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Slow dies the calendar art

GAYATRI SINHA

The value of the calendar art form is now underscored by the gradual demise of the calendar art studios and the dominance of the digital print.



ART THAT WAS A sample of Yogendra Rastogi's calendar art.

Nearly 10 years ago, one had interviewed Yogendra Rastogi, one of the most famous calendar art painters of North India. It was at his studio in Meerut. Rastogi, who spurned the education of the JJ School of Art, Mumbai, as "too modern," is a self-described `mil-furlong' painter who graduated from painting road signs to calendar art.

Ensconced in his small but meticulously clean studio, Rastogi was extremely wary of his work being photographed, and spoke of the preservation accorded to his calendar paintings in air-conditioned and dehumidified rooms. Since he first painted the boy soldier during the Indo-China war, the famous Nanha Munna Rahi, Rastogi had graduated to owning two printing presses devoted to his work.

A decade later, Rastogi's respect for the generally devalued category of calendar art has proved well placed. Scholarship, particularly overseas, has concentrated on Indian popular art rather than on contemporary art studies.

The rush to collect popular prints and calendar paintings prints and artefacts has crystallised in important collections and exhibitions such as those by Schelberger and Neumayer and Jyotindra Jain, which emphasise on the ubiquity and the eclectic nature of calendar art.

The South Asia scholar Christopher Pinney has written extensively about the significant aesthetics that accrue to calendar art. In repudiating the influence of Ravi Varma style of western academism, that influenced turn of the century prints with the uses of space with a perspective and a `modernising' iconicity, the calendar artist reverts to what Pinney describes as `neo-traditionalist' values, which need to be particularly studied in the light of Hindutva politics.

Darshanic, katha images

Thus, the famous Brahmin painters of Nathdwara led by Narottam and B.G. Sharma, dominate the way the gods are printed in present-day calendar art, with its twin aspects of the darshanic image and katha image, or the image for worship and the narrative or pedagogic image. The proliferating studios also became sites for the mass-produced images of nationalist leaders. Strong frontal images of Rabindranath, Vivekananda or Ramakrishna usually embracing Kali with a garland of red hibiscus flowers, occupied the same space as the religious images of the idealising, pure nation.

Calendar and popular art enters a new phase of visibility in academic discourse as well as through the commercial auction. The value of this art form is now underscored by the gradual demise of the calendar art studio and the dominance of the digital print. A progression in the paintings that formed the basis of the calendar print now becomes available for study. As models for prints, Ravi Varma's oil paintings were replaced by the gouache paintings of the Nathdwara artists, "in which a figural excess signifies a religious repleteness."

In the 1970s and 80s, the power of the offset press became a form of mechanical intervention in calendar art. Several studios or artists used printed cut-outs of the gods, or else of architectural details, pasted within the frame and integrated within the work. These are details that are evident only when one studies the original work, and not in the mass-produced chromolithographs that it engenders. The most recent images digitally created and plotted on the computer are minimally painted on the floral borders, to suggest the semblance of an artwork. There is also a critical shift in subject matter between the paintings of the `50s and `90s. The lush excess of detail and the rich colours of the Nathdwara style with their preoccupation with the Gods expand to accommodate the envisioning of the nation as heroic entity. Arguably the last influential calendar paintings of Indian politics enshrined Indira Gandhi as the benign mother of the nation, the unspoken Bharat Mata of the Pokharan blasts and the triumph of Bangladesh. Her popularity as a poster rivalled that of Gandhi, pointing to the shift in national values.

The last few years, especially under the BJP Government, have been profoundly influential for the revival of a neo-conservative art. There has been, as Pinney notes, a remarkable continuation of the image: glossy Lakshmi and Ganesh images continue to be the most popular in calendar art production.

In recent years, the emergence of the avatar poster - for Karva Chauth, Hoi Mata and a host of other events in the Hindu calendar - is a new development.

The material difference is that they are now being produced en masse not in the artist's studio but as computer-generated images.

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