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Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art Author(s): Patricia Uberoi Source: Economic and

Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art Author(s): Patricia Uberoi Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 17 (Apr. 28, 1990), pp. WS41-WS48 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly

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Feminine

Identity

and

National

Calendar

Art

Ethos

in

Indian

Patricia Uberoi

Womenhave been and still are excluded from the production of and representationin many social and cultural activities, but even when they are included they do not receive their due recognition. In many genres of representa- tion however, women are not only visible: they are prominent'objects of attention. The issue is then transformed into one of the correctness or incorrectness of the representation, or of the socially constraining nature of the stereotypical imagery, or of the relationship between women's subjectivity and objectivity. This paper looks at the representation of women in a little discussed genre of Indian popular art-what has been called 'calendar art' or 'bazaar art'. These representations are seen as instancing two processes, the com- moditisation of womenand the tropisingof the feminine, withinan overallculturalcontext that was both homogenis- ing and hegemonising.

Problematics

of

I

'Invisibility'

and

'Visibility'

IN India, as elsewhere, a Ilmost important

thrust of feminist

social

science hlas been

thatof-makingwoomen'visible',theirvoices

audible,in historyandsociety[Sharma

Mazumdar1985;Banerjee1988;Chakravarti

and Roy 1988, etc]. This is a project

which all are agreed, but it is one

not, in fact, quite so straightforward as it may at first appear. Some takethe position, for instance,that

womenhavealwaysmadea verysignificant

contribution to their societies, but that a

patriarchal

prevented

women'scontributionfromreceivingits due

recognition. The reason is that society's

the creation of written

legitimatingmyths,

historical records and the production of

authoritativeself-knowledge have all been

enterprisescontrolledby

tion is that a self-conscious effort must be

1982;

on

which is

conspiracy

has

males.The implica-

made to

patriarchaldiscourse,to 'retrieve'women's' history, to bear witness to their contem-

poraryproductivityand

labour is both

rewarded[Kleinberg1988; Lerner 1986].

locate women's voices within

to ensurethat threir

recognised and properly

signalled in the

The other proposition is

key-term'marginalisation'.Quiteto the con- traryit is maintainedthatwomenhavenever

lbeen allowed to make their full and proper contributionto society.Theyarenot visible

because,expresslyor by default, they have

beenexcludedfromcertaindomainsof acti- vity, notably the politica,, and relatively

speaking confined to doniestic space. This hierarchicaldivisionof labourand of social space constrains feminine activity and ex-

pressionand projectswomenas

dependents

of mrenIn this case the implication is that women should fight for the right to enter

into those domains from which they were

to ensurethat their actually availedof.

previouslyexcludedand formal legal rights are

The different groundings of these two

arguments

that women areexcluded)are not

usually interrogated.Perhapsthe reason is

nised, or

(i e, that women are unrecog-

that it is possible to hold to both positions simultaneously in a form such as the follow- ing: NWomenhave been and still are excluded from the production of and representation

but

even wheni they are included they do not receive their duc recognition. This double- barrelled proposition lies at the base of a great deal of academic feminism and social activism. It is a plea for inclusion, for equali- ty and for justice, and the.chief issue is to decide whether -remedy should be sought in policies of affirmative action ('reservations)

in many social anid cultural activities,

or in conscientisation: provision trom above or action from below.

In

many

genres

of

representation,

however, women are not only visible: they are prominent objects of attention-even of admiration and of worship-and one can hardly complain of their invisibility and neglect. The issue is then transformed into one of the correctness or incorrectniessof the representation, or of the socially constraini- ing nature of the stereotypical imagery, especially for those who do not naturally fit the bill (see the discussion of deviant per- sonality types in Mead 1935), or of the rela- tionship between women's subjectivity and

objectivity. This latter is rather a vexed ques- tion, for it is patently not the case that all women at all times speak in women's voices. They, too, are captives of society's dominant

as gendered sub-

jects, and very often the most immediate and conspicuous oppressors of their own sex [see Nany 1980: 34-35]. The authentic voices and

genres of women, and the modes and moments of their resistance to patriarchal

ideologies,

self-alienated

domination have to be located and cele- brated in a self-consciously subaltern pro- ject [e g, Chakravarti 1983, 1988; Das 1989a, 1989b; Karlekar 1989, etc], while converse- ly commending those males who, despite themselves as it were, have succeeded in ex- pressing a genuinely feminine sensibility [e

g, Millett

More than this, however, the 'objectifica- tion' of women in those genres where they are the prominent objects of attention is read as something problematic in itself, in par- ticular as an indication that women have

1969; ch 81.

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 1990

becomeobjectsor thingsto be appropriated, possessed and exchanigedin the social rela-

tions

amongmen. Of particularinterestfromthis point of viewhas been the interpretationof

the representationof womeil in one of the privilegedgenresof modernEuropeanart-

the traditionof 'nude'painting,coveringthe

period roughlyfrom the 15thto the end of

the 19thcentury.Thereseems to havebeen

an historicalconvergenceinvolvingthe sub-

ject matter of painting (the nude female

of

co-operation and competition

formbeinga majortype),the establishment

of the new medium of oil painting (giving

texture,depth and a senseof tactilityto the objectsdepicted),the masteryof techniques

of perspective (creating a sense of veri-

similitudeor realism)and the institutionof

a new socio-economic order, that is,

capitalism.

capitalismis especiallyimplicatedas one in

whichthe objectificationand commodifica- tion of women has reachedunprecedented heights. Originally,works of art displayedin the' homes of the aristocraticand the wealthy functionedas signs of individualrankand

wealth, the nude female body an object of the privilegedgaze of the male patronand

his friends [Berger1972:ch 3]. Techniques

of mechanical reproduction (lithography, oleography and photography) have been crucialin increasinglygeneralisingthis mode

Indeed, the social order of

of appropriation

to

a class

of mass

con-

sumers [Benjamin 1973], a process which

cheap

reachedits apogee in the inventionof

colourphotographya few-decadesago. Col-

Berger has

our

written:

colourand textureand

photography, as

John

Can reproducethe

tangibilityof objectsas only oil painthad beenableto do before.Colourphotography

is to the spectator-buyerwhatoil paintwas to the spectator-owner.Both media use similar,highlytactilemeansto playuponthe spectator'ssenseof acquiringtherealthing

whichtheimageshows.Inbothcaseshisfeel- ing thathe can almosttouchwhatis in the imageremindshim how he mightor does

possesstherealthing[Berger1972:140-141].

