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Patriotic fervour

At the end of the 19th Century, a printing industry devoted to the production of pictures of deities and mythological themes was established. Being mass produced, they were the most visually influential medium of visual communication of the then socially and culturally fragmented Indian society, subsequently becoming a vehicle for political propaganda as well. Exclusive extracts from a book that looks at the pictured social reality of India, appropriate for the 56th anniversary of independence.

Bharat Mata", offset print, 1937, painting by P.S. Ramachandran Rao.

Bharat Mata's robe forms the contours of India. Her saffron, white and green sari _ the colours of the Indian national flag _ cradles the heroes of the national struggle and shelters the fighters still alive and leading the teeming millions. Among the heroes of the bygone years, one can identify Justice Ranade, Balgangadhar Tilak, and the founder of the Indian National Congress, A.O. Hume. The leaders of the masses are Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chandrasekhar Azad, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, Abdul Gaffar Khan and others. The diverse pictorial traditions of India made it difficult to find a symbol of national integrity acceptable to all. To worship a geographical map of India seemed to be a way out of the dilemma of finding a symbol for the Motherland without antagonising the religious sentiments averse to the idea of bowing before an image of an anthropomorphic god or goddess. One of the earliest and largest temples of Bharat Mata was established in 1936 in the town of Varanasi, where a large relief map of Akhanda Bharat or South Asia lies enshrined. By this time, the practice of using a contour map of India to deify Bharat Mata had already gained popularity.

IT was not long before the visionaries of an Indian nation realized the potential that lay in harnessing popular mythological images for a nationalist cause. They saw, in these pictures, the portrayal of a glorious past, the propagation of which would induce in the beholders a sense of belonging to a great and once glorious tradition. India began to be projected as a country that had, over the centuries, been oppressed by foreign powers which had eroded and manipulated her traditional values; her culture was portrayed as one which, though failing in material advancement, had an inherent metaphysical strength and which enabled her to absorb past and present invaders. This was a rallying call to muster popular support for an independent India, the India for which gods and national heroes had struggled from time immemorial ...

... The nationalist movement armed itself with a past, its leaders making the most of a rich heritage replete with heroic legends from ancient epics, which were deeply ingrained in many layers of the Indian psyche. The sheer reverence and admiration for these legends could be readily manipulated into fervent nationalist passion. The transformation of this passion into uniform images that could be easily replicated and widely distributed became one of the most potent weapons in the hands of those leading the nationalist movement. In these pictures, the gods were equipped with nationalistic paraphernalia and national leaders were projected almost like celestial beings. The depiction of indigenous heroes was in itself a message, a message that could not possibly be censored. Goddess Bhavani was depicted handing over a sword to Shivaji, who successfully lifted it against the Deccan sultans and their suzerain, the imperial Mughals ... ... The personification of India as Goddess Bharat Mata or Mother India is particularly interesting. When first conceived in 1905 by Abanindranath Tagore, she was Banga Mata, the personification of an undivided Bengal that was soon to be divided to serve colonial administrative ends. It was only after the division of Bengal into the states of Bihar, Assam, Bengal, and Orissa, that the picture of the Goddess Banga Mata reincarnated itself as Bharat Mata (Hoskote 2000). Abanindranath Tagore painted Banga Mata/ Bharat Mata as Lakshmi, the Goddess of Plenty, clad in the apparel of a Vaishnava nun. Prior to that, Ravi Varma had painted the goddess standing against a halo of light dressed in a deep red sari, holding the paraphernalia of Durga and Britannia — the hook, the snare, the arrow, and the frond of victory — in her four hands. Lying at her feet were two African lions, suggestive of the goddess's powerful vahana or celestial vehicle ...

