Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 2, 2004
Christopher Pinney ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India London: Reaktion Books, 2003. 320 pp.; 100 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Paper £22.50 (1861891849)

Christopher Pinney’s ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India traces the development of prints, mostly chromolithographs, from the late 1870s onward. Specifically, he focuses on the intersection of printed images and political struggles from the colonial period to present-day India. Chromolithographs, complex color images printed from multiple stone blocks, developed from the basic lithographic technique invented by Alois Senefelder in Munich in 1798 and first used in India in 1820. Far from a Gutenberg galaxy, South Asia is a region where the visual image has played a powerful role and where the written word has had limited impact in an environment marked by oral tradition and multiple languages. It is for this reason that this book has significance beyond a history of visual practice. One of the central arguments is that chromolithographs were not simply a reflection of things happening elsewhere or “illustrations of some other force,” but rather “were an integral element of history in the making” (8). In this way, Pinney presents a profoundly convincing and extremely nuanced case for visual culture as a key element in considering politics and religion in modern India.

The book is divided into eight chapters, with an introduction and epilogue. In the introduction, Pinney presents the centrality of the concept of darshan—a kind of “auspicious seeing” that is associated with touching and knowing and is a part of total sensory experience (9). Further, drawing on the work of Sandria Freitag, Pinney argues that under the colonial administration, the category of “politics” was separated from that of “religion” and placed in the “public” sphere. Religion was ascribed to the “private” realm and thus outside of colonial governance. In this context, people could do things under the guise of “religion” that they were not able to do as “politics,” thus making religion a vehicle for a fugitive politics (11). Hence, the mass production of images of Indian gods and goddesses became a political tool for anticolonial struggles.

Chapter 1 explores the aesthetic context in which chromolithographs were produced. Colonial art schools established in the mid-nineteenth century advocated an art practice of single-point perspective. It was thought that learning to draw “correctly” would weaken the influence of Indian gods who were often portrayed flatly with multiple limbs. Yet while Indian artists learned Western strategies of realism, Pinney argues, in the end they used it to empower the realm of the gods by developing something akin to “magical realism” (19–20). Chapter 2 details the production of the Calcutta Art Studio in the state of Bengal in western India. Founded in 1878, this printing house was established by ex-students of the Calcutta School of Arts, who appropriated Western academic representational strategies and applied them to the depiction of Indian gods to great success. Further, Pinney explores the “inter-ocular” space of urban, colonial Calcutta, where printed images intersected with earlier visual practices and new forms of politicized theatre. Chapter 3 examines the output of Chitrashala Steam Press, also founded in 1878, whose politically explicit images drew from the localized history of the state of Maharashtra, in eastern India, to forward anticolonial agendas.

Chapter 4 examines the production of the celebrated south Indian artist Ravi Varma (1848–1906) and the press he set up in 1894. Varma has become known as the father of Indian chromolithographs, yet Pinney places him alongside other contemporary practitioners to demythologize his iconic status. The chapter explores Varma’s work and its parallels with the work of India’s first feature filmmaker, D. G. Phalke. Other presses are also examined in relation to camera technology and the use of realism in religious prints to political ends. As Pinney describes, “Indian images were beginning to succeed in animating the national voice…. [T]he gods were not simply mannequins to be remodeled within new representational scheme; the realignment of deities along a new realist tangent created a new hybrid space of magical realist mytho-politics” (70).

Chapter 5 examines the activities of the Brijbasi brothers, who began to mass-produce images by artists from the pilgrimage center of Nathdvara in Rajasthan in 1927. This work was can be characterized as “neo-traditionalist” and stresses composite images that were frontal, symmetrical, and akin to devotional images that emphasized an engagement with the viewer (92). The brothers’ prints also played into a growing politicized visual vocabulary in that the representation of idyllic landscape reflected the pan-Indian landscape continually evoked by Indian nationalists throughout the struggle for independence (100). Chapter 6 studies images in circulation, the use of visual strategies such as allegory, and their intersection with broad political movements such as Cow Protection, the boycott of British goods, certain nationalist leaders, and colonial attempts at control (such as the 1910 Press Act). Chapter 7 explores printing production in the second half of the twentieth century in the work of B. G. Sharma, whom Pinney refers to as “the most important figure in the popular Indian Art world of the 1950s and 1960s” (147). The work of Sharma and other artists such as Mulgaonkar, Pednekar, Yogendra Rastogi, and H. R. Raja reflect a diverse range of public, popular, and folk conventions that combine with local and pan-Indian aesthetics and politics.

