Double lecture: Prints and death in Hindu India

In this double lecture, Richard Davis and Amy Allocco present their ongoing research on devotional prints and rituals of death in Hindu India.

Left to right: Richard Davis, Lord Ganesha and Amy Allocco. Copyright: Davis and Allocco.

Richard Davis: The Beginnings of Mass-Produced Devotional Prints in India

A key feature of twentieth- and twenty-first century Hindu devotionalism has been the central role played by mass-produced religious prints, known as God-posters or calendar-prints.  The proliferation of these prints has made a profound impact on Hindu visuality and on religious practices over the past one and a half centuries.  But where did this form of popular imagery originate?  Best known is the major role played by Ravi Varma and the press he founded in 1894 near Bombay. Yet he was not the first: in Maharashtra and especially in Calcutta, there were earlier practitioners and presses. Compared with those of Ravi Varma, these prints are far less well-known.

Working with two print collectors, Richard Davis has been studying the earliest prints produced in Calcutta in the second half of the nineteenth century.  These early prints demonstrate unusual experimentation with various artistic media and printing technologies.  They reflect a distinctive Bengali regional iconography, quite distinct from the more intentionally pan-Indian imagery promulgated by Ravi Varma and the twentieth century print industry.  These prints also raise important questions about reception and ritual deployment of two-dimensional prints, available for the first time to Hindu consumers on a broad basis.


Amy Allocco: Dealing with the Dead in Tamil Ritual: Desire, Dialogue, and Deception

Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Tamil Nadu, South India, this presentation examines the ongoing ritual relationships that many non-Brahmin Hindus maintain with their dead relatives. Specifically, it analyzes a category of ritual undertakings to honor a family’s pūvāṭaikkāri, a term which literally means “she who wears flowers” and refers to a class of women who died as auspicious wives with living husbands and thus were eligible to be adorned with flowers.

Within this category Allocco focuses on two main types of ritual performances: the annual offerings made at a water source during which the dead woman is worshiped, dressed, and fed before being asked to safeguard the family in the coming year, and the occasional invitation (aḻaittal) ceremonies that call the departed back into the world and convince them to take up residence in the family’s home shrine as a protective deity (vīṭu teyvam). These more elaborate rites rely on the skills of ritual musicians (pampaikkārar), who summon the dead and encourage them to speak through their living kin in what are often dramatic and tense exchanges characterized by grief, recrimination, and regret.

In closing Allocco identify specific ritual and social possibilities that are created for those who engage in these ongoing transactions with the dead and argue that these possibilities ultimately hinge on the pūvāṭaikkāri’s willingness and ability to speak. Indeed, in these invitation rites dialogue is fundamental to human-divine engagement, for the dead must descend on a human host and answer questions, dispense advice, and agree to consult with the family when called upon in the future in order for the ceremony to be deemed successful.


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Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages
Published Jan. 28, 2019 5:53 PM - Last modified Jan. 28, 2019 5:53 PM