Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

The Looks and Sites of Love

Valentine’s Day Greeting Cards in Urban India

Longing for private islands: Archival backdrops of love

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The visual repertoire of Valentine’s Day greeting cards in India is remarkably urban, inviting consumer experiences in leisure-based environs and features unknown characters. One of the main shifts in the iconography of V-cards is that in contrast to earlier depictions of romance that took recourse to divine or folk couples, film stars and other glitterati, ‘ordinary’ upper middle class people now secure access to a new repository of emotions, gestures and practices. Valentine’s greeting cards do not display Hindu deities such as Shiva and Parvati (fig. 04) or Krishna and Radha (fig. 05), or Kamadeva, the god of love (who resembles ‘Amor’ in that he carries bow and love arrow). These cards generally exclude famous romantic (and often tragic) couples like Laila and Majnu (fig. 06), or Salim and Anarkali (fig. 07)4, or on-screen couples like Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore in An Evening in Paris (1967, dir. Shakti Samanta) as well as film star couples such as Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Instead, we see anonymous, heterosexual couples in a variety of gestures.5 With a few exceptions, all of them are situated in public places such as discos (fig. 08) or cafés (fig. 09), cityscapes, beaches or foreign tourist spots (the most favourite being the Eiffel Tower in Paris), or in reference to a globalised imaginary of so-called ‘non-spaces’ with little context other than objects of consumer culture as part of the landscape, such as a shopping mall promoting Valentine’s Day (figs. 10-11). Again, non-Indian spots are privileged as opposed to backdrops such as the Taj Mahal or Mumbai’s Gateway of India.

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Greeting cards are not doing something fundamentally new. There had been several languages and formats of love communication before, such as love letters and poetry, and love songs through which romantic longing could be conveyed and manifested between two people (Ahearn 2001, Orsini 2006). And of course, romantic films and romantic books contributed to one’s longings for romantic fulfillment. As Kajri Jain and Catherine Asher show in their essays posted on Tasveerghar, romance, tourism and public space have been entangled with visual culture since the early twentieth century. But the mass-reproduced V-card is of a different quality. Possibly for the first time ever, a leisure industry has come to shape personal relations and feelings in a both public and private way in post-liberalized India, tying consumption and personal lifestyle and aspirations so openly as constituents of a legitimate ‘moral community’. Sociologist Eva Illouz has argued that romantic love is a key ritual of the 'utopian fantasy of capitalism'. She writes 'Liminal rituals are particularly potent because they erase all that which characterizes the sphere of production: work, effort, profit, self-interest, and money' (1997: 143). The V-cards camouflage consumerism as such a moral universe, and romantic love as part and parcel of a choreography of modern, cosmopolitan lifestyles. We should see the greeting cards as what Erving Goffman (1967) calls 'ceremonial tokens', communicating sentiments and instantly related to the material and performative culture of leisure and consumption (Mooney & Brabant 1998). Such tokens even make up a big part of Valentine’s Day, including not only greeting cards but also teddy bears, mugs, porcelain dolls, roses, cushions or key rings. They spur ritual performances and events that require certain ‘suitable’ sites of transfer between two people and thus allow new social networks to be articulated, shaped and stabilised.

The varied histories of Valentine’s Day's global journeys is yet to be studied and would reveal interesting zones of contestation and negotiation of romantic love, including bans on Valentine’s Day celebrations or on individual items, such as red roses. Before the advent of economic liberalization in India, it was largely an elitist event, and affirmed with imported products that would underline a person’s economic and cultural distinction/cosmopolitan membership. As we see in Saeed’s essay on Eid cards, not all cards should be reduced to the context of a religious festival. They also provide a suitable ‘excuse’ and moment in time chosen to express romantic feelings, mundane aspirations and belongings. And as Saeed states, Urdu poetry, and acts such as the sighting of the crescent moon, symbolizing a glimpse of one’s beloved, were used in romantic communication even before the cards or printing press arrived (personal conversation, September 2011). But Saeed's essay also allows us to highlight another difference. While Eid cards would be sent in the context of a traditional and recognized Islamic festival, Valentine Day’s greeting cards are about manifesting and conveying intimate and very personal emotions. Moreover, the latter demarcate a secular ritual: the day, and with it, the celebration of romantic (heterosexual) love, and of consumer citizenship/lifestyle as personal wellness.