In otherwordsit is arguedthatin modern

WS-41

westernsociety the glossy 'pin-up' has the

same social functionas the nude once had, but on a mass scale, and that this is one of the characteristicmarkersof modern con- sumer societies (and of the socio-political orderof capitalism)in theirconstruLctionof

genderrelations.Thecontemporary'publici-

ty' (i e, advertising)industryand the com- mercialmassmediadependon and promote the 'objectification'of womrenas objectsof maledesire('sexsymbols',so-called)and of potential possession. WNomenthus tend to function as insiteriaof the wealth, status, poweran1dvirilityof the men who possess

themI, arid of the desires of those who would

want to possess

thetii. Metonymically

co-

associtated\ith a range ot consumerables. niot only those specitic to womnen-they

snbtlk

atid

surely

*tbcorine

coinmoditied

-IThisis all wcll known and widely ac- cepted, but thie'devalttation'of wornenas sex objects and as comimiwloditicsthat is so strikitilv (a featurc of the corntemporary

nmassmnedtais not the on(!

mode of objec-

tification/reificat'ionot woenmcthatone can

the

arouind. LquaIly significant is

veritabledeificationof women in certainof their social roles:the pure virgin,the loyal aridobedientwife and, most importantlyof

sce

all, the 'mother'.

All ot' ;hese

figures, of

course, find divine excmplarsin the Hindu

pantheon.

T-hat wotmlenshould be so manifestly objects of worship seems to be something of aInesplanatorvembarrassmentin an intel- lectualenvironmentin wvhichthe actualand symbolicdenigrationof women( essential- ly,theirvictimisation)is seen as the primary truthof genderrelations.On the one hand,

it is often a soLurceof solace and of pride

thatsoomewomen(or women'sroles)areheld in great reverence in India, in contrast perhapsto the west,suiggestinga ratherdif- f'erenttrajectoryfor the women'smovement here [Chitnis 19881.Others see deification as yet aniother,andieven more insidious, form of patriarchalconstraint.And others argue that deification is but the 'flip' side of 'devaluation'in a bipolar-value scheme which rests on contrasting stereotypesof motherversuswhore,wife versusvamp,and

so on [ Nandy 1981: 93-941. 'The conceptual

aiialogy h-iereis with Victorian England where, so it is alleged, the purity of the upper-class woman and the dignity of monoganious marriagewereupheldby the parallel institution of prostitution-as necessarya featureof Victoriansociety as sewerswere of their town planning. But whether the problemis devaluation or overvaluation,theinterpretivemodelsjust citedtendto take 'objectification'at its face value.Otherwriters,however,suggest that women do not necessarilyrepresentthem- selves, i e, as a gender. Nor do they simply index the power of the individual (male spectator-buyer)whosegaze theyreturn,or serveas iconic objects of reverencejust on this account. Rather women serve as signifiers of some other thing or quality.

WS-42

This is the phenomenon referredto in the rather inelegant phrase, the 'tropising of women'.

Anthropologistshavebeenespeciallysen-

sitiveto the tropisingof womenas signifiers

of caste status in South Asia. They argue thatthe castesystemrestsprimarilyon each community maintaining control over the purityand sexualityof its women (through practicessuchas childmarriage,pubertyand

initiationrites, sati, purdah,the regulation

of

[Yalman1963; Allen 1982:4-8]. Similarly, womenmaysignifythereligiouscommunity, the race and the nation,.while these new identities themselves come into being through (re)constructions of femininity. Undoubtedly,the natioslis the most signi- ficant focus of identity in modern times. In this paper I will be looking at the representationof women in a little discus- sedgenreof Indianpopularart-what I have called 'calendarart' or 'bazaar art'.' I see these representationsas instancingthe two processes referred to above: the 'com- moditisation'of womenand the 'tropising' of the feminine, within an overallcultural context that was both homogenising and hegemonising.I makeno apologies for the fact that these two perspectivesreston very different conceptual foundations; one merely assumes that such synthetic ap- proaches are justifiable in referenceto a mixed economy/transitionalsociety.

widows, marriage to

divinities, etc

I begin with a discussion of the origins

of the genrein the colonial period-in

ticularwith a considerationof the workof

the painterRaviVarmawho establishedthe representationalstvle, defined the para- metersof the archive,anidpioneeredits mass reproduction.InthishistoricalcontextI con- sider also some relevant aspects of the organisationof the calendararttrade,which pertainswithinthe modernindustrialsector of the Indianeconomy.ThoughI haverefer- redto calendarart as a 'popular'art form, one shouldbe clearthat it is riota 'folk art' of the type assigned by anthropologiststo thelocalised'LittleTradition'.LiketheHindi film, it seeks a mass, pan-Indianaudience of consumerswhosetastesgenerate,andare simultaneouslymouldedby, the imageryit purveys.

I then consider how the processesthat I have posited at work in the productionof Calendarart imagesof womenaremateria- lised in the artifacts themselves, Without presentationof the visuals,this requiresan act of imagination-to summonup images which are all around one but which are mostly unnoticed,unrecalled,unexamined. I first remarkon the aspect of the com- modification/objectificationof womenand women'sbodiesthatis so conspicuousin this medium,andin relatedmediasuchas adver- tising, film hoardings,etc. I touch on this only briefly because the theme is, on the whole, a familiat one [see eg, Bhasin and Agarwal 1984:Ghadially 198e, section 4; and papersin Chanana 19881.1then go on to consider at greater length the way in

par-

whichimagesof womenworkas tropesfor the 'nation'. Though I have confined my attentionto calendaror bazaarart, similar processesmustsurelybe seen at workin the films, too-even in commercialadvertising. Ina recentpaper,MonicaJunejahasargued that nineteenthcenturyEuropeanlandscape painting performed essentially the same function (19901,and thereis clearly a case

for the extension

of these perspectives

to

other media, both mass mediaand elite art forms.

