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

Temple in a Frame

God Posters For and Of Worship

Richard H. Davis

Among the first Indian firms to mass produce lithographs, the Calcutta Art Studio initially issued its images of the Hindu deities in bound folios, much as European artists in India had done previously.  However, as Christopher Pinney has observed in his Photos of the Gods (p. 30), the firm quickly discovered “an enthusiastic market for their images as artefacts in domestic ritual.”  Indian buyers wanted single prints of the gods, for worship, not bound volumes for leisurely perusal.  The Calcutta publisher soon began to issue its chromolithographs individually, as what would later be called “framing pictures.”

This anecdote illustrates two primary points that will serve as foundations for this essay.  First, in late nineteenth century Calcutta, and likewise in India throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, there has existed a compelling public interest in acquiring inexpensive two-dimensional images of the Hindu deities, often for purposes of worship.  Second, throughout this period artists and publishers of prints, acting within a commercial art sphere, have created and adjusted their visual products to meet this demand.      

From the early firms like the Calcutta Art Studio and Chitrashala Press in Pune, up to the large contemporary firms like Brijbasi Art Press in Delhi and Mumbai and J. B. Khanna in Chennai, the “calendar print” industry in India has produced a veritable ocean of Hindu religious imagery (as well as, to a much lesser degree, images for Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and other religious communities).  The Priya Paul Collection has drawn up a few bucketfuls from this ocean of images.  This collection provides a wonderful resource for examining how the artists have sought to address and satisfy the religious interests of the Indian consumer.  As we will see, poster artists have produced compelling images of the deities for worship, and also fascinating images of Hindu worship.

Priya Paul has noted that the first object she acquired in her collection was a Ravi Varma print.  This is an apt starting point for any collection of twentieth-century Indian imagery, since Ravi Varma – though not the first important producer of God-posters – has been by far the most influential artist.  His designs, first mechanically reproduced in the period  1894-1906, retained wide circulation for decades, not only in the form of posters, but also as redeployed in advertisements and calendars, such as the depiction of Vishnu and his two wives (Fig. 01).

They have also continued to circulate, as we will see, in the compositional themes he initiated that later poster artists have appropriated and modified to produce their own new designs.

Ravi Varma painted numerous narrative scenes based on classical Sanskrit literary sources, such as the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.  A good example is the poster of Mandodari, chief wife of the demon Ravana, in a scene drawn from the story of Rama (Fig. 02). Varma imagines the beautiful demoness as a light-skinned human woman, modestly wrapped in a burnt-orange sari, stepping out of a Shaiva temple to give alms to an emaciated dark-skinned beggar.  Eyes half-closed, Mandodari looks downwards towards the seated supplicant.  Varma domesticates the queen of the Rakshasas as a pious South Indian housewife.

 Ravi Varma also designed a number of iconic depictions of the Hindu deities, where the gods present themselves more directly to the viewer. 

One example is the image of Vishnu with his two wives, shown in figure 01, but perhaps the most popular and widely-circulated of all his posters was the image of Lakshmi standing on a lotus (Fig. 03). Varma places the four-armed goddess, clad in a light rose sari, in a natural setting.  The lotus rises from a calm lake fed by a stream in the background that descends from mountains still further in the rear of the image.  Lakshmi addresses the viewer with a direct gaze and a placid, benign expression.  (This clean design, originally produced by the Ravi Varma Press and distributed in date, has here been adapted in a 1940 calendar for Kerala Sandalwood Soap.)  Varma’s iconic two-dimensional images were frequently framed, and sometimes decorated by devout owners with glued-on sequins and new cloth saris, just as a three-dimensional statue in a shrine would be dressed and adorned for worship by priests or householders.


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