Indian Calendar Art: A lens to view Indian History

Though calendar art is a thing of the departed era with just a few genuine fans supporting the art form, it has played a significant role in the Indian art scene in reaching out to the masses. Popularized in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Calendar Art refers to the 'mass produced' icons and images, usually of Gods and Goddesses, ubiquitous to Indian public spaces. One also saw a sudden surge in images of mythological tales, portraits of national leaders and landscapes being created by artists.  

Introduction to Calendar Art:

Calendar art is a generic name for a style of popular mass produced prints, mostly in color, and gained immense popularity quickly. It is supposed to be aesthetically pleasing; these calendar art works carried a color saturation that appealed to the masses which led to its popularity.  

The credit for popularizing Indian calendar art and bringing it to the masses goes to Raja Ravi Verma, an Indian artist from the princely state of Travancore who is known to have pioneered calendar art when he set up the first printing press to print his works in Ghatkopar, Mumbai in 1894. His intention was to encourage the appreciation of art works by their large scale printing. Starting from the early 1900s to 2000s four broad themes that were depicted in calendar art was: religious, patriotic, film and landscapes.  

The press reproduced Verma’s mythological paintings. Some of the early Indian art calendars demonstrated portraits of goddess Lakshmi, the lithe Shakuntala, the beautiful Damayanti and the harassed Sahirhandri hiding her eyes from the gaze of Keechak. Calendar art become popular at a time when western styles of drawing defined shapes and lines were gaining traction. Technically, the single point perspective wherein the drawing has only one vanishing point was used. 

Impact of Indian Calendar Art:

Raja Ravi Verma’s prints and artworks were a reason due to which Gods became accessible to the common man, as a result of which tales like the Mahabharata and Ramayana regained a sense of popularity through these very decorative illustrations.  

The widespread popularity of calendar art in India impacted individuals deeply, and helped bringing in a sense of nationalism and cultural integrity. During the freedom struggle, common motifs in calendar art were that of Mother India, and the traditional mother-son duo of Krishna and Yashodha. 

 In fact some of the images used for calendar art became extremely political, so much so a lot of times Indian calendar art was used to influence and instigate the masses to overthrow the British Raj. Calendar art was a great medium to put out subliminal messages through its images, like a caged parrot being released by a woman which signified liberation from the colonial rule.  

Furthermore, calendar art became a tool for advertising films and theatre projects through painted posters. The depiction of scenes from religious epics, portraits of national heroes, film stars, all became popular motifs in calendar art.  

Other Indian calendar art painters include artists like S. M. Pandit, Hem Chander Bhargava, B.G. Sharma, Yogendra Rastogi and J. P. Singhal whose works also gained extreme popularity in Calendar Art in the later period. 

Decline of Calendar Art:

Alas the popularity of Indian Calendar art gradually declined. Though the use of lithography brought a revolution in visual print culture, but it came with its own problems and downfalls. The status of artists was gravely affected as cheaply mass produced color prints began flooding the market. Even Raja Ravi Verma, who is considered the pioneer of calendar art and the father of modern art in India faced the brunt of the overproduction of prints.  

Overall, the journey of Indian calendar art is an interesting one; despite being overshadowed by mass production of color prints, calendar art still finds its way into the house of prominent art collectors, auctions, art enthusiasts, etc.