"Gods in the Bazaar," Kajri Jain’s rigorous, expansive, and gorgeously illustrated tome is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Indian visual culture, and leads us across India on a tour of printing presses, artist’s studios,’ calendar distribution houses, and into the offices and bedrooms of India’s myriad citizens. The book begins with a telling anecdote about an image of Sati taken in 1987. The author juxtaposes a photograph snapped of the 18 year old Roop Kanwar smiling over the body of her recently deceased husband on a funeral pyre with a commercial print made to commemorate the event that showed the young widow enveloped in flames receiving a divine blessing from a deity at the top left of the picture. A conventional Western scientific reading of the image would certainly classify it as “doctored.” The face of Roop Kanwar is taken from the original photograph, but the flames and the divine intervention certainly don’t conform to expectations of “conventional” photographic practice. Following a brief exposition of this incident, Jain draws on a documentary made by the activist-filmmaker Anand Patwardhan in 1994. In this film, the narrator approaches a cook who was from the same community as Roop Kanwar’s family and was clearly quite familiar with the practice of Sati. He shows the woman the commercial print, and asks whether she thought that the photograph had been faked. Her answer was a self-assured “no.” His questions continue: how could a God be photographed, if no one was able to see him? Her detailed response is telling. “Others can’t see him, but he’ll definitely come in the photo. He lives up in the trees, nearby. He hides and then appears in the photo—even the photographers don’t realize that it contains this god. He comes on his own…” (Jain 7). What is particularly interesting is that at the end of her answer, the cook frames the print as evidence, remarkably complicating the conventional Western expectation of photography as index of “the real.” “If you couldn’t see the god (in the photo), how would people know how she was burned, that it was the god’s rays?” (Jain 7).
This opening illustrates just how seriously Kajri Jain takes popular Indian imagery and the all too real work it can do in the world. Her rigorous analysis traverses the realms of the sacred, political, social, economic, affective, historical and libidinal with dexterity and insight. Moreover, her work evinces a keen art historical and anthropological grounding. She draws on in-depth ethnographic and archival research, as well as extensive travel and countless conversations with agents involved in all stages of image production and consumption.
While Jain’s book is remarkably broad in scope, her first chapter, “Vernacularizing Capitalism: Sivakasi and Its Circuits” begins from the small town of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, where calendar or “bazaar” prints had been produced and distributed since the 1960s. Called “little Japan” for its post-Nehruvian legacy of production, the small town represents one of India’s major capitals of printing, accounting for an estimated 60% of the country’s offset printing in 2001. Through in-depth ethnography of Sivakasi, Jain traces the shifts and stages in the development of the industry and outlines the history of the vying social groups that pioneered its success. Jain also uses the first chapter to outline a few of the major categories of Bazaar images, and draw attention to the complexity of marketing such heterogeneity across the newly independent nation. Ultimately, this chapter juxtaposes the largely family-run, “vernacular” enterprise of image production and distribution dominant in Sivakasi with fine art on the one hand, and highly bureaucratized English-medium advertising on the other.
The second chapter, “When the Gods Go to Market,” explores the fraught space of the Indian bazaar as it was produced through proselytizing, conquest, and trade in the colonial era. Jain not only uses archives to map such negotiations, but looks to the images themselves, displaying her art historical sensitivity to the stories only pictures can tell. By the chapter’s end, she trains her gaze on the work of the artist Raja Ravi Varma, and explores how his oeuvre has been mobilized as the poster-child in the nationalist project of origin myth-making. Yet she deftly avoids fetishizing the image and attends also to the object, in this case calling attention to Ravi Varma prints as one of India’s first mass manufactured commodities.
True to its title, “Naturalizing the Popular,” Jain’s third chapter, explores the complex deployment of naturalistic rendering in the evolution of popular Indian images. She follows up on the tracing of images as commodities, and details how different pictures were encoded though their diverse adaptations and rejections of naturalistic rendering to appeal to specific heterogeneous groups within the newly formed nation. Jain takes issue with Benedict Anderson’s predication of print-disseminated nationalism on a secular order, convincingly contending that bazaar prints tell the important story of religiously-oriented early nationalism for India. Finally, the chapter outlines the stylistic influence of a few alternate contemporary media forms such as advertising, magazines, and Hindi cinema. This discussion concludes the first section of the book, and lays the groundwork for part two, “Economy.”
In two chapters, “The Sacred Icon in the Age of the Work of Art and Mechanical Reproduction,” and “The Circulation of Images and the Embodiment of Value,” this middle section explores the shifting regimes of value though which bazaar images circulate. Jain attends to a number of contradictions and complications in the circuits of production and consumption, and excavates how understanding of the original or authentic operates in post-Independence Indian visual economies. This section also takes up the idea of the fetish, and explores how the category’s many valences may productively be brought to bear on the myriad meanings imbued in bazaar images.
The final section, “Efficacy” attempts a dual analysis of the explicitly political work that images accomplish on the one hand, and the sort of gender ideologies they map on the other. The sixth chapter, ”The Efficacious Image and the Sacralization of Modernity” explores the relationship of contemporary politics to mass-mediated images, and looks specifically at the ways in which both the Hindu right wing and the Congress Party have sought legitimation through the adaptation and invocation of bazaar imagery. “Flexing the Canon,” Jain’s seventh chapter, traces the stylistic shifts in the iconographic depiction of Hanuman and Ram, and parallels the development of the latter figure’s muscular rendering with the rise of India’s Hindu right.
Throughout "Gods in the Bazaar," Jain’s writing is clear, careful, and playful at times. In this last chapter, for instance, she states: “I have tried, through a narrative that is as tight and synthetic as the pants of the 1970s or 1980s “loafer” to show how cultural critique doesn’t necessarily have to choose between the new and old versions, both of which have their regressive and progressive, de- and reterritorializing aspects” (353). If the book is focused more on opening up productive possibilities for further analysis of bazaar images and the work they do as opposed to defending grand generalizations about these pictures, it is because its author is deeply committed to understanding these images on their own rich and exceptionally complex terms. Jain wins our trust early, as she explains her background as a student of visual communication in India’s National Institute of Design. “What first drew me to these images was, I think, a fascinated envy…what—our envy whispered to us—those constituencies really wanted: the intense colors, lavish ornament, compassionate smiles, and clear gazes of calendar art” (3-4).
If there is some danger in Jain’s expansive exposition, it might be likened to finding oneself lured into a textual jungle of sorts, and lost in the labyrinthine redoubling of its prose. Mind you, this is not quite the same as losing the forest for the trees, as Jain responsibly posts colon-studded signage at each bend in her analytic pathway. Like Ram and Sita whose wanderings are frequently depicted within the book’s pages, there are many a vivid god and demon to be met along the way. Indeed, the book’s mythic meanderings are interesting and rich. That said, "Gods in the Bazaar" is probably not the best introductory text for a reader new to the analysis of popular print culture in South Asia. For a dedicated scholar, however, Jain’s work is an invaluable contribution to the by now well-developed discourse on Indian visual culture.
-- Sophia Powers
(Images courtesy of rightful owners)
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