... For reasons somewhat difficult to comprehend, individual leaders of the independence struggle only rarely used the popular medium of display prints and, therefore, portraits of Indian national leaders did not take the form of an obvious personality cult. This apparent demureness on the part of Indian politicians was certainly no inborn quality (politicians here are no different from those elsewhere!); it was in all probability due to an understanding that display prints were reserved for the celestial and market forces, leaving little scope for portraits of politicians. It was only the foremost representatives of the Indian National Congress who made it into the prints — Mahatma Gandhi for instance, whose political and moral credo was interwoven with religious and puritanical symbols that readily lent themselves to the popular medium of display prints. Gandhi appears adorned with the paraphernalia of a religious mendicant — his emaciated body in symbiosis with his walking stick, a dhoti tucked up well above the knees, his lean striding legs and simple sandals elevating him above other leaders whose clothes, though traditional and homespun, lent them a `folkloric' rather than `elevated' aspect. If Gandhi, with his bare feet, was the icon of the deprived and the downtrodden, other leaders in their polished boots signified the dignity of statesmanship. His eternally friendly toothless grin is accentuated by wire-framed goggles, and his short-cropped head is uncovered. This picture of an itinerant hermit is only mildly incongruent with an old-fashioned watch knotted in a fold of his dhoti. This self-chosen image united Gandhi with the teeming millions of the poorest, most deprived, and oppressed of his countrymen. He was the avatar of the have-nots, and in the display prints he was placed as such in the realm of the great gods.

Mahatma Gandhi", oleograph, 1925.

One of the earliest socio-economic campaigns organised by Gandhi was the Swadeshi Movement. It started with the boycott of English textiles and the development of an indigenous cottage industry for textiles. Gandhi's concept of industrial development was based on the idea of labour-intensive small-scale industries, with the cotton industry playing a central role. This industry was to provide millions of unemployed and starving people with a source of livelihood. Hand-spinning and weaving therefore became a key symbol of the Congress, manifesting itself in the Congress banner, a tricolour of saffron, white, and green, with a spinning wheel at the centre.

Since the central plank of Gandhi's ideology was non-violence, it is not surprising that his icons borrowed their symbolism from Vaishnava iconography. He is portrayed as a provider, providing the nation with khadi — a homespun fabric — or offering beneficiation. The violence of bloody sacrifices or revenge from Shaivite iconography has never been associated with the Mahatma. His tragic death by an assassin's bullets was metaphorically depicted in the pictures — like Krishna slain by the shaft from Jara's bow, he is felled by three bullets, death carries him to the region of the gods when he is in congress with all the other freedom fighters, the gods, the Buddha, and the crucified Jesus. Other prints of the slain Mahatma also depict him in the lap of Bharat Mata — an Indian pieta — under the flying banner of an independent nation ...

* * *

Prints distributed during the last phase of the struggle for independence were printed using the half-tone technique. New developments in printing technology also resulted in a change of aesthetics. The size of the prints tended to be smaller than that of the oleographs. New techniques dispensed with the highly glossy quality of the earlier prints. Now printed in only three colours — a far smaller palette as compared to the fourteen or seven colours of the oleographics prints — they had a somewhat drab appearance, rather like newsprint. Since many of these prints were made in small workshops, the artists worked them like collages of newspaper picture clippings, introducing a fair amount of their own folksy iconography ...

"Mahatma Gandhi", half-tone print, 1940.

Clad in homespun clothes, Gandhi once attended a round-table conference in London, where he brought along with him a milch goat to symbolise the selfsufficiency of the Indian people. His stubborn puritanical simplicity was sometimes dismissed as a publicity gimmick. In truth, however, it was also the chosen modesty of a person practising the morals he preached, and who had set out to give a voice to the voiceless of India.

... One of the principal reasons for the `indigenization' of popular imagery was the rise of many smaller printing presses all over India. Letterpresses in local print shops could now produce smaller pictures more inexpensively, and cater to popular taste with locally relevant designs ...

* * *

The real service that Ravi Varma was asked to perform for the country was, therefore, not for all his countrymen, but for a Hindu oligarchy which, in a diffused sort of way, sought to represent Hindu interests in the politics of national liberation.

Extracted from the chapter "Printing for Independence" from Popular Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma and The Printed Gods of India, Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, Oxford University Press, 2003, vi + p.176, Rs. 2,500.

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