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A Fascinating Melagne

Malavika Karlekar

By Christopher Pinney
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 238, Rs. 1750.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

In his recent book, social anthropologist Christopher Pinney who has used the photographic visual with rare dexterity to understand certain facets of Indian society (Camera Indica – The Social Life of Indian Photographs), turns his attention to chromolithographs. He examines whether the stories told by them—“in luxuriant proliferation”—are different from the stories we know through other sources. In doing so, he stakes a forceful claim of the value of looking beyond established and accepted modes of research, and for the anthropologist, data collection. Chromolithographs are coloured images produced from original stone blocks used in lithography, a process dating back to the late 18th century. Though he claims that he presents his conclusions as an “experimental zone” Pinney’s detailed work has all the prerequisites of a well-finished argument.   The terrain that the book maps is relatively easy as Hindu practice is committed to visuality—bold, garish, delicate, sentimental. And when religion and politics are conflated, an extremely fascinating melange emerges, often directing the viewer’s eye in little-thought of directions. Pinney makes the interesting point that though in the colonial period, indigenous politics was kept under strict surveillance and that of religion relatively untouched, when their ‘realignment’ took place, “visual culture was perhaps the major vehicle for this reconfiguration” (p. 11). Images were created for a variety of reasons and in many different styles, and the author looks at these chronologically.   In the late 19th century, India became increasingly visual, and for a largely illiterate population, pictures—be they advertisements for matches with a ferocious Kali image, the occasional frontispiece, or bhaguan ki photo—had an instant appeal. Of course, apart from the commercial and quotidian, the establishment of art schools well over a century ago (the Government Art School was established in Calcutta in 1864 followed by those in Lahore and Madras) aimed at replacing the magic realism of Indian art with naturalism. A misplaced hope indeed, as an efflorescence of creativity took over, often taking somewhat macabre forms. The excellent reproductions in the book provide the reader evocative instances of these, well-explicated by Pinney’s analysis and discussion.   Bengal and Maharashtra were among the first to promote print shops, the Calcutta Art Studio was set up in 1878, the same year that the Chitrashala Press started production in Poona. Pinney shows how visual and creative realms coalesced in the late 19th century, the growing vernacular theatre borrowing as well as ...

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