Publication: The Story of Early Indian Advertising (March-June 2017)
Published by: The MARG Foundation, Army & Navy Building, 3rd Floor, 148 MG Road, Mumbai-400001
Price: INR 350
Reviewed by: Bhaskar Parichha

‘A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time.’ – Henry Ford

‘Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.’  – Marshall McLuhan

How rich is India as an ad nation? Reassuring to say the least. Indian advertising is said to have begun with hawkers calling out their wares since the days when towns and markets came up. It was followed by   signage, trademarks, press advertisements, TV commercials and the like. Concrete advertising history in India took roots with classified advertising. Advertisements started appearing for the first time in print, particularly in Hickey’s Bengal Gazette .This incidentally was India’s first newspaper.

Major advertisers during the times of British were retailers like Spencer’s, Army & Navy, Whiteaway and Laidlaw. Retailers’ catalogues that were used as marketing promotions provided early examples of Indian advertising. Patent medicines were the earliest brands. Horlicks was the first ‘malted milk’ to be patented in 1883.

B Dattaram and Co. claims to be the oldest existing Indian agency in Mumbai which was started in 1902. Later, Indian ad agencies came up. Ogilvy and Mather and Hindustan Thompson Associate agencies were formed in the early 1920s. In 1939, Lever’s advertising department launched Dalda – the first major example of a brand specifically developed for India. In the 1950s, advertising associations were set up to safeguard the interests of advertisers in the industry.

With such a chequered history and in order to put them all in a historical context, MARG has dedicated a full issue on Indian advertising prior to independence. The March-June issue entitled ‘The Story of Early Indian Advertising’ says it all with great detail.

Guest-edited by Jyotindra Jain, this issue on advertising looks precisely   at the world of advertising in India seventy years ago. This periodic restriction is largely explained by the fact that ‘there has been a distinct shift after the 1940s, with sharp professionalization of the advertising industry and the emergence of dedicated firms, art directors and copywriters.’

The issue has several commentaries with appropriate archival images  : ‘From craftsmanship to Commercial Art’, ‘The Visual Culture of the Indo- British Cotton Trade’,  ‘Commodity Aesthetics’, ‘Early publicity’,  ‘Brand-Name Advertising’ et al.What is interesting is the carefully chosen cover- a label showing an agent displaying an array of trade labels of 1900 AD from a private collection.

One most fascinating contribution in the volume is   match box labels and the stories they tell.Gautam Hemmady has delved into the entire history of match box labels  as they have evolved with reference to South India: their symbolism, the royal portraits, the courtesans etc.Match box labels were  not only enthralling they were collectible items even for the common man. Who hasn’t heard about Wimco or seen a Sant Tukaram on match boxes?

Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s piece on the progression of ordinary craftsmanship to commercial art makes for some cerebral reading.  ‘The Art of Capturing Stillness: Cinema Lobby Cards’ by Sabina Gadihoke deals with an unusual side of advertising – the lobby cards of early Indian cinema as different from production stills.

Jyotindra Jain himself has in his essay on commodity aesthetics dwelt upon the soap and cigarette advertising in colonial India. This thesis is an important addition to existing literature because of the fact that colonial consumption practices unleashed a new brand of civilization values and, obviously, soaps and cigarettes were the most sought -after commodities for advertisement.

Last but not least, the notes on Burmah-Shell India by Ravi Vasudevan go into the public information role of advertising. As Vasudevan says, ‘the publicity and advertising initiatives of the company captured a complex interplay between commodity promotion and nation- building.’

In its quest for the history of everything that is exotic and Indian, MARG has done an excellent job by bringing out this volume on pre-independent Indian advertising. Whether one is in the publicity industry or not, the collection will go a long way in buttressing the visual and sociological aspects of advertising as they have come of age.