11

Ravi Varma and 'Invention' of Calendar Art

Recent writings on the cultuiraland ilntcl-

lectualhistoryof thecolonial periodin Indiai

have highlighted the centrality ot

femininein theisymbolicrepresentationof an Indiannationalidentitye g, Nandy1980; Sangari and Vaid 19891.Conversely, the attributesof modernIndianfemininitiwere

the

also being actively negotiated

at this

timlie.

ThesuggestiQnis thatthiecolonialencouniter shapedtheconstructionof Indianfeminiinity

in waysthatareof relevancestill, today,an)d

that an interrogation ot that process of becoming has to be an essential input into

its ultimate undoing.

The ingredients in this Anglo-Indian joilnt

ventureweremultiplexand oftenlcontradic-

tory:surrender,colluisionand resistanceall

at once. Nonethelessit is possibleto discern

a common universeof discourse in which

both rulers and ruled participated. This shareduniversewascharacterised(i) by the privilegingof the woman as an object of discourse[seeChatterjee1989;Tharu 1989; Sarkar 1985.71ff]; (ii) by substantivecon-

vergencesin the interpretationof feminini- ty; and (iii) by agreementon the canon ot textuialand ritualpracticethatwasto define and authorisean emergingIndiancultural 'tradition'[Chakravarti1989;Mani 19891. The 'recasting'of women that was the

legacyof the colonial era dependedon

positing or a set of identities on the one hand, and the operation of a set of exclu- sions on the other.Takethe equations first. Tobeginwithit is assumedthatthe 'status

of women'is thepre-eminentsignifierof the

nature and condition of society-Indian societyin this case. The propositionmaybe true,of course,but the measureof women's 'status'wasalso clearlygovernedby Orien-

talist stereotypes(i

the Oriental male is both unmanly and despotic) and pertainedwithin a political economyof relationssuchthatit legitimated the white man's burden: governance,

discipline

social reform of

Thus the essence of Indian culture and societywasto be locatedin thepastandpre-

sent(andfuture)of Indianwomen.Thispro-

ject crystallised in

what Uma Chakravarti

has aptly called the 'Altekarianparadigm' (Chakravarti1988;Altekar19621-the con- structionof a classicalage of Indiancivilisa-

the

e, the assumption that

and intervention through the

Indian women's lives.2

Economic and Pblitical Weekly

April 28, 1990

tion and a narrative of its decline under the twin forces of Brahmanism and Islam. Second is the identification of the cultural 'tradition' with the sacred tradition,i e, with religion; and the sacred tradition in turn with Hinduism, whether in its Brahmanic or Rajput emplhases, but distinguished from its popular and regional manifestations [Nlarni 1989]. Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism cannot'serve the same func-

tion,

religions

Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism can be ap- propriated as variants within the greater Hindu tradition. As art historian Geeta

Kapur has written:

being

exogenous

are

merely

in

origin;

tribal

and

localised;

The notion of the past usually dovetails with the notion of the classical. Both derive from a quite obvious desire to retrieve at tlheim- aginative level that golden age of Indian civilisation when it is said to have beeni purest, rmostprosperous anid suprenc. Tlic period from the epics to the puranas, andcl then Kalidasa, usually provides the tiane- frame as well as the wealth of legends that are to be glorified. (Ideologically speakinig. the classical past is set against the medicvi I which is regardedas havinigbeen corrupted by a medley of toreigin intluences and by the psychology of subordination showing up in Hindu civilisation. Not only the Islamic but curiously also Buddhist culture, tlhoughfal- ling squiarelywithin the classical, is excluid- ed from mainstream Indian culture, when a civilisational memory is sought to be awaken- ed.-Thetouchstone for ninieteenithcentury In- dian rei-naissanceis thus Hindu civilisation' (Kapur 1989: 681.

hhus a national

identity was constituted

through the construction of the ideal Hin- du woman, and her clharacteristics derived frotn a hierarchy of textual authorities: the

Vedas. Shastras, epics, puranas, and so on. in the process, obviously, a ntumber of ex- clusions came into play: (i) of other religions and cultural traditions by the newly emerg-

ing Hindui tradition,

(ii) of lower caste practices by Brahrfianical

and Kshatriva models [Chakravarti 19891;

(iii) of folk genres by the new genres of the compradore bourgeoisie IBanerjee 19891;

and (iv) of indigenous

those.of the colonial power through the psychology of identity with the aggressor [Nandy 1983]. Simultaneously (v) regional varieties were transcended in the search for

a pan-Indian cultturalreality, or appropriated

and domesticated within an aggregative vi- sion of nation such as is unfolded still in every Republic Day Parade 'an assertivc state-sponsored display of Indian Tratdition and Culture, especially of the classical, the folk and the tribal, intended as a saleable compensation for the lack of democratising initiatives on its own pait' [Sangari 1989: 3]. In all, it seems that the modern period has seen womanliness subjected to processes of he emonisation and homogenisation as the national culture seeks to stake its ideniity. The mass media, whether controlled by the

stateor subjectto thedemandsof the market mechanism,havebeentheactiveinstruments of this transformation.

as already suggested;

aesthetic values by

Whateverits precedents,the phenomenon

of calendar art.is effectively coterminous

Ravi Varma

(1848-1906),a memberof the ruling family of Travancorestate.RaviVarma'sparticular

with the artistic career of

distinctionl

was that he was one of the first

native 'Indian painters to satisfactorily miasterthe techniquesof westernacademic oil painting and to receivecritical acclaim and recoginitionfor this both at home and abroad. Enicapsulating in decades the essence of four centuries of Europeanart history,he then pioneeredthe setting up of one of the earliest lithographicpresses in India,whichreproducedalmostninetyof his nmythologicalpaintings in thousands of copies.Accordingto mostartcritics[see,e g, Chaitanya 1960:5], the overproductionof paiiltirngsfor the press, together with the technicalshortcomingsof the printingpro-

