Chennai exhibition traces genesis and growth of Madras commercial art

The latest exhibition from the Chennai-based Ashvita Gallery traces the genesis and growth of commercial Madras art – from calendars to advertisements and, of course, movie posters

The latest exhibition from the Chennai-based Ashvita Gallery traces the genesis and growth of commercial Madras art – from calendars to advertisements and, of course, movie posters

These hues, landscapes, faces and patterns are all too familiar; we grew up seeing them on calendars, periodicals and advertisements. Now, with the exception of the occasional resurrection that takes advantage of their “retro” value, commercial art is heading into obscurity. In the picturesque gallery of Ashvita, a narrative is being created of how commercial art, which has dominated many houses over the past hundred years, has seen a movement in Madras, alongside the rest of the India. The exhibition is titled The Popular Picture: One Hundred Years of Madras Commercial Art.

Look around and you find, for example, a calendar that dates to 1966: a scene that depicts the Hindu god Shiva surrounded by devout devotees is juxtaposed by columns of dates and a flagpole that reads Murali Traders. A poster from 1970 bears perhaps the most widely shared and reproduced painting of another Hindu god, Balamurugan, which reads With best compliments from: Sri Mangalambiga Stores – Stainless Steel Dealers and General Merchants.

These widely circulated works of art are most often unattributed, yet are essential to the country’s visual language. “This exhibition exists because we wanted to ask people questions like: ‘What is fine art? Who calls it art? Why does Hussain get an exhibit in a museum and not say, Konderaju and Aykan,” says Ashvin E Rajagopalan, curator of the exhibit. Most of these works have been discarded. “They became worthless items because they were free. Today, we are able to give them context.

A calendar from 1966

A calendar from 1966

The axis of the scenography which puts forward seven artists does not move away from Madras. Initially, it was not a 100-year story, explains the curator.

It all started with a Tanjore painting of Lord Rama which came into their collection by chance. “At the very bottom, in Older Tamil, it said that anyone wishing to purchase prints of such works of art should go to store number such and such, on Broadway, dated 1888. Many of these paintings are classified as paintings of Tanjore. on paper, even in museums today. But we understood that students would come to the lithographic presses on Broadway, which has been a hub of calendars, greeting cards and posters for the past 100 years , to print them on black-and-white lithographs which were then colored by hand. It therefore became inexpensive and could be easily reproduced. This happened around the same time that the works of artists like Raja Ravi Varma have hit the printing presses. And so, the influences are hard to miss. When an artist’s visuals are commercialized on this scale, popularity follows. And when those visuals stay in the houses for long periods, it becomes the idea itself; of gods and goddesses, landscapes and settings.

From there, the story shows how this movement branched out in different ways: Also on display are magazine covers and calendars that contain “state-of-the-art photoshop work of the time.” In this sense, they painted, cut the font (for the text) and pasted it, and sent the negative of the whole panel to the press. Only a few of the magazines then had offset technology. Ananda Vikatan was one of the first publications to be quirky in the 1930s. Their magazines which carried artwork on the cover were highly anticipated by the Tamil speaking population. Similarly, a set of design projects for the movie Rajinikanth Pandian (2000) shows highly skilled, hand-drawn work that combines cut-and-paste elements.

A poster project from Rajinikanth-featuring 'Pandian' (2000)

A poster project from Rajinikanth-featuring ‘Pandian’ (2000)

The late 1800s also saw a wave of photography students setting up studios across Tamil Nadu. “The studio’s work was commercial work: in addition to photos and portraits, they also worked on greeting cards and calendars. And when you enlarge a photo, it starts to get blurry, and to make it look sharper, the studio was having people tweak the colors. So photo studios were commercial artist hubs,” says Ashvin. A section of the exhibit pays homage to this part of history.

A walk through 90 of these frames offers fascinating views into a category of art that has rarely been studied or documented. “Commercial art is not commercial in this sense. It’s still built on as ‘fine’ art as any other form,” Ashvin concludes.

The exhibition is on view until July 17 at Ashvita, Dr Radhakrishnan Salai.

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