India's lasting disposable art

A Historical Mela
March 22, 2002

Mainstream Indian cinema has long sought cultural legitimacy, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term. In the past decade Hindi cinema has been the subject of much academic interest, but it is still struggling for recognition among India's older bourgeoisie. It has been labelled "commercial" in opposition to "art" cinema, as it is seen to lack an aesthetic or taste. Hindi cinema has become a trend in the West, but largely celebrated as kitsch, under the umbrella label "Bollywood". It is therefore hardly surprising that the additional visual material this cinema has produced - posters, photographs, song books and lobby cards - was disregarded by the industry and by students of Indian art and visual culture until the work of Divia Patel, co-author of Cinema India .

Although India's National Film Archive in Pune has collected a considerable amount of visual material, production houses have kept little, at worst regarding it as ephemera to be discarded or at best storing this acidic and brittle paper in less than ideal conditions. Few of the production houses or "banners" from pre-independence India have survived. Wadia Movietone is one of the few. Among the post-independence production houses, only Mehboob Studios, RK Studios and BR Films remain accessible to the researcher. These have survived because they have remained in family hands and, in the case of BR Films, of B. R. Chopra himself. These studios have been generous in helping researchers, while other sources, such as the stills held by Kamat Photo Flash are also invaluable, although they require permissions for reproductions.

It was well known that private collectors, such as Hussainibhai of Bombay's Kennedy Bridge area, had amassed huge archives of film "ephemera". During my research, I found that this and other private collections had been sold recently, and I tracked them down to Osian's, auctioneers of modern Indian art. Its owner, Neville Tuli, had decided to preserve and catalogue this material. Workers were sorting out the photographs and I was spoilt for choice as I caught glimpses of lobby cards and posters I did not know still existed. This was during the last few days of my visit and I hoped to return to see the collection at leisure. Now I am delighted to have this catalogue of Osian's latest auction, a rich resource that will prove invaluable to researchers and a pleasure to fans of Hindi film. The catalogue contains a brief outline of the Osian's project by Tuli and a short essay on cinema by Narendra Panjwani, followed by a bibliography. Credits for the included films and a filmography of key figures are at the back. An index to link these to the images would have been helpful, as would a list of the art studios at which these images were produced.

The catalogue includes books and modern art that do not all sit comfortably alongside the film material. Some are appropriate, such as the work of the painter M. F. Husain, whose career as an artist began with cinema hoardings. The items are for individual sale, but I believe that Osian's is keeping copies of the material they are selling as part of their archive.

The cinema material, from the 1930s to the 1970s, is divided partly chronologically and partly thematically into studio period, auteurs and great actors, romantic posters, comedy and villainy and the "parallel cinema" of directors such as Shyam Benegal. The captions are short but informative, sometimes accompanied by quotes from published material. The real delight is in the beautiful reproduction of the full-colour images, many of which I have never seen before.

The reader can trace the evolution of styles from the studio period of the 1930s and 1940s, the changing themes of the posters, the presentation of the stars who dominate the images, from the black-and-white neo-realist photographs of Bimal Roy's films from the 1950s to the flamboyant posters of the 1970s. Some of the posters for the 1950s films were reproduced in the 1970s and 1980s, and the contrast between the images speaks for itself. Indian film publicity underwent a revolution in the 1980s, as photography began to eclipse painting. Unfortunately, the famous film hoardings are rarely kept, in part because of their size but also because they are regarded as ephemeral by their makers and the film industry. A Historical Mela is a must for cinema fans, students of Indian visual culture and of Indian graphic art.

Rachel Dwyer is senior lecturer in Indian studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

A Historical Mela: The ABC of India: The Art, Book and Cinema

Editor - Neville Tuli
ISBN - 1 890206 49 0
Publisher - Osian's, Bombay Available from
Price - $60.00 (£35.00)
Pages - 318

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