Professor Jyotindra Jain’s collection of pre-Independence popular images makes strong statements.

Sample these: A picture of a cow shown as an embodiment of several Hindu deities. A surah from the Quran endorsing cow protection. Krishna and Radha against Swiss Alpine landscape. Extremely dramatic poses of the royal family members of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madras. They stand on the intricately carved, scintillatingly coloured, floral carpets or sit on exquisitely carved chairs. Beautiful, sensuous European women almost replicated as Indian deities/women, and so on.

No, we aren’t talking about commissioned works made by artists to adorn an art lover’s walls. These are real prints, oleographs, chromolithographs, postcards, film posters, product labels, calendars and porcelain figures that form Professor Jyotindra Jain’s collection. The collection that roughly belongs to period between 1850-1940, is mounted as an exhibition at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The exhibition titled “The Conquest of the World as Picture” “offers a critical viewing of the role played by Indian imagery of the 19th and 20th centuries in the construction of cultural, social and national identities,” as Jain puts it.

Tragi-comedy

These works, on one hand, tickle your funny bone. On the other, they shock you with strategic manipulation. For instance, a printed image that propagates cow protection by showing the animal as an embodiment of various deities also “wrongly uses a surah from the Quran” as Jain puts it, which means ‘Your blood and flesh will not reach Him but your abstinence (read rozas) will’. It indicated the Quran endorses cow protection. “The image is from RSS patronised Shekhawati household in Gujarat. This campaign of cow protection still continues as an ideology,” says Jain.

Another image is that of Subhash Chandra Bose offering his head to Bharat Mata while heap of heads of other national heroes including Bhagat Singh, Azad lie there. A dragon signifying British rule flares at Bose. A part of the picture shows Red Fort with Bose’s bust indicating his “Dilli Chalo” slogan. While in the “strategically edited” image Krishna replaces Red Fort and he is shown standing on Bose’s grave! Jain says, “I found this image in a museum in Sikandrabad in which nationality is linked with a Hindu God and Red Fort, symbolic of a Muslim identity, is edited out. It sends strong political and social message.”

Few interesting images such as a fat child Krishna endorsing Woodword Gripe Water, beautiful Hindu deities endorsing British soaps etc too were meant to allure religiously inclined Pre Independence population of India. And then there are several gorgeous women by Raja Ravi Varma. His women were actually drawn from “beautiful European women he photographed.” He later painted women like them, and made them wear local dresses. Sensuality remained a significant trait in all his women.

Jain shares the genesis and reason of this exhibition that he has also shown in France, Germany, Finland, Spain and Mumbai’s NGMA. “I belong to Ahmedabad. I wanted to make a museum of images of popular culture. While collecting material, I found that we have no archives on them. I used to go to see havelis belonging to super rich Vaishnav families in Shekhawati. The Vaishnavs had auctioned their exquisite carpets, furniture etc., there were buyers for it. But things like labels of match box, calendars, post cards etc. had no buyers though they make very strong social, political and cultural statements. I bought them as cheap as Rs.5-20 from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chennai”.

The purpose of mounting this exhibition in JNU is that it will be critiqued by students for over a month. “It will be subject for academic research on topics like strategically manipulated ideology by undermining certain community, impact of photograph and theatre on the picture making, etc,” he concludes.

A must view exhibition is on till October 24.