Ram-bo is here to stir the mob

'Photos of the Gods'
December 3, 2004

The narrative of Indian popular art is not a linear one. Each successive style carries memories of those that have gone before. Within the huge body of printed images that exist, dating back to the 1870s, the quality of printing has undergone radical changes from early chromolithography to more recent full-colour offset printing. But the contemporary popular artist is not entirely unlike his 19th-century predecessor, who worked with handed-down conventions that he inherited and subverted through improvisation.

Christopher Pinney's ' Photos of the Gods ' is a handy tool to navigate this ocean of popular printed imagery. To readers already familiar with Pinney's Camera Indica , which dealt with the vitality and potency of Indian popular photography and patterns of its consumption, this new book seems a natural extension in considering the fecundity of popular art in the sub-continent.

At the outset, Pinney clarifies that the book "is not a history of pictures. Rather, it is a study of how pictures were an integral part of history in the making." Mainstream "top-down" versions of official historiography have so far managed to ignore this in essence popular "bottom-up" parallel reading that has proved vital in shaping non-elite consciousness, and this fact cannot be overstressed. The author manages to contextualise mass-produced images from colonial and post-independence India that require careful and nuanced reading.

A recent image seen all over India shows a muscular Ram in an aggressive posture looming large over the proposed temple at Ayodhya, to be built exactly where the Babri mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992. This "Rambo-ification" of the previously gentle Ram coincided with the emergence of a chauvinistic militant Hinduism that constructs itself in opposition to the Muslim "other", the largest religious minority in India.

Pinney deftly shows how this assertive chauvinism was pre-figured in the cow protection agitation of more than a century ago, in the 1890s. The cow, an enormously potent symbol representing Hindu identity, was then perceived to be under threat and all "true Hindus" were required to rally around this politico-religious creed, to rise against the beef-eating "other" so as to protect the cow and its progeny. One hears the very same argument in today's Hindu right-wing discourse.

Pinney emphasises the connection by printing a Ravi Varma image of the goddess Durga published in 1890. The eight-armed goddess slaying the buffalo demon is a common enough theme in India. But a closer look reveals that this particular demon is not emerging from the body of the slain buffalo, as is customary, but is lying beside it with a bloodied sword in hand. The buffalo looks suspiciously like a cow. The image can be used to imply that the mustachioed man in the foreground has slaughtered the cow/buffalo and the lion of the goddess is wreaking vengeance on him for this abomination. What is rather intriguing, as Pinney observes, is that the printing press used to publish this image was owned not by a fanatical Hindu but by a German businessman, Fritz Schleicher.

It is natural for a book of this scope dealing with the proliferation of printed images to have a subjective focus. "Were this book longer, and had I the opportunity to conduct fieldwork among image customers in southern and eastern India," Pinney remarks, "more would have been said about the regional traditions." Nevertheless, it is a pity that a large body of interesting images is passed by as a "regional tradition".

The popular artist K. Madhavan, for instance, does not merit a mention. Madhavan turned to secular subjects. His world-view largely stemmed from his involvement with the agnostic non-Brahmin Dravidian movement of 1916 and after, active in Tamil-speaking areas of south India, that challenged the Hindu caste system.

Madhavan's oeuvre consisted of visual archetypes of ordinary people: the worker, the farmer, the village belle and the political notable. His skill endowed these stock figures with an energy and popular feeling that is unique - not quite the south Indian variant of north Indian prototypes.

Prints of his "realistic" portraits of the leaders of the movement adorned almost all lower-caste homes of that state at the movement's peak in the 1950s and 1960s.

Madhavan responded to non-Indian film traditions and achieved a distinctive style of characterisation through scrupulous observation and Indianisation of film stills, particularly from Hollywood. Perhaps we will have to wait for a sequel from Pinney for a more detailed analysis of such trajectories.

As it is, ' Photos of the Gods ' seems destined to become a benchmark in this area of South Asian cultural studies. General readers with a modicum of knowledge of the modern history of India and an interest in its popular arts should also enjoy the book.

Indrapramit Roy is an artist and senior lecturer in painting, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, India.

'Photos of the Gods': The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India

Author - Christopher Pinney
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 238
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 1 86189 184 9

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