Indian calendar art: the popular picture story

Raja Ravi Varma_0.jpg

What was the impact of these paintings on patterns of worship in public and private spaces, in the creation and/or propagation of a collective nationalism, and in the arts itself?

Habiba Insaf
10 April 2012

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. However, besides acting as visual supplementations 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 inclusivities that are both homogenizing and hegemonising. Images can be prophetic too, making material uncertain, dreamy notions. Images can be commemorative, celebratory, divine, religious, abstract, conceptual, patriotic, or erotic.


Raja Ravi Varma “Lady in Moonlight”

Popular calendar art

Here I examine the ‘popular calendar art’ of India from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. My aim is neither to debate the changing aesthetics, medium and content of the visual-print culture in India, nor to give a chronology of the pictures and construct a cultural history for them. The objective is to study the transformative, democratizing and mass propagandizing effect of these mechanically reproducible arts, and to ask what their impact was on patterns of worship in public and private spaces, in the creation and/or propagation of a collective nationalism, and in the arts itself.


'Menaka the nymph tempting the yogi', Ravi Varma Press.

In the eighteenth century with the growth of colonial art schools, a pedagogy based on western ways of depicting the world was increasingly promulgated. The ability to “[draw] objects correctly” and to produce a verisimilitude of the world around oneself came to be a highly valued skill. A technical convention – single-point perspective –emerged as the key that would unravel any Indian resistance to the ‘powers of observation’ and help fracture what Hegel referred to as the Hindu dream world. New representational idioms like single point perspective, absorption and indirectness led to the collapse of earlier schemata of portrayal.


Portrait of Raja Ravi Varma.

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 oleographs and chromolithographs 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.


'Saraswati', Raja Ravi Varma.

The popular calendar culture from the late 1900’s to the early 2000’s centres 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, cultural nationalists like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee or Tilak ,and  freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose etc. who sacrificed their lives for ‘Mother India.’

Shivaji Maharaj

Shivaji Maharaj (left) and Maharana Pratap (right)



However, 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 [Ram’s mother in some version] came to be symbolically associated with the incarceration of colonial India.Kichak-Sairandhri - depicting the stripping of Draupadi only to be saved by Hanuman - was more than a simple, unpretentious telling of a mythological tale. It allegorized the nation gnawed by rising poverty and oppression at the hands of the British whilst tilting at the polarized views of extremist and moderate politics symbolized by Hanuman and Yudhistira respectively.

On writing about ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, Walter Benjamin noted in 1936, “But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”  However in colonial and post colonial India, devotional aesthetics rapidly came to dominate the political level so that the nation was first and foremost evoked through allegory. The boundaries between the sacred and the political seemed to melt into each other.  As Christopher Pinney, anthropologist and art historian, has commented in his, Photos of the Gods: the printed images and political struggles in India - “Allegory offers the theoretical possibility of closure. ‘Meanings’ can be specified and secured: producers and consumers can agree (or rather attempt to agree) that under the prevailing code a particular sign stands in for another sign”. 

However, besides cementing dispersed anti-British sentiments through the mass circulation and consumption of images encoded and decoded in a particular cultural allegory, it simultaneously alienated religious and ethnic groups who were unfamiliar with this space of the sacred. Along with the feminization of the nation as ‘Mother India’, the conscience of the nation came to be constructed as largely “Hindu” with the symbol of the cow venerated as “cow mother”. Geeta Kapur, the celebrated historian, writes in Ravi Varma: Representational Dilemmas of a Nineteenth Century Indian Painter,

“The notion of the past usually dovetails with the notion of the classical. Both derive from a quite obvious desire to retrieve at the imaginative level that golden age of Indian civilisation when it is said to have been purest, most prosperous and supreme…Ideologically speaking, the classical past is set against the medieval which is regarded as having been corrupted by a medley of foreign influences …The touchstone for nineteenth  century Indian renaissances is thus Hindu civilization.”

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 lithographs in which, according to Pinney,

“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”. 

The Cow

The Cow with 84 deities. Ravi Varma Press

With the coming of the print culture to India, there were essential changes in the patterns of worship too. The gods, hitherto residing in temples in the form of affixed 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, with the veneration of their revered deity poster only made possible thanks to the democracy of the printed image.

A detailed ethnographic study carried out by Pinney in the tiny village of Bhatisuda, Madhya Pradesh, concludes that a certain pattern of deity choice is caste specific. While popular deities like Lakshmi [Hindu Goddess of wealth] and Shiv [from the Hindu Trinity] are found across a wide range of jatis or castes, warrior clan Rajputs are more likely to seek barkat or blessings from Lakshmi, while a low caste Chamar will worship a less orthodox Samvaliyaji. Pinney also notes the complete lack of political imagery in the village, at a time when it is fast-fading nationwide. Thus, the lithographic reproduction of gods and goddesses have become the insignia of one’s caste, status and religious beliefs, leading to the commodification of the gods on a large scale. They become ‘your’ or ‘my’ possessions.

Nala- Damayanti

Nala- Damayanti

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. The Calcutta Art Studio’s popular chromolithograph Nala Damayanti (1980) immediately predated the Star Theatre’s production of Girish Chandra’s Nala Damayanti on 15 December 1883. Another noted example is the juxtaposition of Arun and Deepika ,who played Ram and Sita respectively  in Doordarshan’s serialized epic Ramayan with a series of painted episodes from Ramayana. In turn, the serial’s aesthetics was derived from chromolithographs. D.G Phalke, the first Indian feature film maker, found several sources of inspiration in Raja Ravi Verma’s canvases and lithographs. It has been noted that the political protest echoed in the mass colour posters was shared by the theatres too, whose sentimental audiences could be heard noisily emoting with cheering or passionate protest as the allegory swayed them this way and that. 

Kaliya Mardan

The scene from D.G Phalke’s'Kaliya Mardan' replicates Raja Ravi Verma press lithographs

With the radical change in the production of pictures through mechanical means, the status of the artist also underwent dramatic changes. Raja Ravi Verma, hotly contested as the “first modern Indian artist” has in the critical literature , been described  as an artist led to his own downfall as a serious painter as a result of the overproduction of cheap lithographs, together with the shortcomings of the printing press. As works of art became more independent of their original due to their reproducibility, the creator 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, the reproduced print was not credited to the ‘artist’ who created it but for the effectiveness of its content and for its decorative or religious utility. The artist who responded to the demands of his thousands of patrons, and aimed at inflaming popular sentiment, in fact enjoyed little freedom of experimentation in content and style.

The calendar art style hugely popularized through cheap lithographic reproductions is now a fast-fading fad. Patricia Uberoi notes, “Avant-garde, indeed creative, in its time, the calendar art style is now sedimented as an authentic Indian 'kitsch' with an ephemeral past and an uncertain future.” 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. 


1. Kapur, Geeta 'Ravi Varma: Representational Dilemmas of a Nineteenth Century Indian Painter’, Journal of Arts and Ideas, 1989. 

2. Pinney, Christopher , Photos of the Gods: the printed images and political struggles in India, London:Reaktion Books,2004.

3. Uberoi, Patricia. “Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art.” Economic and Political Weekly, 1990.

4. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations (London, 1992)

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