Under my byline

Indira-Durga, girlie ones, and baby gods

Posted in Architecture/Design, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 30 September 2007

Sociologist Patricia Uberoi has been buying Hindu calendar art since the 1960s

“Here’s Durga with Indira’s face,” says Patricia Uberoi, showing me an old calendar, dating from 1971, of the traditional kind that hangs in every small Indian store, and in many living rooms, “and here are all the Pakistani soldiers, they’re under the claw of the lioness… And just after that, in the Emergency, M F Husain did a triptych of Indira Gandhi as Durga. It was a bit scandalous.”

A rush of “ands” punctuates Professor Uberoi’s thoughts, drowning out full stops, piling up ideas and images, and allowing connections to be drawn continuously across the broad field of culture — her native hunting ground, as one of India’s best-known and most readable sociologists. She and her husband J P S Uberoi have collected calendars and posters with Hindu art since the 1960s.

In 1966 the couple came to India (in her husband’s case, back to India) and took up academic assignments in Simla. “It was the ambience of a place called Lower Bazaar. It was like the world of Kim — all the races of mankind, a great market centre for the interior. We found a shop which sold calendars, and it had this huge collection sitting out front. It was called the Chawla Glass House.”

Flipping through the calendars, they were hooked. “This was just after the ’65 war with Pakistan, so there was a lot of popular iconography of battles, patriotism and so on — religion put in completely different dress.” And there were “lots and lots of naughty pin-ups.” They were cheap, 25 paise and 40 paise, so they started buying them regularly.

At the time, the young couple lived in a small portion of a large house, which they cheaply decorated with their calendars. “We just tacked up the whole lot: gods, goddesses, girlie pictures, Green Revolution.” When visitors came, they were scandalised. “The middle classes think all this is very crude and they were very embarrassed about it; it’s not to Western colonial taste. Jit [her husband] would invite his director and show him the girlie ones, and the director would say ‘Oh dear, what is all this…’”

Naturally for two sociologists, they began to talk about the pictures, and “developed all these theories”. When they had a baby (now the award-winning filmmaker Safina Uberoi), “whenever she was restless at night we would go along them, point to this and that, and have conversations. It changed her sensibilities, I’m absolutely sure.”

Over time, their sociological interests began to guide their purchases — “I went into the gender studies theme,” says Uberoi — but they were also alert to new trends. “There was always the baby Krishna and his naughty little friends. Now everyone’s a baby! There’s a baby Rama sleeping with his bow and arrow” — pointing to the picture — “and you’ve got baby Ganesh busy worshipping his mother and father. So you think, oh gosh that’s interesting, because worshipping gods in baby form is very much popular culture. Then you think what’s the history, the sociology, how do people use it, does it relate to other media… We’re looking at all these visual connections and messages at the more popular level.”

Images have a long life, constantly resurfacing in new contexts. Uberoi shows us a picture of a baby, “a ’60s-type ideal child with expensive toys, wristwatch, a palatial house behind and an aeroplane overhead”. The model, she says, was a 1930s baby Krishna with laddu, and before that, “Krishna ones published by Ravi Varma and the old presses; and their ideas came from old paintings on glass and temple paintings — they’re the [original] sources of inspiration”.

One picture the Uberois picked up in the early 1980s had all the Sikh gurus shown inside a cow. “I found it was a sectarian thing connected with some dera, not quite Singh-sabha taste!” A friend told her that “the VHP are taking these pictures around the Punjab villages and trying to make good Sikhs into Hindus.” She laughs, “You’re investigating this absolutely fuddy-duddy thing, and it has a long history! Even in 1894 there were communal riots between Sikhs and Muslims about the same picture.

That was because in the original there was a Muslim-looking butcher, sometimes a rakshasa, standing with a big chopper and there’s some brahmin pleading please don’t kill the cow — she’s our mother.” Christopher Pinney, another sociologist and calendar collector, Uberoi tells us, found similar images from 1966 “when there was anti-cow slaughter [trouble], and suddenly there’s this Sikh cow and then it’s a Hindu-Sikh problem…”

The Uberois have successfully exhibited some of their collection twice. But exhibiting is expensive, as each item needs to be mounted on acid-free paper. So most of their collection is stored in trunks. Now a new initiative called Tasveerghar.net is trying to make as much of this and other collections of popular Indian visual culture available on the Internet.

Although their collection is both large and extensive, it isn’t the “best”, Uberoi says. A handful of institutes and individuals in the West (surprisingly, none involving Indians) have built up better collections of calendars, posters, cards, over decades. Only recently, as their value has been recognised, have important collectors like Osian’s, Priya Paul and Vikram Lall of Eicher developed an interest.

Perhaps typically for us Indians, it takes the curiosity of an outsider to make us see what’s been right under our noses all this time.

(Read a review of Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger‘s book on the Independence movement in popular art.)

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