Ravi

cess,

Varma's repuitationias a seriouLsartist, tor his

work tended to bc jiud,ed oni the basis of the prints:

were ultimately

disastrous

for

That these distressingpictuLres,vulgarisedby cheapalnd poI)ular oleographs, shouildreign

in everyIndcianhome is a commentaryon the

degenieraheperception of the time: that, in- cidentallv, Ravi Varniabecanmea nationalis- ing influence or provided devotional

sustenance to the masses is highly irrelevant

Arnuntrain-

ed, undiscerningpublic,valuing his paintings

utterly'

for their devotipnal content

to his aesthetic appraisement

and

ignorant of aesthetic criteria, worshipped Ravi Varna [Rao 1953: 9]. The point to be stressed, however, is that calendar art was not, in its origins, a popular art form, but a hybrid style produced for British patrons and the anglicised Indian elite in continuity with the so-called 'com- pany' style of portraiture and Indian 'sceneries' [Thakurta 1986]. It was the out- come of a two-way process of the 'wester- nisation' of taste of the Indian aristocracy

and upper bourgeoisie and of the domestica- tion of a foreign medium in Indian soil, pro- ducing thereby quite new 'ways of seeing'. 'In India', writes Geeta Kapur:

the modernising impulse is signalled into the visual arts in the use by Indian artists of the medium of oils and the easel format. There are several aspects to this choice. One, that the know-how is not easily obtained by an Indian. The fact and fiction of Ravi Varma's struggle to. learn oil painting becomes a legend. Here is not only the struggle of the artist to gain a technique but the struggle of

a native to gain the source of the master's superior knowledge, and the struggle of the prodigy to steal the fire for his own people [Kapur 1989: 601.

She

characteristics of oil as a medium and the

of these features for what we

implications

might call the 'politics'

goes

on

to

stress

the

special

of representation:

Oil as paint matter encourages the simula- tion of substances (flesh, cloth, jewels, gold, masonry, marble) and the capture pf atmos- pheric sensations (the glossiness of light, the translucent depth of shadows). Realism flowing from such material possibilities of paint is a way of appropriating the world,

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 1990

saturatingthe consciousness with it. It is also a way of appeasing the acquisitive impulse. This realism is then inalienably related to bourgeois desire, bourgeois ideology and ethics [Ibid]. Avant-garde, indeed creative, in its time, the calendar art style is now sedimented as an authentic Indian 'kitsch' with an ephemeral past and an uncertain future. Though the religious icons continue to be in steady demand, becoming slicker with each passing year, the last decade has seen a notable attrition in the production of non- religious calendars. Glossy colour photo- graphic reproductions-of film and pop stars, beautitul babies, cute children and pets, religious and political leaders, land- scapes, etc, the typical subject mnatterof the non-religious calenldars, and decorative posters of westernl dcesig n and origin have eased out the work of indigenous artists, or deflected their energies into other (evienmore ephemeral) media suchl as street hoardings,

advertising,

The 'Victorian Indian' art style pioneered by Ravi Varnia has been (Icprecatcd as in-

authentic by later art critics, seekinig an essential Indianness in other ways, and denigrated for its conservatism and ob- solescence in the light of emerging new trends within European art [Kapur 1989: 69;

Rao 1953: 9]. The irony is that the Inidian- ising effort of these critics and their proteges now appear equally inauthlentic, if in dif- ferent ways, and that in the ultimate arnalysis all movements in modern Indian art history

have been parasitic on the west even while seeking to articulate a genuinely Indian sen- sibility [Parimoo 19731. The images that Ravi Varma created were shortly transposed into celluloid with the first motion pictures, since when the calen- dar art and film (and now television) in- duistrieshave existed in relations of symbiotic give and take. Now calendar representations of Ram and Sita look unashamedly like Arun Govil and Deepika, while conversely the latter are flesh and blood embodiments of the aesthetic canons of the calendar art style of representation. In his subject matter, too, Ravi Varina strangely prefigured the range of themes and stereotypes that were to become the staples of calendar art. Distributors of calendars in- formally classify their wares into four categories: dharmic (religious themes and icons and scenes from the epics, particular-

ly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata); patriotic (portraits of national heroes and leaders, past and present); filmi (essentially pin-ups and portraits of movie stars); and scenaries (which differ from the former categories by expressly excluding depiction of the human form). In the first three of these categories, the representation of women is a central, though by no means ex-

clusive, focus. The works of

his so-called 'school' ('so-called' because they were mainly family members who col-

laboratedwith him on his major commis- sions, or carriedon the traditionafter his death) coveredthe same range of themes,

political

propaganda,

tic.

Ravi Varma and

WS-43

witha notablepreoccupationwith feminine imagery tChaitanya 1960: 12-13;Thakurta 1986: 191ff.I What is particularlynoteworthyhere is the factthatthisrangeencompassesboththe sacredand the secularin a continuum. On the one end are religiousicons, destinedto be sacredobjects of worshipin homes and shrines;on the otherhand,purelydecorative piecesandalmosteroticpin-ups.In thecon- tinnum from the dharmic through the

patriotic to the 'filmi', the sacred and the secularpoles appearto be mediatedby the patriotic,as in the figureof Mother India.

