Bharat Mata: India's Freedom Movement in Popular Art

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Item Code: IDK130
Author: Erwin Neumayer, and Christine Schelberger
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 0195685180
Pages: 218 (Illustrated Throughout In Color & B/W)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.8" X 9.0"
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Book Description

Until very recently, the objects that are the focus of Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger's book Bharat Mata: India's Freedom Movement in Popular Art were pariahs of the academic world-ignored, even belittled, by both historians of art as well as scholars of nationalism and politics as inconsequential ephemera not worth noticing, let alone collecting and analyzing. Thanks, however, to Neumayer and Schelberger's own past contributions as well as those of a few other scholars who have propelled what elsewhere I have called a 'visual turn' in modern Indian studies, patriotic art has assumed a new visibility and a new salience that reminds us that even the humble political print-such as the many that are brilliantly reproduced in this volume-has an important story to tell, and an argument to make that may not necessarily repeat the contentions of the official verbal archive. With examples not dissimilar to those produced in this volume, anthropologist Christopher Pinney in his recent book Photos of the Gods lays down a challenge to the discipline of history-as-usual:

Inspired by Carlo Ginzburg's critique of physiognomic readings in which scholars interpret images and subsequently demonstrate what they have already learned 'by other means', Pinney argues not for a history of art but a history make by art. Images in their luxuriant proliferation rather than serving as 'a mirror of conclusions established elsewhere', are an arena for the 'thinking out of politics and religion in modern India', and 'an experimental zone where now possibilities and new identities are forged'. The result, he suggests, is a new narrative that 'may be quite disjunct from the familiar stories of a non-visual history' (Pinney 2004: 8)

Neumayer and Schelberger too are concerned here, as in their other publications, with making visible materials that have fundamentally revolutionized our understanding of popular pictures. From being denigrated and dismissed for over two centuries for their vulgarity, garishness, crassness, repetitiveness, and their lack of originality, the humble but ubiquitous 'god posters', 'framing pictures', and 'calendar art' of modern India's teeming public spaces and private places alike have been rescued from obscurity and invisibility in the grand telling of Indian history to occupy centre stage in new narratives where such bazaar images how complicate our understanding of everything from the postcolonial condition to vernacular subalternity and the very creation of India's first Hindu nationalist political regime. What had hitherto been seen through the contrary lenses of lack and inadequacy on the one hand, and of excess and kitsch on the other, now re-emerges in all its lush plenitude as well as scandalous subversions to clear the way for new interpretive possibilities. Such possibilities have been also accompanied by radical attempts to de-centre the spatial foci of our scholarly attention: Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai do matter to the new visual studies, but so do such small towns, hitherto not all that important for Indian historiography, as Sivakasi, Nathadwara, Meerut-the sites for popular pictorial productions in colonial and post-colonial India. Colonial art schools or the venerable 'J.J.' are eclipsed by the likes of the Calcutta Art Studio, Chitrashala Press, and S.S. Brijbasi & sons. Elite artists like Ravi Varma or Abanindranath Tagore have to now share space with street-smart subalterns like Kondiah Raju, Rupkishor Kapur, and Yogendra Rastogi whose pictures are reprinted in this volume.

But the new pictorial history is not just content with complicating old certitudes, and with offering new interpretations based on the premise that visual artifacts and images are world making rather than merely world mirroring. It seeks to do more conceptually and methodologically. In her recently published 'Gods in the Bazaar, Kajri Jain asks, 'What happens when ungraspable numbers of lurid, pungent, frequently tatty, often undatable, questionably authored, haphazardly archived, indeterminably representative, hitherto undisciplined Indian bazaar pictures come crowding into the chandeliered baroque halls and immaculate modernist spaces of art history?' (Jain 2007). The answer, the visual-minded scholars would say, does not just lie in filling in the gaps left out by a text-based historiography written in the shadow of the hegemony of the word, or even in using images to complicate verbal histories, for these would merely amount to an unwillingness to treat the visual domain on its own terms and would result in a history written by other means. In his provocative On Pictures and the Words that Fail Them, James Elkins urges us to make pictures Elkins urges us to make pictures more difficult to think and write about than they have been. 'It appears as if pictures themselves present no problems: everyone knows how to apply theories to them, how to describe them, how to pose and solve problems about what they mean' (Elkins 1998: xi). Yet parts of pictures-and the picture worlds that produced them-are disorderly, unpredictable, and incoherent, and unless we are willing to deal with them in all their glorious unruliness, we may miss seeing what is truly innovative and inventive about them. We need to work with pictures-such as the ones reproduced in this volume-in all their denseness and unassimilable otherness, and resist the urge to immediately translate them into recognizable certitudes of a history we already know from elsewhere.

