Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

The Commodity Image in the (Post) Colony

Arvind Rajagopal
Although calendar art may, at first glance, appear to be relatively changeless, it is of course transformed alongside mechanical innovation and the spread of capitalist markets, and reflects historical and political changes over the years. What might seem constant is the profusion of mythological imagery.
Fig.01

In fact, there are subtle but interesting shifts in how mythological imagery is treated in calendar art over time. For example, motifs and representational styles migrate from the mythological to other domains (Fig. 01). Meanwhile as the language of the market becomes more familiar, commodity images acquire an authority of their own, and no longer require the presence of gods and goddesses to win an audience.

The concept of the ‘commodity image’ was formulated by Wolfgang Haug to point to the importance of aesthetic mediation in the conversion of use value to exchange value. As with all mediation, what might be assumed to be instrumental is in fact constitutive.1  As a result, the commodity does not remain merely economic, nor the image only aesthetic. Since the process of exchange is a worldly event, the commodity’s representation through the image is also an historically located activity, explicable with reference to a given context.

Indian calendar art presents many of the shock effects of modernity including new technologies, space-time compression, political regime change, and new commodities and consumption practices, alongside mythological and religious elements. Commodity images emerge to help realize exchange value across unevenly developed contexts, and hence have effects beyond being economically functional to the growth of capitalism. Whether by registering a guard-rail of continuity alongside change, or a moral vantage point to consider such change, commodity-images in Indian calendar art negotiate epistemologically plural milieux, and hence provide an archive for understanding historical change.

The deities shown in Indian calendar art (as in Figure 01) are not continuous with temple art despite the similarity of their subject matter, because of the medium of their depiction.2   Print renders these images hybrid in character: they are both profane and sacral, iconographically conventional and yet new in the means of their reproduction and circulation. For example, they reached (and reach) not only twice-born castes, for example, but also untouchables who might have been barred from approaching the deities portrayed, if they were situated in Hindu temples. 

Such images were not merely artistic creations intended to convey a message so much as they combined artistic motifs and social conventions so as to increase their own circulation.3  Designed to evoke a minimum of friction as objects of passage, they did not reflect public opinion so much as they presented signs of the uses they were put to, as calendars advertising products and services for example. They presented combinations of objects and viewing styles that connoted social efficacy, thereby indicating also what kind of strength was envisioned for a picture, which constituencies were appealed to, as well as at times, which ones were omitted, or considered too weak to be more than passive mediators of the message. To circulate extensively, images had to be strong, and include pictorial and textual elements that gave them force. As such, images can be graded as ‘strong’ or ‘weak,’ based on the extent to which their terms of intelligibility remain stable across a larger or a smaller radius.4

But the use of religious imagery, however instrumental for its sponsors, existed for much of society not only as something strong and efficacious, but also as auspicious or good: these qualities were, and are, closely related in a context where the Western form of separation between “religion” and “culture” has not occurred. “Religion,” as we know, in one form or other provided the medium for much of the political conscientization and national mobilization that occurred during the colonial period, and thus acquired an emphatically public presence during a significant phase of Indian modernization. Colonial missionary activity only strengthened indigenous attempts to identify native religious life with national culture as a whole. Conventional accounts of the separation of church and state that occurred in Western Europe, and the supposed relegation of religion to the private sphere, are therefore misleading when invoked without qualification. 

The systematic and fairly large-scale use of religious imagery for commercial purposes nevertheless instrumentalized such imagery “as if the image of the deity gave cachet through association,” in Jim Masselos’s words.5  By virtue of introducing them into new contexts for purposes unrelated to their sacral origins, implied strength or efficacy as a distinct criterion, but without necessarily effacing ritually derived criteria.

Thus, rather than truth versus falsehood, which are the representational criteria for conventional realism, two other sets of oppositions were more relevant for Indian calendar art: strength versus weakness, and good versus bad (i.e., auspicious versus inauspicious). Although these are clearly related criteria, the former set of oppositions, strength versus weakness, became more important over time with the spread of commercial calendar art, reflecting the secularism of a commodity economy that could draw on and even reinforce the sacral, but was ultimately indifferent to it. But the latter remained important, and what is interesting is how these two sets of criteria could sometimes interact. In the remainder of this essay, I will try to show this interaction and discuss its implications.

Fig.02

Consider for example, the advertisement on left (Fig. 02). A heavy strongbox is presented to connote the dye’s “safety” – it cannot run, and will only go where it is led, or open when meant to.

Three barefoot coolies in white loincloth mutely demonstrate the product’s quality. The buyers of this product exist in a culture where such servitude can be taken for granted, and where laborers like goods, exist for what is demanded of them. They are conveyed as abstractions, with their faces obscured. Their incapacity to consume does not compromise the message. The object for sale here does not arise from a generalized system of equivalences where the labor-power of different classes readily computes vis-à-vis each other.6  On the contrary the consumption advertised is shown to be exclusive. Members of the working class, whose desires can be imagined and yet ignored, are pictured to convey the desirability of a given product.


1 In this context, see my essay “Advertising, Politics and the Sentimental Education of the Indian Consumer,” Visual Anthropology Review, vol. 14 no. 2, 1998-99, pp. 14-31. On commodity aesthetics, see Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, e.g., p. 8. For a somewhat differently inflected but useful discussion of the commodity image in the context of Indian advertising, see William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India, Duke University Press, 2003.
2 In this essay I consider Hindu mythological imagery alone. On Muslim imagery in calendar art, see Sandria B Freitag,  “South Asian ways of seeing, Muslim ways of knowing: The Indian Muslim niche market in posters,” The Indian economic and social history review. 44, no. 3, (2007), pp. 297-331.
3 See Kajri Jain, Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
4 The distinction is made in Boris Groys, Art Power. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 90-91, and has been discussed in his lecture, “Everybody is an Artist,” at the School of Visual Arts, New York, January 21, 2010. Groys’ discussion of these terms however, both in the book and in the lecture, relates them chiefly to contemporary art practice vis-à-vis mass culture and new media. My thanks to Magdalena Sabat for drawing my attention to Groys’ discussion.  Clearly, ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ are relational properties of an image that vary with context, rather than inhering in their own characteristics.
5 Jim Masselos, “A goddess for everyone: the mass production of divine images,” in Jackie Menzies, ed. Goddess Divine Energy. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales and Thames and Hudson, 2006, p. 148.
6 In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx emphasizes that production and consumption are equivalent and interchangeable from the point of view of capital. A recent critical intervention in this connection is the work of Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. Dartmouth, NH: University Press of New England, 2006.

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