The Priya Paul Collection of Popular Art
at Tasveer Ghar
Priya Paul speaks about her collection of popular art
In its endeavour to locate and archive valuable collections of popular Indian art, Tasveer Ghar received an opportunity in 2008 to digitise the personal collection of Priya Paul, the well-known Indian entrepreneur and art connoisseur. Ms.Paul, the current Chairperson of Apeejay Park Hotels, has been an ardent collector of Indian art, contemporary as well as popular/archival. Her collection of old posters, calendars, postcards, commercial advertisements, textile labels and cinema posters, painstakingly accumulated over several decades, is one of the finest archives of such ephemera in India. When Tasveer Ghar was commissioned to digitise and archive this important collection, each image needed careful handling, cleaning, assessment, scanning, digital photography, classification, and detailed annotation. It took more than 3 months to physically handle and scan the images into raw digital data. Part of this work was funded by the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University, whereas the Trehan Fund via the Michigan University (Ann Arbour) remained its main support.
For Tasveer Ghar’s team, the handling of these priceless images was not simply a matter of technical processing, but rather a discovery of the past in the same manner as an archeologist digs a historical site. Each day, as we opened new drawers and shelves, or uncovered piles of framed posters and calendars, we found new surprises. We chanced upon not only the precious items that one has heard about, such as the original prints of Raja Ravi Varma, but even items that we did not know had survived, such as a printed brochure distributed at the 1911 Coronation Durbar of the British Raj in Delhi, specifying the dress codes for the invited Rajas and nawabs of Indian states, or a photo album showing the dowry given by the Raja of Jodhpur in his daughter’s wedding.
Some may assume that the 21st century media blitzkrieg, state-of-the-art photography and printing technology has enabled us to produce images in a much better quality and extravagant richness compared to what our elders may have seen in the last couple of centuries. But looking at these illustrations produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one gets amazed at the sheer sensuousness and extraordinary “beauty” depicted in these images, produced at a time when photography and colour printing was still in their infancy. While this rich visual medley breaks a prevalent myth that India was a land of ascetics and modesty, it also gives us a sense of how the rich visual culture of the pre-print India may have adapted to the printing technology. Much of this collection includes extremely liberal and unorthodox interpretations of religious themes that defy the puritanical attitude that some of us have today about the same. Examples of this would include the free mingling of Hindu deities and saints with commercial advertisements or political heroes, or for instance the beautiful and pious Muslim women posing with the holy Qur’an and so on.
A large section of Priya’s collection includes commercial labels that were glued on to parcels of the textiles either imported from Britain or made in India. In order to attract (presumably unlettered) Indian buyers or to make them remember a particular brand, these textile labels feature an amazing richness and variety of images that may have been conceived by British artists and traders. The choice of images in these labels that were mostly printed in Glasgow and Manchester, the major centres of textile industries in Britain then, reflects an interesting and often intriguing blend of east and west: many Indian subjects and icons are illustrated in western styles and vice-versa, such as an image showing an Indian elephant lying in his European bed trying to switch off a lamp with its trunk!
The big question for us as well as anyone looking at this collection would be: where did all these images come from? These are not simply collections of postage stamps that anyone could do as a hobby, but rather a collection of collections made probably by different people at different stages, and brought here via various routes. According to Priya, these prints come from different sources – she trawls through antique shops in many Indian cities she visits, bargains for them from regular art dealers, or even picks them in bulk from what one may call the “junk dealers” in cities like Old Delhi. Many piles of images are from long-neglected warehouses of old printing presses or crumbling cinema halls, while some are also meticulously arranged albums of stamps, cigarette cards, trade catalogues and picture postcards collected by hobbyists in the past. In many cases, the children or grand children of the original collectors lose interest in these and dispose them off as junk. They become valuable again, only when a collector with an eye for the worth of these artifacts, such as Priya Paul, chances upon them. In recent years, scholars and hobbyists too have started taking such ephemera seriously. Consequently, even the dealers have started keeping their eyes open for such material to make a buck. But one can imagine that it is already too late, since much of this transient heritage is lost. There is hardly any museum, library or formal institution that has made a serious effort to archive and showcase them exclusively and exhaustively. In that context, this digitisation and exposition of such a collection is a highly valuable exercise.
The digitisation of this collection was carried out by two methods depending upon the format and size of images. The small two-dimensional images on paper within the size A4 were scanned using a flatbed scanner (CanoScan 8800F) at 300 dpi and preserved in TIF format. Some images larger than A4 size were either scanned in part and stitched digitally, or photographed using a digital camera (Canon G7) at 10 megapixels. The real challenge came while photographing numerous large-sized framed images. Removing the framed glass and putting it back after photographing was not possible within our limited resources and time. But since the glass reflected back the ambient light into the camer, we had to invent an ingenious technique of blocking the reflection by hanging a large piece of black cloth between the artifact and the camera (the camera seeing the image through a small aperture in the middle of the cloth), which actually worked quite successfully.
The second stage of this archiving at Tasveer Ghar was the formatting and digital restoration of all files as well as the metadata creation, the latter a process that is ongoing. As a large part of this collection is printed on paper fifty or even a hundred years old, the material has yellowed over time in many instances. Thus it is difficult to gauge the original accurate colours in several cases. We have carried out some amount of colour correction (while taking care to preserve the original raw scans). We finally have the digital versions of over 4500 images in the archive covering a broad range of subjects including Indian nationalism, Hindu mythology, Islamic iconography, commercial advertisements, popular cinema, and portraits.
In order to make the images of this collection available to the interested public, especially researchers and students of social sciences, the humanities and art history, Heidelberg University’s Heidicon Image Database has decided to host the entire collection on its Internet server in an automatic database where each image can be searched by keywords, and regrouped according to various themes. But an even more valuable “use” of these images would emerge as we have commissioned about a dozen scholars of Indian popular art and art history from all over the world to take a closer look at these images and write visual essays based on their favourite themes, drawing upon relevant images from the collection.
We at Tasveer Ghar would like to express our deepest gratitude to Priya Paul for giving us access to her valuable collection and allowing us to digitise it. We would also like to thank the staff at her residence and offices for helping us during the digitisation process. I would like to thank my colleagues Arshad Amanullah and Kasber Thomas who helped in the scanning and photographing as well as working on the formatting of images and preparing the basic metadata. I would also like to thank Suboor Bakht and Jayant Talukdar who helped in further formatting and transfer of the images. Of course, my colleagues Sumathi Ramaswamy, Christiane Brosius and Manishita Dass have provided great help and guidance during the entire process. And lastly, a big thanks to Matthias Arnold and his colleagues at the Cluster of Excellence for bringing the online database alive and being extremely patient and diligent with all the inherent problems of transferring data from our part of the world to his. We hope that this priceless collection will educate and inspire many in the years to come.