While the film Life of Christ was rolling past before my eyes I was mentally visualizing the gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra their Gokul and Ayodhya.. I was gripped by a strange spell.  -Dadasaheb Phalke

The school textbooks were stacked up. There was a picture of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge with a benign smile. A lit oil lamp and fresh flower garlands as offerings. On Vasant Panchami, the fifth day of the Indian traditional calendar month of Magha, Saraswati Pooja a spring festival to thank the goddess falls every year. In a studious South Indian household, we kids loved it because all the books were kept on the altar for worship and we were officially allowed to play hooky. That smiling Saraswati at my house, I later realised, was an oleograph from Ravi Varma Press.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma (29 April 1848–2 October 1906) was a celebrated Indian painter. He was closely associated with the Travancore royal family and was patronised by the king Ayilyam Tirunal. Though he was officially trained by a Dutch painter, initially Ravi Varma learned from Arumugam Pillai of Madurai, one of the few who understood nuances of oil painting.

Raja Ravi Varma’s works are the best examples of European techniques with a strong Indian narrative. His renditions of Hindu deities or episodes from the epics and Puranas have received profound acceptance. He also made affordable lithographs of his paintings available, which opened his reach and influence as an artist. They are found as objects of worship across the length and breadth of India even today. The tableau-like quality of Varma’s narratives with models in costumes further influenced Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema and the very syntax of Indian popular imagery was born.

This objective to make art inclusive and affordable led to industrial mechanical reproduction and a new element of popular culture originated as calendar art.

Calendar Art

Early 20th century also saw the evolution of printing as an industry in India. In 1937 Kaliappa Nadar brought offset printing technology to Sivakasi, a small town about 70 odd kilometres from Madurai, where Ravi Varma found his guru. Ten years later with Independence from colonial rule India the culture industries – print, cinema, and magazine – were at their peak. The new found domestic commodities market quickly adopted the mythological and devotional imagery a la Ravi Varma as their visual language. Images of gods, goddesses, mythological tableaus and national heroes fighting the evil were printed in large quantities on the four–colour offset machines of Sivakasi with a calendar or without, as ‘framing pictures’ for worship. The key brand asset for the local advertiser was the calendar that tirelessly stayed up all year with the name of the trader letterpress printed at the bottom.

Today the economy of Sivakasi is dependent on three major industries: fire crackers, matches and printing. The town has 520 registered printing industries, 53 match factories and 32 chemical factories. This town has become the nodal centre for firecrackers for the country. In 2011, the industry employed over 25,000 people and some of the private enterprises had an annual turnover of ₹5 billion(US$78 million). Approximately 70% of the firecrackers and matches produced in India are from Sivakasi. The calendar art style is used on packaging and promotion of firecrackers and matches too. –Wikipedia

Though calendars adorn walls in every region, this art style remains as the most cohesive visual language that binds our country. Even now, every year Saraswati tirelessly smiles on the fifth day of Magha.

Watch this homage to calendar art in a movie title sequence.

Also published on Medium.