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The Origins of Popular Hindu Religious Prints

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Today, some of the most widely recognized symbols of Hinduism are

those popular, bright, colorful prints and posters of goddesses and

gods that proliferate so cheaply and abundantly across India and

wherever else Hindus may travel in the world (these prints are often

referred to as "calendar art").


So it may be surprising to learn that such prints are a relatively

new phenomenon, having sprung up only in the last hundred years or

so. Before that, the exquisite miniature paintings of deities that

predated popular prints were usually seen only by a few elite and

wealthy patrons. Most devotees depended on ancient dhyana

descriptions of deities -- passed on to them by their guru, and

brought to form, color and life only by their own intense meditative



So what do you think? Are popular prints a good or bad thing? Have

they brought Hinduism to life for the masses -- or have they

cheapened and vulgarized the ancient traditions? Like it or not, it's

a good bet that these images are here to stay -- and a fascinating

new book has just been published, exploring their origins. Read on:




Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva couldn't have been happier. For aeons, they

had wallowed in anonymity, represented by their attributes but devoid

of a face.


Medieval court painters muddied the waters further because each chose

a regional representation for the gods that swarmed the pantheon to



Help came from distant Europe where in the late 18th century, Aloys

Senefelder improved upon the woodblock to an etched stone from

Solnhofen that was the start of a printing process that was to become

known as lithography.


The process soon found its way to India, somewhat crude still, but by

then, the bourgeoisie market was already abuzz with what were known

as 'German prints', copies of idyllic, but sensual, nudes in

classical settings, that even though they cost a lot of money, were

coveted collectibles for their formal baithaks.


With improvements in the efficiency of the speed press, even these

were consigned to history, as printing now became cheaper, allowing

for a wider distribution of theatre booklets, advertisements, maps

and paper money.


Simultaneously, another industry was born — the precursor to the

poster industry of the 20th century — by way of prints of kings,

queens, saints, gods and 'virgins'. It was this that would have the

most influence on popular art in India.


Even before the setting up of litho presses for rolling off

oleographs in India, the imagery had entered the common consciousness

by way of Western images that used perspective and depth differently

from Indian artists.


As a result, when artists began working for the press, their

commissions included a sensibility that was different from their own.

The settings were classical, even colonial, and often urban. Lakshmi,

the goddess of wealth, for example, was shown to shower her blessings

to the background of so-called 19th century high-rise buildings lit

up at night.


The child Krishna, instead of stealing laddoos or butter, was as

likely to be depicted with English fruits such as apples and grapes.

He was also a likely advertisement for Woodward's Gripe Water.


The new oeuvre of painting for the presses was given its greatest

fillip by Raja Ravi Varma, scion of the royal family of Travancore,

who has been variously labelled India's first modern painter, or

greatest calendar artist, in the same breath.


It is certainly true that Ravi Varma used 'German prints' as the

template for much of his work, and was able to paint his heroes,

kings and queens, myths and fables, and gods and goddesses, with a

sensuousness that was sanctioned in the name of religion.


Kali, after all, danced nude; and Krishna stole the gopis' clothes,

providing the artist with the perfect opportunity to exploit female

anatomy salaciously without fear of censure.


Western poses, and photographs of models, were often used to set Ravi

Varma's own figures dramatically, providing a sense of voyeuristic

pleasure for the viewer.


His attempts to copy female nudes was somewhat less successful, and

when he asked his younger brother to procure him a prostitute to pose

in the altogether, the experiment was to prove less than satisfying.


That the artist was less chaste when it came to the male body is

apparent from his painting of Sage Vishvamitra, which has become as

iconic in India as David has in the Western world.


But Raja Ravi Varma's most defining moment was the setting up of his

own press, which he ran for ten years in Mumbai before selling it to

a German, Fritz Schleicher, who made a great success of it.


Today, many of the great lithos of the period owe their origin to

this press, and for a majority of the people, all such prints have

come to be known as Ravi Varma prints, even those not painted by him,

nor printed at his press.


The new imagery was compelling also because it provided a new

language for the aristocracy who could now be depicted in studio-

style portraits, down to the spaniel at their feet, in an echo of the

way portrait painters worked in England.


Popular imagery also created a cult around beauty that took its

inspiration from the portraiture of Western women. By the 1930s,

beedi advertisements showed Mata Hari lookalikes in Indian garments,

and even Radha-Krishna were not spared from a filmi clinch that could

have been the poster for a Hollywood movie.


Saraswati's swan, for some reason, had been replaced by the more

beautiful peacock, and Durga was shown astride an African lion

instead of the more usual tiger.


More amusingly, the availability of cheaper printing and imagery gave

birth to social comment, as in the case of the scandalous Tarakeshwar

murder case in Kolkata, or resulted in a new iconography that was to

provide a big boost to the freedom movement by making available

prints of popular leaders of the time to the masses, as well as

creating new imagery, such as the cult of Bharat Mata.


Even Rama, the slightly effeminate hero of the Ramayana, was given a

makeover as a warrior, and the tradition was followed till recently

when political leaders are placed alongside the gods, creating

parallels that seek public sanction.


With the fireworks and matchsticks industry based in the town of

Sivakasi relying heavily on these prints for its packaging, this

streetside calendar art has more recently come to be referred to as

Sivakasi art.


The authors' research and knowledge is commendable, and even at the

price, the book makes a worthy addition to the library, particularly

for collectors who are converts to what was referred to till recently

in chi-chi style as kitsch art.


Review by Kishore Singh in New Delhi's "Business Standard"

Published : September 1, 2003

URL: http://www.business-standard.com/today/story.asp?



"POPULAR INDIAN ART: Raja Ravi Varma and The Printed Gods of India"

by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger

Oxford University Press

Pages: 175

Price: Rs 2,500

Kishore Singh

Published : September 1, 2003

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