Profiles of Nationalist Iconographies
Tapati Guha-Thakurta
Bharat mata by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger Oxford University Press, 2008, 218 pp., 2750
August 2008, volume 32, No 8

The popular print-pictures of late 19th and 20th century India have become the subject of a booming publishing industry. This plebian picture industry has found an ironic match in a current overflow of prestigious publications that have all devoted themselves to the cause of profiling the common man’s taste in mythic and nationalist iconographies. What was once dismissed as ‘bazaar kitsch’ is now at the centre of the specialized attention of scholars, collectors and exhibition curators. What began in the 1960s and 70s as a trickling stream of collections swelled into a tide over the 1990s – marking out a sphere where the roles of scholar and collector have been closely intertwined, where the gathering of a picture archive has gone hand in hand with the hosting of exhibitions, the unraveling of the histories of printing presses in different parts of the country, and an analysis of the diversities of styles, themes and iconographies that make up this visual genre.

The present spate of books on this subject range from academic monographs and edited volumes to exhibition catalogues and pictorial anthologies. The book under review, the third of a series put together by the same authors out of their personal collection of popular Indian prints, best fits the last category.

There is a similarity in the format of each of the three books by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, published in quick succession by Oxford University Press of New Delhi – Popular Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of India (2003), Raja Ravi Varma: The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma (2005), and Bharatmata: India’s Freedom Struggle in Popular Art (2008). In each book, a relatively light text is set off by a spread of full, half and quarter page colour plates, with extensive annotations on the themes of these pictures. By the time, we arrive at the third (and, hopefully, the last) book of the series, this similarity verges not merely on predictability but also on outright repetition of text and images. These two Austrian scholars (one, a specialist on prehistoric South Asian archaeology, the other, an artist and art historian) came into this field by dint of a large collection they amassed of popular printed pictures from several Indian presses, especially from the heirs of Raja Ravi Varma’s press at Malavli-Lonavla. Among the most valuable of their finds was the English diary of Ravi Varma’s artist-brother, C.Raja Raja Varma (who accompanied him on all his tours), along with sketch books and photographic albums, which they acquired from Ravi Varma’s descendents at Kilimanoor and Mavelikara in Kerala. The Preface to this latest book tells us that Neumayer and Schelberger had a book manuscript on this subject ready by 1994 but failed to find a publisher for it, until they could take an exhibition of these prints from Vienna to the Indira Gandhi Centre for the National Arts in New Delhi, some years later. It was at OUP’s suggestion that a confessedly unwieldy text, combining a biography of Ravi Varma and the text of his brother’s diary with a general survey of popular print productions in India, was divided up into these separate volumes. After a long wait, the Neumayer and Schelberger anthologies arrived on the scene in thick of the publishing boom on India’s popular visual culture. The timing had its share of both advantages and difficulties. On the one hand, these books could ride the tide of a growing academic and aesthetic engagement with this genre of pictures, and cash in on the newest fashion in art collecting and display. On the other hand, they also had to prove their worth in a now crowded and challenging field of study.

This is a field that today commands an admirable depth of research, historical understanding and conceptual analysis. While it can look back confidently on a wave of critical art-historical scholarship on Ravi Varma that matured over the 1980s and 90s, it can also boast of a new order of academic writing – pioneered by Christopher Pinney and Kajri Jain – that has gone beyond the singular phenomenon of Ravi Varma to open the many little histories of presses and painters, traveling styles and motifs, regional and pan-Indian production trends, and the different discourses of artistic intent and affect that animate this picture industry. Christopher Pinney’s Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (OUP, 2004) and Kajri Jain’s Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art (Duke University Press, 2007) hold their own as the two most exciting monographs in the field. If Pinney makes an impassioned case for an alternative ‘visual’ history of popular Indian nationalism, delving deep into the sensorial aesthetics and secret political life of divine iconographies, Jain turns more to the the ‘sacred economies’ of the bazaar and the complex circuits of devotion, desire and commercial exchange that sustain this calendar art trade. Equally important has been a set of national and international exhibitions of this material, where these ‘bazaar’ pictures have wrested for themselves a status on par with the high-brow, avant-garde productions of Indian art, and have brought on to the market a comparable fare of resplendent catalogues. Sumathi Ramaswamy, another scholar in this area, who has been writing extensively on the iconographies of maps and motherlands in popular prints, refers in her Foreword to this newest anthology to the cumulative effect of these new researches in Indian visual studies –

“Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai do matter to the new visual studies, but so do such small towns, hitherto not at all important for Indian historiography, as Sivakasi, Nathadwara, Meerut – the sites for popular pictorial productions in colonial and postcolonial India. Colonial art schools or the venerable ‘J.J.’ are eclipsed by the likes of the Calcutta Art Studio, Chitrashala Press and S.S.Brijbasi & Sons. Elite artists like Ravi Varma or Abanindranath Tagore have to now share space with street-smart subalterns like Kondiah Raju, Rupkishore Kapur and Yogendra Rastogi, whose pictures are reprinted in this volume.” (p.viii)

How can we position the book under review within this expansive field, and its shifting canons and topographies? How well does it rise to the rich promise and potential of the mass of popular prints that it presents between its covers?

