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Gods in the Bazaar

by Kajri Jain
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2007
448 pp., illus. col. Trade, 71.00; paper, 17.99
ISBN: 978-0-8223-3906-9; ISBN: 978-0-8223-3926-7.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Indian ‘Calendar Art’ is the collective name for the mass-produced, color-saturated printed images used in calendars, advertisements, and packaging, featuring gods and goddesses, movie stars, babies, landscapes and more or less common Indian people. Distributed as gifts on the occasion of religious festivals and the New Year, circulated as posters for political parties, and used as wrappings for incense and soap, they are practically ubiquitous and unavoidable. Offices, market stalls, and homes alike are adorned by some image of Ganesh, Ram, Krishna, or a popular movie semi-deity, depending on the taste of the user or his business partners. Airlines and supermarkets, domestic and foreign companies, local shopkeepers and multinationals, all of them seem to keep the tradition of presenting calendars alive. According to the status of customer and supplier, they range from glossy 12-pagers to single-sheet prints on the worst quality paper, but they all share a limited repertoire of images and stay within a narrow range of aesthetic or iconographical diversity. So what is so special about them that they are worthy of a PhD thesis in art history?

For one, it appears that the creation and production of these ‘calendars’ is dominated by a relatively small number of networks, the center of which lies in the Southern city of Sivakasi, where most of the publishers and presses are concentrated. Orders are taken from all over the subcontinent, and distribution relies mainly on the ‘bazaar’ system, effectively connecting all regions, religions and ethnically different communities. Kajri Jain examines in great detail the role of each of the agents in the supply chain and describes how they take into consideration the differences in taste and sensitivity of the many regions and religious communities. She concludes that it is quite impossible to describe the bazaar system in the terms of standard——Western——political economy or business administration. Rather, the system functions as a moral as well as a material or commodity market. ‘Vernacular’ is the key word the author uses to understand how the bazaar copes with the divergent economic obligations of diversity and standardization. From a purely economic point of view, the introduction of the concept of the vernacular might not be necessary——at least Jain hasn’t given arguments to convince me——but at a more encompassing level, taking all the other functions of the bazaar and the images into account, it nicely glues together different fields of analysis and that is probably exactly what is needed to understand the extraordinary efficacy and performance of a post-colonial economic fabric.

Unfortunately, the voice of the consumer or end-user of these fabulous images——of which there are no less then 156 reproductions in the book——is almost absent. By concentrating on the supply chain and inferring from the choices of its agents, Jain probably has a pretty good idea of what calendar art is supposed to mean in the life of the average Indian, but any market analyst would want to know what the customer says.

A second problem I have with this book is the thick layer of post-structuralist parlance dousing the otherwise clear fascinating account of the industry. Surely, it isn’t necessary to repeat over and over again that agents need to ‘negotiate’ seemingly ‘paradoxical’ demands. But apparently, a PhD dissertation in art history needs to be drowned in this kind of rhetoric. Pity. What Jain achieved doesn’t need all this post-whatever mumbo jumbo and the book would be at least three times less voluminous and three times more readable without it. Look through the trees, however, and you will encounter a world full of surprising diversity, economic ingenuity, and artistic acumen both from the author and her subject.



Updated 1st September 2007

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