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Commodity Aesthetics: soap and cigarette advertising in Colonial India.

WOLFGANG FRITZ HAUG DEFINED COMMODITY AESTHETICS AS "BEAUTY developed in the service of the realization of exchange value, whereby commodities are designed to stimulate in the onlooker the desire to possess and impulse to buy". (1) The emphasis here shifts away from the product description and towards the visual image in product advertising, implying a move from production to consumption and the concomitant aspect of social communication in advertising: "the ways that ads actually shape and influence perception and behaviour which reproduces the existing social system". (2)

This essay analyses the symbolic context of early soap and cigarette advertisements in calendars, posters, labels and print media, which reflected the changing social aspirations of modernizing colonial India. The rise of industrialization and international trade; the emergence of new financial institutions such as banks and stock exchanges; rapid urbanization; the introduction of new systems of management and administration; the adoption of the Western system of higher education; the advent of advanced printing technology and print journalism; the colonial art schools' emphasis on lessons in perspective and realism endowing the traditional ways of visual representation with a more tangible, sensual presence, which negotiated interstices between the sacred, the erotic, the political and the colonial modern--all of the above played a role in shaping this new commodity aesthetics in advertising, which served as indicator for social status and behaviour, and thus for the "visual construction of the social" (3) itself.

In this essay, I have coupled soap and cigarette advertisements, as both emerged from within colonial consumption practices that transformed the Indian social order. Both symbolized new civilizational values--urbanity, modernity, chivalrousness, lifestyle, prestige, and the associated class and gender distinctions. In the process, such ad images became the iconic communicators of emergent social values. Among the most popular vehicles for promoting soaps and cigarettes were calendars featuring religious or sensual imagery which were circulated for free among the distributors of these products and their consumers.

Besides the increasing presence of British textile agents, shipping magnates and financial institutions, major consumer goods companies from Europe and America had started operations in India by the 1930s, largely with Bombay as their headquarters. These included Lever Brothers (established in India in 1933), (4) pharmaceutical multinationals such as Woodward's (established here in the 1920s) and Glaxo Laboratories (coming to Bombay in the 1930s), the petroleum products multinational Burmah-Shell, and the safety match company Swedish Match (whose subsidiary WIMCO was established in India by the 1930s). In addition to product labels, advertisements and collectible cards, most of these companies issued large-sized Gregorian calendars, which probably became popular in India in the last decade of the 19th century, as can be surmised from surviving examples. A 1912 calendar of Maharaja Cigarettes published by the City Tobacco Company Bangalore, and another one dated 1913 reproduced on the cover of the price list of Anant Shivaji Desai, sole agent of Ravi Varma, (5) show that the basic format of the modern calendar had already been established. If we allow a generous two decades for the establishment of this format, one can say with reasonable certainty that such calendars began to be produced in India towards the end of the 19th century.

Soap Ads: Divine Endorsements

Lever Brothers' most famous brands, Sunlight and Vinolia Soap, became household names all over India from the 1930s onwards. The company brought out handsome, multichrome, single-sheet calendars for promotional purposes, using Hindu divine images such as Ravi Varma's Vishnu majestically riding his vehicle Garuda flanked by his two consorts. Lever's 1933 calendar sported the image of the sun god Surya flanked by two female chauri (flywhisk) bearers, riding his chariot pulled by seven horses driven by Arun, the charioteer--an iconographic essential. A 1938 calendar of Sunlight Soap showed a four-armed Sarasvati standing in a lotus pond and playing the vina, the drape of her sari mutating her into a proto-Bharat Mata, Mother India (figure 1). Calendars for Woodward's Gripe Water almost always used images of baby Krishna. These suited the company well--gripe water being a home remedy for infants suffering from colic, and Krishna being the only Hindu deity whose childhood is described at length in sacred literature (figure 2). Glaxo, with its slogan "Builds Bonnie Babies", also used Hindu divine images on its calendars (figure 3). A large number of these pictures were trimmed, framed and hung in or around a domestic shrine or in living rooms, ritually tended by vermilion marks.

These visual marketing campaigns for soap especially had wide and complex social, economic and political contexts. Before the late 19th century, Europeans hardly used soap for cleaning the body or clothes. By the 1890s, however, Victorian England was consuming 260,000 tons of soap per year, and its advertising emerged as a central cultural form of commodity capitalism. (6) Notions of clean and unclean in terms of soap-using cultures vis-a-vis others emerged, premised on hierarchized class and cultural barriers leading to class control (cleansing the great unwashed: labourer, miner versus the white collar) and the imperial civilizing mission (washing and clothing the savage: clean colonizer versus unclean colony). (7) Soap symbolized cleanliness, purity, honesty, rationality, social superiority, civility, chivalrousness and power.

