Visual India

Posters in Popular Culture

Vishnu lays down on Shesha with Lakshmi at his feet (c. 1930) by UnknownMuseu do Oriente

Posters are part of popular visual culture in India. They are often used in public and at home, in the worship of the gods and goddesses of the varied Indian religious pantheon.

But beyond the visible, their strong and stimulating colors and auspicious decorative elements, the posters bear witness to important social and political changes, revealing part of India's fascinating history since the end of the 19th century.

Multifunctional, posters function as instruments of political affirmation, legitimizers of the post-independence Indian state, differentiators of social and gender roles, advertising and educational tools.

Sita's abdution (c. 1940) by R. U. e V. Press, Ghatkopar, BombayMuseu do Oriente

Hindu posters feature the god or goddess flanked by their symbols, individually or in scenes from episodes of the literary epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as other sacred texts like the Vedas and Puranas.

Vishnu Garuda Vahan (c. 1930) by Ravi Varma Press, Karla LonalavaMuseu do Oriente

The Aesthetics of the British Empire

With the introduction of lithography presses by British settlers, posters were replacing the local drawings and engravings of deities.

In the 1950s, with the introduction of offset printing - a cheaper production process - the use of these images was widespread in public and private spaces.

The British took advantage of this situation to strengthen their power, promoting English products and depicting gods and episodes from Indian sacred texts more in the Western taste, altering the traits of deities, which they considered demonic and monstrous.

Saraswati (c. 1920) by Ravi Varma Press, Karla LonalavaMuseu do Oriente

Ravi Varma

Ravi Varma was one of the best known, and probably the most influential Indian painter of the time (1848-1906).  He was admired by both the British colonial administration and the Indian elite, who saw in his work the fusion between Hindu tradition and Western technique.

Ravi Varma's work contributed to the creation of a set of new visual idioms for the Hindu pantheon.
His posters of deities and scenes from leading Hindu religious epics became models that are reproduced to this day.

Kamadhenu, Shiva and Parvati (2000) by JB Khanna PostersMuseu do Oriente

Political Posters

At the end of the 19th century, posters were used by British colonizers as a means of censorship and visual gentrification of India. It is also the moment when Kamadhenu, the concept of the cow as a symbol of the Indian nation, used by the pro-independence movement, appears.

Jesus, Ganesh and Great Mosque of Mecca (2000) by JB Khanna PostersMuseu do Oriente

Religious Posters

The poster market in India is mostly made up of representations of Hindu deities. There is, however, a significant number of posters with imagery from other religions, showcasing India's reality being as a multi-religious country with a composite culture.

puja or cult of Ganesh (2021) by Photograph of a detail of the Exhibition <i>The Goddesses' Turn</i>, Museu do Oriente, 2021Museu do Oriente

Ritual and Everyday

Images are commonly used in homes, markets, means of transportation and streets, in domestic puja - a devotional ritual performed before the deities, in the form of statues or posters, through offerings or upcharas, with flowers, food, incense and lit lamps.

Rama and Sita (c. 1970) by Deepak Agencies & AdvertisersMuseu do Oriente

In the posters, the auspicious elements, the symbols of the gods, the strong and visually stimulating colors, as well as the fixed gaze of the deity - darshan - are essential for the personification of the divine, for the approximation of this to the devotee.

Darshan or darshana means the sight of divinity and is one of the essential concepts for understanding Hindu iconography. It's not just the gaze of the devotee upon the deity, but rather the possibility of the deity returning that gaze.

Shiva protects Markandeya from Yama, god of death (c. 1920) by N. V. Shunmugam and Co. Madras; Printed in GermanyMuseu do Oriente


Brands and services are often promoted through posters and calendars depicting deities and sacred episodes of Hinduism alongside the products, taking advantage of the link between the devotee and the deity.

Rama and Sita (c. 1950) by Harnarain and SonsMuseu do Oriente

Definition of Social Roles

The visual presentation of female deities reproduces the gender roles practiced in society.

Ramayana: Jatayu’s death in abdution of Sita (Jatayu Vadham) (c. 1930) by Ravi Varma Press, Karla LonalavaMuseu do Oriente

It is common to find male stereotypes of strength and fierceness, fighting men side by side with female stereotypes of vulnerability and fragilty.

Mahishasuramardini (c. 1940) by Ravi Varma Press, Karla LonalavaMuseu do Oriente

However, as borne in the pantheon, images of fighting and ruling goddesses are equally frequent.

Draupadi Vastraharan (c. 1940) by R. G. Chonker (?)Museu do Oriente

Literary Epics on Posters

Depiction of the Draupadi Vastraharan episode from the epic Mahabharata.

Draupadi, wife of the five Pandavas, becomes the object of a bet between them and their rival cousins, the Kauravas. She is humiliated by the demand to disrobe in a popular assembly.

The God Krishna answers her call for help and, in the face of her five husbands’ inaction, Krishna intervenes making Drapaudi’s sari of infinite length.

Durga (2005) by C. SivasMuseu do Oriente

Indian Posters Today

Posters continue to be objects of devotion that inhabit the daily life of India, that fill the public space and demand attention. Thus, they have great power to influence popular culture, being at the same time its mirror.

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