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subTerrain: artworks in the cityfold - New Perspectives from India

Indian cities offer a cornucopia of images: from brilliant billboards along the streets and facades, Bollywood posters in taxis, buses, restaurants and shops, to film, a steadily growing number of magazines, and the new omnipresence of the TV screen.

This iconography of everyday Indian life is the subject of the exhibition Indian Popular Culture. ‘The Conquest of the World as Picture’ at the House of World Cultures from 19 September – 16 November. The renowned curator and cultural historian Jyotindra Jain has assembled a unique collection of graphic art exhibits, photographs and paintings, and mixed them with discoveries from bazaars, TV clips and film posters to reveal the full development of India’s popular visual culture in a display ranging from miniature paintings, via colonial art, to the billboard painters of today.

India’s modern popular imagery results from the major cultural and technological shifts during the nineteenth century. Mass production of images, new means of visualising myths and religious legends generated new fields of tension in the sacred, erotic, political and colonial landscapes. The prevailing eclecticism of visuality frequently led to an arbitrariness in piling up images from diverse visual sources, developing an ambivalent language of collage and citation that further facilitated the seizure of new aesthetic and cultural content.

This exhibition presents, as a sensory experience, the creation and constant change, transformation, and the rediscovery of a visual world since the nineteenth century. In addition, it explores and reveals the colonial context and mutual reciprocity in the construction of identities with reference to gender, sexuality, ethnic origin, religion and power.

Jyotindra Jain, Curator

Jyotindra Jain was born in 1943 in Indore / India, studied Cultural Anthropology, Indian Studies and Ancient Indian History in Mumbai / Bombay and Vienna, where he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1972.
Jyotindra Jain was Director of Crafts Museum, Delhi, until recently, and is now Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Jain has been an Alexander-von-Humboldt Fellow, a Homi Bhabha Fellow and a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study for World Religions, Harvard University, USA. He is the author of Ganga Devi: Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting, Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India and Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World. Jain is a recipient of the Prince Claus Award for his initiatives and activities in the field of cultural heritage.

click on small images for large images with captions

Radha and Krishna

Krishna’s pleasure-trip

Rama with Sita or a female devotee,
and Krishna with Radha or a gopi.

Krishna with Radha/gopis

Krishna with two women

Krishna with Radha/gopi and a
female figure in attendance

Radha worshipping Krishna as Kali

Subhash Chandra Bose offering his head
to Bharat Mata in the presence of Krishna

K.B. Hedgewar (right) and M.S.Golwalkar,
leaders of the RSS

Krishna with his beloveds

Mahatma Gandhi being blessed by Rama

Nehru riding a horse

Indian Popular Culture: ‘The Conquest of the World as Picture’

Concept Outline by Jyotindra Jain

The exhibition offers a critical viewing of the strategic role of popular Indian imagery from the nineteenth and the twentieth century "not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed." (1) The new popular imagery grew out of major cultural and technological transformations that occurred in the nineteenth century, which included the impact of the pedagogy of the colonial art-school; the exposure to European images circulating in the Indian market; the advent of new art materials; new techniques of engraving including, lithography and oleography and the great influence of photography as well as the proscenium stage. The colonial art-school's emphasis on perspective and realism endowed the idealised, traditional imagery with more tangible and sensual presence. This combined with the newly introduced photography and the proscenium theatre in the usage of eclectic yet powerful iconic and narrative formations enabled a depiction that heightened corporeality and individuality. These factors engendered a new class of popular cultic, mythological and nationalist imagery. Its mass production and circulation became a potent instrument in creating and negotiating interstices between the sacred, the erotic, the political and the colonial modern. The prevailing eclecticism of visuality also led to the piling up of images from diverse visual sources on one picture plane which effectuated an ambivalent language of collage and citation which further facilitated seizure of aesthetic and cultural meaning.

The present day outburst of the visual image as evident in advertising companies on billboards, calendars, stickers, magazines, posters, in TV broadcasts and films and the proliferation of material all over the Indian cities - in restaurants and shops, on the roadside and over the facades of buildings, in taxis, trucks and buses, has played a major role in shaping the Indian population´s identity in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and power as well as changing their personal and social values - along side more importantly in forging ideological conceptions of the nation itself.

However, the first revolution in image replication and its mass-consumption took place in the nineteenth century with the arrival of new printing technologies. This, in a manner of speaking, had pre-empted the processes and effects of current new media. Before the establishment of indigenous ventures, Hindu mythological pictures were printed in Germany then imported to India via British firms. Their vast nineteenth century image manufacture transformed the nature of Hindu belief and worship but also through the realistic / illusionist work of artists like Ravi Varma (1846 - 1906) and several of his counterparts. In a sense 'classical' Hindu mythology was revived, romanticised and circulated all over the country. This set in motion a process of reconfiguration of the culturally heterogeneous Indian space into a more homogeneous Hindu space based on a commonly shared new iconic visuality. It was this new iconic visuality, shared by a rising national community, which was to be instrumental in consolidating the ideology of Hindu nation before and after independence.

