Gods sell gripe water, women smoke in saris: Check out India’s pop art past

An exhibition on Indian popular culture shows how a common visual style brought India together

art and culture Updated: Apr 08, 2017 07:55 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Pop art,India,Bombay
In the 1930s, Mahadev Dhurandhar’s paintings of child Krishna appeared on Woodward’s Gripe Water calendars. Dhurandhar trained at the JJ School of Art and illustrated mythological themes and wedding rituals among his Pathare Prabhu caste. Elite Maharashtrians loved him.

WHAT: Indian Popular Visual Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture

WHERE: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, inside Jijamata Udyan, Dr Ambedkar Road, Byculla East

WHEN: April 8 to 30, 10 am to 5.30 pm (Closed on Wednesdays)


Some calendars are useful even 85 years after they were created. This one, below, tells the complex, colourful tale of India at a critical point in its history.

The year is 1931. Glaxo is a 25-year-old infant-care brand with antecedents in England and New Zealand, but with eyes squarely on India. But how to advertise to a colony that produces materials for the world and is also a market for the world’s products? How to connect with a people rooted in religion and exposed to Western imagery too? And how to sell a foreign commodity in a land aching for independence even as it hankers after industrialised goods?

The answer: Calendars like these. New printing techniques meant good-quality colourful illustrations could finally be mass produced and distributed across undivided India. Advertisers put them on calendars, gifting them to clients at New Year. The promotional images typically featured deities and mythological characters, modernised in European poses and compositions, endorsing the products. Indians gave them great display, worshipping the pictures long after the year was up.

Glaxo’s calendar is part of Indian Popular Visual Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture, an exhibition of visuals from everyday Indian life in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are maharajas on matchboxes, freedom fighters on product labels, exotic ladies on playing cards, early art prints blending myth and politics, film and theatre posters and other everyday art.

An ad for Bombay Special cigarettes, featuring a “modern” Indian woman, draping her sari in the style of the time (sleeveless blouse and all). Ads like these took the idea of urban cosmopolitanism to the rest of India.

Don’t dismiss it as vintage kitsch. To Hindus as far apart as Bombay, Chennai, Calcutta and Karachi, the religious images forged, for the first time, a common visual connection. To an urbanising India, it offered cues on how to dress (popularising the six-yard sari drape women still wear today) and what was cool. The commercial style “shaped people’s identities, moulded their personal and social values and forged an ideological conception of the nation itself” says Jyotindra Jain, the show’s curator.

Sounds familiar?

Jain’s exhibition showed in Berlin in 2003, and at the NGMA in Delhi and Mumbai in 2004. So what’s happened in 14 years? “The analysis and critical understanding of popular visual culture has undergone an enormous transformation,” says Jain. We produce and access images differently in the selfie-ready, Instagram-filtered digital age. New archives, websites and courses have emerged for those looking to dig deeper.

To keep you up to speed is the new issue of Marg magazine, which focuses on The Story of Early Indian Advertising. Its new essays, Jain hopes, offer new perspectives on the exhibits. “A whole section in the exhibition is dedicated to advertising imagery of the 19th and early 20th century,” Jain says.

Cigarette boxes came with collectible cards, featuring landscapes, objects or exotic Oriential beauties like these. Many people saved them in albums. These, collected in the 1990s from a Parsi family were sewn with ornate lacework to make a curtain.

Whose art is it anyway?

The exhibits show a visual culture that was traditional and progressive and created its own language. Indian women, plaited, kajal-eyed were nonetheless fair, cherubic and sensuously illustrated. Mythological scenes played out against Mughal-style gateways, arches, balconies or European-style velvet curtains, carpets and richly upholstered furniture.

The gods could not possibly inhabit the mortal world of Indians, so artists painted foreign fantasies – Alpine slopes, cloudy heavens, European landscapes and mythological forests. Here, Saraswati is featured at Germany’s Rheinstein Castle.

In pics: Bejewelled treasures of the Mughals and maharajas on display in Paris

One ad depicts a modern woman – her sari accessorised with tennis shoes. An album of playing cards (collected from cigarette packs) feature series like a stamp collection – there are Oriental beauties, sweepers, water carriers and soldiers. A poster shows one of the first depictions of Mother India, the nation’s borders defined by the drape of her sari.

Must see: Mill labels

While the calendars, photos, postcards and posters are well known, the textile labels from the period are fascinating. The ornate rectangular markers were pasted on bolts of cloth, advertising the manufacturer and, for the first time, a brand and logo that consumers could recall.

Radhi Parekh, whose Kala Ghoda gallery Artisans’ showcased some labels as part of a show last year, says they represent more than Indian textile history.

Designed in Manchester, printed in Germany and shipped to India to be pasted on bolts of cloth for the Indian market, mill labels (called tickets) like these played to the market in their design. This one was part of the Ephemera2016 show at Mumbai gallery ARTISAN’S last year.

“A label is a window to the global cotton trade,” she says. Labels that read ‘Bombay-Calcutta-Karachi’ symbolise the unified India of the time. Indian scripts that seem a bit off indicate they were early labels designed in England and printed in Germany – created by foreign hands copying strange symbols without understanding them.

The images reveal a lot too. Indian mythological scenes, deities and saints show how well mills understood their market. Pictures of belly-dancers, nautch girls and European beauties showed that locals connected to commercial imagery too. During the Swadeshi movement, several labels featured Kamala Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya.

Bombay’s Morarjee mill was particularly famous for the Hanuman Chaap brand – featuring Hanuman holding a flag that said “Deshi”. “A man looking for his favourite dhoti material would just ask for it by name,” Parekh says.

When the gods themselves offer endorsement, how can the mortals refuse? This textile label was part of the Ephemera2016 show at Mumbai gallery ARTISAN’S last year.

Journalist and editor Sidharth Bhatia, who has been collecting mill labels since the 1990s, says they’re a unique piece of city history. “They tell you about branding, graphic design, ownership and the building of reputation.”

There’s a Bombay connection

Here, fortunes were made in cotton and opium trades, textile mills flourished, a financial centre was born. The crowd was cosmopolitan, there were things to buy and sell, and newspapers and periodicals to advertise them in. Film and Parsi theatre thrived. Aristocrats dropped in to photo studios for portraits. Calendar art emerged out of this demand, and artists did too. Many took the new Applied Arts course at the JJ school before being absorbed by the industry.

Read: More pics and sneak peeks into the exhibition

First Published: Apr 07, 2017 21:24 IST