Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art

Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822339069
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/06/2007
Series: Objects/Histories Series
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Kajri Jain is Assistant Professor in the Departments of Film Studies and Visual Arts at the University of Western Ontario. She previously trained and worked as a graphic designer in India.

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The Economies of Indian Calendar Art

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3906-9

Chapter One


After Raja Ravi Varma, if an artist has attained such great fame, it is our Raghuvir Mulgaonkar.


With [S. M.] Pandit, Raja Ravi Varma's stylewas reborn andmodernized.


My informants ... generally agreed that the artist who had the greatest influence on art in this century after Raja Ravi Varma was C. Kondiah Raju.


One of the quintessential images of Indian calendar art is a picture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom, painted by the nobleman artist Raja Ravi Varma in 1881 and reproduced as a chromolithograph by his own well-known picture press later that decade (fig. 10). If there is one artist whom lay people, those in the industry, artists, and art historians alike readilyassociate with calendar art, it is Raja Ravi Varma. He is often referred to as the "father" of calendar art, with the assumption that those who came after him have been mere imitators. The implication here is that the story of Raja Ravi Varma encapsulates the most important things that need to be known about calendar art, so the question of attending to a diverse, multi-layered, mutating constellation of sources, influences, and pictorial agendas does not arise. And indeed, if we compare Varma's 1880s Saraswati with amid-twentieth-century image of the goddess from Studio S.M. Pandit (fig. 11) and another print from the 2001 stocks of the Delhi picture publishers S. S. Brijbasi and Sons, Shri Saraswati by M.C. Jagannath (fig. 12), this view would appear to be justified. It would seem as though almost nothing has changed in over a century of calendar art: some of the background elements might have been moved around a bit, the landscape treated a trifle differently, or subtle changes made in the facial features, clothing, and ornaments of the central figure, but little else. To this extent these two prints attest to the conventionality, repetition, and copying that characterize the genre, and to the lasting influence of Raja Ravi Varma.

However, if we now compare these two framing pictures with two calendar designs for 1995, also depicting Saraswati, one by Sapna Ads (fig. 13) and one by S. Murugakani (fig. 14), the similarities with the image by Ravi Varma begin to dissolve-and with them the static understanding of calendar art outlined above. The translucent drapery and sinuous, flowing lines of the Sapna Ads version (though not its luminescent flushes of pink and yellow) draw on what is known in the trade as the "Indian art style"; such neotraditionalist elements had initially been positioned as an explicit repudiation of Ravi Varma's "westernized" work by the early-twentieth-century Bengal school. In the Murugakani version, the brass lamps flanking the goddess, typically used in South Indian prayer rituals, indicate that this design is specifically aimed at the South Indian market. Such departures from the Ravi Varma "template" appear more commonly in designs for calendars rather than framing pictures, suggesting that the annually produced calendars have a greater need for "new" designs catering to a range of specific market segments than the more conventional, slower-moving framing pictures.

Despite these differences, however, all five images still share certain common visual elements. They all provide a figurative rendition of the deity with the requisite iconographic identifying symbols, prominent faces with fair complexions, large eyes gazing directly out of the frame, and plenty of golden ornamentation. They also share a "frontality" and centrality of composition: a figure in the foreground against a lush mythic landscape or anonymous decorative background, with very little middle ground. The four more recent, post-Ravi Varma, offset-printed versions use pre-press techniques to achieve characteristically intense, saturated colors and strong highlights. (I describe these techniques in more detail in chapter 4.) Most of these formal elements are also present in calendar art depictions of other iconic figures, both secular and divine. Other stylistic features of bazaar images, and the themes they depict, have been subject to both continuity and variation as well as recursive reinterpretation since the early days of chromolithography.


These images of Saraswati diverge from the Ravi Varma myth of origin through their heterogeneous layering of artistic sources, printing techniques, and marketing considerations. They point, instead, to the negotiation between novelty and familiarity that is a classic feature of the serial economies of the culture industry, from commercial cinema, television, popular music, and literature to fashion and product design. What has enabled the sheer prodigality of output maintained by the culture industry is its canny negotiation between novelty that does not necessarily imply difference and repetition that does not merely signal the return of the same. So even a mass cultural form that is characterized by convention, schematism, copying, imitation, and reproduction-such as calendar art-can have a history, or rather a genealogy in the Foucauldian sense: it cannot be accounted for by simply projecting forward in time from some conception of an originary moment. This chapter and the next identify and address some of the issues neglected by privileging a singular moment, site, and agent of production such as the late nineteenth-century Ravi Varma. Building on the premise outlined in the introduction that images are as much objects as they are signs or representations, my account centers on the circulation and production of bazaar art across both space and time. This chapter starts with a description of the circuits of calendar art as they have come to converge on the production center of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu a century after Ravi Varma, while the next chapter traces some of present-day calendar art's diverse lineages, some of which go back a century before him. However, my narrative does not seek to marginalize Raja Ravi Varma but to provide a place from which to reconsider (in chapter 2) what is at stake in the multiple mobilizations of this figure.

