Spiritual and Vernacular Expressions from the South

Start Date : 03 January 2024

End Date : 20 February 2024

Step into South Indian homes during prayers and festivals, and you'll find pictures of gods and goddesses framed and sitting pretty. These divine images also pop up in local magazines and special booklets that supplement newspapers. Maybe you've seen your grandma cutting these pictures out, creating a mini prayer corner or using them as bookmarks for her reading. In the world of movies, these heavenly faces even become logos or banners for production companies. Each of these manifestations holds a special value, like fragments of the divine encapsulated in tangible form, and have evolved as a distinct visual language shaped by technological advancements. Collectively, they are referred to as ‘Commercial Art.’ But who actually makes these commercial pictures of gods for everyone to use? Whose creative hands breathe life into these sacred images, weaving a connection between the earthly and the divine? How did they come to be? And are they an ‘art’ form? Ashvita’s is thrilled to present Spiritual and Vernacular Expressions from the South: A Survey Exhibition illuminating facets of these questions and more!


For centuries, Southern India thrived as a centre for art and architecture. Mediaeval empires including the Cholas, Pandyas, Nayaks, and Marathas erected grand temples and shrines not only to assert their authority but also to link themselves to the divine. Nestled within these artistic traditions are Tanjore paintings, an art form that took root in the late 18th century under Maratha rule, flourishing predominantly in Thanjavur and Madurai. Originating as a means for patrons to assert their high social status, these paintings diverged from the conventional method of painting directly on walls. Instead, they were painted on cloth stretched over wooden boards, and displayed by hanging. What made Tanjore paintings unique was their use of precious gemstones and pure gold foil. Each artwork narrated a story, often drawn from Hindu mythology, with themes like Krishna and Radha in court being prevalent. Through the years, the technique also garnered appreciation from European traders who carried these artworks back to their homelands, contributing to the global recognition of Tanjore paintings.


A similar artform that evolved during the same period was reverse glass paintings. While Tanjore paintings were exclusively commissioned by wealthy royal patrons due to their use of embellishments and pure gold foils, reverse glass paintings were regarded as a more economical and quicker option given the expense and time involved in preparing a Tanjore painting. Believed to have been introduced through China, this technique of painting was executed on the reverse side of a piece of glass featuring the same motifs as a Tanjore painting. Sacred themes such as the life of Krishna, the coronation of Rama, and Shiva and Parvathi on Nandi were commonly depicted in this art form.


By the 1850s, technological advancements brought photography to the region, marking one of the earliest and most affordable methods of image reproduction in India.  In 1856, the inception of the first photographic society in South India, located in Madras, reflected the growing influence of this visual medium. Initially, due to the costs and limited availability of photographic equipment, access was confined to colonial administration and the Indian elite. However, by the 1880s, commercial photography studios began to dot the bazaars of medium-sized towns within the Presidency. A new phenomenon—family portraits— found their place within Tamil households. While Tanjore paintings were mainly enjoyed by the upper classes, artists began to recognize photography's potential to reach a broader audience.


Among them, the Travancore artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848 - 1906) stood out as a pioneer. Well aware of ancient conventions and new thinking of the time, Ravi Varma consciously selected  the themes, genres and mediums for the paintings he wished to make. He even organised an exhibition featuring photographic reproductions of his artworks in Mumbai. Inspired by the accessibility and widespread appeal of photography, Ravi Varma subsequently established a publishing press to commercialise his artistic creations, and began using printmaking techniques like lithography for the same. 


Lithography is a medium which introduced art to the common people of India. By the 1880s, southern regions, especially Sivakasi and Madurai, emerged as pivotal hubs for commercial lithography printing. This shift was propelled by the rise of firecracker and matchbox industries in the area, which heightened the demand for print packaging. The growing need led to the establishment of printing presses in the vicinity. During this period, artists in the region keenly studied the market, attuning themselves to the prevailing tastes of the public. Observing a strong local inclination towards the divine, these artists grasped the market demand. This focus on understanding what the public wanted laid the groundwork for ‘Commercial Art.’ Pioneering artists like Raja Ravi Varma, Kondaih Raju, and others started creating paintings that resonated with the masses. This shift marked a significant distinction between ‘Commercial Art’ and ‘Fine Art,’ as artists transitioned from personal expression to crafting art for the public appeal.


Ravi Varma was not the first or only artist to employ lithography to reproduce his works, but he undoubtedly emerged as the most successful over time. In the 1950s, artists such as Kondiah Raju, along with his students, transitioned from painting backdrops for photo studios. Responding to shifting demands, Kondiah Raju delved into depicting Hindu deities, with a special focus on female gods from Hindu mythology. This creative venture gave rise to what is now known as 'Sami Padam' (translation: God’s picture) in Tamil Nadu. These depictions of deities not only highlighted their divine attributes and mythological narratives but also established enduring symbolic references for female figures. This influence played a role in shaping perceptions of 'How a female should look like,' leaving a lasting impact for years to come. The prints also served as advertising tools. In an era preceding television, these prints found a place in households, particularly as calendars, making them a powerful means for brands and publications to embed their products into the fabric of everyday life. The integration of these products into pooja or prayer rooms highlights their dual role as both decorative and spiritual elements. The imagery and form of these divine figures were subsequently applied to portray female characters, reshaping the visual representation of 'womanhood.’ This standardised visual aesthetic of the female figure became widespread in various print media, appearing in magazines, advertisement posters, calendar prints, and later in cinematic and visual productions.


As attendees explore this exhibition, our aspiration is for them not only to appreciate the artistic mastery but also to reflect on the profound impact of their gaze in reshaping perspectives within society as a whole—across cinema, marketing, and various other sectors. Each artwork displayed becomes a narrative that represents artists’ breathing life into these sacred images, weaving a connection between the earthly and the divine. Showcasing the centuries-old distinct visual language of commercial art that has evolved through technological advancements adds layers of meaning to this art form, making religious art extend beyond the artistic realm.

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