20th century pop calendar arts brought ancient storytelling to everyday India

Habiba Insaf – WNN GlobalARTS

Vintage calendar image of India Goddess Ganga
The Indian Goddess Ganga, known as the daughter of Brahma the Hindu god of creation, is widely depicted in vintage calendars in India. Her stories include miraculous events where she appears from the river Ganges as she offers safety and comfort to those who face the dangers of the river. Image: HDF India

(WNN/OD) Mumbai, INDIA, SOUTH ASIA: A picture speaks a thousand words. It effectively conveys in a single image to a discerning audience the historical, social, gender and political direction of the society in which it originates. Besides acting as visual supplementation of already known ideas in the discourse of political and popular culture, pictures very often act as a catalyst to transform an idea into its practical praxis.

They mirror contemporary events as well as futuristic ambitions; they invoke mythologies and tales long forgotten. While being extremely potent in helping to carve out social and subjective identities, they can also be inflammatory in dismissing histories and forging false inclusiveness that are both homogenizing and hegemonic. Images can be prophetic too, making material uncertain, dreamy notions. Images can be commemorative, celebratory, divine, religious, abstract, conceptual, patriotic, or erotic.

Raja Ravi Verma, popularly regarded as the father of calendar art, is accredited with pioneering the perfecting of western models of representation. He pioneered the setting up of one of the earliest lithographic presses in India. His oleo-graphs and chromo-lithographs popularized the images of gods and goddesses which Verma rendered so real. Alongside him, there were several contemporary popular artist like Hem Chander Bhargava, B.G Sharma, L.N Sharma,Yogendra Rastogi and others whose work became highly popular as a form of visual mass culture.

The popular calendar culture from the late 1900’s to the early 2000’s centers broadly around four themes: religious or dharmic epic scenes, especially Mahabharata and Ramayana idols and religious icons; patriotic (portraits of national heroes and leaders, past and present); filmic (essentially pin-ups and portraits of movie stars); and landscapes (which differ from the former categories by expressly excluding depiction of the human form.)

The invention of lithography and its mass circulation in Indian consumerist society profoundly transformed the patterns of communication with individuals, society and with gods in both private and public spaces. The cheapness and ease of production along with the portable nature of lithographs soon turned them into weapons of anti-imperialist propaganda that inflamed nationalist sentiment through eulogizing portraits of militant rulers like Shivaji, Maharana Pratap who fought to overthrow foreign rulers. It also depicted cultural nationalists like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Tilak, as well as freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose etc. who sacrificed their lives for ‘Mother India.’

The most exciting and sly way in which the powers of mass lithographs were consumed in pre-independence India was with the collapse of the sacred into the political.

Away from the glare of colonial censorship, sacred images and mythological events that formed an important part of the popular iconography gave out subliminal exhortations to overthrow the British Raj. A caged parrot released by a woman came to be symbolically associated with the incarceration of colonial India.

The image from the Indian text Mahabharata that shares the story of the Kichak-Sairandhri depicting the stripping of Draupadi, the Indian King’s daughter, who was humiliated as she ultimately was saved by the Indian god Hanuman who provided endless fabric to her gown was more than a simple, unpretentious telling of a mythological tale. It allegorized the nation of India gnawed by rising poverty and oppression at the hands of the British while tilting toward polarized views of extremist and moderate politics symbolized by Hanuman and Yudhistira.

During the 1890’s, the cow which is a sacred and sentimental symbol for Hindus had become a supremely charged sectarian emblem of a Hindu nation. The cow protection agitation was accompanied by a swell of calendar lithographs. According to anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney it was significant.

India Draupadi vintage lithograph
As part of the epic Indian text the Mahābhārata, the legend of Draupadi is another image that has been used in calendar art as well as home posters and cloth lithographs that were distributed widely during the turn of the 20th century in India. This story depicts Draupadi who’s father King Yudhishthira offers her as a ‘prize’ to her uncles during a Parchessi game after Yudhisthira has lost all his kingdom in the gambling game. As she faced the dangers of slavery on the ‘roll of the dice’ to one of Yudhishthira’s brothers, she is saved by the Indian God Hanuman who creates limitless fabric for her preventing Draupadi from removing her sari and exposing her body as the game players wait to lasciviously view her. This story is part of the miracle of Draupadi. Image: Chore Bangan Art Studio

“…the cow becomes a proto nation, a space that embodies a Hindu cosmology….in the use made of these images, a more discriminatory message was stressed in which the cow came to represent a Hindu identity and nationality that required protection from non-Hindus. The riots of 1893, indeed, assumed an overtly communal flavour.”

With the coming of the print culture to India, there were essential changes in the patterns of worship too.

The gods residing in temples in the form of statuettes, now became portable and were brought home. For the marginal classes and the untouchables who were chiefly denied access to public places of worship, private spaces like puja–griha became an affordable idea as the veneration of their revered deity poster made possible thanks to the democracy of the printed image.

The era of glorious calendar arts not only inaugurated a widespread distribution of cheap colour pictures but also enjoyed a symbiotic give and take relationship with other arts like theatre, photography and films.

With the radical change in the production of pictures through mechanical means, the status of the artist also underwent dramatic changes.

Artist Raja Ravi Verma, hotly contested as the “first modern Indian artist” has been described as an artist who’s own downfall as a serious painter resulted from the overproduction of cheap lithographs together with the shortcomings of the printing press. As works of art became more independent from the original due to their ‘reproducibility’, Ravi Verma also lost his reputation as an ‘artist’.

The divide between ‘classical’ and ‘kitsch’ in terms of high and low art was affirmed.

In public memory many reproduced prints are not credited to the ‘artist’ who created it but are recognized only for the effectiveness of their content and for its decorative or religious use. Today the calendar art style hugely popularized through cheap lithographic reproductions is now a fast-fading fad.

“Avant-garde, indeed creative in its time as the calendar art style is now sedimented as an authentic Indian ‘kitsch’ with an ephemeral past and an uncertain future,” said author Patricia Uberoi who is former Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi and current Honorary Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

Overtaken by glossy, photographic reprints, the era of calendar art has become an anachronism. Few takers of these, if any, are devotional consumers eager to usher the sacred into their private places of worship.


This 3:46 min video by Cuban music mixer Eric Perez shows art that was created during a time when storytelling through image was at its height in India. From classic to modern art, Hindu art in all its expressions as chanting, music, painting and sculpture shows the depth of integration between image and story. This art reflects the rich culture and history of India through Hindu religious belief and tradition. This tradition often depicts women as goddesses and/or agents of transformative experience.

Author and reporter Habiba Insaf is a graduate from St Xavier’s college, Mumbai and a student of art theory and criticism at Jnanapravaha. She is currently an intern at Volte Gallery, Mumbai. Insaf also writes for OpenDemocracy and ignitink.com – an online social media magazine in India.


2013 WNN – Women News Network
Thanks goes to Habiba Insaf of OpenDemocracy for this article.