Kanuram, George Boxi etc. A number of them did come from missionary schools and orphanges (Sadiya Mission School, Nowgong Mission School, etc).
The printed pictures of the Orunodoi can be divided stylistically into two groups. In some illustrations the print makers imitated the style of foreign magazines, such as, The illustrated London News, both in terms of the subjects as well as the meticulous craftsmanship of the nineteenth-century European .reproduction process. Some Orunodoi illustrations have some resemblance with the great Indian hand-printed manuscript tradition or even the folk painting tradition. The strong formal structure can be felt and the meticulously detailed surface is interesting. Actually it is thus a mixture of indigenous traditional styles and the imported styles.
The missionaries in Assam had been functioning within the HAM-BOARD organization of America. The civil war of America had hampered the financial aid to the missionary activity in Assam. Further the HAM-BOARD authorities were very critical about the missionaries trying to revive the art and literature of the region, instead of concentrating on the propagation of religion. This made the work of the missionaries more difficult. As a result the Orunodoi and the print-making activities associated with it almost came to an end, although the Orunodoi magazine was published till 1880. Today those unknown wood-engravers of the Orunodoi should be regarded as the prime source of inspiration in terms of book-illustration and creative print-making in Assam. The historical facts behind the rise of the graphic art as well as the achievements of these unsung artists call for serious research.
( Dr Raj Kumar Mazinder is a noted practicing artist with specialization in painting and graphics art. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Visual Arts, Assam University, Silchar.)