Modern Visions, Sacred Tales: Selections from the H. Daniel Smith Poster Archive

Shrinkhal Murti [Mother India], nd. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries.

Shrinkhal Murti [Mother India], nd. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research
Center, Syracuse University Libraries.

SUArt Galleries

January 30 – March 16, 2014

Modern Visions, Sacred Tales draws upon the H. Daniel Smith Poster Archive housed in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University’s Bird Library. The exhibition’s theme was determined largely by the scope of the collection, which consists of brightly colored, mass-produced prints that are typically incorporated into calendars and advertisements in India. Featuring an array of subjects ranging from deities, sacred sites, saints, and nationalist leaders to movie stars, glamour girls, and chubby babies, these posters were placed in a variety of settings: kitchens, tobacco shops, village homes, urban slums, middle-class drawing rooms, grocery stores, and car dashboards. These examples reveal the extent to which the overlapping boundaries of the sacred and the secular permeate Indian mass culture. Included with the commercial, vernacular, and artistic subjects, these images also evolved in close contact with religious nationalism. While the majority of the prints included in this exhibition were printed in Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, and Madras, a handful of high quality chromolithographs were produced in Germany. Modern Visions, Sacred Tales accompanies the Spring 2014 Ray Smith Symposium Transformations in South Asian Folks Arts, Aesthetics, and Commodities.

H. Daniel Smith (1928-2013) was Professor of Hinduism and Asian Religions in the Department of Religion, 1958-1993.  Smith earned his A.B. degree from Harvard, class of 1950, followed by the B.D., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees (1954, 1955, 1960) from Yale University.  Although initially trained in classical Hinduism and Sanskrit, Smith pioneered the study of Hindu popular culture and its visual manifestations. His eleven documentary films on south Indian urban religious rites and celebrations produced in the late 1960s are classics still used in classrooms. No one has produced anything comparable in the 40 years since they were made. Smith’s other love was the epic, Ramayana.  In the 1980s, he traveled across India retracing Rama’s route from Ayodhya to Lanka. Working with a Chennai-based artist, he also produced a Sanskrit/English version, The Storybook Ramayana, that remains a major resource for teaching.

Smith was also a collector—of Sanskrit palm leaf manuscripts, but more importantly of folk arts and popular art. Three of these collections were donated to Syracuse University and are the inspiration behind the two current Indian exhibitions — more than 3500 hundred  Hindu god posters covering more than a century of painting and printing and some 70 Mithila paintings from the 1970s and early  1980s.  His interest in the everyday practices of Hinduism also led to a smaller collection of liturgical items, also donated to the SU Art Collection.

More information about the H. Daniel Smith Poster Archive can be found at