It could be argued that there is an unstated division of labour and intent between these many types of publications on this visual genre. By their own admission, Neumayer and Schelberger have restricted their endeavour to one of collation, compilation and display of these varieties of popular prints from mainly western and north Indian presses. They make no claims to any path-breaking research on these presses and artists nor to any sociological and theoretical analysis of visual forms. Even a competent summing up of the now large body of secondary literature on the subject, and classifications of the prints according to periods, regions, presses, themes and styles can serve an important purpose for a general readership, allowing one to encounter this familiar material through new eyes. The first Neumayer and Schelberger book attempted to fulfill this end. With a useful incursion into the history of the techniques of lithography and oleography, tracing its career from its European founder, Aloys Senfelder to its prolific spread in 19th century India, it briefly gestured towards the early history of popular painting and print-making in Calcuta, before launching into a biography of Ravi Varma and his print-making venture with German collaboration at Malavli-Lonavla. It next touched on the problems of censorship and piracy that cut into his outpour of semi-nude mythic heroines and divine and nationalist iconographies, and ended with a passing reference to the new centre of the matches, fireworks and picture-print industry at Sivakasi in south India that came up in the 1930s. Without any deeper elaboration, the book could pitch in on the catchy theme of the ‘printed’ and ‘industrialized’ gods of modern India. The second book dug somewhat deeper into the painting and mass-production ventures of Ravi Varma and his brother, C. Raja Varma, repeating and putting out more of the rare photographs and prints they had acquired from the family collections, and having as its main attraction the full text of the travel diary of the brother.

Then we have the third of the series, with its chosen focus on political iconography and representations of the country’s nationalist leaders and freedom struggle, brought out to coincide with sixtieth anniversary of India’s Independence. A substantial portion of the posters reproduced here, we soon realize, are carried over from the authors’ first book, which carried a section titled “Printing for Independence”. This volume begins with a rambling, unstructured introduction, which is again largely a rehash of the story of early print-productions in India, of the Ravi Varma printing press and of its afterlife under his German collaborator, Fritz Schleicher. This repeat account stands peppered with bits and pieces of the histories of nationalist extremism and revolutionary terrorism. The book then trails into three main pictorial sections, each with introductions that end even before they begin and merge into long annotations to the pictures. The first, called “Of Cows and Mother of the Nation” move from the many images of holy cows, Durga and Jagaddhatri astride lions and mother goddesses gifting arms to nationalist leaders that served the cause of Hindu revivalist nationalism, to images of regional historical heroes and heroines, like Shivaji, Peshwa Madhav Rao, Maharana Pratap Singh and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. The second, third and fourth sections are devoted, respectively, to the representations of “Mahatma Gandhi”, Jawaharla Nehru and Indira Gandhi” and “Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose”. In the Gandhi section, a fascinating range of realist and deified imagery of the Mahatma is curiously interspersed with images of his arch opponents, the martyred revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad who became the favourite visual icons of this picture trade, and some rare appearances of Jinnah. The images of Nehru and Indira Gandhi are interpolated with portraits of Sanjay Gandhi, Janata Dal leaders, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which help, in this case, to effectively conjure the entire Indira Gandhi political era, with its unforgettable memories of the Emergency and the Bangladesh war. Finally, we are treated to an array of popular visual icons of Netaji, a figure who lends himself most vividly to nationalist myth-making, whose dramatic military feats and mysterious death made him, as the authors state, “the foremost mythical hero of independent India.”

The textual matter that guides us through the plates consists entirely of a descriptive account of leaders, political careers and events that lie behind these depictions. Seldom do we find any analysis of the pictorial narratives and iconographies, nor any details of the regional presses and artists that produced these. The authors tell us, at the beginning, that the book is not to be seen as “a illustrated history of the struggle for Independence.” Nor do they wish to take on “the responsibility for interpreting historical processes”, depending, as they write, on “popular historiography rather than a careful analysis of historical facts.” (p.xx) If these pictures themselves are to be treated as the key source of this “popular historiography”, then it is imperative the authors take on fully the task of a visual reading and rendering of India’s 20th century history. Failing that, the volume ambivalently hovers between a pictorial account of India’s nationalist politics and a textual survey of the same, backed by visual illustrations, failing to properly meet the requirements of either format. As with most of the Neumayer and Schelberger anthologies, we are left in the end to interpret, on our own, a vast spread of visuals.

As I ploughed through the plates, I was struck particularly by the photographic finesse of many of these print portraits, and the taste and skill for realist representations that competed with mythic and iconic portrayals within the trade – which, in turn, led me to speculate on the different kinds of visual literacy, artistic training and market demands that governed the form and content of these pictures. I was also fascinated by the extent to which world affairs, international visits and meetings – like, Gandhi’s meeting with the King in London in 1931, the Simla conference of 1945, a Non-Aligned movement meet of the 1950s, or the India visit of 1960 of President and Jackie Kennedy – entered the repertoire of these prints, as did a variety of the country’s new leadership and parties of post-Independence India – whether Lal Bahadur Sastri or Jayaprakash Narayan, or the elected members of the Praja Socialist Party in 1952 or the Janata Dal in 1978. I stumbled on to a new awareness of the ingenuities, contemporaneity and political alertness of this picture industry, alongside its undiminished capacity for deification and valorization of the nation’s leaders. The range of iconographies to be encountered here, of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, far exceeds the title of the anthology – to me, one of the main interests of the book lies in its invocation of an image of a distinctly Nehruvian and an equally distinct post-Nehruvian era in the popular imagination. If there is a lingering feeling, all through this volume, of saturation and overdose of a theme, the visuals remain its ultimate saving grace, never failing to bring fresh whiffs of the savvy, the imaginative and the unexpected.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta is Professor in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

Review Details

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