Poster piety

By Yousuf Saeed

14 January 2014

Mass production of posters and calendars of Muslim saints and Sufi shrines has allowed the devout to take home the holy. But has it contributed to a tame devotion that is wary of diversity?
Poster showing a Muslim woman praying before icons of Mecca and Medina in an alcove. Artist: Kareem, publisher J B Khana, Chennai, circa 1990

Poster showing a Muslim woman praying before icons of Mecca and Medina in an alcove.
Artist: Kareem, publisher J B Khana, Chennai, circa 1990

Calendars, posters and street murals in India reveal much about the power of colourful images to entertain, inform, devote and inspire on a daily basis. Although Hindu religious posters remain a dominant sight in India’s public sphere, Islamic and secular themes are not far behind. Hindu images depicting gods and goddesses (such as Lakshmi, Ganesha and Saraswati), their attributes and myths and continue to utilise narratives handed down from ancient times. Although artists may be copying the now-standardised styles of the Ravi Varma Press or the Calcutta Art Studio, the evolution of Islamic themes in calendar art has taken rather different trajectories. The posters of Hindu gods mostly served the purpose of worship or darshan (devotional gaze), whereas Islamic images were treated more as symbols of religious identity or popular piety, since worship was not their goal. But when it came to exploring a larger repertoire for its Muslim clients, the print industry was not limited to the icons of Mecca and Medina, the most standard religious images all over the Islamic world. In India, the depictions of Sufi shrines and local Muslim legends have been of equal importance.

With an interest in studying the popular culture of Indian Muslims, over the past two decades, I have been collecting and appreciating Islamic calendar and poster art produced in India. Until recently, the art of Indian calendars was mostly overlooked by many as cheap ephemera used by poor and rural folk for devotion or decoration. None of the Indian museums or art galleries took them seriously enough to acquire or preserve them. However, some sociologists, art historians and private collectors have focussed attention on them. Enthusiasts and scholars such as Patricia Uberoi, Kajri Jain, Chris Pinney, Jyotindra Jain and others have already highlighted the development of Indian popular art with Hindu themes. But Islamic poster art is still relatively unexplored. Moreover, unlike the Hindu posters, the richness and plurality of Islamic calendar art is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Only some samples from past decades have survived with private collectors. There are very few varieties of Islamic posters being produced in India today, and even these lack the fervour they had until probably the end of the 20th century. Hence, my humble effort at archiving some Islamic posters may be rather rare.
What is most special about Indian Islamic posters is the ‘localisation’ of Islam and its practices in ways that probably cannot be found elsewhere in the Islamic world. For instance, if we were to highlight the locations of Sufi dargahs on a map, the Subcontinent would be densely dotted with these shrines, which date back to the 12th century. But my focus here is on the Sufis whose mass appeal helped in the creation of their standardised images. Among the Sufi lineages that took root in India, the most popular one was that of Chishti Silsila, established in Ajmer, Rajasthan, by Khwaja Moinuddin when he migrated there in the 12th century from Chisht, a small village near Afghanistan. His shrine and lineage within India created a vibrant Sufi culture in the Subcontinent. Although a ziyarat (pilgrimage) to Ajmer could not substitute a Hajj to Mecca, its importance for many was no less – some even call it a chhota Hajj (minor Hajj). Pilgrims to Sufi shrines also feel the need to take home a souvenir. And what better gift than a brightly coloured, printed image of the shrine they have just visited, to decorate their homes as well as to continually attract the saint’s blessings?
The naqsha, or map, of Saint Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine at Ajmer, Rajasthan, with labels for important sites. Artist and publisher unknown, circa 1995.

The naqsha, or map, of Saint Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine at Ajmer, Rajasthan, with labels for important sites. Artist and publisher unknown, circa 1995.

The publishers of devotional art capitalised on pilgrims’ needs by producing a variety of images of Sufi shrines that were purchased and put on walls in domestic as well as public spaces, and formed repositories of public memory about religious folklore. This practice is sadly disappearing from Muslim societies due to the impact of Wahhabi Puritanism wafting in from Saudi Arabia.

