Early 20th century India’s vibrant pop culture

An indistinguishable clutch of film actresses in varying shades of lime advocate green tea, hoardings hoot healthy oats, popular songs popularize size zero and milk cartons come with measuring tapes – these are visuals that hound us today. If being ‘in-shape’ keeps us so occupied today, it’s rather intriguing to have a glimpse of the visuals that spoke to our great-great-grand parents more than century ago.

A recently concluded month-long exhibition at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum curated by the renowned art and culture historian Jyotindra Jain was a pool of stimulating visuals – calendars, postcards, prints and insert cards. Mapping culture through visuals goes beyond advertisements. And in an age of nascent photography and a revolutionizing printing technique, paintings made the dominant visual form – the springboard for early advertising. The collection is a treasure revealing much about late nineteenth and early twentieth century India – its conscience, motivations and aspirations.

To set the context of time – traditional (flat and idealistic) painting was dramatically being influenced by European techniques (oil) and styles (realism and perspective). Raja Ravi Varma rendered ancient Vedic folklore and Hindu mythology with European realism – something unseen so far. And his printing press made art descend from the royal court to commoners’ roads. Almost suddenly, Hindu households had a face to their Gods.

Visuals spoke – the grandeur of Hindu mythologies, fine emotion of its characters and the elaborate episodes of the epics. Decoding the renditions of the Pauranik episodes brings out the immediate social environment of the times. Stories and subjects lifted from the Vedic age often got depicted in settings that were a confluence of Mughal and British influences, the day’s culture – popular clothing and fanciful settings of nineteenth century.

Shantanu, the Kuru king is shown wearing a Jama – a Mughal (or medieval Rajput) garb that of a tight fitting frock flaring up at the waist with a chooridaar, instead of the prevalent Vedic dhoti. So is the heavily embroidered footwear.

An early twentieth-century painting titled ‘Wedding of Rama’ by M. V. Dhurandar has women draped in contemporary Marathi styled saris and men sport the Mughal court costumes. In fact the landscape gives a hint of several temples and mosque domes lined in the background – an easy mix of the time which is a sharp departure from today’s soon emboldening divisive religious lines.

Along with his contemporaries, soon the sacred stood dangerously close to the sensual. The male gaze (continued from the translucent women’s garments from Mughal and Rajput miniatures) got accentuated by the realism corporeality of the new style. Semi-nude heroines from mythology became muses as an idealized white-skinned Indian woman, a standard slowly being laid down for future generations. From prints to playing cards – a collection with each depicting ‘Oriental beauty’, the gaze has passed down over a century.

Soon after, with prints rolling out, these visuals became popular culture. In 1888 when Lever Brothers’ Sunlight soap disembarked on a Calcutta port it perhaps had no idea of how it would get reinvented to further forge a ritual with Indian masses. The Reverend Sun lord descended to sell the humble soap bar quickly followed by Pears, Lux and Vim.

The army of Hindu gods and goddesses became brand ambassadors a hundred years ago, with each brand competing to have one. Bal Krishna made sure mothers bought Woodward’s gripe water and a goddess assured for Glaxo baby soap. These were usually large prints on calendars given out as promotional devices and the masses grabbed them as objects of worship.

Besides personal care and baby products, Hindu deities and mythological characters in action (primarily picked from Raja Ravi Varma’s renditions) flooded with consumer goods from cloth, dye to even cigarette (Hawagharri brand from Peninsular Tobacco Ltd) and Swedish safety matches. Large prints of deities that came stuck on fabric bundles from Manchester were given out only with bulk purchase. They ended up being framed and worshipped. Such was their overwhelming charm; the mythological-religious stories were probably the primary preoccupation then, which had so far, never been this vivid, almost palpable.

If the popular culture in print a hundred years ago celebrated the sacred, it also gradually set in motion the trends that would follow. Just how Bollywood actresses convincingly speak of green tea (in conjunction with massive PR), early communication depicting the particularly English beverage with brown skin weaved the myth of tea always having been Indian. After the saturation of the British and American markets, the Indian colony was craftily taught the tea ritual with visuals that seeded in one’s subconscious. Those are popular brands even today.

Along with products (riding on monies and businesses), the visual culture influenced etiquettes, styles and behaviours en masse. Almost instantly the predominantly Parsi way of draping a sari became the norm, pan-India modern (even today’s) style of wearing a sari. These caught up with several print advertisements that created the image of the modern Indian woman – a sari clad, shoe wearing, pearl adorning lady – with a 19th century tennis racquet or a cigarette in hand.

The printed visuals circulated wide and far re-defining fashion, modeling Indian cinema (remember the black and white stars of yore?) and setting the mark for the foreign as modern and aspirational.

But at the same time the imagery ended up rendering itself to the nationalistic movement. The country was simmering with the struggle for freedom – Swadesi caught up and rampant printing galvanized Indian sensibilities. Soon goddesses started being depicted closer to what we recognize today as Bharat Mata – on the same fabric bundles that once depicted Goddess Lakshmi and Shaivite tilak. Closely entwined is the beginning of the singular story of Hindu identity that went on to define the majority belief as early as the mid-1800s.

