Just how much 'meaning' is it possible to tease out of a set of kitschy Indian 'welcome' posters, the new year’s display of calendar art?
Quite a lot, it seems, if one is alerted to the semiotic code and stylistic conventions of Indian calendar art, and the peculiarities of the industry that produces it. There is much there, too, to engage a feminist sensibility, for women are very prominently figured in this medium, whether for better or for worse.
To begin with, one might remark on the fact that the industry simultaneously produces icons for worship and posters for decoration andentertainment, the sacred and profane, sometimes very profane -- in one medium. There are beautiful women who look like goddesses, and goddesses who look like beautiful women, thetwo linked together in the popular imagination through a legitimating notion of the 'classical'.
Lakshmi is the goddess of the Hindu pantheon whose image in particular adorns
the welcome posters. She is the bringer of wealth and plenty, an auspicious deity whose place may be taken, in otherwise identical representations, by the elephant-headed god, Ganesh,the remover of obstacles and equally a bringer of prosperity. The choice is a matter of personal identification, of community and of region, Ganesh being specially dear to the trading communities of western India, as well as a political symbol of Hinduism in the region, and the region in India.
Lakshmi has another specific connection with the medium of calendar art in general, and the theme of ‘welcome’ In particular. The annual peak season for retailing calendars is not in fact the beginning of the 'calendar year', so-called, but the new year by another calendar -- Diwali, the Hindu festivalof lights in October/November. Prior to Diwali, through much of India, houses and businesses are spruced up, new account books opened, and old icons replaced with new. A vast retail chain is activated to distribute the calendars, from wholesalers to picture-framing establishments to wayside stalls to pavement vendors, from cities to villages to the very remotest corners of the country. Along with the related everyday 'art' of the matchbox, calendars are the most ubiquitous products of the modernday mass media, penetrating virtually everywhere.
Lakshmi is an object of special ritual attention during Diwali. Homes and shops are illuminated with earthen lamps, candles and fairy lights to welcome the goddess and the good fortune she will bring for the coming year. The lighted lamp is both the instrument of her worship and the semiotic sign of her presence. And it can also stand alone, synecdochically, as a symbol of the auspiciously sacred, a versatile decorative motif wheresoever one looks.