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

Consumption and identity:
Imagining ‘Everyday Life’ Through Popular Visual Culture

Change and 20th Century  ‘Moments’ of Production 
To understand the range of visual objects and the themes that unite them into a single universe of popular visual culture, it is helpful to think about the images in the Priya Paul collection as clustering around several distinct moments of production.

Fig.02
Fig.03
The first ‘moment,
’ which we can call the turn of the century though it began sooner and probably continued into the 1920s or perhaps even later, is dominated by label production, most of which was created for Manchester textile companies selling goods in India.  Since we do not have any evidence of companies producing these in India, it is likely that the intermediaries who designed and sold these labels to the mills were mostly located in Britain.  The bulk of images produced and circulating during this moment could be described as falling into three main categories:  Indian religious imagery; rulers (European – especially British – and Indian, particularly); and aspects of ‘everyday’ life with which Indian consumers might identify.  These label images of everyday life are distinctive, catering to British understandings of what mattered to Indians and situating these subjects in a visual context that played to British imperial constructions while representing an India they hoped consumers would recognize.  From the production perspective, then, the labels reflect the textile manufacturing companies’ efforts to forge connections to far-removed customers.

The distinctiveness of these items stems from production circumstances as well as the effort, stylistically and thematically, to serve a documentary or ethnographic function.  Images no. 02 and 03 encapsulate the range of everyday life being documented, from courtly chess players to ordinary kite-maker,8  and all manner of occupations and castes in-between.  Indeed, there is a certain skill in these small works, capturing as they do the opulence of the setting of the courtiers or the ‘exotic’ array of the kitemaker’s wares.

Fig.04
As advertising messages, such labels thus made real efforts to naturalize their products (primarily textiles manufactured in Manchester, and sold in competition to Indian cloth) by embedding them within Indian society.  More darkly, they also tried to naturalize the un-natural and exploitive practices such as plantations, established for tobacco, tea, and coffee.  In that very effort to heighten the appeal of ‘naturalized’ products and processes for Indian consumers, these marketing ploys attempt to obscure British imperial goals, where imports led to the destruction of a previously robust textile industry (that had occupied a commanding place in world flows of goods in the early modern period), while creating new, exploitive forms of agricultural production to ensure the export of goods like tobacco to provide raw commodities in a complex flow involving the metropole.
That the companies succeeded in some measure may be gauged by the fact that the Paul collection includes a number of albums of these labels, including both separate pages holding the larger labels, and pages with plastic sleeves (akin to stamp collection pages), into which many labels could be inserted and then viewed. (Fig. 05)  (We will revisit the issue of collecting such images, later.)
Fig.05
Fig.06

Somewhat speculatively,9  we might deduce that these British designs resonated as well as they did with Indian consumers/collectors, because they mirrored another art form, that of the Rajasthani small boxes or cupboards, which told stories on different panels.  A variation on that approach can be seen in one example in the Paul collection featured as figure 6: here we see a wooden-framed “picture” with strips of wood separating each small picture around a central picture.  The center may be a mythological scene, while each of the surrounding boxes shows a laboring or other specialty (apparently those who would serve an elite or courtly household).


8
Many cities observe an annual kite-flying holiday, so that this label would have had broad recognition and appeal.  Great skill is required for kite-flying, which is highly competitive as flyers swoop and aim their kites to cut the strings of their neighbors’.
9 That is because we do not know the date on which this example was produced.  The suggestion for the tradition that inspired this work comes from Yousuf Saeed, and seems to me very convincing; private communication, February 2010.
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