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

Miniature Societies and Grihani Aesthetics

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...dolls are arranged in five levels with the King and Queen seated at the topmost level. Dolls, perhaps signifying the other aspects of the agrarian society or community living like potters, blacksmiths and soldiers are seated in the descending levels. Preeti Nagaraj, "Dolled up for Dasara", Deccan Herald.
http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Oct162007/spectrum2007101530744.asp

Today's parents do not have time to really teach their children traditional knowledge and wisdom - "Keeping Traditions Alive", Deccan Herald. http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Oct192007/metro2007101931459.asp 

 
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Fig.07

Dasara displays are fiction and theatre, designed to present a tableau of society in miniature, particularly of moments of grandeur such as darbar or procession (Fig. 8). The festival itself has this purpose; historically it was an event in which rulers asserted their cosmology as supreme and valid in front of the gods and their contemporaries. The whole kingdom was made and remade in the idealized, smaller context of court. It is therefore unsurprising that display makers are keen not just to make something creative and beautiful but also to render aspects of their society in miniature form.

Grihani (“ideal housewife”) aesthetics, a term I use to describe the sensibility of the Dasara displays and their mode of representation, consolidate an upper caste-class household’s good taste and high culture through these small-scaled creations, which combine handicraft, industrial kitsch and homemade hobby art. Miniaturization is at the core of the display’s aesthetic order. As Susan Stewart has written in her book On Longing, the miniature is a specific way of relating to labour, time, narrative and indeed, the world at large. The truncated size of an object directly refers to pre-industrialized labour, particularly handicraft, even when it is made through industrialized production. That is why in Dasara displays, there is both a fascination with larger than life figures such as the gods and artisinal and peasant labour.

Deities must be at least partially unimaginable (the scale is too gigantic to describe) in
 
Fig.08
order for
them to be divine. But they also must be imagined at a smaller scale in order to represent their world as well as to make them inhabit our world. This is the fiction that displays visualize obsessively. If an artist shows the Ras Lila of Krishna and the gopis (Fig. 9) or the naming ceremony of Rama with a full cast of epic characters, women make a miniaturized Brindavan with trees made of paper or vegetables or sprouted wheat or insert in the Rama narrative real fruit and sweets. As display makers take these miniatures and elaborate the narrative with detail (e.g. adding cotton for Himalayan snow), the mythic-scape becomes
 
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Fig.09
domesticated. Most god narratives only focus on gentle, sweet or benign moments, suitable for a
home environment. For instance, an artist makes a Himalayan scape, with Karthikeya at the center and Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara offering him their worship (Fig. 10). The mountains are soft, lumpy silver mounds and placed in such an elevated setting, the boy god is made worthy of the trimurti’s devotion. The angry Devi at the heart of the Dasara story is usually worshipped as an icon and not located in a narrative. Domestication is not about making the home an otherworldly space but rendering the other world as part of the everyday.  In this way, Dasara and many other festivals become secularized; for this reason, Usha writes “often I feel the Hindu festivals have a stronger ‘socializing’ element than a spiritual one”. http://usha123.livejournal.com/3143.html#cutid1

Display makers also buy and install images of artisinal or peasant labour in progress - potters,
 
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Fig.10
carpenters, cobblers, blacksmiths and farmers are favourite subjects
(Fig. 11). The enchantment and preciousness endowed on these handcrafted lives and images is in direct contrast to the daily domesticity of most homes, which are either mechanized or depend on undervalued human labour provided by the domestic worker. The value placed on this genre is also in contrast to the lives of the artists – most would not be able to afford their own products and certainly do not make displays in their homes.

 
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Fig.11

For urban buyers, the lure lies in the scale of production implied by the handcrafted object, the figure of the artisan and the display itself. Craftspeople dolls most perfectly capture the perfection of the miniature world, where enumeration of detail in reduced scale produces an altered temporality, even a sense of timelessness (Fig. 12). The world of the display and the household in which it exists seem uncontaminated by the gigantic scale and the consequent stresses of industrialized work, at least during the duration of the festival. The tableau arrests time and provides a total view of the world in its stillness, even though most of genre scenes involve activity. Working with miniatures and making a miniature world relieves the pressure of industrial time or elongates it, one of the main goals of any contemporary celebration or festivity. Like a potter’s home, which is oriented around his occupation, the display becomes the central work of the household, particularly for the housewife who makes it. There is even a temporary identification between the housewife’s creativity with the artist’s labour, and in turn the household’s identification with the display maker’s work. http://agelessbonding.blogspot.com/2007/10/in-defense-of-imperfection.html

It is perhaps for this reason that housewives who attend hobby art classes are the largest new producers of craft objects, and why they most often choose to learn and appropriate historic craft styles rather than invent new ones. Indeed when reading the popular literature on Dasara displays, it becomes clear that it is the fantasy of the display that is important – in every account the artist is displaced or diminished by the presence of the display maker, except when artists are presented as producers of the “raw” materials. In this context, they become authors in relation to the desire of their buyers. For example, one source associated with a well-known handicrafts store in Mysore is quoted in a newspaper article stating, “Karnataka-based artists completely dismiss our suggestions. They are not willing to accommodate any changes in their work. But, artists from other states seek suggestions from us and implement them in a jiffy”. http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Oct162007/spectrum2007101530744.asp

One other aspect of the dolls is fascinating. If doll and display makers choose objects,
 
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Fig.12
themes and create tableaux, which arrest time, at what moment is the historical clock stopped?
A majority of objects reproduce architecture and social relations found in India of the mid-twentieth century in a style associated with popular calendar art and Amar Chitra Katha. One artist made a grihapravesam or housewarming scene in house form that was current in south India about fifty to seventy years ago, when the home was imagined primarily as a space for joint family living (Fig. 13 & Fig.14). It is hard to find an “apartment-warming” scene, though this is the type of home in which many middle and upper middle class people live today. The
 
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Fig.13
mixture of rural and urban decorative elements, modes of dress and social relations between men
and women of the family and between them and service/labour providers, represents fascination with wealth and nostalgia. These are of course, as Stewart writes, the “dominant motifs” of the dollhouse (On Longing, p. 61). In this scene, a cow is ready to be given to a Brahmin, a form of prestation no longer active today in urban settings, but which here functions as a sign of remembered class-caste origins, most likely those of the display maker. Nostalgia for life just around Independence is perhaps as important to the display as the miniature is: it was at this moment when many upper caste families left their villages and traditional occupations and sought to remake their wealth and status in cities. It is also a period before urbanized ambitions fragmented the joint family life valorized in these displays. And on a larger political map, the years just after Independence also represent a time before the nationalist victory became fractured and even delegitimized by caste and community struggles..

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