The advertising campaigns for soap in Britain and its African colonies were secular in nature rather than religious as they were in India. The British Pears Soap campaign in Africa emphasized the value of cleanliness and the racial superiority of fair skin. An advertisement for Sunlight Soap, appearing in a British journal in 1915, compared its powers with those of "the clean, chivalrous, fighting instincts of our [British] gallant soldiers [which] reflect the ideals of our business life" (figure 5). The copy further states that the characteristics which stamped the British soldier as the "CLEANEST FIGHTER IN THE WORLD" had won "equal repute for British Goods". Here the soap is meant to stand for the clean business practices of the empire, and its high moral ground--reflected in the qualities of courage, courteousness, gallantry and trustworthiness of the British Tommy--is equated with the quality of Sunlight Soap. The soap then does not remain a mere commodity but becomes a sign.

An advertisement campaign of Pears Soap in Africa mooted the idea of the soap's "Civilizing mission", (8) again underpinning the modern/secular values that the empire brought to its colony along with its soap. The idea of soap being the embodiment of civilization went so deep into the psyche of the colony that no less than Mahatma Gandhi himself subscribed to it in the early years of his life: "Through sheer folly I had managed to get ringworm on the boat. For washing and bathing we used to have sea-water in which soap is not soluble. I, however, used soap, taking its use to be a sign of civilization, with the result that instead of cleaning the skin it made it greasy. This gave me ringworm." (9)

The reference is to Gandhi's boat journey to South Africa in 1893, by which time Lever's marketing slogan "Soap is Civilization" had spread all over Africa and had become a recognized global symbol of a civilized lifestyle. The British-educated barrister Gandhi was at that point in his life increasingly drawn to the Empire's civilizing mission. Settling in South Africa in 1898 to practise law, he faced another dilemma: to find "civilized" clothing for his family (figure 6). In his autobiography he recollects: "I therefore determined the style of dress for my wife and children.... The Parsis used then to be regarded as the most civilized people amongst Indians, and so, ... we adopted the Parsi style." (10)

In India, too, soap advertisements were soon to enter the complex web of market, religion, caste and politics. A 1940s publicity campaign for Godrej's Turkish Bath Soap and Family Toilet Soap (brands of the Bombay-based Godrej company) launched a fierce drive against foreign soaps, alleging that they were impure as tallow from dogs, cats, cows and pigs was used in their manufacture, as against the Godrej brands made from pure oils (figure 4). The advertisement includes text in Marathi that quotes Annie Besant, a Theosophist, crusader for the independence of India and Ireland, and a great believer in vegetarianism: "For the last two years, I have been using only Godrej soaps and request the general public to use it." It also quotes a "government scholar" (sarkari shastrajna), Major Dickinson, endorsing Godrej soaps for their "canon-based purity" (shastra shuddha) and "purity of processing" (kriya shuddha). (11)

Notably, the notion of bathing had strong religious connotations among uppercaste Hindus. The practice of taking a dip in a sacred river such as the Ganga, or any other holy waterbody, was believed to cleanse body and soul. It is not surprising that the arrival of soap in India occupied an ambiguous space between the idea of physical hygiene associated with soap and that of spiritual cleansing. The Godrej campaign with its emphasis on vegetarianism and the canonical notion of purity (shastra shuddha), as well as Lever's use of Hindu deities in soap advertisements, testifies to this.

The Godrej advertisement, while dissuading consumers from buying foreign soaps on the ground that they used animal fat, invoked the rumours spread at the time of the 1857 mutiny that cartridges used in the Enfield rifles supplied to sepoys had been greased with beef and pork tallow, which incited both Hindu and Muslim sepoys to rebel. It also valorized vegetarianism as a tenet of the Hindu canon by repeatedly mentioning the shastras. Vegetarianism represented the upper-caste Vaishnavas and Jains, and by recalling it in the context of Godrej soaps, the company hoped to achieve superior social status for its products. As Annie Besant was a leading figure of the Indian National Congress and the independence movement, through her testimony the soap aspired to be an instrument for India's freedom from foreign rule and foreign products, which also echoed the Swadeshi movement. Thereby the soap became a producer of ideology.

Even in 21st-century India, in the imagination of the country's so-called "untouchable" castes, soap continues to be a cleansing agent to wipe out the pollution caused by a member of a lower caste touching an upper-caste person. On hearing that Rahul Gandhi of Congress Party had visited Dalit homes during his 2008 election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, his political adversary and then Chief Minister of the state, Mayawati, said in a statement: "I have also come to know that when this prince returns to his home in Delhi after meeting and eating with Dalits, he is given a bath with a special soap and he goes through purification rituals." (12) Here, soap conjures up the painful Dalit experience of untouchability on the one hand, and becomes an instrument for caste-based political propaganda on the other.

