Curators and Exhibitions

How has the imagery of popular visual culture in India been constructed? In what manner has modernity within the Indian context been formed? These and more questions are central to the exhibition Indian Popular Visual Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture curated by Jyotindra Jain at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Comprising seventy images it is only a small representation the former director of the Crafts Museum, Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics and currently editor of Marg’s lifelong engagement with popular and folk art. The exhibition allows us to experience first hand the richness of the cultural imagery within mass produced images from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although one might be familiar with Raja Ravi Varma, less is known about the other artists and period at large, and how these images circulated to become a part of a popular mass culture that has come to influence taste in India. Much of the imagery highlighted in this exhibition still stands today almost as a representation of the Indian national, having played a pivotal role in consolidating the Independence movement and cultivating a spirit of patriotism during the colonial period. Several of the mythological images produced during this period have widely influenced the nature of beliefs and worship in India that continue until today. The exhibition presents a necessary insight into the formation of visual imagery that continues to inhabit the Indian pictorial landscape.

In order to classify the various kinds of material, Dr. Jain presented eight different sections each addressing a different material. In the first for example Arrival of the flatbed: Explosion of the Visual one see a series of images including engravings, chromolithographs, oleographs, photographs and postcards which were earlier printed in Germany and later through the work of artists like Ravi Varma, “‘classical’ Hindu mythology was revived, romanticized and circulated all over the country that provided a nation-wide homogeneity to the visual culture of Hinduism.”[1] From this section, the one that immediately catches your eye is a chromolithograph Birth of Krishna by an unknown artist from the 1890s. The work draws heavily on European realistic paintings of Mary and the birth of Jesus, re-appropriated with Krishna. Here, the three wise men are replaced with a sadhu, a water bearer and the face of Rabindranath Tagore as onlookers rendered in a miniature style. Unlike the nativity, Krishna is born in royal splendor amidst heavy velvet drapery with a king also witnessing the birth. Another print of M. V Dhurandhar from the early 20th century Wedding of Rama in a similar manner offers us a rare insight into the multiple influences prevalent during the period. This work set in Maharashtrian context juxtaposes women clad in a saris with blouses (unusual for that period), while the men sport outfits from the Mughal courts amidst palm trees and temples and mosques. Colonial influences seem abundant, but importantly the blurring of real life and mythology allows them to develop into a unique language.

In the section Camera Indica, Dr Jain highlights the critical role of photography in modernity within the Indian context. Since its invention in the 1840’s photography became immensely popular in India amongst the rich patrons and princely states, patronizing European and Indian photographers to commemorate important moments. The exhibition showcases some fine examples of early photography including the hand painted photograph, also alluding to the critical role of early studios that with their painted backdrop, velvet curtains, and European props was formative in the development of the new visual aesthetic language in India. As a result, photography in India developed its own posture and realism that influenced many artists including Ravi Varma’s early mythological paintings.

It would seem natural that the earliest proscenium theatre that appeared in 19th century in India would revolve around mythological themes. The section Theatricality: Between Location Emplacement, showcases several fine examples of theatricality in the characters inspired by the theatre of that time. One of the best examples of this in the section is a print of Madalsa-Ritudhwaj by Ravi Varma in which the king liberates Madalsa from the evil forces. It becomes evident that the artist is a frequent visitor of the proscenium as the composition is informed by the glances of the actors that make visible an absent audience. Their costumes closely seem to be a time warp, with the male character dressed in Roman and Mughal costumes and women dressed in the modern Indian sari. The backdrop echoes versions of European historical paintings allowing these fictitious landscapes to come alive with a performance space.

Made in Germany, Registered in London: The Commerce of Cultic as a section presents several examples of early advertising in colonial India. It comes as a surprise that most of these product labels posters that borrow Indian mythological iconography are printed in Europe and later imported into India and sold. As appropriately suggested by Dr. Jain it’s the “empire thrusting commodity economy on colonies.” [2] An interesting example is a gripe water calendar of 1928 that showcases baby Krishna painted by M. V Dhurandhar. The Glaxo calendar of 1931 depicts a goddess protecting children based on the iconography of Annapurna the provider of nourishment. It seems a perfect connection to make between the benevolent Gods and in this case baby food and soap, making a strong case for subliminal advertising during the pre-colonial period. Finally, a poster from Bombay Special Cigarettes made by an unknown artist encapsulates the mood of Indian modernity, perfectly. From the 1930s, this image portrays a young attractive woman dressed in a modern sari with a sleeveless blouse holding a cigarette packet in her hand with a matchbox on her lap. This image gives us significant insights into this period, allowing us to comprehend how fashion, lifestyle and a European aesthetic so far removed from the common Indian man finds in place in their everyday life.

