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

The Rhythm of Romantic Love

Glimpses on Valentine's Day Cards

Christiane Brosius
These cards were picked up at Kailash Colony Market in South Delhi in February 2010, on the eve of yet another Valentine’s Day. They stand in a longer  new 'tradition' of Valentine’s Day cards in India and yet, they have brought in novel elements that can be related to the previous year, for several reasons. Cards like this (Fig. 01) allow us to get glimpses of a rapidly changing emotional landscape, gender roles, and consumption practices of urban India today. They circulate, predominantly in the English language, among more affluent, English-speaking middle class circles, and cost from anything around INR 50-400. There are dozens of motifs, texts, and sizes, with or without musical tunes, chocolate or other add-ons. Their greatest competitors are sms and e-cards. However, the tactile presence of these greeeting cards still turns them into popular objects of a growing emotional material culture of mutual gifting.
Fig.01
 
 
Fig.02
According to a senior employee of the card-maker Archies, the card in figure 02  has been consciously put on the market, following a historic judgement in July 2009, when the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality by striking down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In reference to Article 21 of the Indian constitution, the judges argued that section 377 violated the law that every citizen has equal opportunity of life and is equal before it. Thus, a regulation from the colonial era criminalising homosexuality and 'unnatural sex' was bent. The fact that Archies has selected this theme for the 2010 edition shows their support of such a move. At the same time, it also underlines the risk taken by the producers to become yet another target of criticism, and even attacks, by conservative, traditionalist groups who have been staging protests by burning Archies cards in public since the late 1990s all over the country. The reasons given for doing this were manifold, but mostly related to opposition against ‘westernisation’ and ‘obscene’ modernisation. With the emergence  of a growing affluent youth culture, where young people are increasingly seeking to create a space in which they can make decisions about their choice of life-partners and outside the conventions of arranged marriage, the increasing desire for visibility and recognition of homosexual relations has been pushed centre-stage. These cards, however, are predominantly sold in up-market shops of affluent urban neighbourhoods.

Interestingly, in figure 02, the shapes of the homosexual couples are very abstract and appear as faceless logos, quasi-disembodied. Nothing comparable can be found in any other Archies cards. The rainbow colours used in the shape of hearts refer to the symbol of homosexuality; however, this will most probably be known only to European or US-American audiences. They underline the fact that homosexuality is not an individual instance but a collective, and conscious as well as proud movement.

Fig.03
This card (Fig. 03) shows a woman of substance in an elegant black long evening dress, holding a champagne glass in her hands, while she is seated on a red chaise longue. The text outside reads: ‘Love is like wine – growing better with time’ and continues inside the card: ‘Let’s raise a toast and celebrate our Love … My love, I’m addicted to you forever.’  One can assume that this is a card sent by a man to his lover, partner or wife. To me, this image indicates a role model of a woman that is often challenged as provoking and undermining traditional concepts of the Indian woman. In particular after the Mangalore pub attacks in January 2009, where members of a radical Hindu nationalist group entered several pubs in the south Indian city, and  insulted and threatened the young women seated there, drinking with male friends, a nation-wide debate was started about the limits and possibilities of women’s mobility in leisure and public spaces. Conservative voices – not limited to the Hindu Right – condemned the violence but underlined the ‘fact’ that women should not drink and ‘behave loosely’ in public in order to prevent men from assaulting them and Indian culture from ‘eroding’ or ‘westernising’ (some have even suggested ‘Christianisation’). Here, we can see a ‘cosmopolitan’ woman, stretching her long and thin body, confident with her physical form, having no problem to raise a toast and celebrate her love to a man who seems to equally adore her. This scenery is far apart from something like ‘karva chaut’, a ritual celebrated by married women in parts of northern India, fasting for a whole day to prove their love for and devotion to their husbands. Having said this, the two festivals might not necessarily be exclusive in everyday-lives of the urban middle classes: it could even happen that one woman celebrates both festivals.

 

 
Fig.04

This 'item'-card (Fig. 04), displays a small red underwear along with several heart-shapes and the words 'thinking of you.' This brings upfront what is often associated with modern, romantic love in urban India: sex as fun and part of a leisure culture that visualises a new kind of partnership – or marriage. The image also relates to a wider circulation of discourses on women’s empowerment and a growth in love relationships and love marriages in urbanised India (without rendering such relationships obsolete in the country-side). At the same time, the public sphere seems to be increasingly come under the surveillance and attack by social agents objecting to the public display of hetero-(or homo)sexual affection. In February 2009, this led to the formation of a face-book protest by around 40,000 people who supported the 'Pink Chaddi (underwear) campaign'. The representatives started an initiative by which pink underwear was to be sent to the leader of the same Hindu nationalist group that attacked the women in Mangalore, requesting him by means of gandhigiri (non-violent protest) to withdraw his warnings to force young couples 'discovered' in parks to get married.

Cards reproduced with kind permission from Archies, New Delhi.

 

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