One of the reasons for the somewhat static conception of calendar art post-Ravi Varma is, I think, the assumption that the story of the commodification of culture is well known: that, as with mass culture developing under conditions of Euroamerican "monopoly capitalism," the culture industry in India is a manifestation of, and a means of instituting, the reified relations characteristic of middle-class or bourgeois society. The presupposition here seems to be that the culture of capitalism is singular, and that it is necessarily accompanied by the creation of liberal subjects (bourgeois and proletarian) on the European model. Take, for instance, Ashish Rajadhyaksha's seminal discussion of Ravi Varma in relation to the Indian culture industry's early encounters between precolonial image-making practices and Western artistic and reproductive technologies (Rajadhyaksha 1993b). Rajadhyaksha tantalizingly leaves Varma's work, its particular construction of the past, its surface properties, and its proliferation throughout the "entire indigenous small-scale consumer industry" in the hands of a "middle-class," about whose modes of engaging with objects and images no more needs to be said, for we are assumed to be familiar with what being middle-class entails (Rajadhyaksha 1993b,65). As a result, there are two sets of issues that remain unaddressed in relation to mass-produced prints, and indeed to commodities in general (although studies of commercial cinema have touched on them: see, for instance, Prasad 1998). The first set of issues pertains to the varied processes by which heterogeneous constituencies of people are brought into networks of centralized commodity manufacture, circulation, and consumption. The second pertains to the distinctive character that these capitalist networks take on through being forged in articulation with existing economic, political, and social formations. I would like to refer to this two-way process as one of vernacularizing capitalism. One component of this two-way movement is the incorporation of vernacular constituencies into a regnant capitalism enmeshed with bourgeois-modernist ideology: the imposition of a singular "global" capitalist order. The other is the protean adaptations of the "axiomatics" of capital (Deleuze and Guattari 1977, 1987) to varying "local" circumstances: or in other words, the proliferation of multiple cultures of capitalism. Such two-way movements have become increasingly apparent with the intensified globalization occurring from the late twentieth century onward, but, as the following description of the calendar industry's networks will show, such processes have also characterized earlier moments of capitalist formation. And while my concern here is to describe processes of vernacularization in relation to the calendar industry in India, I would suggest that images and the culture industry have played a crucial role in such processes everywhere and continue to do so through a set of fine-grained articulations between "formal" and "informal" modes of industrial and commercial organization; between commercial, religious, political, and social institutions; between disparate technologies and contexts of image making and consumption (including those of fine art and modernism); and between centralized and decentralized inscriptions of national and local identity.

As I said in the introduction, "bazaar" art is not the same as "commercial" art: the Hindustani word "bazaar" works to locate this form in a vernacular, non-English speaking realm. This chapter unpacks the idea of vernacularizing capitalism through a description of the calendar industry as a commercial arena that exists in parallel with centralized industrial mass manufacture and the corporate service sector. Through a broad overview of the industry's networks, I show how it has optimized manufacturing processes according to the prevailing relative costs of labor, materials, and machinery and adapted the economy of centralized mass production to cater to a wide range of consumer preferences across disparate locations. These negotiations unfold both through the industry's systems of production and through its modes of distribution and marketing (its classification of consumers, its range of themes or "subjects," its styles and production values). Attending to processes of circulation helps us to see how the calendar industry's ingeniously flexible, semi-informal systems complicate the notion of the "mass" in "mass culture" and "mass production" by simultaneously working both to reinforce and recon-figure regional or local differences. It also alerts us to the differences within the types of commercial ethos being negotiated by the post-independence Indian "middle class," introducing the "bazaar" as a key context for calendar images, which I take up in detail in chapters 2 and 5. And finally, attention to circulation brings into focus a performative matrix of nationhood, enacted in a register which is congruous with, but not reducible to, explicitly articulated ideologies of nationalism or the boundaries of the nation-state.

