Sunday, January 4, 2004

Pictorial art and the Indian ethos
Some thoughts on calendar
Usha Bande

THE innocuous calendar fluttering on the wall is a utility item. Interestingly, over the years it has become not only a decoration piece that is meant to add colour to the room but also an art object that displays the taste of the owner. Even today when the calendar is no longer a part of drawing room decoration of the elite urban society, it is still a cherished object d’art in towns and villages. There calendars are exhibited on the walls and preserved for years for the sake of religious value or even pictorial beauty.

Between Divali and the New Year, one encounters a mind-boggling variety of calendar art displayed in all its garish glory. It is the time to buy, gift or distribute calendars. The marketing and shopping of calendars assumes importance during Divali. Every conceivable spot in shopping centres, on pavements and subways, glitters with bright poster colours — deep red and green and electric blue. Large-sized calendars are spread on the pavements or hung on roadside trees. These mostly have pictures of gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon on glossy paper. The most popular pictures are those of Lakshmi and Ganesh, followed by Shiv, Hanuman and others.

Originally, decorating the walls with highly prized trophies and paintings was a western concept. During the colonial period, Indian royal families and aristocratic and wealthy households took to commissioning artists to paint exclusively for them. The display of original art objects functioned as signs of rank, taste and wealth. To own a Van Gogh or a Ravi Varma piece was a matter of pride. Even today, some of the museums housed in the royal palaces of Mysore, Jaipur, Hyderabad and other places are the proud owners of some rare paintings. The common man, however, was happy with rangoli patterns and the ritual wall-decorations drawn by the women of the household as auspicious symbols. Later, techniques of mechanical reproduction like lithography, oleography and photography became crucial in generating the colourful pictures. When the posters/pictures began to be produced on a mass scale, the day-date papers came to be attached to these.

In colonial India, calendar art was not an indigenous popular art form but a hybrid style produced for British patrons and the Anglicised Indian elite. It denoted the westernisation of taste of the bourgeois Indians and the modification of a foreign medium to suit the Indian style. The credit for popularising calendar art and taking his paintings to the masses goes to Ravi Varma (1848-1906), the painter-artist from the royal household of the Travancore state of Kerala. An artist par excellence, Ravi Varma was the first Indian painter to master the technique of western oil painting. He also set up one of the earliest lithographic presses in India. These presses reproduced Varma’s mythological paintings by the thousands. These reproductions reached Indian homes across the vast span of the land but at a massive cost to his art.

Some of the early calendars demonstrate his graceful portraits of goddess Lakshmi, the lithe Shakuntala, the beautiful Damayanti and the harassed Sahirhandri hiding her eyes from the gaze of Keechak. But unfortunately, the paintings became the objects of the erotic gaze and his art became synonymous with kitsch. During the freedom struggle, the common motifs were of mother India and the traditionally accepted mother-son duo of Yashoda-Krishna.

Calendar representation has undergone rapid change over the years. It is now a popular art form as well as an advertising medium of sorts. Apart from religious icons and mythological figures, new and more patriotic and secular themes are displayed on calendars. Large establishments like banks, insurance corporations, big corporate houses and airways, and even central and state governments have entered the field. Though religious themes are still in popular demand, depictions of Indian textiles, folk arts and crafts, and places of tourist interest are also gaining ground.

During the 60s, popular calendar displays pertained to the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan. Pictures of farmers and lush green fields formed the foreground or there was the Army in action with Patton tanks in the backdrop. Portrayals of dams and some industrial establishments and other sites of progress were also trendy. The secular topics present themes of unity and the equality of all religions. To emphasise this theme, some calendars portray men and women wearing different state costumes or people with different religious affiliations standing within a map of India with a lamp burning in the middle. The lamp is symbolic and may well refer to Cardinal Newman’s famous poem, so liked by Gandhiji, "Lead Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom."

One of the calendars I remember that almost became a craze in the late 1970s and 1980s was an Air India production of the ornaments of India. Printed on thick, high quality paper, it devoted a page of considerable dimension to each month. Each page had the picture of an ornament from one region or state of the country, and provided a small write-up on the ornament, its significance, and occasion of wearing it and so on. Others followed suit with attractive pictures and informative texts on Indian textiles, sarees, shawls, musical instruments, food, festivals and dances.

One more calendar that I have preserved for its high-quality printing and fascinating crayon paintings pertains to rural scenes from across the country. There is a hut from Himachal with a slate roof, and another, with coconut fronds from Goa and the coastal regions, there is one with wooden planks and cane roofs from Assam and the North-East and yet another one from Punjab. Each hut has a typical village scene with women drawing water from the wells or fishermen at their oars, children playing around and the cattle ruminating in a relaxed village ambience. Such calendars are a mine of information apart from being visual delights.

One significant change in the calendar was perceptible around the 1970s when some enterprising printer brought out a secular version that replaced the pictorial calendar. Named Kaal Nirnaya, these calendars followed the Western date-month pattern but also provided the Saka Samvat. All the significant festive occasions or anniversaries, irrespective of religious affinities, are recorded against each day. There are no pictures to create any controversy. The back page covers monthly predictions, the Railways’ timetable for the region, cookery and health write-ups and other factual details of day-to-day importance. Thus, these project a kind of national ethos.

Chic and elegant table calendars and tiny card-like pocket calendars are also popular these days. Sometimes, the subjects chosen are socially relevant and even emotionally catching. One such calendar had postcard-sized paintings by mentally challenged children and orphans. Their themes spoke of their deep psychic needs and one could not but feel their pain.

Representation of India through the calendar has set a tradition of its own. It has special relevance for the pluralistic nature of Indian reality. Calendars are like cultural ambassadors and a person usually likes to put up only that calendar which is in line with his/her ideas or philosophy of life.

In the present context, however, feminists are sore over the depiction of women in calendar art and feel that presenting women in all their feminine charm to the public gaze is an insult to women. Even the depiction of gods and goddesses on calendars is considered a humiliating experience by some. What we require is a neutral and featureless representation with only columns for day-dates. But that would be so uninterestingly bland and faceless. After all, we like to partake of the visual pleasure of glancing at some beautiful image — may be a painting, a landscape or monument or a deity.