Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

The Looks and Sites of Love

Valentine’s Day Greeting Cards in Urban India

Christiane Brosius

Fig.01

Fig.02

What you see to your right is the front-page of a Valentine’s Day greeting card (fig. 01), produced around 2008 by Archies, the largest retail producer of cards on the subcontinent. The cards are predominantly produced and circulated through a host of gift and card shops in larger cities, to celebrate secular events such as Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, Friendship Day, Boss Day, and — among the most visible and popular - Valentine’s Day. I chose this card to begin my essay for three reasons: one, because it ‘defines’ some of the emotions and actions associated with ‘Lover’s Day’; and, two, because, in a witty way, it brings sexuality into the public domain without stigmatizing it. These two in combination — a definition of a new festival and carefree humor — allow for the verbalisation, and suggestive normalisation, of erotic love. The third reason is that this card has been made by Archies, the leading producer of retailed gifts and cards in India, and the key focus of this article. With Archies, romantic love becomes a central part of the material culture of ‘middleclassness’ (see also Brosius 2010), of a globalized urban lifestyle, underlining the intimate relationship between capitalism, social change and shaping emotional ecologies (and tensions) in India today. With Archies, emotional expressions were streamlined and visualized into a vocabulary for a predominantly urban, ‘new India’, made up of a generation of emotionally and professionally confident, cosmopolitan youth (fig. 02).

This essay, like Yousuf Saeed’s work on Eid cards on this site, deals with the greeting card as a particularly revealing genre of popular visual communication. Located at the contact zone between private and public, the humble and ubiquitous greeting card challenges us to re/consider their fabric in the Indian context. I have been collecting Valentine’s greeting cards (hereafter also V-Cards) from India since 2009.1 The reasons for doing so are manifold. First, over the course of my research in the 1990s on the visual culture of conservative or ultra-orthodox Hindu organisations in India, I studied the production and circulation of New Year cards that were popular in that decade. I argued that such cards were printed and circulated in order to strengthen social and trans-local networks, and to herald the spirit of an imagined moral Hindu community by means of a strong visual repertoire based on Hindu mythology and devotion, glorification of historical figures and dichotomization of a ‘Hindu self’ and a predominantly Muslim, Christian or US-American ‘other’ in the 1990s and early 2000s (Brosius 2007, http://www.tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/57/index.html, fig. 03).

Fig.03

The shift of my attention to Valentine’s greeting cards took place ten years later, around 2008, with new research conducted on youth culture, moral imaginaries, and globalised aspirations in metropolitan centers in India and Nepal. While my study of Hindu nationalist greeting cards explored the ways in which Hindutva history was conceptualized with reference to key symbols such as Lord Ram, Shivaji or Mother India, this aspect of mass reproduced cards opened up other avenues. Yet, a key debate evolving around Valentine’s Day’s introduction into the annual calendar in India is as to whether ‘Indian culture’ and moral values are not ‘diluted’.

Of major interest for me in this context are the images and words used to evoke notions of romance and love.2 But I am also concerned with questions related to newly emerging sites and practices of consumption; the circulation and exchange of the cards-turned-gift as marker both of utmost personal intimacy between two people and an increasingly visible culture of conspicuous consumption and status distinction. Involved in the trading of ‘tokens of love’ are several groups: married couples as well as young professionals, students and pupils, engaged--or not— in a romantic relationship. V-cards are not necessarily exchanged between people in love; other kinds of affection may be declared too, be it between friends or towards parents and elders. In the latter case, the cards’ images and texts are chosen accordingly and are generally free of erotic language. (Albeit, those cards with erotic themes seem to become more sexually explicit in terms of their emphasis on sexual pleasure and fantasy.)

The Valentine’s Day greeting cards studied here mark an ongoing moment of transition, where a globalised event and concept spreads across the subcontinent by means of various media (e.g., TV, cinema, internet), institutions (e.g., malls, cafes, bars), and publics (e.g., students, young professionals, un/married couples). They allow us to explore the ways in which old and new media formats around the turn of the new millennium encouraged certain societal segments to imagine or/and declare feelings of deep affection or love to others in a way that was difficult, if not impossible, to be articulated in a country like India in earlier times. There is at least one more facet to this empowering development. Knowing that sex and love sell even (better) in promiscuous societies, consumer culture in India pushes the trigger constantly, challenging norms and values, as well as modes of behavior, particularly in public spaces (privacy is still a luxury item in crowded and family-based settings, and as aspiration to some extent even stigmatised as anti-social). Despite the fact that middle class morality is changing and casual sexual relationships are on the increase in metropolitan centres, public discourses still promote no sex before marriage. Numerous commentators have noted that public display of affection (sometimes abbreviated as ‘PDA’3) is generally tabooed, and social relations are even further complicated by an ongoing reinforcement of caste and religious divisions and distinctions especially in conjugal relationships (see Osella and Osella 1998, Lukose 2009). Economic liberalization and gender empowerment or sexual liberalization are not necessarily well-balanced, even if they enforce each other. Likewise, the V-card, at the time of economic liberalisation around the turn of the new millennium, opened up a space for the dense web of imagination, experience and manifestation of romance as part of one’s everyday life, as part of individual self-making and as part of various strategies of conspicuous consumption in urbanized environs of a dramatically expanding middle class (see Brosius 2010, Deshpande 2003, Fernandes 2006, Mazzarella 2004). But simultaneously, it also collided with quite harsh practices of border-drawing and restriction of access, some of which shall be addressed below (see also Brosius 2011).

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I want to thank the collaborative Research Centre for Ritual Dynamics at Heidelberg University and the German Research Foundation for their support of this research. I also want to thank the staff from the Heidelberg Research Architecture at the Cluster "Asia and Europe in a Global Context" for their support in improving the image database (see fn 1), in particular, Tessa Pariyar, Laura Klöpping, and Matthias Arnold. Graditude also goes to Archies Ltd in Delhi, for their help and generosity in allowing me to use their rich material for publications. Suboor Bakht has been invaluable for my fieldwork in Delhi, and my colleagues from Tasveerghar, Sumathi Ramaswamy and Yousuf Saeed, have been immensely constructive throughout the process of writing this up.

1 By 2011, more than 200 greeting cards found in India and Nepal were digitised and annotated in what is called the Heidelberg Research Architecture (see http://www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de/en/hra-portal.html, accessed on 2.8.2011. I want to thank Jyotindra Jain who alerted me to Archies cards in 2008.

2 See also Kajri Jain http://www.tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/37/index.html and Catherine Asher: http://www.tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/114/index.html, both also in Brosius/Ramaswamy/Saeed, forthcoming.

3 See http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/Cinema/Gere-Shetty-kiss-fracas-hits-UK-headlines/Article1-216525.aspx, retrieved on 3.1.2012.

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