25 November 2015

The World as Picture: Book Review

A book review published in Biblio's Sep-Nov 2015 issue:

Visual Homes, Image Worlds: Essays from Tasveer Ghar -- The House of Pictures
Ed. Christiane Brosius, Sumathy Ramaswamy 
and Yousuf Saeed.

Yoda Press, 2015.

Allow me to start this review with a triptych of images — since Tasveer Ghar, as the name suggests, is all about pictures. An online database initiated in 2006 for collecting, digitising, and documenting the popular visual culture of South Asia, Tasveer Ghar has generated exciting conversations among scholars and arts practitioners, around the social, political and performative lives of images. The beautifully produced Visual Homes, Image Worlds is a collection of essays generated by the Tasveer Ghar network (and first published online).

The images I want to discuss appear in different essays in the book. But to me they seemed to speak to each other across the pages. The first picture is the frontispiece of Richard H Davis’s superb, succinct essay on “God posters for and of worship”. It features a smiling sari-clad woman in side profile. Holding an aarti thaali, her head covered respectfully, she raises her eyes to something we cannot see. Beyond the scalloped window arch in which she is framed, a series of South Indian-style temple gopurams and coconut palms are silhouetted against the evening sky. The caption reads: ‘A Hindu Devotee Prays.

'A Hindu Devotee Prays' -- Calendar Poster, printed by Oriental Calendar Manufacturing, mid-20th century 
Davis points out that the Calcutta Art Studio, one of the first companies to issue chromolithographs of Hindu deities, swiftly realised that the Indian public wanted images of the gods, but “single prints... for worship, not bound volumes for leisurely perusal”. The recognition led commercial publishers and companies to produce calendars, posters and other visual material that could cater to this demand. But slowly, as Davis shows, images produced for worship were joined by images of worship. The incipient form of these was the Lakshmi or Ganesh with a plate of prasad and/or lit diyas painted at their feet, thus incorporating the intended puja samagri (items used for worship) into the image itself. The image I’ve described could be said to be a more advanced version, where not just the puja samagri, but the worshipper is mirrored within the image. In this particular poster, there is no deity at all. But there is a temple, and a human devotee who contemplates the divine. 

The second picture I want to point out seems to me to echo the first in some ways, and differs from it in others. The first image was dated mid- 20th century, while this dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. It is a beautifully illustrated textile label, included in Catherine B Asher’s article “Fantasizing the Mughals and Popular Perceptions of the Taj Mahal”. Here, too, there is a human figure in the left foreground, framed within an arch and looking out into the distance. The object of contemplation here is the Taj and its reflection, not a deity or a temple. The young man stands with his back to us, wearing a kurta and dhoti, as well as a fetching red turban and a red sash around his waist. Asher describes him as “overwhelmed by the building’s significance, or perhaps smitten with love”. There is no obvious religiosity here, but the old mendicant in red robes, seated to the right of the image, may be said to provide a hint of the spiritual.

The third image dates to the present day: 2010, to be precise. It is a ‘beautification mural’ on Chennai’s Anna Salai, made by the artist JP Krishna, and reproduced as part of Roos Gerritsen’s essay on the gradual replacement of political and film hoardings along the city’s major arteries by murals meant to signify “Tamil culture and heritage”. On the right hand side are two Mamallapuram temples, their stone carved outlines reproduced in almost photographic detail. On the left, again with their backs to us, are two figures admiring the grandeur of the buildings. Like the woman in the first image and the young man in the second, these viewers stand in for us — the real-life viewers, standing outside the frame. And in this case, they’re tourists.

'Beautification' mural by artist JP Krishna, Chennai

These three images are drawn from three very different time periods, and for very different purposes — calendar art for Indian consumers, a commercial textile label to be sent abroad, and a street-side mural created by municipal fiat to project a new aspirational ‘global’ urbanity. And yet, in incorporating the viewer’s gaze into the image itself, I see these images as being very clearly in conversation. Looked at together they open up a whole range of thoughts about the aesthetics of looking: whether the contemplation of beauty is the same when the subject is perceived as divine, as spiritual, or as ‘world heritage’. At one level, it is a conversation that emerges from the old Benjaminian chestnut about the loss of aura, but in terms of these specific images, it could only have unfolded within the pages of this book.

And this is no accident. Through the essays here, popular visual culture in India emerges as an under-explored “bin of history”. Rummaging through it is both a way to produce an alternative archive, and challenge tightly-policed notions of genre. As the editors point out in their Introduction, the Tasveer Ghar archive is a place of cross-fertilisation. Indian images that were mass-produced, “be they greeting cards, god posters, patriotic prints, street art, advertisements or cinema hoardings”, journey through various sorts of worlds, and as they do so, “develop complex biographies and relations with other images”. Single images (or a constellation of them) often freely criss-cross any boundaries that might exist between public and private, ‘local’ and ‘global’, religious and secular (often more like sacred and profane), and finally, citizenship and consumer-hood.

Patricia Uberoi’s essay ‘Good Morning – Welcome – Svagatam’, suitably for the first Indian anthropologist to take mass-produced visual culture seriously as a subject of study, is placed at the start of the book, and helps locate calendar art within the dense matrix of tradition and modernity, ‘Indian’ and ‘Western’. “Stylistically and technologically, calendar art is a modern art form born of the Anglo-Indian colonial encounter, though it obviously has roots in several indigenous traditions also,” Uberoi writes. “Thus the recourse to ‘tradition’ in calendar art is both a reaction to, and is matched by, the appeal and prestige of westernized modes of representation.” She offers many illustrations of this, including a semiotic reading of goddesses and actresses saying “Welcome”, or “ILU ILU” and “Aum Sweet Aum” as hybrid appropriations of the coloniser’s language. 

