Under my byline

Visions of Mother India

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 4 November 2007

Can popular art from India’s independence movement tell us about our present?

Bharat Mata: India’s Freedom Movement in Popular Art
Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger
OUP
pp 218

A good book is an occasion for reflection. In this book, however, the Indian reader will be startled to see himself reflected. It contains hundreds of colourful images of popular printed art from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th — the period of the independence movement — and its pages are filled with well-known characters from the long struggle for azadi, from Shivaji to Subhas Chandra Bose. To us Indians, indoctrinated from childhood in religious and political iconography, each face is of course instantly recognisable. But what shocks the mind is how instinctive and hitch-free the transfer of intention is from 19th-century artist to 21st-century viewer.

Surely those people and events are so far away that we aren’t still helpless in their gravitational field? We have malls, computers, flyovers and billionaires; we have native-born prime ministers and sporting heroes; we have our post-industrial jobs. Why should I “get” 19th-century propaganda as if it were current affairs, or today’s Unny cartoon?

It’s because of the Hindu-centric myths and legends that form the rich metaphoric substrate of our minds. We turn to them to entertain, to illustrate a point, to praise and excoriate. Through such things, no matter how long the stories have really been in circulation (many date only from the European recovery of India’s classical past), we are rooted in our land and culture. The artists who drew and painted the images used in these prints harnessed the power of old stories to deliver a punchy message in a single frame. Because we modern Indians know those stories from childhood, we understand the artists. In these prints, we see ourselves, our Indianness, made manifest.

Here, for instance, is a haloed Mahatma Gandhi dancing on the head of the snake king Kalia, with his charkha held like Krishna’s flute. To either side, rising out of the waters of the ocean of military expenditure (“ordinance” written in Hindi), are the heads of Kalia’s two wives. One is bearded, with the backdrop of a mosque, while the other looks like the Minotaur, but has a temple spire behind — clearly, the demons of communalism. Floating above are Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, behind bars. The print dates from 1930, the time of Gandhi’s salt agitation.

Something more ecumenical: Gandhi stands with hands folded in a namaste, bleeding from the three chest wounds of his assassination. At his elbows are Krishna and Jara, the hunter who mistook Krishna for a deer and shot the fatal (and fated) arrow. The arrow quivers in Krishna’s foot. Jara holds the bow in his left hand, and a smoking gun in his right, pointed at Gandhi’s chest. In the sky near Gandhi’s head are Jesus on his cross (a pretty direct comparison with Gandhi, suffering for the sins of the rest) and the Buddha, who seems to be blessing Gandhi with one hand and making a kya-karein? gesture with the other.

The authors of the book, Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, an archaeologist and an art historian, are part of a small but growing number of scholarly collectors of Indian popular art. Christopher Pinney, Kajri Jain, Sumathi Ramaswamy and of course Patricia and J P S Uberoi with their enormous collection of calendar art, are others who use popular art to understand what and how Indians think and believe.

Usually the purpose is historical or sociological, but Neumayer and Schelberger’s book is not academic. Instead, they are making a case for using popular visual art to flesh out the history written from more conventional sources, such as archival records. In other words, take a step away from dependence on elite sources, and recognise that all forms of expression are connected. This is not a new idea in the discipline of history, but it hasn’t been thoroughly explored in India. Even oral history, Partition aside, is scarcely visible on the Indian researcher’s mental horizon. The pictorial and the oral are poorly represented in the study of modern Indian history.

Also, perhaps because each image teems with familiar symbols, and because most of the characters already have established hagiographies, it’s easy to forget how unusual people like Gandhi, Nehru, Jhansi ki Rani, Jinnah and Bhagat Singh really were — how much their choices were not the ones you and I or most Indians might have made. Seeing these individuals posed in highly symbolic settings which usually stress one attribute or another, one is forced to observe how much of the real character is left out, rendered invisible by this deification.

Almost more fascinating, then, are the people involved in the production of these prints. One is of course Raja Ravi Varma, the aristocratic painter-portraitist whose paintings inspired a busy industry of knock-offs and imitations. The middle class of the time were hungry for his romanticised themes and eager to emulate the tastes of their social superiors. So Ravi Varma bought two expensive German presses and started mass-producing prints of his paintings. Then he became an absentee owner, the press suffered, and he had to sell up to his German master printer, Fritz Schleicher — a character who richly deserves a biographer. Schleicher was a better businessman than Varma, and put Varma’s figures onto playing cards, cigarette packets and so forth. He made millions and lived like a local lord near Pune.

Kanpur had a small group of politically conscious and activist poster artists such as Rupkishor Kapur and Prabhu Dayal, some of whose images are brilliant and bizarre. Dayal was responsible for the print of Gandhi dancing on Kalia’s head described above, while Kapur has one of Gandhi directing Bhagat Singh and a comrade to shoot arrows at incoming ships laden with non-swadeshi goods. Kapur even went to jail for his work. These people too deserve to be properly written about.

The prints in this book illustrate ideals suited to their time — patriotism and sacrifice, bravery and forbearance. They would look different if painted today, although the repertoire of images would probably be the same. What strikes one, however, in this set of highly political images, is the absence of irony. Is it even possible to be political without irony?

It is: if your ideals are abstract or anchored in an imagined past. The images of valour — Shivaji, Jhansi ki Rani, Bhagat Singh and Netaji — really spin defeat into martyrdom and glory. Bharat Mata breaking the chains of colonialism is evocative, but low in real content. In 21st-century Indian iconography, you still won’t see any sign of a practical Indian ideal of individuality, democracy and citizenship, beyond such symbols as Ashoka’s lions. If it’s not in popular visual culture, then it isn’t in the popular mind. So how can India be a nation, in the modern Western-derived sense, without a real, forward-looking national ideal? How can it picture its own future?

(Read an article on Patricia and J P S Uberoi‘s collection of popular calendar art.)

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3 Responses

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  1. swati said, on 9 August 2009 at 10:28 pm

    i totally agree with you, popular art is misinterpreted most of the times.. in fact even i did ..now i know and understand the responsibility that art or popular art holds. i have a question -then which form of art at present reciprocates Indian mentality its future? mind my ignorance if my question doesn’t make sense…

    thank you

  2. swati said, on 9 August 2009 at 10:31 pm

    and can this form of art be recognized as something beyond popular art?? is it wrong iif so many people still have a cultural inclination in their art ?

  3. Rrishi said, on 12 August 2009 at 10:43 pm

    As to your first point, I suppose it is a function of the times: we’re now disposed to place greater value on all sorts of creative output, including popular art and even the design of everyday articles. Everything we do, the thinking goes, throws light upon us as actors in our own drama.

    Which form of art — not sure I understand those questions right. Would you care to explain, briefly?


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