christopher pinney possibility

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s s I • I I • • I I I introduction: The possibility of a visual History The mishaps that can result from such a 'physiognomic' reading of artistic documents are clear enough. The historian reads into them what he has already learned by other means, or what he believes he knows, and wants to 'demonstrate'. 1

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Christopher Pinney Possibility


  • s s

    I I I I I I

    introduction:The possibilityof a visualHistoryThe mishaps that can result from sucha 'physiognomic' reading of artistic documentsare clear enough. The historian reads intothem what he has already learned by other means,or what he believes he knows, and wants to'demonstrate'.1

    padmaPhotos of the Gods : the printed image and political struggle in India/ Christopher Pinney; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. (1-7p.)

  • Can one have a history of images that treats pictures asmore than simply a reflection of something else,something more important happening elsewhere? Is itpossible to envisage history as in part determined bystruggles occurring at the level of the visual?

    This is the central question I pursue in this study.Its specific focus is the production of chromo-lithographs within India from the late 1870s onwards.These pictures could easily be used to produce anarrative that conforms with what we already knowabout India, serving as evidence of what (as CarloGinzburg suggests) we have proved 'by other means'.What, however, if pictures have a different story to tell,what if- in their luxuriant proliferation - they wereable to narrate to us a different story, one told, in part,on their own terms?

    This is what I have struggled to achieve here: not ahistory of art, but a history made by art. The visuals inthis study are not 'illustrations' of some other force,and it is not a history o/pictures. Rather it is a study ofhow pictures were an integral element of history in themaking.2 Picasso told Getrude Stein in 1914 that it wasCubism (rather than the French Army) that hadinvented camouflage:5 this book makes a similar claimfor the relation between visual schemata and the widersocial world in late nineteenth- and twentieth-centuryIndia. I try to make the case for visual culture as a keyarena for the thinking out of politics and religion inmodern India. Rather than visual culture as a mirrorof conclusions established elsewhere, by other means,I try to present it as an experimental zone where newpossibilities and new identities are forged. This is notan ordered laboratory with a single script: the reverseis true - divergent political, religious and commercialinterests ensure a profound contingency to alloutcomes. However, I hope to show that in thissometimes bewildering zone new narratives areestablished that may be quite disjunct from thefamiliar stories of a non-visual history. Two clearexamples of this, examined in more detail later in thebook, are the affective intensity of new nationalistlandscapes (the actual look' of the emergent nation)

    and the prominence of revolutionary terrorism in thepopular imagination.

    In trying to rearrange Indian history so that acentral place can be found for the visual, I have foundinspiration in Boris Groys's provocative account of theelision of the aesthetic with the social and political inmid-twentieth century Russia,4 and also in recentwriting by anthropologists of Melanesia. Scholars suchas Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern have invest-igated the manner in which certain cultural practicestreat images as compressed performances. They havesuggested that, for Melanesians, images are notrepresentations in the sense of a screen onto whichmeaning is projected. Rather, 'the experience [of animage's] effects is at once its meaning and its power'.5I explore the usefulness of this insight in an Indiancontext below. In so doing I also develop a critique ofconventional approaches to aesthetics and argue forthe notion of'corpothetics' - embodied, corporealaesthetics - as opposed to 'disinterested' represen-tation, which over-cerebralizes and textualizes theimage. Conventional notions of aesthetics will not getus very far. Of much more use is an appreciation of theconcern with images' efficacy. The relevant questionthen becomes not how images 'look', but what theycan 'do'.6

    Alongside the question of images' powers, weshould also consider their 'needs': the technology ofmass-picture production documented here wasgrounded in a cultural field that routinized theseneeds. Addressing the 'wants' of pictures is a strategyadvanced by W. J. T. Mitchell as part of an attempt to'refine and complicate our estimate of their power'.7

    Mitchell advocates that we invite pictures to speak tous, and in so doing discover that they present 'not justa surface, but a face that faces the beholder'.8


    Within Hindu practice, the enormous stress onvisuality endows a great range of images with extra-


  • ordinary power. A key concept here is the notion ofdarshan, of'seeing and being seen' by a deity, but whichalso connotes a whole range of ideas relating to'insight', 'knowledge' and 'philosophy'. Its role at thecentre of Indian Hindu scopic regimes will be referredto many times during this study. Darshan's mode ofinteraction (especially as practised by the ruralconsumers described in chapter 7) mobilizes vision aspart of a unified human sensorium, and visualinteraction can be physically transformative (illus. 1).Lawrence Babb has described how in various Hindutraditions 'seeing' is conceived of as an 'outwardreaching' process: 'seeing itself is extrusive, a mediumthrough which seer and seen come into contact, and,in a sense, blend and mix'.9 More recently ArvindRajagopal has made a similar point: 'one is "touched"by darshan and seeks it as a form of contact withthe deity'.10

    Visuality and other embodied practices have playeda central role in the constitution of Indian publicculture. Sandria Freitag has suggested that in Indiait was the religious and political procession thatcarved out a public sphere in colonial India." To thisperformative realm we might add the much larger(mass-produced) visual field described in this book.