Broadly speaking, until the end of the 1930s, the predominant practice of religious-calendar-issuing companies in Bombay was to select pre-existing cultic pictures by renowned artists such as Ravi Varma or M.V. Dhurandhar, which were then suitably altered on the margins to accommodate texts and images publicizing the concerned product. This practice has a history and a precedent. In the 1880s Thomas G. Barratt, a partner of the Pears Soap Company, purchased a painting by the renowned British artist Sir John Everett Millais, popularly entitled "Bubbles", and inserted into the painting a bar of Pears soap: "At a stroke, he (Barratt) transformed the art work of the best-known painter in Britain into a mass-produced commodity associated in the public mind with Pears.... Barratt took art from the elite realm of private property to the mass realm of commodity spectacle." (13) Several of Ravi Varma's paintings depicting Hindu deities painted in the last quarter of the 19th century were later reproduced on annual calendars issued to promote Sunlight and Vinolia soaps, into which eye-catching images of wrapped cakes of Sunlight/Vinolia were inserted--a practice similar to that of the Pears campaign described above.

Interestingly, as in the case of Millais's painting appearing on Pears posters in the UK, the Indian campaign, too, brought down "art" from the elite realm (Ravi Varma's patrons were predominantly the aristocratic class of the time) to the "realm of commodity spectacle"; however, in India, this took a different trajectory. Besides serving as commodity spectacles, calendars with divine Hindu images became objects of worship by the masses. They brought about a critical transformation in Hindu worship, introducing mass-produced finite commodities as objects of veneration instead of ritually made and spirit-invoked celestial images as in the canonical practices of worship. Moreover, Ravi Varma, considered to be an artist patronized by the best connoisseurs of art, was in the process downgraded to a "calendar artist".

There were several reasons for the instant popularity of the printed gods in calendar art. Their easy availability and their visual appeal, emanating from a combination of the picturesque, the iconographic and the erotic, enhanced their "exhibition value", oscillating between cultic and exhibitory spaces. Their treatment of the mythological subjects legitimized the male consumption of erotic overtones. However, it may be noted here that several of the most renowned calendar artists of Bombay, in their years of retirement, returned to "fine art" or spirituality (14)--as a kind of expiation for engaging with "amoral" visual productions: "Cinema's status as guilty pleasure in India was mirrored not only in its relative absence from mainstream intellectual discourse but also in its absence as a respectable field of study." (15) The same was true of popular visual culture studies.

The calendars of Hindu themes were designed to be framed and put behind glass, and worshipped. The glazed and framed pictures became complete domestic altars wherein the glass not only received ritual vermilion marks, but also acted as a liminal wall standing between the sacred and the polluted. The glass facilitated such "corpothetic" practices as the devotee touching the framed picture, having physical contact with the image while asking for a blessing or favour but without touching the actual image. Moreover the glass allowed physical segregation of the sacred from the polluted without obscuring it from darshan (vision/gaze). The unconsecrated images could be bought and worshipped by anybody, which also reflected a loosening of the caste hierarchy by diminishing the position of brahmin priests whose services for consecrating images for domestic shrines were considered a canonical requirement. Instead these images became "living presences", for they "continue to accumulate potency as they become accreted with the marks of repeated devotion". (16) Their picturesque charm also allowed these to be displayed in living rooms, business premises and even bedrooms at strategic vantage points.

Cigarette Ads: Markers of Gender and Class Distinction

Similar to the colonial Indian soap ads, the popular visual culture of marketing cigarettes, too, reflected the transforming social behaviour and aspirations of urban Indians, and became a marker of class and gender distinctions. Already by the first two decades of the 20th century women became the target of cigarette ads in the West, initially as the titillating and charming admirers of smoking men and eventually as smokers themselves with an accent on their emancipation from male dominance. Cigarette companies began to flaunt rising feminist indicators such as personal and financial independence, self-confidence, entering male professional domains, fashion etc. and even produced cigarettes called "Slims" that were specifically aimed at women.

In colonial India too, women became the prime target in cigarette ads, as glamorous temptresses in one context and as a part of the newly emergent affluent, educated, fashionable, modern urban class of smokers in another (figure 7). Indian colonial cigarette campaigns were often marked by heavy overtones of orientalism, as the Western manufacturers of Indian brands regularly supplied collectible picture cards in cigarette packets bearing essentialized images of Indian ethnic types.