In

mutuallyinvokeeachother-in calendarart as in RaviVarma'spaintings.Goddessesare luscious women, and luscious womengod- desses,as has often beenremarked[Parimoo

1973:31;see comparablyMode 19701.The 'motherwith child' is an IndianMadonna,

or Yashoda and the infant Krishna-the

another sense, the

polar opposites

'mother'both earthlyand divine, SenISUous

and pure. This is one reason why the analysis

of

women(see below)seems to spontaneously

call forth the conceptual distinctions and oppositions that remergein analysisof the female deities of the Hindu pantheon [see

e g, Gatwood 1985], in fact why so many discussions of Hindu women's lives today begin deconstruction of sacred imagery [Wadley1977;Nandy 19801. The elision of the sacredand the secular

is a peculiarand distinguishing featureof

calendarartas a style,andone whichmakes

apparently secular images of

Indian

its

analysissomewhatproblematicaccording

to

certainof the generallyacceptedtheories

of

arthistory.Sociologistsareusedto seeing

the rise of modernity in the separationiof the secular from the sacred, and there has been posited a similar process of 'desacra-

lisation' in art history too [see Benjamin 1973:esp 225-228]. An examinationof the archiveof calendarart, on the contrary,and of the Indian cinema for that matter [see Das 1981],wouldsuggestthattherehas been

a continualprocessof 'resacralisation'over

the last century. This is consistent with the formula of 'cultural nationalism' which identified 'tradition' with 'religion'

and 'religion' with a newly constituted 'Hinduism'.In the 'rescripting'of the past through the self-conscious promotion of

feminineidealtypesone hasbotha represen- tationof Indiato itself, andof Indiato out- siders as well.

A firststep in this processwasthe identi-

ficationof significanteventsandcameosout of the greatcorpusof Indianmyth, history and legend. Specifically,the invocation of

a notion of the 'classical'involved:(i) the

definitionof the canon, especiallyemphasis

on the 'Aryan'and the privileging of the Ramayanaand the Mahabharataas classics

of pan-Indian reference;(ii) identification

of

instance, the romanticcelebrationof con-

jugal love and self-sacrificingwifely devo-

tion (as of

Damayanti, Shakuntala and Dushyanta,

central themes from the canon, for

Rama and Sita, Nala and

WS-44

etc), themes which incidentally

enormous appeal for Europeans, too

[Chakravarti 1989]; and (iii) the encapsula- tion of these thenes in significant dramatic episodes such as, e g, the 'swan messenger'

or

Shakuntala removing a thorn from her foot as pretext for a lingering backward glance at Dushyanta, or Ravana abducting Sita, etc [see the plates in Lalit Kala Academy 1960].3 Sets of paintings on mythological themes were among Ravi Varma's most im- portant commissions, and one senses an almost religious 'mission' in their propaga- tion to a mass public through thousands of cheap lithographic reproductions. The idea had first been put to him in 1884 by Sir Madhava Rao in the following words:

bringing

had

a

message

to

Damayanti,

"There are many of my friends who are desirous of possessing your works. It would be hardly possible for you, with only a pair of hands, to meet such a large demand. Send, theretore, a tew of your select works to Europe and have thenmoleographed. You will thereby not onl! extend your reputation,

bllt will be doing atreal service to your coun-

try'" [Chaitanya

1960: 5, emphasis

minel.

The other aspect of Ravi Varma's project,

again one consistent with the goals of cultural nationalism, was the construction of a pan-Indian material representation of Indian womanhood through the creation of types that were both racially authentic yet universal, realistically individual yet typical and, more importantly, regional yet national [Kapur 1989: 621]. This rather paradoxical ambition led Ravi Varma twice on major tours of the country to record its physical types and landscapes, domesticating the variety within a single aesthetic frame which was 'Aryanising' in its ideological thrust,

uipper bourgeois

in its taste (in costume,

jewellery, accoutrements and theatrical set- tings), and 'Orientalist' in its mode of ap-

propriation of other classes and ethnic types for the 'genre style paintings [see also Berger 1972: 103-104; Kapur 1989: 62-63].

the

highest international recognition yet accor- ded an Indian artist when he won several awards for a set of ten paintings exhibited at the International Exhibition in Chicago. Significantly, all ten of the paintings had women as their subjects, including women from different regions of India, from dif- ferent communities and from different walks of life,5 and the citation expressly com-

mended their ethnographic interest; an extension here, surely of the Orientalist gaze:

The series of well-executedpaintings give an idea of the progressof instruction of art [in India]. They are true to nature in form and colour, and preserve the costumes, current

lThakurta

1986: 190 n 110]. Similarly, a famous and now much com- mented on painting of eleven Indian women musicians, entitled 'The galaxy' [Kapur 1989: 73-75], on close inspection reveals a

In

1892-93,

Ravi

Varma

achieved

fashions and social features

tableauof womenfromdifferentregionsand communitiesof thecountry,eachan authen-

tic physicaltype and dressedin recognisably regional apparel but subject to a single aesthetic.One is stroniglyremindedof the

contemporary'Brides of

parades and pageants, a self-conscious displayof 'unityin variety',linkedwithina

bourgeois aesthetic and appropriately Aryanisedas well. Wherewomenof othergroupsandclasses

are on

reasonsof race,classor professionfromthe narcissisticself-imagingof modernIndlia- they are either appropriated withinl a bourgeois mould (complexions made 'wheaten', for instance), or exoticised (eroticised)as ethnographiccuriosities-or both at once. The kitschy'Vegetableselrer', by RaviVarma'syoungerbrotherand otteni- tinmesassistant,C RajaRajaVarma(see the

plate in Lalit Kala Academy 1960) is un-

India' calendars,

display-women

disqualified by

comfortably

micddle class enactment of the woomen of

otherclassessuichas one findsat everyfancy dressparadein an 'Englishmediumiipublic school': typical 'genre'productions.