    1 Firework packaging,printed in Sivakasi (1992).The prevalence of eyesin Indian popular imageryis a reflection of theimportance of seeing,and being seen.

    A practice that has privileged the power of the imageand visually intense encounters, which have implicitwithin them the possibility of physical transformation,forms the backdrop against which a new kind ofhistory has to be written.

    Besides this central theme, there is a further threadthat I hope runs clearly throughout this book. Thisconcerns the relationship between religion andpolitics and its changing configuration. Recentwritings on India have described a new popularreligious-nationalistic imaginary as a product of aspecific time and specific technologies. Many analystshave, for instance, stressed the ways in which SouthAsians have used new electronic media to circulatetheir vision of the political choices facing India. Thenarrative generated by such approaches has conjuredan opposition between a threatening super-modernityand a Nehruvian modernity rooted in a commitmentto a secular state. The story presented here compli-cates this narrative and suggests a much greater depthto what are often seen as recent struggles.

    The juxtaposition of a series of painted episodesfrom the Ramayan with, at the bottom, the actors whoportrayed Ram and Sita in the 1987 Doordarshan tele-vision serialization of this epic embodies this historical


  • 2 Scenes from the Ramayan (c. 1995), colour print with photographic portrait of actors at thebottom. The 1987 television serialization of this great Hindu epic had a significant impact on thepolitical culture of India.

  • interpenetration (illus. 2). This television broadcastis widely accepted as a key event (a 'flash point ormoment of condensation') in India's movementtowards the Hindu right, leaving in its wake a 'politicsafter television'.12 What may seem an incongruousmismatch of media makes perfect sense to the con-sumer of this picture for whom the painted images sithappily with the televisual image. The Doordarshanserial's aesthetic, after all, was derived from that ofchromolithography. Both the actors shown sub-sequently accepted Bharatiya Janata Party invitationsto become involved in their campaign to build theRamjamnabhumi mandir (temple of Ram's birthplace) onthe site of the Babri masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, UttarPradesh; Deepika, the actress who played Sita, becamea BJP member of parliament. In December 1991 Hinduactivists destroyed the Babri masjid. In the ensuingdisturbances many hundreds of Indians died. Theaccount presented here aims to give this complex andconsequential entanglement of images and politics a(longer) history. It needs this history not to excuse, orcreate the alibi of deja vu, but as the precondition of acorrect prognosis.

    During the colonial period politics and religionwere conceptually titrated into separate domains,politics being placed under strict surveillance andreligion conceptualized as autonomous. As SandriaFreitag puts it, the colonial state 'labeled issues relatedto religion, kinship, and other forms of communityidentity as apolitical - as private, special interest, anddomestic and therefore not requiring the attention ofthe state and its institutions'.13 Then, in large partbecause of the practice of colonial censorship and pro-scription, an authorized 'religion' became the vehiclefor a fugitive politics. Indians were able to do thingsunder the guise of'religion' that they were not able todo in the name of'polities'. But these two domainswere now (to recall Adorno's phrase), 'torn halves ofan integral freedom, to which however they do notadd up'.14 Incapable of being recombined they wererealigned in a new deadly form. Visual culture wasperhaps the major vehicle for this reconfiguration.