The main focus of the Exhibition is on the role of the nineteenth and twentieth century Indian popular visual imagery in the construction of cultural, social, and national identities. The Exhibition is divided into nine interconnected sections which includes:

I. ”Arrival of the Flatbed: Explosion of the Visual”;
II. “Camera Indica”;
III. “Theatricality: Between Location and Emplacement”; (2)
IV. “Representing the Other: From "People of India" to Bollywood Tribals”;
V. “The Female Identity: Of Absorbed and Complicit Gazes”;
VI. “Made in Germany Registered in London: The Commerce of the Cultic”;
VII. “Collage: Ambivalent Spaces, Mutating Identities”;
VIII. “Manipulating the Image: Reconfiguring the Cultic and the Political”; and
IX. “Image and City”.

The narrative is conceptual rather than chronological, combining historical and contemporary objects alongside each other. The exhibits include chromolithographs, oleographs, photographs, newspaper clippings, post-cards, calendars, bazaar objects, photo studio and theatre backdrops, TV and video clippings, film stills and cinema posters.

(1) Mitchell, W.J.T., (ed.), Landscape and Power. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2002, p.1.
(2) The phrase „Camera Iindica“ is borrowed from Christopher Pinney and “Between Location and (Em)placement” from Anuradha Kapur. I thankfully acknowledge the debt.

Biographies: Artists

Bamapada Banerjee (1851–1932) received his initial training in painting at the Calcutta Art School but, disillusioned with its pedagogy, he left and took private lessons with Pramathalal Mitra. Subsequently, he worked as an apprentice to the German painter Karl Becker who was then living in Calcutta. He received a prize in an exhibition organized by the Society for the Promotion of Industrial Art in 1879. From 1880 to 1884 he did commissions in Allahabad and Lahore. Bamapada Banerjee’s popularity rests on his paintings illustrating Hindu mythology. He was deeply influenced by the genres of European history painting. Though a junior contemporary of Ravi Varma, the most influential artist of the time, Bamapada evolved an individual style and dominated the popular taste for decades through reproductions of his works, most of which were printed in Germany.

M.V. Dhurandhar (1867–1944), renowned for visually documenting the city of Bombay and its people, as well as painting scenes from Hindu mythology, was born in Kolhapur in Maharashtra, as the son of an artist. He studied art at Bombay’s Sir J.J. School of Art, where he won several prizes and medals; he was later to become the first Indian director of this School. In recognition of his talent, the British government conferred the title of Rao Bahadur upon him in 1927. He was accomplished in oils, watercolours and pencil drawings, and nearly 50,000 works have been credited to him, excluding drawings and sketches. A number of Dhurandhar’s works were reproduced for mass circulation at Ravi Varma’s presses. Unlike Ravi Varma, his senior contemporary, Dhurandhar was a trained academic realist.

C. Kondiah Raju (1898–1976) was among the most popular painters of Hindu cultic and mythological pictures in southern India. While Ravi Varma was a great favourite with the aristocrats, Kondiah was an artist of the masses. Born into the Raju community of painters, his initial training was with the traditional artists of Madurai. Subsequently he joined the Government School of Arts and Crafts, Madras, where he acquired the skills of portraiture, perspective and chiaroscuro. Kondiah, like many of his contemporaries, made a living as a theatre scenery painter. Between the 1920s and 1940s he worked with a drama company as painter, actor and musician. One notices the influence of theatre, art schools, Tanjore painting and photography in his work.

Ravi Varma (1848–1906) was born in Kilimanoor in the princely state of Travancore, now in Kerala. He studied Sanskrit at school, which might have led him to illustrate Hindu cultic figures and mythology when he became an artist. Though the profession was looked down upon in his extended aristocratic family, Ravi Varma received encouragement from his maternal uncle in his artistic pursuit. He was primarily a self-taught artist. With the help of the Maharaja of Travancore, he got the opportunity to observe a European portrait artist, Theodore Johnson, at work in 1868. He began to copy his method and work in oils. Ravi Varma received several awards from the British administrators and his royal patrons. He excelled in realistic portraiture and illusionistic renderings of Hindu mythology. To cope with the increasing demand for his work, he started getting his pictures reproduced in Germany; he subsequently started his own printing presses in and around Bombay, with the help of German technicians. Ravi Varma’s style and rendering of mythological characters became a model for later artists, theatre directors and film-makers. He is considered to be the most influential progenitor of Indian popular art. - New Perspectives from India
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