reminiscent of the sort of

III

Gender and Calendar Art

Now to the 'archive'of calendarart.6 First, it is obvious that women and women'sbodies are very much on display, exhibitedbefore the male gaze, objects of

desire.Theymay boldly returnthe gaze, as in the case of the scantily clad reclining 'vamp' figure,surroundedby wine bottles

remarkably

evocative of Manet's 'Olympia'). Or the glance tnay be deflected, and near nudity drapedin clingingwet whitegarments,full

and grapes (and looking

breastsanderectnipplesshowingthrough, a hypocriticalmixtureof pureinnocenceand sensuality.Thegopis covertheirnakedness with their hands and plead with a smug Krishnaforthereturnof theirclothes,neatly foldedbesidehim on the branchesof a tree [see Mode 1970: 27]. Adam and Eve hold theirfig-leavescoyly in place,watchedby a smirkingserpent.Thedisrobingof Draupadi

is enactedbeforea court of spectatorsand

the voyeur-buyer.Theyeil of a burqais pro- vocativelyraisedto confera seductiveglance on the viewer.A set of Muslim women of all ages are revealed at prayer.unveiled beforean invisiblebeholder.Withtheexcep- tion of Adam, whose predicamentwas the fault of Eve, men are not on display! In a sense, the 'commodification' of women throughcalendarart is implicit in the function of 'display: but it is made explicit by the consociation of images of women with a rangeof materialproducts* rather after the manner of commercial advertising.A common reactionto a calen- darartframeis: "Thatmustbe an adverise- mentforsuch-and-sucha product"(a watch,

a tansistor,a bicycle,a pair of sandals, for instance), and in fact large firms do com- mission advertisementcalendarsfor publi-

city purposes.7 Commercialadvertisinguses essentially the same languageand also

Economic

and Political

Weekly

April 28,

1990

exploits images of women and displays of women'sbodies,whetheror not the product concerned is gender-typed. The consociationof womenwith material productshas two distinct but related func- tions. On the one hand it reinforcescultural stereotypesof women'sroles,with particular stress on the domestic role [see also Mode 1970]. Little girls are 'cutified'8 as little women,playingat 'house-house',whilelittle boys anticipate futurecareersin the armed forces and the professions. Of course, one also sees occasional self-consciousattempts to createnew associations.The littlegirl (or androgynous infant) playing doctor; the woman scientist at work in her laboratory; IndiraGandhi as the leader of a nation at

war-these

thatarenonethelesssociallyacceptablefrom the standpointof a society addressingitself to 'modernisation',and they certainly have none of the ambiguitythat characterisesthe contemporaryattempt to market a speci- fically 'woman's'cigarette. The constant reiteration of certain associationshas the ideological function of making(culturallyconstructed)genderroles appear as 'natural'and the consumer pro- ducts concerned 'naturally' and self- evidentlyfeminised.The shy brideis clad ill brilliant scarlet, and weighed down with ornate gold jewellery, The housewitfeis surrounded by a set of modern kitchen appliances,or is seen busily at workon her sewing machine.A college girl in tight and revealing salwar-kameez poses beside a bicycleor a scooter(a genreexpresslyentitl-

ed 'cycle-wz'i' or 'scooter-wAli'). A film star

of yesteryear stands before an

feminine associated products and beauty

aids.9

All very 'natural'.But the innocence is destroyedwhen one detailsthe itemsinvolv- ed: fineclothes,jewellery,cosmetics,lingerie, kitchen appliances and utensils, sewing machine,watch,tablefan,TV,cycle,scooter, sofa set, dressingtableand coffee table-in -fact, the complete range of lower middle class dowry items of the day, minus the

doublebed.The womanis assimilatedto this rangeof status symbol consumer products .and in the process she is commoditised herself. Neither the bicyclenor the scooter

is a 'feminine' product per se. They provide

the occasion or excuse for display of the female form, no doubt, and no doubt also

are all rather different images

array of

psychologists

image as a projection of the Indian male's fa-,tasyof female'power'.Butessentially the

bfcycleand the scooter,and the radioor TV which mayoccupythe same frame,arecon-

would happily construe this

sumer

items that typicaily

go

along

with

women in the material transactions that accompany Indian marriage. 1 The tropising of women as signiiiers of the national society is a morecompiex, and to my mind more interesting,phenomenon,

especially so because of the elision of the

genre.

(Continuingsthe projectbeg-uninlt;e nine- teenth century,the archiveof caiendar art

sacred and the secular throughout th

Economisc

and

Political

Weckly

A i-,

28,

establishes a 'tradition' for the present, recognisescertaintextsas authoritative,and legitimatescertainidealroles.In additionto these positive moves, it also expresslyor by opposition createsa set of negativestereo- types. Within the hegemony of values so

established, difference appears almost as resistance,and invitesinterrogation.In fact. the plurality of images offered in the total corpus provides alternatives within and againstthe homogenisingimperativesof the modern mass media. Whetherone chooses to locate these alternatives in (i) non- Sanskriticinfluences;in (ii) popularor folk cultures; or (iii) in especially resilient elements in the indigenous 'tradition',still untouchedby modernprocessesof hybridi- sation or westernisationis not important. Whatis importantis the 'space'thuscreated for different articulations, and this has specialrelevanceto the question of women. In fact, reading the general social science literatureon the 'statusof women' in India leavesone ratherunpreparedfor some of the propositionsthat are veryinsistentlystated

in the calendar art medium. Two of these,

I feel, deserve special attention: (i) the

emphasison the brother-sisterrelationship; and (ii) the celebrationof 'love'betweenthe sexes-of the female devotee for the male deity, or of man for womln, inside or out-

side marriage. It would seem that not all relatioils of the sexes can be construed as sites for the exerciseof patriarchalpower, and that interpretationof gender relations

in terms of 'sexualpolitics' alone does not

do justice to the totality of the.archive. Not unexpectedly, episodes from the Mahabharataand Ramayanatake pride of place, parallelingand evokingthe television serials. To the extent that 'tradition' and

'femininity' are defined together with referenceto suchclassictexts,the Ramayana appearsto offer the most consistent set of femininerole images, focused on the figure of Sita: Sita accompanies Rama into exile; Sita is abducted by Ravana;the returnto Ayodhya;the ordeal(s) of fire, and so on. The emphasis is clearly on the themile of wifely fidelityand subordination,aindalter- native renderingsof the narrativeare sup- pressed [Chakravarti1983]. The inverseimage is that of the 'vamp',

stock figureof the commercialciniema[see Nandy 1981].At one level,the vanipappears as the pin-up par excellence,displayinigher body before tie male gaze, a 'sex object' availableto male appropriation. At another I, ii.-vever, this construction clearly missesthe wholeambienceof the temptress'

a

,.