    This book also seeks to explore the idea of a 'total art'- the collapse of the social into the aesthetic - in thecontext of modern Indian history. This is aperspective recently advanced by scholars of theformer Soviet states, such as Boris Groys, VladislavTodorov and Alia Efimova, who have stressed thecentral role of the aesthetic in sustaining the Sovietera: communist regimes created 'ecstatic aestheticenvironments] - grandiose marches, parades andmass campaigns . . . a kind of libidinal stimulation,an abundance of affect... V5

    The Groys model, however, presupposes theexistence of a totalitarian state in which elites are ableto impose their vision in all areas of practice.16 Thiscould not be further from the experience of India inwhich certain characteristics of the colonial stateengendered a tenacious gulf between the mass of thepopulation and the political elite. Ranajit Guha hasargued that there was 'a structural split' between theelite and subaltern domains of politics: 'vast areas inthe life and consciousness of the people' remainedunknown and unknowable to the elite.17

    One manifestation of this was the distancebetween elite secular forms of nationalism and apopular messianism. The contrast with the StalinistSoviet Union is clear. Rather than a skilled elitesweeping everything before it, in India the elite wasconfronted with a population that it largely failedto recognize or understand. The 'total art' of HinduIndia is thus not as 'total' as the aesthetic presentedby Groys.

    The political effectiveness of images was in largepart the result of their ubiquity. The scale of con-sumption was equally important to the nature ofwhat is consumed, for the p'erformative reunificationof the fragmented signs of the nation occurred untoldhundreds of millions of times through the repetitivegestures of the devotee facing his domestic chromo-lithographs, and through that same individual'sawareness that around him numerous other citizens-


  • in-the-making also possessed images coded in thesame style.

    In certain respects there are parallels between whatBenedict Anderson terms 'print capitalism' and thegenre of images I have been considering here. Both areinvolved in the construction of public spaces andarenas of consciousness that are intimately linked to'nationalism' and both create a sense of commonalitythrough a reflexive awareness of the collective enter-prise of worshipping gods and affirming politicalleaders. Many of the functions borne by print inAnderson's account are assumed by mass-disseminatedimages in India. And yet the fundamental differencesare striking.

    Although no causal connection is suggested,Anderson notes that in Western Europe the imaginedcommunities that are nations appear historically at atime when religion is waning: 'the eighteenth centurymarks not only the dawn of the age of nationalism butthe dusk of religious modes of thought'.18 He arguesthat nationalism emerges, firstly, from the decompo-sition of great sacral cultures bound together byeternal sacred languages whose signifiers were God-given, rather than arbitrary, and secondly through thedecomposition of kingly rule in which dynasties wereset apart through their claim to divine priority.

    These changes occur against a, perhaps even moresignificant, background of a new temporal order inwhich what Walter Benjamin termed 'Messianic time'('a simultaneity of past and future and in an instant-aneous present') gives way to a new notion of an'homogenous, empty time'.19 It is this 'more thananything else', Anderson claims, that made it possibleto '"think" the nation'.20

    Anderson concludes that 'the very possibility ofimagining the nation only arose historically when, andwhere [the belief in the privileged status of certainscript languages, the divine power of kings and thecollapsing of cosmology into history] all of greatantiquity, lost their axiomatic grip on men's minds'.21

    Although it is European disenchantment that isdescribed here, it is this which provides 'modular'

    packages of nationalist aspiration and which by thesecond decade of the nineteenth century had become'a "model" of "the" independent national state . . .available for pirating'.22 And, although Anderson hassubsequently sought to distance anti-colonial Asianand African nationalism from the 'modular' Europeanform, he still roots the success of such nationalism intotalizing appropriations of the 'census, map andmuseum'. He notes that 'the intelligentsias found waysto bypass print in propagating the imagined commu-nity'23 and cites the example of mass-produced printsdistributed to primary schools by the IndonesianMinistry of Education, some of which representedBorobudur in the guise of an archaeological theme-park, effaced of the Buddhist sculpture that encruststhe site and devoid of any human figures.24 ForAnderson they are messages sent downwards by thestate to the masses: Borobudur as state regalia or logo,disseminated to every school.

    The contrast with the images examined here isinstructive: Anderson's images are vehicles of a total-izing bureaucratic certainty; the Hindu images areexpressive of much more locally based cosmologies.25

    In this popular Indian domain, time was stillmessianic, scripts had indexical and non-arbitrarypower and kings were - in many cases - at the centreof the moral and ritual universe.

    This decentralization and diversity is anothercentral theme of the book. The images describedhere were created for a number of reasons: political,commercial and devotional. Further, they mobilize anumber of very different styles whose emergence,growth and attenuation I will trace historically. Theerasure of this diversity under labels such as 'calendarart', together with a general dehistoricization, makeit easier to link these forms with general propositionsabout the cultural context that produces it. Bycontrast, a nuanced history of these images complic-ates, and in some cases destroys, many of these easypropositions. Simultaneously, however, differentkinds of relationship between images and socialreality will become apparent.