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ITEMS OF FAITH

ITEMS OF FAITH

THE PIN-UPS OF YOUR CHILDHOOD HAVE BEEN REPLACED BY THE PANTHEON. IS GOD ART THE POSTER’S LAST STAND?


Those “You Know You Grew Up in India in the ‘80s” lists are maddening, aren’t they? The basic meme, the you-know-you-ness of them is annoying enough, but this iteration offers a whole other level of irritation. If you’ve adroitly managed to miss them on social media, they’re the ones that earnestly peddle the sap of Ek Titli and pap of Parle-G, all somehow representative of a glorious childhood unfettered by the constraints of consumer choice. Is the catalogue that follows intended to swell the heart with love and longing in the time of pre-lib India? If the stuff is sometimes hard to swill, it may be because recalling a simpler time is tough to do through what is essentially product placement. A Titan watch or a Bourbon biscuit, the Maruti 800 or the Atari 2800; the non-options of Doordarshan; white canvas PT shoes and Fevicol, of such Pidilite™ stuff is this common past cobbled. Wonder at the authors, the lapsed but primed to be born again nostalgenarians.

The fact remains, that if the lists strike a chord (they almost all go viral, so clearly they do, with many of us) then yours was a glorious childhood. The items put forth in bite sized, snackable content are the markers of the middle class. A middle class not yet swollen in its ranks by those perfunctorily dismissed as cattle class, the great unwashed, or any pick-and-mix cocktail aphorism in gilded-era speak. On tony college campuses across the United States today, publishing a list like this would constitute grounds to “check your privilege”. Underlying its open embrace of kitsch is a sly proclamation of privilege, an unabashed announcement that you had access to goods which made your life better. It’s kind of like growing up so you could finally be the kid who bragged about having friends in phoren.

The items retain relevance because they are representative, the poster children, if you will, of a generation that coined the phrase. They’re an ideological head-butt against today’s “aspirational”, a term that may well encompass the same stuff, minus the cachet they once had.

And with an Inception-like layering, the representations of these itemised representative products play a big part in their appeal — ergo, it’s not so much Nirma as the twirling Nirma girl, or Lijjat Papad as the nightmarish bunny suit bouncing about with a devilish cackle. They become symbols, and the strength of symbols is directly derived from their exclusivity. Language spirals out gathering followers in its fold to foster its own legitimacy – see Hinglish. Symbols work in retrograde coil, shedding their accessible meaning to finally arrive at arcane status. Then, and only then, do they make the grade for status update. In a second life as symbols, much like Gwyneth Paltrow, they are consciously uncoupled from their original. The traces of value that persist, are specifically not the intent of their creators.

There’s the kicker. Evidently, the achievable pinnacle for a manufactured item is popularity, mass consumption. And most often, the ones thus memorialised, flunked the test. It’s the basis of their esoteric allure. Even if the companies were at the top of their game for a wee while, the competition ushered in by Dr Manmohan Singh knocked them down. Consumers continued to put their money where their mouth is with Thums Up and another handful of commodities.  But in the great churning, much else was lost.  Unless, the goodies managed to make themselves over in the modern image, that is to say, they became aspirational. Although, malted drinks and schmaltzy noodles still stock supermarket shelves, their MRPs consistent with the cost of their campaigns, they’ve expanded their base to gather the demographic the lists insidiously exclude. The spins, the spiels have shifted. The poster children grew up, and we cluck our tongues like we did at the Afghan lady on the iconic Nat Geo cover and said, such a pity, we’d rather remember her the way she was.

Arguably, posters have been displaced from their pin-up position. The space that the poster—by which I mean a visual still printed on heavy stock paper—dominated has largely been ceded to the .gifs and .mpegs, accessible from the privacy of your phone. The pictures we stuck up on walls were determined by desires:  1 percent inspirational, XXX percent hot and sweaty (also limited by availability, we had after all a pre-choice youth). My own mid-eighties poster inventory tallies Michael Jackson, Samantha Fox, Prakash Padukone and Strawberry Shortcake, a collection I’d be hard put to defend yet still thrill to — it’s the same heartstring that the 80s lists relentlessly thrum. Signal generational shift, and even the most hardcore fanboys and fangirls have moved on to the moving image. Heck, I’d rather watch Mr Padukone’s daughter’s booty shaking too.