role, for here it is she who has the power,

and the malewho is in dangerof appropria- tion. The distinction is telling! The life of Krishna, tying in with the Mahabharata,is a second importantsource of authoritative imagery. Of particuilar interest with reference to gender is the privilegingof the mother-son relationship as one of affection, tenderness and play- fulness, sometimes approachingeroticism. Represenstationsof Krishnaand his foster-

1990

motherYashoda,especiallyof the disciplin- ing of the 'Butter-stealer',are among the most charmingof thewholecorpusof calen-

dar art. Again it makes no sense to discuss

the 'sexualpolitics' of the relationship,even

if one conceded that the ideological com-

pulsion for motherhood is experiencedby some Indian women as very constraining. Interpretationsof the Hinduipantheon frequentlycontrast 'consort deities' (those representedalong with theirhusbands)with

goddesses representedalone, and similarly 'mother-goddesses'depicted with children, and those without [e g, Wadley1975;1977, Babb 1975]. The criterion underlying this

classification is a differentiation in powveror,

alternatively,relative 'autonomy' of male control,thesebeingthe chiefconcernsof the women's liberation movement. The powerful mother goddess (Durga/ Kali)is an importantfigurein the pantheon, at once nurturant and destructive. This imagerytendsto invadethe seculardomain whenever the themne of patriotism is involved: the earthly mother/the mother goddess/the 'Motherland'/BharatMata all

coalesce. To cite an example from the archive, a set of national heroes (Shivaji,

Rana

Bhagat Singh, ChandrashekharAzad) sur- roundthe image of a beautifulwoman car- ryinga lamp.By wayof clarificationthe text tells us that 'the lamp of the heroes burns

in the templeof theMother'.Onerecallshere

also M F Husain'sresponseto the declara-

tion of Emergency:a triptychof paintings showing Indira Gandhi as the goddess Durga.The imagerywasactuallyanticipated

in bazaarart at the time of the Bangladesh

war, when IndiraGandhi took on the role of the goddess to vanquish the country's foes. The relationshipof brotherand sister- the exchangeof metaphysicalfor material protection-is prominentlyenactedin calen- darart.A possiblereasonis thatthe Bhaiya- Dhuj-festival (one wNhichis thought to be assumingincreasingimportancein contem- porary India)" follows close on Diwali, when the calendarsare normally sold and distributed. However,it is clear fronmthe representations that the brother-sister relationshipis associated with the Rajput/

Kshatriya/non-Brahimiintradition within Hinduism. I am remindedof one calendar

in particular.The foregroundis occupiedby

a brotherand sister engaged in the rakhi-

tyingritual.Tothe rear,witnessingthem,sits an old Rajput man, gun across his knees, whiilea rightly-deckedwoman(suhagin-type) looks on. In the background one sees evidence of agricultural prosperity- bountifulfieldsanda tubewell.ILalBahadur Shastri (a rarefigure in calendarart), who

apparentlycoined the slogan Jai jawan,jai kisan, pesides at the top of the painting. The total complex of featuresrepresentsa statementof whatone mightcall the Rajput 'ethos', within which the brother-sister relationship occupies a special place. Every.year's collection of calendar art

Pratap, Subhash Chandra Bose,

WS-45

yields a representationof Mirabai,ecstatic, abandoned,oblivious to social decorumin her devotion to Krishna. The picture is almost erotic.Cynics might say, with some justification,thatthestoryof Mirais simply expioitedby the manufacturerto exhibitthe female body for the voyeur-buyer.At the same time, however, the uninhibited sensuality of Mirabai suggests an alter- native,relatively un&xploredparadigm of femininity, 2 as does the cternallove story of Radha and Krishlna,or of Shah Jahan and Muumtazl3egum. Female sexuality, transparenthere, conitrastswith the noi- sensuality of the faithful wife/devoted imothcr,and also with the negative and dangeroussensualityof thevamp/temptress.` In the popularcineina, the sensual woman appearsto be an unsable role:she muLlstbe scriptedultimatelyas wifeor vamp,or conle to a sticky end as a categoricalembarrass- ment. Here, in calenidarart, she enjoys a

brief moment of

overall thrust of the medium towards the classical, the Aryan, the Brahmanicaland the bourgeois.In any case, like the brother- sister relationshiip,the love of the devotee and the passionof trueloverslie ouitsidethe

hierarehicalparadigmprovided by Manu.

legitimnacydespite the

the

single

text

which

is meant

to

suimmate

the quialitv ot relation.s

of the sexes and the

'status ot women' undlerthe traditional

Hindu ideological order,against wvhichthe womens movement is pitted. These ar-c

suirely commrzand

furthlerinterrogation. In its celebration of the brother-sister bond and of the relationiof true lovers, calendarartcanappearas a siteof resistance apainst dominant (patriarchal)ideologies, past anid present, Whilethle con1spicuIOuLs

themes which should

representation

of

femlalc

'power'

confronlts

the frequentconstructionof lndianiwomen as powerlessanldsubordinated.There is a danger here,however,of romanticisingthe muediumsimply because it is iion-elite. IPut crudely,one maybe makingthe assumption

(shall we call it the 'subaltern fallacy'?) that

the masses can do no wrong, or that in the

case

manipulatedby the power of the state, by certainclasses, by vestedinterestsor by the

imperatives.of technology.'4 In fact, in order to survive,the calendar art industry must give the public what it wants (print

they do,

it

is

because they are

orders may run iilto

a million);

but at the

same time it canmanipulateor createthose wantsto some extent,accordingto the con- straintsof the culturalcode and the limita-

sumer societies would seem to indicate. It is perhaps too earls! to answer this question-at least on the basis of the archive

at hand-but some trends may be noted

nonetheless. Recall Ravi Varma's famous painting, 'The galaxy' which presented the theme of

'unity in variety' through th; representation

of women from different communities aud

regions of the country. It appears that the celebrtion of rcgionial diversity is 1nows rather muted in caleldlir art. Ih1ollng it is imiplicitin thc total archive (i C,onelcan finlld

fenminine tigures in recognisisably regional attire-1Punjabi, Kashmiri, Maharashtrian, etc), one no loniger finds the deliiberate.