In the Female identity: Of Absorbed and Complicit Gaze Dr. Jain draws on the realism from the colonial art school’s idealised, traditional imagery with a more tangible and sensual presence, particularly of women.[3] Women portrayed as goddesses find a legitimised place in the home of wealthy merchants. Amongst the several examples, Menaka goes to Vishvamitra by M. V. Dhurandhar from the early twentieth century portrays the scantily clad nymph Meneka sent by God Indra to seduce Vishvamitra. Love- letter a print from the 1930s is influenced by European dress and lifestyle shows colonial modernity, particularly withthelady wearing a short sleeved blouse seated close to a suited man who seems to be reading her the letter. Both individuals, however, are light skinned, re-appropriated as European. In Tennis Lawn also a print from the 1930s, a seated woman is dressed in a sari with white keds and a tennis racket, drinking tea. It seems this upper-class memsahib with club privileges has found a way to play tennis in a sari and enjoys drinking tea facilitated by the colonial empire.

The section Representing the Other: From “People of India” to “Bollywood Tribals” is significant as it strongly continues to effect the conception and construction of the “other” within the landscape of the nation. Immediately the ethnographical gaze becomes evident as scantly clad women addressed as “tribal” allow patriarchy to legitimize female nudity via a representative of “authentic” tribal women. These examples shown amidst calendars and cinema stills, have the heroine and her companions change into tribal costumes even when the story is rooted in urban life. It seems by naming them as the “other” they pose less of a threat to society and nudity and the erotic find a way to be legitimately expressed in society. Hindi cinema reinforces these images of scantily dressed women with bare-chested men playing instruments in an idyllic environment to the masses reinforcing the stereotypical notions of “otherness” and “difference.”

In possibly, the most interesting section Collage: Ambivalent Spaces, Mutating Identities the absurd comes into play. Mythological images are cut out and fixed on painted surfaces creating a mise en scene that transform them into something bizarre and otherworldly. In Krishna listening to Music, a work from the 1930s, cut outs of Krishna and Radha are fixed on a background painted by a Nathdwara artist. Here Krishna is lured to an imaginary art deco -like environment, the home of a nouveau riche merchant, smugly listening to the gramophone. In Rama with Sita and Krishna with Radha a print from the 1920s, figures seem to float midair. Evident is Ram’s disapproving look as Krishna who is in a tight embrace with Radha amidst the wintery snowy landscape of Switzerland.

The last section Manipulating the Image: Reconfiguring the Cultic and the Political referring to the collage of images in Hindi cinema that has found its own aesthetic. For example, a song that starts in one location ends in another. The two film stills both from the 1960s in the exhibition refer to a specific vocabulary in relation to Kashmir that has formed within India cinema. The Kashmir aesthetic has been (the result of political unrest) replaced by Switzerland to become the new abode of Bollywood.

Indian Popular Visual Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture offers a critical glimpse into the shift of Indian visual culture from mythology into a modern Indian nation. The circulation of mass-produced images from oleographs, photography, and collage to cinema has been consumed and reappropriated into a specific vocabulary now intrinsic to Indian culture. The exhibition, allows us to critically consider the making of the Hindu epic and mythological figures particularly of artists such as Raja Ravi Varma with the “fixity” which allowed them to be appropriated as the official image of Hinduism. It makes us revisit the mass circulated images of women, others, and cinema that have inserted themselves within the public domain, making it difficult to change the stereotypical attitude of people. A critical study such as this, is therefore necessary to separate the truth from what has only been a construction of an image at large.

The exhibition is on view at the Special Project Space, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai from 9 - 30 April 2017

Notes:

[1] Jyotindra Jain, Indian Popular Culture: The ‘Conquest of World as Picture,’ exhibition catalog published by Sanskriti Kendra.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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