Which leaves posters sadly stripped of sex. Who needs those, with high tech titillation, with online porn?  They did fit well into a time that didn’t really use sex to sell. Hark, the age of innocence — posters plugged personalities fixed in image, personalities flogged stuff frozen in time. These case studies of failed strategies are of ongoing interest to management consultants of all stripes, and aforementioned campy consumption chroniclers. There is a singular instance of crossover, however, that isn’t covered all over in rosy tint.

An omission from the throwback marketing manuals masquerading as memorabilia, is a prototype that has lingered long, largely unchanged, unremarked and unchallenged. It certainly didn’t make any of the lists. So under the radar, it could be guerrilla genius except that its success in generating brand recall is questionable. If Fevicol has the adhesive longevity it claims, you may actually possess the peeling, sun-bleached proof. You’ll find it stuck to a neglected pane of glass on the Maruti you love for sentimental reason. Because you know you grew up in the ‘80s when you got posters of god in the mail, and your parents flat out refused to chuck them in the bin.

God art often came bearing the legend of giants of industry, whose output is hard to visualise except in the form of profit graphs. Cement titans, steel mills, banks, breweries, all duly blessed by an infant Krishna scooping butter, or serpent-seated Vishnu anticipating amrit. There was also the jeweller, the tailor, the cotton mattress maker, who took the god fallback route despite having suitably photogenic offerings. All this marketing material had visiting card variants, greeting card squares, tube enclosed wall hangings, cardboard calendars, framable posters and my favourite, the reverse peel and stick glass appliqué. Unsolicited mail, but never junk. They were hoarded, just the same as any object with potential for aesthetic or utilitarian re-use. What made god art anomalous is that supply couldn’t exceed demand. A glut just made moms creative, and soon god was watching you from the inside of your cupboard or an unventilated flank of your cooler.

The notion of darshan, of seeing and being watched over by a benign god, is an idea that doesn’t lose currency. And while the craze for flashing neon lit pictures or faux marble statuettes presumably indicate that accoutrements deepen the darshan, a straight-up gaze can get the job done.

From omnipotence to omnipresence should be an infinitesimal step for the almighties but they did have to wait on a giant technological leap. Printing presses have been in good standing with god, Gutenberg on. India is no aberration. Art historian Christopher Pinney records that in Plate 14 ‘Interior of a Native Hut’ of Mrs. S.C. Belnos’s Hindu and European Manners in Bengal, published 1832, “a devotional painting, (ill -executed…on paper) is shown stuck to the wall behind the cooking hearth.”  In 1915, Pinney quotes from a report to prepare American entrepreneurs to enter trade in India. “Cotton piece goods are distinguished by labels in which Indian deities, tigers, or other animals, dancing girls, etc. are displayed in attractive colours.”

Attractive, of course, is an aesthetic judgment. The formation of certain poses and palettes for the gods have impetuses as several as the singular vision of Raja Ravi Varma or a colonial practice of emphasising ‘naturalism’ in the natives. But I believe that when I say Indian god art, calendar or poster, what I seek to reference is easily evocable — like the word hieroglyph pulls up a sort of visual boilerplate, differing in individual details yet with enough in common to establish it instantly.

Images of Hindu gods in the spectrum of art haven’t by any means stagnated over the two-odd decades since liberalisation. Their absorption into new media, graphic novels such as Samhita Arni’s Mahabharata: A Child’s View and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva, animated shorts like Sita Sings the Blues, are testament to a lively and playful present interchange. Their depictions in merchandising machinations though, has stayed surprisingly static. The valorisation of this style is attributable to the printing press.

The similarity between the labels on Diwali crackers, and calendars that come free with purchase, may have struck you already. It is not a coincidence. According to the Cambridge Companion of Modern Indian Culture, by 1980 Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu handled, conservatively, 40 percent of the entire country’s offset printing orders. They also produced ‘framing pictures’. If like the 80s list writers, you pine for purchases made with a few paise, then you already have major love for these.

There are certain ethical and aesthetical limitations on how large a marketing message can loom when pitted against a god. longevity It isn’t even the most savvy deployment of deities; that top billing belongs to the latter day plastering of public walls for the purpose of discouraging urination and defecation. But it has chutzpah, and it has had demonstrable traction.

