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Mass and class unite in this digital house of pictures
Manjusha Madhu  3rd Jun 2012

An artist at work in Chennai. Photo: Tasveer Ghar

round this time in May, six years ago, a conference by its anthropology department was held in the Heidelberg University, Germany. One of the central observations that emerged was the necessity to document and study the fast-evolving visual tapestry of modern South Asia. And like all novel enterprises, it is from this idea that Tasveer Ghar was born.

The introduction in Tasveer Ghar's website describes it as a — trans-national virtual 'home' for collecting, digitising and documenting various materials produced by South Asia's exciting popular visual sphere including posters, calendar art, pilgrimage maps and paraphernalia, cinema hoardings, advertisements, and other forms of street and bazaar art. The idea seems ambitious enough but the novelty and potential of the project is monumental.

"A project that taps into the diverse popular visual culture of India is something new. Not much work has been done in this area. There've been individual efforts of perhaps scholars of art history working on a particular theme or people collecting material. Our idea is to bring all this together and archive it," says Yousuf Saeed, project director.

The colourful website is a splendid tribute to the popular — where the 'masses' is as important as 'classes'. Numerous essays and photo archives minutely dissect the popular visual culture of India while providing ingenious insights into the trends and mind-sets these trinkets indicate. For example, in an essay by film historian Ranjani Mazumdar titled The man who was seen too much: Amitabh Bachchan on film posters, popular film posters of the '70s featuring the then reigning superstar of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, is employed to analyse the telling signs of cinematic idiom while connecting it to the political milieu of the period.

We want to create a collaborative space where scholars can contribute and people who are interested can read it. We are also approaching collectors to make available a lot of their collections online — Yousuf Saeed

Thus, Tasveer Ghar brings together essays on various elements of popular visual culture and the images that have spawned these debates. "Many renowned names in the field have contributed essays. What is significant is that the prose is lucid as opposed to the regular dense academic articles. I have employed these essays as teaching material and they have worked really well as pedagogical exercises," says academic and occasional contributor Patricia Uberoi.

Along with analysing these trends, the idea is also to establish a "virtual electronic archive — with open public access to scholars, students, and other interested professionals across the world". This open access is meant to facilitate the collection and documentation of visual objects such as photographs, bazaar prints, film posters and hoardings while contextualising and historicising these practices.

"We want to create a collaborative space where scholars can contribute and people who are interested can read it. We are also approaching collectors to make available a lot of their collections online. A significant achievement has been accessing the Priya Paul collection and generating a database that is currently used by scholars and students at the Heidelberg University. Very soon we will open it to the public," says Yousuf.

Scholars who have been working in this area for decades vouch for the relevance and necessity of such a venture. "Until the last two decades or so there has been minimal interest in modern popular visual culture. When I started out studying popular calendar art in the early '90s there were not more than two-three people who were interested in this," points out Uberoi. The 'minimal interest' was a direct aftermath of the 'lowly' status ascribed to popular visual culture. Items like advertisements, calendar art, billboard hoardings, film posters, etc were not seen as social documents that could provide valuable insights into a society's mechanisms and desires. "These were not treated as or thought of as art; therefore they were not thought of as worth documenting. This is now slowly changing. There are now exhibitions of popular artefacts," adds Uberoi.

A significant development that led to tides changing was the emergence of cultural studies as a major academic discipline. Within this discipline the 'everyday' and the 'popular' become significant tools for studying ways of seeing, thus annihilating the heirarchisation of 'high' and 'low' culture.

A picture speaks a thousand words — sometimes the most banal of cliché's aptly capture a very fundamental truth. The ability of a picture to appeal to a person's aesthetic sensibility while simultaneously being informative is well perceived and established. In the sub-continent where the visual motif has been considerably overlooked over the years, Tasveer Ghar comes as a crucial and welcome intervention.

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