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While Eid cards or New Year cards of the Hindu Right generally circulate between collectives, predominantly families or economic bodies bonded by business relations, the Valentine Day greeting card bonds two individuals who might only have one thing in common: their affection for each other (and their membership to an educated, English-speaking middle class). Neither religion nor family nor the office space plays a major role here. Moreover, neither ethnic Indian dress (e.g., a saree or kurta) nor classical ‘Indian’ sites (e.g., the Taj Mahal) feature in any of the Archies’ greeting cards. Instead, there is a globalized topography of spaces and sites as well as of garments displayed in connection with romance (fig. 12). Paris obviously still counts as the ‘city of being in love’, and the emblem of the Eiffel tower navigates between today’s tourist mobility as well as the memories of earlier Hindi films like An Evening in Paris (1967). In  fig. 13, we see a Caucasian couple in evening dress, dancing intimately in front of a brightly-lit Eiffel tower and cascades of stars. The printed text on the frontpage of this V-card (we only see its inside here) made in India reads as follows, and is surprisingly empty of any place-specificity:

"In each other's arms will forever be. That's my only dream. Our love is about ... the special celebrations in our lives ... The simple pleasures of sharing each day with you...knowing each other so well, making each other...happy and being so good together...”. Inside, the text continues: "Sweetheart, when you hold me in your arms, it seems as if the two of us are made for each other. You make my life complete. I love you."

Underlining this image is the language of fulfillment of personal longings such as deep feelings, trust, intensity and intimacy, as well as the fact that even everyday life deserves ‘special celebrations’ and happiness and ought to be a source of never ending pleasure. But the image also brings to the foreground the celebration of affection and longing between two people sharing a non-place, rooted only in the depth of their feelings for each other. This self-centered microcosm, this inverted world, renders others as intruders, at best as outsiders and voyeuristic onlookers of this intimate, over-abundant happiness. What remains unsaid is the ambivalent role of the ‘outsiders’ and the onlookers since their witnessing is an important ingredient of romance in the age of conspicuous consumption. Yet, this staging of emotions and the transformation of private islands into a voyeuristic arena is accompanied by a range of tensions directed against such as display of affection, because it allegedly provokes, if not even undermines a middle class morality that often privileges the joint family and arranged marriage over aspirations of two seemingly atomistic individuals (Uberoi 2009).

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Several essays on the Tasveerghar website have developed their argument around images housed in the digitized database of the Priya Paul collection. Since many of these images reach back to the first half of the twentieth century, or even earlier, we can also reconstruct image itineraries for the concept of romance. This way, we find that romantic love featured in advertising and calendar art well before the beginning of economic liberalization in the 1990s, when this form of conspicuous consumption and leisure and even the notion of ‘public’ (and ‘private’) was still very elitist. Often, local backdrops of historic monuments and beautiful landscapes would be imbued with traces of modern lifestyles, such as bicycles, elegant cars, sports items (fig. 14), and imported goods and consumables like Coca-Cola (see also footnote 8). Romantic couples sport fashionable, often ‘foreign’, clothes and hair styles, celebrate life at parties and joyous picnics, or ride around in cars and on scooters. Possibly, this is what the Valentine’s greeting card in fig. 15 has been inspired by, finally stripped of its Indian lower-class-stigma and thus turned into a symbol of liminal freedom and mobility, reminders of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953). In An Evening in Paris, Sharmila Tagore and Shammi Kapoor are escorted by friends clad in carnival costumes, riding scooters to attend a picnic where alcoholic drinks are consumed and a record player blares out western-style dance music: one of the rare moments where social taboos are openly breached.6 Again, the English lyrics of V-cards — all written by Indians, and for an Indian/South Asian audience - must not be ignored. The one shown in fig. 15 as well underlines an enclosed space of intimate love that concerns the pleasures of individual mobility (to travel - without the family):

"...riding on love wheels with full zest and zeal, holding each other tight they promised to be together day and night ... It's the love-filled story of two, My Love, 'Happily-lived-after', it's about me and you."

Needless to say that in metropolitan India today - and for most of those who would buy such a card - the motor scooter is no longer a sign of economic wealth. Today, the aspiring middle class considers cars to be an ideal object of status declaration. The scooter is largely associated with lower-class mobilities, small town aspirations, and a ‘Nehruvian’ petite bourgeoisie. In the card shown here as fig. 15, the scooter has nevertheless become an avatar of a liminal space, suggesting personal freedom and leisure time at hand, for instance, for a holiday trip to Goa, Singapore or Venice.

In her Tasveerghar essay, Kajri Jain explores the iconography of romantic couples as they are positioned in contexts of economic affluence, tourism and heritage monuments (see footnote 2). She provides an important foundation stone for my discussion of greeting cards and romance in neoliberal India in highlighting how intrinsic the heterosexual couple has also been interwoven into the popular imagination and making of the nation-state. Moreover, romance and nationhood are entangled visually, blurring boundaries between secular and sacred sphere, and linking monuments and landscapes to 'modalities of power' that constitute citizenship in pre-liberalisation India. Jain also underlines that the backdrops of this repertoire of love are always public sites, never private: people meet in parks, enjoy a picnic in front of the Taj Mahal, etc.


4 Interestingly, this poster displays a fair-skinned Anarkali, though she is usually referred to as dark-skinned (see Roy, forthcoming).

5 With one exception, Archies follows hetero-normative 'standards’. The exception relates to a Delhi High court verdict in 2009, announcing homosexual relations as legal. For Valentine’s Day in 2010, Archies released three greeting cards on the theme of homosexual romantic love.

6 Many thanks to Sumathi Ramaswamy for pointing this out to me.

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