Finally, the turn towards the images and pictures has also shown up (although this privilege is not necessarily limited only to this moment or movement!) the inadequacy both of state-run archives in India, but also other institutional repositories globally used by South Asianists, when it comes to collecting, preserving cataloguing, and publicizing the pictorial record of the subcontinent. Visual materials are inevitably poorly represented even in major collections that historians of India routinely use, and are rarely catalogued adequately or even appropriately. On the other hand-and here an exhibition held in October 2004 at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi called 'Indian Popular Culture: The Conquest of the World as Picture' and curated by Jyotindra Jain is a good example (Jain 2004)-there are numerous treasures scattered across the world and in the hands of private collectors, art dealers, picture publishers, poster artists, and visual-minded scholars such as Neumayer and Schelberger. As the glossy catalogues published in recent years by the Mumbai-based Osian Gallery clearly show, what formerly used to be dismissed as crass kitsch has found a new global market, fuelled by homegrown as well as diasporic nostalgia, quite different from the former bazaar economies and public spaces in which these calendars, patriotic posters, and film hoardings previously circulated (Tulli 2002).

Such remarkable achievements of this Young Turk notwithstanding, the skeptic might still well ask: is the challenge of a bazaar-art-driven visual studies to history-as-usual all that different from the insurrections led by other movements from within and without such as history-from-below, new cultural history, and of course subaltern studies? After all, they too went through similar assertions of autonomy and insistence on difference for the new domains they attempted to bring to historical visibility (pun intended). They too substantively expanded the archive by ferreting out the hitherto hidden and invisible voices concealed in official documents, or by subjecting well-known articulations to 'against the grain' readings. The new visual studies cannot even lay claim to having revealed the logo-centric foundations of knowledge productions of knowledge production, or the hegemony of the written word, beaten as they have been to the post by the numerous post-historicist, post-foundational, post-structuralist, and post-colonial interrogations of recent scholarship. So wherein, if at all, lies the radical potential of the challenge posed by the new visual studies?

My provisional response to this question beings by noting that the answer does not lie in setting up a false dichotomy between the visual and the verbal, and in claiming autonomy and privilege for the former over the latter. As W.J.T. Mitchell, among others, has noted:

Pictorial history challenges us to dwell on the borderline of the sayable and the seeable, and to shuttle back and forth between the two. It exhorts us to explore those aspects of the human experience that are unsayable and non-verbalizable, but also, correspondingly, to come to terms with those that are unpicturable, even unseeable. Such an epistemology also compels us to pay attention to phenomena that cannot readily or immediately be translated into language, that are unsayable and only seeable. In his recent What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, W.J.T. Mitchell answers his rhetorical question with the following proposition: 'What pictures want from us, what we have failed to give them, is an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology…Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language' (Mitchell 2005: 47). Strange as it sounds, he tells us that there is no way we can avoid asking what pictures want. 'This is a question we are not used to asking, and it makes us uncomfortable because it seems to be just the sort of question that an idolater would ask.' Hence Mitchell calls upon us to adopt a position of 'critical idolatry' as an antidote to that reflexive critical iconoclasm that governs intellectual discourse today (ibid: 25-6).

Mitchell's invitation to adopt a scholarly position of critical idolatry is particularly congenial to the images produced in this volume which wear their want on their sleeves, in a manner of speaking, and encourage citizens of an emergent nation to treat 'India' –and those who lived and died in its cause-very much like they would treat their chosen deities or other sacred presences. The feminist scholar Joan Landes has recently observed, 'The nation is a greedy institution-economically, physically, and emotionally. It is the object of a special kind of love-one whose demands are sometimes known to exceed all others, even to the point of death' (Landes 2001: 2). Among the modalities deployed to cultivate love and longing for the nation, the pictorial has been least recognized or analysed. Yet recent scholarship shows the important role played by images in learning the nation and coming to know it and recognize it. Bharat Mata: India's Freedom Movement in Popular Art adds valuably to out continuing attempts to understand how this most influential of abstractions of our times-the nation state-comes to have the enlivened presence and power to command our lives to the point of death.

From the Jacket

This volume presents a collection of display prints that were omnipresent during India's struggle for independence, and have fundamentally revolutionized our understanding of the role of visual narrative. Serving as a visual tour d'horizon to various facets of the Indian freedom movement, it allows readers space to interpret this tumultuous historical experience of the twentieth century. It also helps us explore, on the 60th anniversary of India's freedom struggle, new facets of the movement that may have gone unnoticed until now.

This possibility is also accompanied by radical attempts to shift our attention: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai do matter to the new visual studies, but so do such small towns like Sivakasi, Nathadwara, Meerut-locations for popular pictorial productions in colonial and postcolonial India. Well-known colonial art schools are eclipsed by the likes of Calcutta Art Studio, Chitrashala Press, and S. S. Brijbasi & Sons. Elite artists like Ravi Varma or Abanindranath Tagore now share space with street-smart subalterns like Kondiah Raju, Rupkishor Kapur, and Yogendra Rastogi whose pictures are reprinted in this volume.

Once ignored and dismissed for their vulgarity, repetitiveness, and lack of originality, these' god posters', 'framing pictures', and 'calendar art' have been rescued from obscurity to occupy centre stage in new narratives where they now condition our understanding of everything from post-coloniality to the creation of India's first nationalist political regime.

Vibrant, thought-provoking, and profusely illustrated, the volume will be a useful resource for social scientists and scholars of history and politics, and more importantly a collector's delight.

Erwin Neumayer is an archaeologist working on the prehistoric art of South Asia, on which he has written several books.

Christine Schelberger is an artist; she teaches art and art history in Vienna.


Of cows and the Mother of the Nation35
Mahatma Gandhi77
Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi129
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose177
List of Plates209
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