My emphasis on pan-national circulation, coupled with the rapidly mutating and largely "informal" nature of this domain, has meant that this is a broad, synthetic account, based on a set of fragments: snapshots, as it were, from contingent moments, angles, and sites. It is largely based on fieldwork I carried out between 1994-96 (with short follow-ups until 2001), but it also draws on H. Daniel Smith's invaluable research and collections, particularly his field observations from1988 (see also H.D. Smith 1995). There is immense scope for further detailed work on the industry, including whatever can be gleaned from company records and government archives. Rather than installing a singular myth of origin, I see this synthetic account as a way of opening up multiple contexts and pasts for calendar art, albeit from the point of view of a specifically post-liberalization present. If this genealogy based on circulation situates calendar art within the context of the post-independence culture industry, that context in turn invokes a much broader lineage of the commerce in pictures on the subcontinent-particularly of the trade in religious icons-as well as of a very particular form of commerce, the "bazaar." And again, this paves the way for attending (particularly in chapters 2 and 5) to the very animation or nomadism of the image, whether in recognized circuits of commercial and ritual exchange or other contexts of physical displacement, both actual and virtual.


Sivakasi is a tiny town in the Virudunagar (formerly Kamarajar) district of Tamil Nadu, about 70 kilometers southwest of Madurai; its population according to the 2001 census was 72,170 (although that of the urban agglomeration was 121,312, and these numbers swell further due to the influx of workers from surrounding areas). However, its extraordinary success in three industries, matches, fireworks, and printing, supposedly inspired Jawaharlal Nehru to call it a "mini-Japan" ("kutti Japan" in Tamil). This one town bears the major weight of print production on the subcontinent. In 1980 it was claimed that Sivakasi housed 40 percent of India's entire offset printing capacity, with an annual turnover of Rs. 13 crores (Rs. 130 million), coming from 75 companies running 300 offset presses (Anantharaman 1980). A2001 estimate put Sivakasi's offset printing share at 60 percent, with 373 presses (www.kuttyjapan.com). Residents I spoke with, men, women, and children alike, readily recounted the Sivakasi story: of how its peculiarly hot, arid climate is well-suited to the storage of chemicals and paper, and how this, combined with the low cost of labor and the entrepreneurship of the local Nadar community (which I describe below), has been conducive to its intensive industrial growth.

Unlike in the north and west where merchant capital, and subsequently indigenous industry, came to be concentrated in the hands of traditional business communities or castes such as the Marwaris, Banias, and Parsis, in colonial Madras from the 1870s onward several "non-business" castes-including both Brahmins and "backward" castes such as the Nadars-were able to take advantage of the increasing trade in commodities and cultivation of cash crops (Mahadevan 1984). The Nadars, whose community occupation at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the ritually polluted one of toddy tapping, accumulated wealth through trade, particularly in cotton and tobacco. By 1821 Sivakasi was described by a British surveyor as "a considerable merchant town," where the Nadars had constructed their own temples (Hardgrave 1969, 97-98). In fact, the Nadars are a textbook case of social mobility across the caste system, enabled by wealth and strong community associations (Hardgrave 1969; see also Templeman 1996).

Thus the legendary cousins, P. Aiya Nadar and A. Shanmuga Nadar, who went to Calcutta in 1922 to learn about match manufacturing, came from a well-to-do background and were able to supply the capital to set up a unit in Sivakasi. But after eighteen months the Nadars sold their machinery to a buyer in Ceylon, finding it was far more lucrative to substitute mechanized processes with cheap, readily available manual labor. This strategy of de-mechanization would characterize all three industries in Sivakasi up until the late twentieth century. Capital investment and government subsidies only tell part of the story when it comes to Sivakasi's industrial success: a major factor has also been cost reduction through the use of informal manual workers, who work on the basis of daily wages or piece rates. Sivakasi's match industry in particular has been notoriously dependent on its exploitation of child labor, while according to my observations in the late 1990s all three of its major industries remained largely untouched by ideas of occupational health and safety.


Excerpted from GOD'S IN THE BAZAAR by KAJRI JAIN Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Notes on Style....................vii
Introduction: Calendar Art as an Object of Knowledge....................1
1. Vernacularizing Capitalism: Sivakasi and Its Circuits....................31
2. When the Gods Go to Market....................77
3. Naturalizing the Popular....................115
4. The Sacred Icon in the Age of the Work of Art and Mechanical Reproduction....................171
5. The Circulation of Images and the Embodiment of Value....................217
6. The Efficacious Image and the Sacralization of Modernity....................269
7. Flexing the Canon....................315
Works Cited....................409

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