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Profiles of Nationalist Iconographies

Tapati Guha-Thakurta

By Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 218, Rs. 2750.00


The popular print-pictures of late 19th and 20th century India have become the subject of a booming publishing industry. This plebian picture industry has found an ironic match in a current overflow of prestigious publications that have all devoted themselves to the cause of profiling the common man’s taste in mythic and nationalist iconographies. What was once dismissed as ‘bazaar kitsch’ is now at the centre of the specialized attention of scholars, collectors and exhibition curators. What began in the 1960s and 70s as a trickling stream of collections swelled into a tide over the 1990s – marking out a sphere where the roles of scholar and collector have been closely intertwined, where the gathering of a picture archive has gone hand in hand with the hosting of exhibitions, the unraveling of the histories of printing presses in different parts of the country, and an analysis of the diversities of styles, themes and iconographies that make up this visual genre. The present spate of books on this subject range from academic monographs and edited volumes to exhibition catalogues and pictorial anthologies. The book under review, the third of a series put together by the same authors out of their personal collection of popular Indian prints, best fits the last category.   There is a similarity in the format of each of the three books by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, published in quick succession by Oxford University Press of New Delhi - Popular Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of India (2003), Raja Ravi Varma: The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma (2005), and Bharatmata: India’s Freedom Struggle in Popular Art (2008). In each book, a relatively light text is set off by a spread of full, half and quarter page colour plates, with extensive annotations on the themes of these pictures. By the time, we arrive at the third (and, hopefully, the last) book of the series, this similarity verges not merely on predictability but also on outright repetition of text and images. These two Austrian scholars (one, a specialist on prehistoric South Asian archaeology, the other, an artist and art historian) came into this field by dint of a large collection they amassed of popular printed pictures from several Indian presses, especially from the heirs of Raja Ravi Varma’s press at Malavli-Lonavla. Among the most valuable of their finds was the English diary of Ravi Varma’s ...

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