The inclusion of god imagery is not arbitrary in a reckoning of changing consumption patterns. It’s a semaphore for things changing and staying the same. At some point in the economy’s growing pains, Sivakasi god art fell out of favour with the old guard (though we’re still okay with collecting Kangra school gouache on paper). Each social stratification curates the objects of its desire. Rural villagers batten shutters of tradition and hunker down under siege. The Indian urban elite’s response to the influx of the hoi polloi has traditionally been abdication, and strewn around the moat is the paraphernalia of a hurried retreat…The ruins of a public school education system, a policy of secularism that applied would rival divide and conquer, a blind eye to the grievances of territorial extremities in the North and South and Northeast.

Urban villages, adept at salvage, borrow a bit from both their next-door neighbours, and the rural communities they hail from. This makes them a crucial crucible of consumption, because they aspire to what’s shiny and new, who doesn’t, but can reckon the worth of the old. To paraphrase an earlier analogy, they’re simultaneously trying to grasp the language, which is available, and its symbols, which are abstruse and disjointed.

Across the street from the New Delhi neighbourhood where I live, is Kotla Mubarakpur. It is both a trader’s colony (a source retailer to retailers, as well as a wholesale market) and an established residential village. Despite its name, and the presence of a few architecturally significant 15th century tombs, it is now predominantly Hindu, and has recently undergone a migratory influx from the North East. Fairly typical as Delhi urban villages go, except for the total absence of gentrification creep. The surrounding commercial and residential  neighbourhoods of Defence Colony, South Extension and Jor Bagh have a vested interest in maintaining an affordable housing area close at hand for service staff.

As the shops that front on the main road have prospered, the proprietors I spoke to have moved away rather than channel the money back through Kotla’s narrow alleys, muddy in all seasons because the street-level stores run a scrupulously clean op. Regardless, with the economic upswing, there has been visible change. Kotla is plastered with the pantheon. There are four established temples and at least half a dozen new hastily constructed edifices to the same purpose, if minus the trappings. Still not enough since there’s an individual shrine given pride of place in every single shop, from the multi-storied white appliances retailer to the corner electrical repair cubby. Unlike even the religiously observant homes of the upper middle class, here, nobody puts God in a corner.

Past the busy Gurdwara Lane (there’s also one of those) next to reasonably busy foam, paint and plastic home goods stores, is a series of glass framing shops. At the snazziest of these, Jai Mata Works & Photo Framers, sits Raju, amid his personally chosen array of Indian god imagery. His major customers are in his vicinity, but discerning clientele come from as far as Akshar Dham, the temple complex near Noida. He has a good equation with a tout there.

The poster has changed, it’s become the item itself, the stuff that sells. Raju talks me through his popular offerings. Kali, holding heads and seeping ichor has receded. In fact, all the gods are placid, languid, with a gentle half smile, in a syncretisation that leaves Shiva looking remarkably like Rama. Shirdi ke Sai Baba is a bestseller, because of a much revered temple down the road, but other personality or cult gods Raju had trouble moving, and has abandoned. Buddha is more in demand these days, he says, but Lakshmi, she wins hands down. The pin-up of the times (my words, not his). None have the over-rouged cheeks and lips we know and no longer love.

The academic Kajri Jain in her book Gods in the Bazaar, notes that the Sivakasi calendar has a definite look, “very strong, deeply saturated, contrasting colours with bright highlights.” In her conversations with the artists responsible, this kind of commercial art was identified “with the imperative to use bright bold colours, variously denigrated as ‘cheap’, ‘shouting’, ‘thick or heavy’ (mote-mote) or ‘gaudy’.” In thrusting a baton to a newly emergent class, one that’s working its way up the middle, the bourgeoisie isn’t really handing over a flame as much as it is passing the blame. Rasta chaap and bazaaru enter language via this route. They separate those who belong and others who only long to.

The perception about Sivakasi’s brand of art is common, and it has filtered through. The rubric, as I mentioned, is now déclassé  at Kotla’s savvy framers like Jai Mata Works, though you’ll find some examples tacked up in some smaller shops. Meanwhile, in a not-so-distant village, at a nearly-the-same time there is another series of stores (for those unfamiliar with New Delhi, Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat, have recently undergone dramatic transformations). These boutiques are considerably more chic than Raju’s, and they sell the heck out of Sivakasi prints, on bags and slippers, on pillow covers and lampshades, ah, and of course, the humble poster.

Text: Aditi Saxton


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