‘Indian Popular Visual Culture’ Exhibition: See Early Indian Advertisements And Calendar Art

The old debate about advertising creating stereotypes about the female body and ideas of beauty arises periodically in the public sphere. Most recently, Hindi film actor Abhay Deol revived the topic with his storm of tweets censuring Bollywood stars for endorsing fairness creams. If you visit Indian Popular Visual Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture, the ongoing show at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, then you will find that issue has roots in the dawn of advertising in the nineteenth century. The celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma, for instance, cranked out prints used in calendars and advertisements showing fair, round-cheeked ladies, setting the template for how women, in particular Indian goddesses, were subsequently drawn by commercial artists.

Raja Ravi Varma, Dr. Bhau Daji Museum, Mumbai.

‘Kirat-Bhilli’. The Hindu god Shiva and his consort Paravati disguised as tribals. Ravi Varma, early
20th century, print, 50 x 35 cm. Printed at Ravi Varma Press, Karla-Lonavla. Collection: J. and J. Jain, Delhi.

Curated by Delhi-based art historian Jyotindra Jain, the exhibition has prints, photographs, labels and postcards from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when new technologies such as photography and print-making techniques like lithography, engraving and oleography emerged. This was also the time when images were first mass produced. A number of exhibits are prints showing Hindu deities either by Varma, who ran a printing press near Lonavla in the late nineteenth century, or artists influenced by his European style of depicting Indian women. For instance, ‘Kirat Billi’ is an early twentieth century print of Shiva and Parvati dressed as Bhils by Varma. Neither Shiva nor Parvati look particularly Indian. Images of Hindu gods were also printed on matchboxes and on labels that mills in Manchester stuck to bales of cloth exported to India. These labels, as well as early postcards, were printed in presses in Germany.

Raja Ravi Varma, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai.

Sunlight soap calendar of 1934, depicting the Hindu god Vishnu with his consorts, Ravi Varma,
c.1880s, print 65 x 50 cm. Collection: J. and J. Jain, Delhi.

The late nineteenth century was also when theatre took off across the country. In Bombay, drama companies staged large-scale historical and mythological musicals, the aesthetics of which influenced visual culture. ‘Dandi and Urvashi’, an early twentieth century print by an unknown artist shows King Dandi in a stagey Mughal and Roman hybrid costume that suggests the artist was familiar with the theatre. Markets were flooded with British goods such as soap, gripe water for babies, cigarettes and textiles. As a result, ads promoting these items proliferated.

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai.

Poster advertising Bombay School Special cigarettes. Artist unknown, c 1930s, print, 56 x 57 cm. Collection: J. and J. Jain, Delhi.

During the early twentieth century, the collage emerged as an artistic practice, especially among artists in Nathdwara in Rajasthan. ‘Krishnalila’, a work from the 1920s by an unknown artist, is composed of a print showing the Gudvangen fjord in Norway. Cut-outs of Krishna meeting Radha and the god’s female devotees bathing naked in the fjord are pasted on the print. Naturally the women are fair-skinned and possessed of bodies right out of European nudes.

Indian Popular Visual Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture will run until Sunday, April 30 at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Rani Baug, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Road, Byculla. Tel: 022 2373 1234. Open Thursday to Tuesday, from 10am to 6pm; Wednesday, closed. Get directions here.

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