Overtaken by glossy and often cheap reprints churned out by the thousands, the era of calendar art had for a while lost its patronage.
Even the great Raja Ravi Varma, regarded as the father of calendar art and of modern art in India, had few takers due to overproduction of prints.
But one cannot bury an artistic genre that has immediate connection with the masses for long.
Delhi-based Gallery Threshold’s ongoing exhibition, Painted Almanac, features nine artists who have lent their interpretation of the calendar.
One name that stands out is Roshan Chabbria who goes back to retro calendars for inspiration.
“The concept of retro calendars came into mind when the gallery contacted me regarding the concept of their show on framing time. I always used to see calendars very carefully and wondered about it. My art has been in a medium which reminisces something back in time, and is in a way bringing back the past to the present.
How I see my calendar art through time is in course with my nostalgia and memories taken from popular art and kitsch art,” says the artist.
Roshan went back to the old calendars which local business companies used to gift their clients during Diwali, Dussehra or New Year, and had prints of gods and goddess mainly by Raja Ravi Varma.
The use of such images had another purpose: people would never throw the calendars away since they depicted the revered deities and would often frame it and keep it way beyond the shelf-life.
“The subliminal message of the product also gets associated with gods and goddesses,” he adds. Roshan himself has merged advertisement with some revered images.
For example, he paints goddess Lakshmi for a Lux soap advertisement, baby Krishna for Gripewater, Bharatmata for a sari brand, and more.
“I believe, these images have turned out to be the right brand ambassador for that particular product,” he smiles. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a sudden surge in this kind of advertising that easily merged deities with the aestheticisation of how one interprets time.
From images of Hindu gods and goddesses, one moved to mythological figures and portraits of nationalist leaders.
But with time, the practice almost died down. As artists such as Roshan bring back the beauty of such illustrations, one wonders whether there is some revival in the offing.
“I think that calendar art has a market today. It is an easy way for everyone to procure art. Besides, it carries nostalgia and memories of an era and we all love to preserve memories. A lot of people who love art but can’t afford it can always fulfill their dreams through this medium,” says the artist.
Raja Ravi Varma remains the most prominent name in the field.
Others such as Hem Chander Bhargava, BG Sharma, LN Sharma, Yogendra Rastogi also propagated his legacy. As lithography came into being, it became both a boon and a bane for the genre. Suddenly paintings could be mass-produced and that brought about the era of cheap colour prints.
But of late, it is again finding its way into the houses of prominent art collectors, exhibitions and auction houses. And it is also charting a new course. From nationalist or mythological figures, one is moving closer home. Roshan says, “My works are based on daily life and its challenges.
My viewers find a connect with them. The realism in my work gets highlighted with small detailings.” An image speaks differently to different people. In such a context, calendar art is an extremely potent tool in helping carve social identities as it is something that the masses can easily relate to.