assemnblage of regionial types as a way otf statinig thie mnessageof nationlal unity. (The Republic Day Paiade, however, still con- fornmsto its old format.) On the one hand there is the consolidation of a rieNscom-

promise/cosmopolitan

woomanmarked by her class characteristics

rather than regional origins: fair, plumpish, well-groonmed,ssharp-featLred, ornamented; both demure and confidenit (an ideal Air India hostess). Other classes and groups (the fisher girl, peasant girl, tribal girl, industrial worker), typical stibjects of 'genre-painitiig', are appropriated within this aesthetic scheme, or clearly identified as 'other'. Alter- natively, a single temlininie tfigure-Bharat Nlata/Durga/Indira Gandhdi-occupies the mlap of Inidia, holdinig aloft the tricolour/ trident in a sign of symbolic protection, receiving the sacrifice of her 'sons' in a gestUreoft blessing. In contrast, the thcme of the unity,

and cquality ot all religionis has

beci an imnportanltalndcontiniuous one-at lealst unltil recently, This is implicit in the range of caiendar art representations, including specifically Hinidu, Muslim,

Christian, Jaim,Sikh and Buddhist calendars (and within these categories, a certain cater- ing to sectarian allegiance), and explicit in the frequent consociation of different com- munitarian motifs within a sitigle framne.B3t how this consociation is actively rendered is

a crucial coinsideration, for the 'message' may be one of parity, or it may be one of appropriation within an hegemonic order. In one case I have in mind, visual and text appear to indicate the parity of all paths to spiritual enlightenment: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian women are portrayed again.st the background of their places of worship (temple, mosque, gurdwara,

church), the four paths converging to a single

type of femininity-a

cqliValCnce

tions of the mode of representation.

'lamp'.'6 In another

case,

male

represen-

My own feelingis thatthe genreof caleni-

tatives of the four communities

(differen-

darartrepresentsa groundon whichtheten- sion between'unity'and 'variety',or between

tiated by their headgear) partake of the milk dripping from the udders of a cow. The text

'hegemony' and 'pluralism'is played out, especially-though not exclusively-through the use of womenas signifiers. The issue is

reads:Desh-dharamikanatahai;gai hamari

niata hai, and confirms the appropriative message of the visual.

process of reconstruction.What one has

wl,ther

or nlot the tension is a stable at-

The corpus of calendar/bazaar art is

tributeof the genre,or whetherits resolu- tion is tending in a particulardirection, as the mechanicalapplicationof some theories of theroleof themassmediain moderncon-

open-ended, the nation an entity still under negotiation, and 'femininity' a quality in the

triedto indicatehere,however,is the wayin

which constructionsof national ethos and understandingsof womanlinessmay tie in

each other in a single medium as

mutually entailing aspects of a total iden-

with

tity. The consequencesof this conjunction tor Indianwomanhoodhavestill to be spelt

out. But in any case the suggestion is that

ivisibility'

phenomenonas 'invisibility'fromthe point of view of women.

may

be

as

problematic a

Notes

[ihis paper is based oni an illuistratedlecture presenitc(lat the V KrishinaMemorial Seminar

on 'Practices of

History' held at N1irandaHiouse,Universityof Dellhi,Marchi22-23, 1990. 1am grateful t tite participalnltsat thlizatsemtiinarfor theircomments, and especially to UmiaChakravartifor her en-

Represeiltation in Art and

couragement itlihc project from its inception.]

I

By 'calendar'or 'bataar' art I referto a par- ticular style otf popular colour reproduc- tions, with sacred or merely decorative motifts,whilchmay or may not have an ac- tual 'caletndar'attached to or printed on themii.(It is not known precisely when the 'calendar' becanmeassociated with the par- tietilar style of representation.) Calendars are usually marketed at the line of the Diwali festival, in advance of the solar new year,though postersin the calendar'artstyle mnaynow be found all the year round. The art style extends beyond calendars and posters. In fact, it is a general 'kitsch' style which cani be found on street hoardings, filmiiposters, sweet boxes, fireworks(again for Diwali), wall paintings and advertising, anid in the knick-knacks sold in fairs and melas. rhe literature on calendar art tS rather leagre. I can suggest only Varma 1976 and (Ghosh 1978. WVorkson popular bazaar paintings (e g, Archer 1953) are useful, as also arethe studieson the founder of the style, Ravi Varma(1848-1906). Here

I

have relied heavily on two excellent new stuidies-Thakuirta 1986and Kapur 1989- and ailsoon Chaitanva1960.I havenot been able to conlsult Venniyoor 1981, on which both T'hakurtaand Kapur base many of their observations. Analyses of Indian popular cinema, particularly of the imythological' film as a type, are both useful and suggestive.See, e g, Kapur 1987; Das 1981; Nandy 1981, etc.

2

See my discussion of the paralleldiscourses on widow-immolation in India and foot- binding in China (Uberoi 1990).

3

Present day 'classic comics' for children (AntarChitraKatha)and storybook presen- tations of Indian culture for children go over mnuchthe same ground.

4

I may have misconstrued Kapur here, but

I

find her categories suggestive.

5

According to Kapur[1989:79, n 281the set comprised: two paintings of upper-caste Kerala women; two paintings of women from the Muslim courts; a Parsi bride; a Maratha girl with her domestic deity; a Tamil Brahmin 'daughter-in-law'; an Ayyangar lady; a group of South Indian gypsies; and a Bombay nauitchgirl.

6

The 'archive' on which

this discussion is

based is a set of severalhundred calendars

WS-46

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 1990

 

collected over the last 25 years by J P S Uberoi and myself, with somrepieces from

 

jee, eds, Women in India and Nepal,

Canberra, Australian National University

 

Jai Santoshi Ma' India InternationalCentre Quarterly, special issue on Indian Popular

 

the

1950s.Some of the calendars have been

 

press, pp 1-20.

 

Cinema 8 (1), 43-55.