In the West, cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking may have had to do more with individual taste, and was not such a strong and divisive indicator of social class as in India, where the urbane and elite cigarette smokers stood apart and distanced themselves from bidi-smoking villagers. As cigarettes became the insignia of the urban elite and bidis a sign of backwardness, smoking habits became markers of social distinctions and thereby instruments of power of the elite over illiterate farmers and workers.

One of the earliest surviving cigarette advertisements produced in India was issued by the City Tobacco Company, Bangalore in 1912, advertising their brand, "Maharaja Cigarettes" (figure 8). The vertical single-sheet calendar shows the Maharaja of Mysore in full regalia with the prominent brand name arching over his head.

Another cigarette advertisement of c. 1930s has a modern Indian woman wearing a fashionably draped sari with a sleeveless blouse, and flaunting a box of cigarettes prominently marked "Bombay Special" in one hand while stylishly holding a lit cigarette in the other (figure 9). The image of the provocatively gesturing woman with frontal face and directly addressed gaze, meant to lure smokers to the brand, is placed under an ornately cut mounting board and framed.

An album of cigarette cards has come to light (some of them playing cards, each 6x3 cm) in which each card has a multichromatic image on the obverse and the ad of the cigarette company on the reverse. These cards were apparently issued in India between the 1890s and 1920s by Tiger Cigarettes and Pedro Cigarettes, both brands of the British-American Tobacco Company Ltd. Around the same time, Universal Tobacco Company, Madras, and Scissors Cigarette of W.D. & H.O. Wills supplied similar picture cards in their cigarette packets, and other companies followed suit.

The images on cigarette cards were from various picture series such as oriental beauties, Indian occupations (sweeper, water carrier, soldier etc.), nautch girls, film-stars and white women in enticing poses. Generally, cigarette manufacturers avoided using religious images on their calendars and picture cards. However, the Peninsular Tobacco Co. Ltd. used images of Hindu deities and mythological scenes on the cards of their popular brand, Hawagarri Cigarettes (figure 11). Most of these images were reproductions of paintings by Ravi Varma and other popular artists.

In one example collected in the 1990s from Mumbai, dozens of cigarette cards representing oriental beauties (Indian, Thai, Burmese, etc.) were arranged in rows and sewn together with ornate lacework to make an interior door curtain. The image on each card was printed from a painted sepia photograph in which the clothing of the figure was brightly over-painted, while the face and limbs were lightly tinted, a device that added to the physical and individual presence of the model (figure 10).

Collecting and creating albums of cigarette cards was a well-organized activity in Europe in the 1930s, following the trajectory of the great Western enlightenment project. For example, several German cigarette manufacturers issued cards under various thematic series such as German History, German Artists, or Flags of Nations of the World. These cards were collected one by one, and pasted in albums specially printed for the purpose with each page having empty boxes for specific cards and the related captions printed below. The collector strived to complete the album by filling up the empty boxes, and in the process educated himself/herself about the history and cultures of the world. The project was so streamlined that specialized publishing houses brought out thematic albums in line with what the cigarette companies would supply in their packets. (17)

On the other hand, the European and American cigarette manufacturers in India supplied cigarette cards with religious or sensual imagery as collectibles. This was not backed by any systematic intellectual infrastructure or knowledge-building exercise. India was seen as a more passive, feminized/juvenile client. The available evidence shows that in most cases, albums with cigarette card beauties (as also in the case of postcard collecting) were kept by Indian men as a private, voyeuristic means to invoke personal erotic fantasies.

One of the most apt visual illustrations of the association of amorous fantasy with cigarette smoking is an advertisement for the Bombay-based Panama Cigarettes which appeared on the cover of the April 1946 issue of filmindia magazine. The artwork for this was prepared by the artist S.M. Pandit. Here the silhouette of a man reclining in an armchair is shown at the bottom of the page; through the cloud of smoke issuing from his mouth, he is watching a fantasy scene of "Heaven on Earth" where a group of bare-bodied young fairies are lustily engaged in a drinking spree. The captions read: "The Panama way to Heaven!" and "The Complete Story of Heaven on Earth". The earthly sensuality of the female figures in the advertisement is in line with Pandit's other filmindia covers of the 1940s and '50s, marked by the new cinematic aesthetic--at once celluloid, liquid and glossy.


Some of the material of this essay appeared earlier in my larger essay, "Bombay/Mumbai: Visual Histories of a City", published in imagenaama, the webjournal of civic: Centre for Indian Visual Culture, New Delhi.

(1) Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1986), p. 8.

