Soaps, cigarettes and pop art

How mill labels and product packaging became the first visual facets that would influence ‘modern’ culture

April 22, 2017 04:05 pm | Updated 04:05 pm IST

From calendars to cigarette tins to labels on textiles, the imagery of mass production and consumption becomes the story of how fashions, social mores and artistic imagery evolved.

From calendars to cigarette tins to labels on textiles, the imagery of mass production and consumption becomes the story of how fashions, social mores and artistic imagery evolved.

A colourful image of Lord Vishnu riding his eagle Garuda and flanked by two consorts bedecks a 1934 calendar bearing the brand logo of Sunlight—a popular brand of soap manufactured by the British Lever Brothers. This facsimile of Vishnu is derived from a painting of celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma. Thousands of these calendars, featuring this image and other religious iconography, were distributed by the Lever Brothers for promotional purposes, in an attempt to appeal to a pan-Indian consumer. Makers of other products—from cigarettes, matches, dyes and baby food—all followed similar product placement strategies. But aside from being a curious quirk of history, a somewhat amusing attempt by European companies to play to colonial stereotypes, can the mass distribution of these images tell a deeper story?

Transformation time

What if, as art historian Jyotindra Jain speculates at an ongoing exhibition on Indian Popular Visual Culture, the dissemination of these images actually led to a critical transformation in Hindu worship, democratising the availability of Hindu religious imagery and bringing it down from the realm of the elite? Raja Ravi Varma was, after all, an artist patronised by connoisseurs of art and here, Jain argues, he is reduced to a calendar artist.

Taking the argument further, could the distribution of these cultic images, mass produced by German printing presses for their British clients, have been key in the consolidation of a Hindu unity and the rise of a visual culture of Hinduism? There is certainly evidence to show that these calendars with Hindu themes were framed and worshipped, adorned often with ritual vermilion marks.

Jain, a former professor and dean at the school of Arts & Aesthetics at JNU, is an avid collector of popular imagery from paintings, oleographs, postcards and film posters through which he tries to discover how cultural and social identities were constructed. Larger versions of this exhibition have been put up in the past but its current version, displayed this month at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, is specifically curated toward providing background on the ‘The Story of Early Indian Advertising’ for the March-June edition of the iconic Marg magazine, that he now edits. “The exhibition documents the origins of mass production and consumption in India,” Jain explains, while the Marg issue tells a more specific story.

From calendars to cigarette tins to labels on textiles, the imagery of mass production and consumption becomes the story of how fashions, social mores and artistic imagery evolved.

From calendars to cigarette tins to labels on textiles, the imagery of mass production and consumption becomes the story of how fashions, social mores and artistic imagery evolved.

Among the volume’s important essays, besides an exploration of the themes in colonial soap and cigarette advertisements by Jain, is also another one authored by him on textile mill labels that were attached to bales of cloth produced in Britain (with cotton likely extracted from India). These small rectangular ‘tickets’ as they were called carried varied images from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as images of gods like Krishna, Ram, Durga, Sarawaswati and Ganesh that made them collectibles and objects of personal veneration.

There were other kinds of imagery on the tickets too and Jain argues that a kind of modernity first came into India through the images of fashionably clad European women on these mill labels. It directly led to the creation of a more sensual presentation of Indian attire like the sari, he believes, adding “it is hard to find any other visual culture that had such an effect on what people viewed to be modern."

There are other fascinating stories around this art. The regional advertising scene, for instance, that thrived in bazaars, comprising almanacs, pictorial calendars, product labels and more, and became the vehicles for the first advertisements in Bengal. Or the imagery in early lobby cards in Indian cinema and the nationalist symbols that appeared on matchbox labels. Tapati Guha Thakurta in her piece traces the way in which modern art, as linked to the demands of modern manufacture and consumption, actually found its way into India through advertising and the work of graphic designers and art directors who worked for newspapers and other corporate houses.

Speaking at the launch of the Marg issue, Thakurta, professor at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata, said that the study of early Indian advertising is a field in which a range of disciplines come together. “From historians of art and culture, to historians of trade, manufacture, commodity and consumption, many disciplines come together in trying to understand this new field.”

From calendars to cigarette tins to labels on textiles, the imagery of mass production and consumption becomes the story of how fashions, social mores and artistic imagery evolved.

From calendars to cigarette tins to labels on textiles, the imagery of mass production and consumption becomes the story of how fashions, social mores and artistic imagery evolved.

From a preponderance of religious imagery at the beginning, the story of advertising moves on to open up an important way of thinking about the transition of the nation from post-colonial to independent. Tracing this covers the emergence of India as an important global market, the emergence of a new culture of consumption, and the emergence of a new middle class. Importantly, the story of advertising is a first effort to think about a pan-Indian space. Nationalism has been studied in other contexts but not fully through the lens of advertising.

Sourced from archives

Much of the volume’s visual material is sourced from three or four small archives and some private collections in Delhi, Bombay and Kolkata. It is a field in which scholars such as Jain or Thakurta are also collectors and archivists. These collections exist in discrete places, but the value of a volume such as this is that it brings them all together.

As Jain said, “Even within the advertising industry, people remember the history of advertising as starting with campaigns like Air India and Amul Butter. We have presented here a whole new chapter in this history.”

The exhibition on Indian Popular Visual Culture is on at the Bhau Daji Lad museum in Mumbai till April 30.

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