Yousuf Saeed’s essay, which follows Uberoi’s, offers another example of hybrid appropriation in the form of Eid cards, which were likely to have been inspired by Christmas cards, and often actually used “blank picture cards imported in bulk from Europe [featuring] photographs of locations and objects as alien to Indian Eid as Greek and Italian sculptures and monuments, ... besides European cinema and theatre stars of the time!”. Saeed also traces the transformation of images on Eid cards. While early 20th-century cards – those created in India – contained ‘modern’ objects like aeroplanes, cars and multi-storied buildings, and no Muslim-cap-wearing boys, cards from the late 1980s “are dominated by images of Mecca, Medina, Quranic calligraphy, crescent- and-star icons, pious praying women and babies, and occasionally, romantic rose bouquets”.

The book is divided into sections thematically rather than by age or region or type of visual material. So, for instance, Christiane Brosius’s partly ethnographic meditation on Valentine’s Day cards is not placed alongside Yousuf Saeed’s, but in the section ‘On Love, Land and Landscapes’. Brosius’s subject is a fascinating one – how Archies’ Gallery helped create a ‘language of love’ for post-liberalisation India – but her insights sometimes seem rather obvious, and her analysis of the actual images sometimes lopsided. For instance, she insists that the scooter [on a card] cannot be an aspirational marker because it is tied to “lower-class mobilities, small-town aspirations, and a ‘Nehruvian’ petit bourgeoisie”, seeking to establish its present-day association with freedom using An Evening in Paris (1967) — really a rather old cinematic reference point! All of this ignores the basic fact that Archies’ clients are almost all school and college students, and for most of these, a two-wheeler certainly remains an aspirational thing.

JFK and Nehru with Kruschev watching,
magazine illustration by K. Madhavan, ca. 1960
Collection: S. 
In the same section, Sumathi Ramaswamy looks at another profoundly familiar form of visual culture that has been crying out to be studied: the mapped form of the nation in popular prints. “In the artful mapping of the bazaar,” she successfully shows, “bodies appear to matter more than boundaries, the affective more than the abstract.” But Ramaswamy’s surprise at what she sees as these free, demotic appropriations of cartography, seems surprising: surely one genealogy for 20th-century Bharat Mata ‘maps’ lies within pre-colonial cosmological traditions of map-making, whether 18th-century Rajasthani images like that of Krishna as Visvarupa, containing the cosmos within the divine body, or Nathdwara Pichhwais of pilgrimage routes.

Kajri Jain’s essay on monuments, landscapes and romance in popular imagery is a wonderful example of how cross-fertilisation works in Indian visual culture. Drawing on religious/ mythological prints, calendar art and cinema-inspired paraphernalia, Jain argues that the framing and staging of romantic couples – whether legendary folk lovers like Sohni and Mahiwal, mythical ones like Visvamitra and Menaka, Hindi film couples or real-life ones – consistently represents them “in and for the public: outdoors and facing the viewer rather than or as well as each other”.

Between Rosie Thomas's analysis of the very particular Orient peddled by early Indian cinema (Arabian Nights, the Wadia version of Aladdin, Alif Laila, and so on), Sabina Gadihoke's tracing of film history through Lux ads, and Vishal Rawlley's painstaking delineation of the types of 'sexy ladies' on Bhojpuri music album covers, the 'At the Movies' section takes in a wide swathe of the film world.

In the ‘Consuming Images’ section, Philip Lutgendorf’s analysis of tea advertisements deals with familiar terrain in a fascinating, thorough fashion. I enjoyed Abigail McGowan’s tour of the ‘modern’ home, and her argument about the erasure of labour from these depictions of urban women. I was less persuaded by her pitting her visual archive against cherry-picked literary sources from a previous era: in particular, the comparison of mid-20th century calendar art with The Bride’s Mirror (an Urdu classic from 1869) seems strange.

The section ‘Of Gods and Cities’ bridges two rather different themes. Beginning with the Richard Davis piece discussed above, we move to Annapurna Garimella’s discussion of grihani (housewife) aesthetics, as expressed in Dasara doll-displays in South Indian households. The theme of images that are used to perform identity in public segues nicely into Shirley Abraham and Amit Madhesiya’s “Gods on Tile”’, which explores – somewhat repetitively – an urban phenomenon we’ve all seen: the use of religious icons to prevent people peeing in public space.
The deliberately engineered transformation of public space is also the subject of Roos Gerritsen’s “Chennai Beautiful”, mentioned earlier. Gerritsen’s analysis of ‘Tamil heritage’ as enshrined in Chennai’s new murals is detailed and interesting, but a less entrenched ideological perspective might be better able to unpack the contents of what is currently lumped together under the too-easy rubric of “neo-liberal globalisation”, “neo-liberal nostalgia”, and “neo-liberal middle class publics”. How do we understand, for instance, the fact that many of these 'sanitised' murals are by the same artist who made the now-removed political hoardings?

Stephen Inglis’s essay on the hugely popular artist K Madhavan – who made the original banners for SS Vasan’s legendary film Chandralekha (1948) – is a revelation, and again, demonstrates powerfully the way that cinematic imagery, product advertising, religious iconography and political propaganda flow in and out of each other. Madhavan’s vast and fascinating body of work (of which only a fraction is yet in any archive) makes clear, once and for all, that the study of visual cultures is truly fecund terrain, in which all of India’s obsessions can come together. May Tasveer Ghar's many interminglings continue to bear ever richer fruit.  

Published in the literary review journal Biblio, Sep-Nov 2015. 

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