Posters of well-known Sufi shrines and other Islamic monuments started appearing after the 1920s, depicting mostly the buildings with their distinct features – but there were almost never any human figures. Most of these early images came from companies such as the Ravi Varma Press and the Indian Picture Company from Bombay, Ajanta Art Calendars from Madras, and Hem Chandar Bhargava of Delhi. The early shrine-posters also featured a collage of many smaller Arab shrines, tombs, sacred sites and mosques spread in the region between Turkey and Afghanistan, which are visited by some pilgrims after their Hajj. Some of the sites featured in it are the Masjid-e Aqsa of Jerusalem, the shrine of Imam Hussain, Mount Tur and Karbala, places which hold special significance for Shi’as. While such images of non-Indian shrines helped illustrate the narratives of religious history circulating in Muslim families, they also worked as guide maps or mementos for pilgrims who had made a ziyarat of these sites.
The Indian shrines depicted in such posters – produced by Bhargava and Brijbasi – were the tombs of Nizamuddin Aulia (Delhi), Moinuddin Chishti (Ajmer) and Sabir Pak (Kaliyar, Uttarakhand), among others. The posters were often titled naqshas, and were meant to be maps showing important landmarks that the devotee needed to visit in and around the shrine. Full of awe and veneration for the saint, most pilgrims developed a special bond with the site, its sanctum sanctorum, the grave, the jali (stone lattice), and the doorway through which they enter. Ajmer’s naqshas, for instance, come with labels for each holy site such as the buland darwaza (tall gate), the chhoti degh (small cauldron), the badi degh (large cauldron), and the Taragarh fort (an ancient fort located on a hill in Ajmer).

In its style and conception, a vertical poster showing a winding, uphill road to the shrine of Haji Malang Shah near Kalyan, Maharashtra, may well be seen as an Indian miniature painting. Just as miniatures narrate the events of a story in a single frame, this particular poster tries to encompass the entire route from Kalyan to the shrine on the hilltop, a distance that in reality is 13 km by road to the base of the hill, followed by a steep two-hour trek to the summit. The journey is arduous, and most devotees are depicted walking to the hilltop with great effort. Several pilgrims, during conversations I had with them, revealed how a difficult path to a shrine served to test their faith, and how the final arrival at the shrine thus became a reward for their struggles.

A meeting of six saints, with images of their respective shrines inset. Clockwise from top right: Abdul Qadir Jilani (Baghdad), Bu Ali Sharf (Panipat), Nizamuddin Aulia (Delhi), Baba Farid (Shakar Ganj), Qutbuddin (Delhi), and Moinuddin Chishti (Ajmer). Artist and publisher unknown, circa 1995

A meeting of six saints, with images of their respective shrines inset. Clockwise from top right: Abdul Qadir Jilani (Baghdad), Bu Ali Sharf (Panipat), Nizamuddin Aulia (Delhi), Baba Farid (Shakar Ganj), Qutbuddin (Delhi), and Moinuddin Chishti (Ajmer).
Artist and publisher unknown, circa 1995

Holy heroes
In the initial process of creating these posters, a crucial dilemma for the artist or publisher was whether or not to depict the persona of a Muslim saint in a printed image. It is popularly believed that making a portrait of holy Muslim personalities is blasphemous, even though such images have been produced throughout the Islamic world in the pre-modern era, mostly commissioned by rulers in different periods. These images were seldom made public or copied further for fear of their becoming objects of mass veneration. Nevertheless, certain portraits of the Prophet Muhammad, Hazrat Ali, his sons Hasan and Hussain, and other imams, did become objects of worship in Iran, mostly after their mass duplication in modern times.
But divinity is not the only driving force for the production and mass appeal of these images. The portraits of prophets or saints are seen as embodiments of an idealised hero, to be followed by the masses, occupying positions such as Rama and Krishna among Hindus, or Jesus Christ among Christians. But for an Indian Muslim who seldom has access to pictorial depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, the image of his person only emerges out of the oral narratives of his seerah (the Prophet’s biography), narrated by elders or sung in emotional milads (songs in praise of the Prophet). These biographical descriptions form vivid images in the mind of the listener and the reader.
Portraits of Muslim saints did ultimately emerge in Indian posters as well. One of the most popular posters shows an imaginary meeting of six saints who lived in the 12th and 13th century – Abul Qadir Gilani, Moinuddin Chishti, Bu Ali Shah, Qutbuddin, Baba Farid and Nizamuddin Aulia – sitting together on a patterned floor, even though many of them were not contemporaries in time or place. Their coming together in one image probably denotes their being in the same silsila, or spiritual lineage. Scholar Jurgen W Frembgen has found the antecedents of this image in a series of Mughal miniatures and other older paintings. Comparing about eight different paintings from different periods preserved in museums or libraries, he shows how the same assembly of saints has been repeated in all with slight variations. This not only suggests that other portraits of saints produced in the 20th century may have their origins in old miniature paintings, but also highlights the relationship between the kings (who commissioned the paintings), and the particular saint or shrine depicted. Many Mughal miniatures show meetings or the passing on of favours between the kings and the saints, despite the fact that many Chishti Sufis wished to keep a distance from the Mughal rulers.
A portrait of Haji Waris Ali of Dewa (Uttar Pradesh), seated before his shrine. Artist and publisher unknown, circa 1995.