These visuals and their retrospective importance to the idea of building modern India are lost in dusty antique garage stores. Few of us today, are perhaps luck to have seen a tin box or two with elaborate printed art in our grand mothers’ cupboards.

The thin air of nostalgia marketing

What is Nostalgia Marketing & Why it works

Childhood Sundays were special. They didn’t start with the big steel ‘glass’ of Bournvita. Instead we were allowed a quarter cup of chai with a pack full of Parle G. The standard instruction across homes by all mausis was – ‘dip karne jitni chai’.
And just as most cherubic things, the beloved biscuit faded into a warm memory. Counting years, Parle G changed roles. From being the coveted treat that brightened faces to a staple in hostel rooms; it now languished as a lonesome forgotten pack in a kitchen cabinet or one picked up on a trek.

Yet the memory of dipping the biscuit in chai pulls a heartfelt chord. And perhaps that was what the brand intended to with its latest campaign – You Are My Parle-G. Pleasant ads with their young adults cherishing genuine relationships akin to Parle G. These are grown-ups who have crossed cities and leaped ladders. As one of the ads shows a young man over Facetimewho chanced upon Parle G in videsh, most of those to whom the ad talks will only stumble upon it in a blue moon.

What is Nostalgia Marketing

Who is their intended audience? What is biscuit consumption to the green tea sipping consumer? The class of children dunking Parle G has graduated to oat cookies and digestives. Will nostalgia alone help Parle G straddle the distance between the mass, and the class it’s yesteryear’s consumer has grown into?

Several brands have tried the happy memory trope, an instant connect humans feel when they chance upon old friends or even an old song. But success strides on what one does with nostalgia. Pulse made the good old outside-the-school-gate churan into a hard-boiled candy; a rage. Paper Boat is a pet example for childhood memories – old flavours in a new and easy avatar. Maggi held on to the most reliable straw in the 2015 ban storm – musing over memories; and flooding in a range of Indian and international flavours in healthier oats or atta varieties.

With ceaseless change, the good-old-days are always comforting. In the post-liberalization decades of modern design sensibilities, today Good Earth and India Circus have neatly recreated grandma’s saree motifs and bedsheet embroideries onto a plethora of surfaces

How much should you spend on advertising?

How much should you spend on advertising?



I spent the whole day yesterday, as jury for an international award in advertising. We were judging entries from across the world, for over 12-15 categories. Almost 65-70 entries. The criteria for ALL the categories was primarily originality of idea and quality of craft, execution etc. THERE WAS NO METRIC FOR IMPACT. None whatsoever.

About the time I graduated from business school in 1985, we were told that the most loyal customer in the world was the Colgate Dental Cream customer. This was a simpler world of low clutter – both on shelves and in media, and the more you advertised, the more you sold. Today Colgate has over 10 variants and the consumer is navigating choice in more complex ways.

Today, all media is highly cluttered and to ensure TOM recall / awareness (top of mind), advertisers create more and more unique and standout advertising. It is storytelling and/or craft at its best. Good commercials often have budgets rivalling the making of a feature film. But this search for unique and standout stories is often very far from the brand and its values. It can be a great idea – but if the only visual memory of the brand is the final frame of the brand name, how exactly does the brand benefitWe have conducted studies where respondents recall the ad frame by frame, but are unable to name the brand correctly. Not just the brand – but even the category!

On the other side, shelves have got highly cluttered. In the India of the 80s, haircare had 2 categories – shampoos and hair oils (conditioners were just around the corner) and 3-4 major brands. Today, haircare has exploded with multiple categories from hair serums to revitalizers, hair gels to hair colour. Each of those categories has many brands. Each brand has many variants. Each variant is across different formats and sizes. Thus explosion of categories, brands, variants, and SKUs are jostling for attention while for a large part of the Indian trade, shelf sizes have remained the same! The battle for market share has shifted to the shelf as more and more consumers are making decisions at the shelf.

If brands saved their advertising money and invested in packaging (Read our Packaging case study) and retail presence, they would see a far greater impact on market shares.

The clutter in media, technologies that allow you to skip advertising altogether, the award focused story telling are all leading us to one conclusion – slash that advertising budget! A decade ago, as the CMO of India’s largest jewellery brand Tanishq, I worked on an advertising budget that was exactly halved. That year, we grew 30% in volume terms – simply by doing many more activities in our retail stores, spending more on catalogues and ensuring in-store selection of products through digital interfaces – and having money left over.

It used to be said that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Today that should read “90% of my advertising money is wasted.”

There is tremendous pressure on marketers to advertise. The push of decades of convention, the pull of advertising clubs and awards – both national and international, the parties that are hot and happening – have all created a sense that it is indispensable. Well, it is not. About three decades ago, a book called ‘Maxi-marketing’ was doing the buzz. 360 degree marketing is bandied around often times. But marketers seldom spend enough on other initiatives and advertising often eats into over 80% of their marketing budgets.

I am not proposing killing advertising altogether. Simply putting it in its place. And bringing much more engagement not before purchase (the only place where advertising sits) – but during purchase, after purchase, during use and after use. So maybe the 80:20 divide between advertising v/s rest of initiatives should be 40:60 with majority of the budgets spent on consumer interactions, sampling, retail presence, digital engagement and much more.
Any brave marketers out there?