Calendar art may not literally refer to the art solely in calendars, but has a wider view, extending to any popular colored works of art, containing designs and figures that may range from being religious to simply decorative in nature. Just like any other forms of media, calendar art played a significant role in portraying the cultural folio of the times, and even, to some extent, managed to influence the society’s concepts of various roles and rituals. In other aspects, perhaps the most visible and significant is that of the female representation in the calendar art.
Calendar art was born and popularised through the hands of the painter Ravi Verma, a member of the ruling family of Travancore state. He mastered the art of European style of oil painting and incorporated it in the Indian classical art. Thus it gave birth to the hybrid style of art that was meant to satisfy mainly the bourgeoisie class- the British patrons and the Indian elites. The calendar art was mainly of four kinds-
- Containing religious themes and icons, borrowing from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
- Patriotic, that contained patriotic heroes and national themes
- Filmy, containing portraits of film stars and posters
- Sceneries, depicting the nature
Whether based on religious or filmy topics, calender arts mostly contained women as the core subject. In the religious spheres, the goddesses depicted as luscious women, or the relationship between a mother and child, most commonly seen through the Mahabharata tale of Krishna and Yashoda, where the mother is both earthly and divine, sensuous yet pure. The relationship between mother and son is one of playfulness and tenderness, with slight hints of eroticism. The Ramayana exemplifies the ideal wife in Sita, one who goes on to exile with her husband, is ready to walk through fire to prove her loyalty. Through these paintings, the notion of the ideal woman was often emphasized- how a mother should be, how a wife should be. The mythological themes were on a mission to establish the Aryan cultural nationalism, while leaving out other ethnicities; the representation was directed towards creating a ‘pan-Indian material representation of Indian womanhood through the creation of types that were both racially authentic yet universal, realistically individual yet typical and, more importantly, regional yet national.’ The effort for a unification of the diversities of India was evident in Verma’s work ‘the galaxy’ which showed a group of women musicians, who had similar physical appearances but had distinct regional clothing. Even if the women from left out groups were brought in, they were modified to fit the mold of the bourgeoisie aesthetic mold.
The women in calendar art were portrayed mostly as objects of desire, to satisfy the male gaze. Sometimes she was the scantily clad vamp figure, surrounded by wine bottles and grapes, whereas sometimes she was clad in wet white clothes, baring her breasts and erect nipples. The sexualization even found their rooting in mythological themes- the naked gopis trying to hide the bare bodies while pleading to Krishna to return their clothes, Adam and Eve holding leaves to hide their privates while being watched by the evil serpent, or the unclothing of Draupadi in front of the courtiers. Women’s’ bodies were also used to sell products, and these products needed not be feminine in nature. Most of these were significant materials used for dowry, like the table, fan, watch, TV, cycle, scooter, dressing table or sofa set. Through these, the typical gender roles were re-established, be it the housewife beside her kitchen utensils, or the newlywed bride clad in precious ornaments. Even little girls are shown to play house-house, thus pre-determining their limitations, while boys go on to dream about various professions. However, modernity did change the course a bit by turning these stronger roles towards women to some extent.
Calendar art also holds the example of creating resistance outside the existing hegemony, through its works of non-Sanskritic influence, folk cultures or indigenous tradition. Some interesting aspects of it are the celebration of the relationship between the brother and sister and love between the male and female. The sexual politics play an important role here. Another interesting representation is that of the Hindu deities like Kali and Durga, who are shown as strong women capable of destruction, thus resisting the narration of prescribed gender roles where women are limited to their households and husbands. The mother figure presented in deities is next moved to the secular side, with the nation being presented as the Bharat Mata, who owes your reverence and sacrifice. Calendar art also gave representation to the almost abandoned Mirabai, eroticizing her in order to find legitimacy. Thus, through calendar art, the subordinated and powerless Indian women took a powerful look, and this was an important step in bringing women to visibility, breaking norms of subjugation, keeping in mind that millions of copies of this art were sold and found its place in the households. It helped bring a parity between unity and diversity, hegemony and pluralism.
The visibility or invisibility of women has always been in question. While some put forward the idea that women have always contributed extensively to the society but failed to receive recognition for it, some claim that the marginalization of women has prevented them from making considerable contributions to the society. In the present day, now that women have come to the forefront making their due claims for the recognition that they have been left out of, mass media has had a significant role in helping them. Though they have been objectified and commodified, their sexuality used to sell products, it cannot be denied that it helped paint a power picture against the submissive character of the Indian woman. Calendar art participated in the process and played its own part in bringing the latent Indian woman to visibility.
Uberoi, Patricia “Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art ” In Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 25, no. 17 (Apr.28,1990),(pp. WS41 – WS48)
By Dishari Roy, M.A. in Political Science
Important Notes for Exam