Finally, chapter 8 examines the use of Indian printed images in the village community of Bhatisuda. This part of the book constitutes what Pinney calls “the only detailed ethnographic investigation into the use of these images anywhere in India” (182). He concludes that images were important to their consumers not so much for how they looked, but for what they could “do” (190). In this way, the images were “animated” by their interaction with the beholder. He writes, “The consumption of images by Bhatisuda villagers needs to be understood in terms of these processes of bodily empowerment, which transforms the pieces of paper into powerful deities…” (191). The involvement of the body and all the senses in “seeing” an image, Pinney proposes, can be understood as a concept of “corpothetics.”

One of the most significant aspects of the book is this notion of corpothetics, a term that Pinney coins as a counterpart to what he calls the “anaesthetizing discourse” of Western forms of representation. Single-point perspective and other Western representational strategies of realism are based on a mathematical organization of space and are part of, Pinney argues, a numbing and deadening of the sensorium through the separation of the image from the beholder (19). On the other hand, corpothetics is an aesthetic of representing gods in India that mobilizes all the senses. It involves bodily performance that transforms both the image and the beholder. Corpothetics is not easy to pin down, and thus the study of it is necessarily complex; meaning is slippery and is not simply a result of artists’ intentions. As certain images are reproduced through time and region, their meanings shift again. It is this fluidity that allowed printed images in India to escape colonial control, as well as what gave them such power and currency. Corpothetics is part of a kind of visual experience, of the consumption and impact of printed images in India, where images are not simply a reflection of history but a part of its making.

This recognition leads to another significant aspect of the book—the possibility of alternative histories through the study of printed images. Pinney states that “a practice that has privileged the power of the image and visually intense encounters, which have implicit within them the possibility of physical transformation, forms the backdrop against which a new kind of history has to be written” (6). A study of chromolithographs offers an alternative narrative to the official textual narratives of Indian nationalism. In this way, visual images offer insight into realm of the political not preserved in official archives. Pinney states, “[T]aken together, these images serve to show in a powerful form that, as Ranajit Guha has written, ‘Indian Nationalism of the colonial period was not what elite historiography had made it out to be…. [I]t derived much of its striking power from a subaltern tradition going a long way back….’ That historiography privileged certain kinds of textual archival sources. A new historiographic practice grounded in the study of popular visual representations reveals with startling clarity the powerful presence of radically different preoccupations” (144).

In this book, Pinney has performed the herculean task of beginning to sort through one of the largest, most complex visual archives in South Asia. While the author does not intend to provide a straightforward chronological progression of publishers, artists, images, and styles, such a history can be pieced together from the rich data provided. Pinney cautions in the epilogue that “inasmuch as this book has invoked an episodic dominance … it has perhaps risked an homogenization of an idiom of picturing that does retain some significant peripheral regional tradition” (163–64). The book is based on a remarkable foundation of archival research and interviews with artists and publishers started in the early 1980s. The prints in this study are not a part of official institutional archives; thus Pinney has had to work largely from images kept by publishing houses or ones gathered by himself or colleagues over time. The breadth and depth of the analyses, which bring together literature and methodologies from a range of disciplines, is impressive. Pinney has drawn from a number of theorists, including Michael Fried, Benedict Anderson, Jean-François Lyotard, and Homi Bhabha. Using the tools of the art historian, Pinney provides a strong visual analysis of popular images, identifying specific visual strategies and how they are used, given meaning, and transformed through their dissemination beyond their point of origin. Further, he uses the tools of anthropology, history, and cultural studies to present a nuanced and layered reading of the history of printed images and political struggle. In the process he identifies important conceptual frameworks that far exceed this specific study, and provides a foundation for understanding the role of image in Indian politics today. Any weaknesses are minor: the history of colonial art schools is simplified; one wonders if the ethnography of contemporary Bhatisuda would have been better placed at the beginning rather than the end; and it is unclear to what extent chromolithographs may be understood outside of politics.

‘Photos of the Gods’ is an important book for the study of visual culture in India and is a model for the serious analysis of any form of popular culture. It demonstrates the importance of considering visual images as more than mere illustrations of history but rather as sources for new narratives other than those derived from textual sources. Pinney makes clear that printed images in India were produced for multiple purposes—political, commercial, devotional—and used numerous styles, to which homogenizing terms like “calendar art,” as they are often called, do not do justice (11).

Deepali Dewan
Associate Curator, Royal Ontario Museum and Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

Please send comments about this review to