(2) John Harms and Douglas Kellner, "Towards a Critical Theory of Advertising", quoted from faculty/kellner/Illumina%20Folder/kell6. htm, accessed on January 17, 2017.

(3) Phrase borrowed from W.J.T. Mitchell, "Showing, Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture", Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2002), p. 170.

(4) In 1956, the company merged with Hindustan Vanaspati Mfg. Co. Ltd. and United Traders Ltd. to become Hindustan Lever, now Hindustan Unilever.

(5) I am thankful to Ms Chie Fukuuchi for bringing this to my notice.

(6) Anne McClintock, "Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising", in The Visual Culture Reader, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 508.

(7) Ibid., p. 506.

(8) Ibid., p. 507.

(9) M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 2005), p. 42.

(10) Ibid., p. 171.

(11) The full Marathi text of the ad, translated into English, reads: "Economical, pure and high quality soap is manufactured not in Europe but in India itself. The reason is that soap is made from oils and fats and such oils are produced in India in much larger quantity than in Europe. A large number of European companies manufacturing soaps use fats derived from such animals as dogs, cats, cows and pigs. Godrej Turkish Bath Soap and Family Soap being made from pure oils are economical. Dr Annie Besant writes that for the last two years, I have been using only Godrej soaps and request the general public to use it. Government scholar Major Dickinson writes that Godrej soap is pure as per the shastras (canons) and in processing. Sole agents, Nadirshah, Printer & Company, Esplanade Road, Fort, Mumbai."

(12) "Rahul bathes after visiting Dalits, says Mayawati", Hindustan Times (online edition), April 7, 2008.

(13) McClintock, op. cit., p. 510.

(14) For example see, M.G. Rajadhyaksha, Srijangandha (Marathi) (Mumbai, 2005), p. 57: "Gradually Panditji's [the artist S.M. Pandit's] heart turned to spirituality ... his attitude towards life changed. He began to see divine visions." Also see the statement of another renowned calendar artist J.P. Singhal (regarding his cinematic work): "I lost more than I gained--my patience, my focus, my artistic inspiration. Soon I started finding my own soul again through painting", quoted in "Ramya Sarma meets painter and photographer J.P. Singhal", dna (online edition), December 1, 2006.

(15) Neepa Majumdar, Wanted: Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India 1930-1950S (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 10.

(16) Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 197.

(17) For example, Cigaretten-Bilderdienst of Hamburg-Bahrenfeld and Massary Zigarettenfabrik of Berlin were prominent publishers specializing in such albums.

Caption: 1. Sunlight Soap calendar of 1938, depicting Goddess Sarasvati. Collection of Priya Paul. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 2. Woodward's Gripe Water calendar of 1928, showing baby Krishna. The original painting by M.V. Dhurandhar has been altered by replacing visuals of Krishna in the top frames with Gripe Water trademark images. Private collection. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 3. Glaxo calendar of 1931, showing an imaginary goddess nourishing children. Notable is the tin of Glaxo milk powder placed amidst a plate of fruit. Private collection. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 4. An advertisement for Godrej soaps, c. 1940s, emphasizing the value of indigenously produced soap made by using vegetable oils vis-a-vis "foreign" soaps containing beef and pork tallow. Collection of the Museum of Art & Photography (map), Bangalore. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 5. An advertisement for Sunlight Soap published in The War Budget, dated December 30, 1915, p. ii, hailing the "British Tommy" as the "cleanest fighter in the world", whose qualities are endowed in Sunlight Soap. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Caption: 6. A1902 photograph of Kasturba Gandhi and her sons dressed in Parsi attire. Courtesy Vithalbhai Jhaveri/ Dinodia Photo.

Caption: 7. A calendar print published by Oriental Calendar Mfg. Co., Calcutta, meant to promote a cigarette brand among the upper strata of society. Collection of Priya Paul. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 8. Maharaja Cigarettes calendar of 1912, produced by City Tobacco Company, Bangalore, featuring an image of the Maharaja of Mysore. Private collection. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 9. Bombay Special Cigarettes calendar image, published c. 1930s, of a modern and urbane woman with a direct gaze to lure smokers to the brand. Private collection. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 10. Fragment of a curtain comprising playing cards depicting oriental women. Such cards were supplied in the packets of Tiger Cigarettes, and were probably issued between the 1890s and 1920s. Private collection. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi.

Caption: 11. Cigarette cards of the brand Hawagarri of the Peninsular Tobacco Co. Ltd., Bengal, depicting images of Hindu deities, probably issued between the 1890s and 1920s. Private collection. Courtesy civic archives, New Delhi


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Author:Jain, Jyotindra
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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