A portrait of Haji Waris Ali of Dewa (Uttar Pradesh), seated before his shrine.
Artist and publisher unknown, circa 1995.

Since an artist required a reference for drawing the likeness of a saint, he may have been helped by descriptive details available in popular malfuzat (biographical anecdotes) of how a saint looked. Popular portraiture was also shaped by the spiritual hierarchy, circulating anecdotes and miracles attributed to the saint, some of them described in the malfuzat. A simple calendar image of the tomb of Saint Abdul Qadir Jeelani in Baghdad is among the earliest Sufi shrines printed in India and Pakistan, but a more complex image depicting for the first time his person, a miracle and a woman devotee at his shrine started appearing after the 1970s. The poster illustrates a praying woman who, according to lore, had lost her family and guests when their boat sank in a river as they were celebrating a wedding. The widow prayed for seven long years before Shaikh Jeelani made the entire family reappear alive, as is depicted in the poster.

The miraculous powers of saints are what made them popular and their shrines a centre of attraction for the masses in India. Even tantriks have held sway over people since the ancient times due to their miracles and superhuman feats. The early Sufis who arrived in India interacted with many rishis and jogis to learn and discuss mystical and philosophical matters. Many tantric and yogic practices were introduced among all Sufi orders in India to varying degrees, resulting in the adoption of strenuous methods of meditation and self-control. Numerous accounts of tantriks, Sufis and malangs (wandering mystics) highlight their ability to tame wild animals such as tigers and lions. These extraordinary powers are reflected in their printed portraits too, such as that of Baba Sailani, buried near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, showing him sitting cross-legged under a tree, surrounded by animals like lions, tigers, and cheetahs, which were friendly with him. The motif of a tiger or lion has been attributed to many other saints, often as their vehicle, and sometimes to signify their spiritual power. The symbol of the lion is also associated with Hazrat Ali, often referred to as Sher-e-Khuda (the lion of God).
Picture perfect
A notable aspect of some posters of saints is the use of photographs as a reference for making the portrait paintings. Naturally, these relate to more recent saints, the most famous one being Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918) in Maharashtra, whose assumed photograph must be one of the most widely copied, sculpted and revered Indian religious images of the 20th century. Maharashtra has had other saints with similar image cults too, such as Tajuddin Baba (b. 1861) of Nagpur, whose poster shows him sitting in an odd posture with his arms enclosing his hunched legs, and his tomb in the background. The portrait is modelled on a photograph probably taken in a mental asylum where Tajuddin Baba stayed for 16 years after being declared a lunatic, which shows him in a similar position – most likely a posture of meditating Sufis.
A portrait poster of Tajuddin Baba and his disciple Mariam-bi. Artist unknown, publisher J B Khanna, Chennai, circa 1995

A portrait poster of Tajuddin Baba and his disciple Mariam-bi.
Artist unknown, publisher J B Khanna, Chennai, circa 1995

Another set of portraits copied from photographs is that of Haji Waris Ali Shah (b. 1809) of Deva, near Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh. Apparently, Waris Ali’s photographs were in circulation even within his lifetime and helped in attracting devotees to his shrine. Many of these saints seem to have been photographed in their old age, usually sitting in odd and uncomfortable postures on the ground. The painter of the modern poster seems to have copied the original sitting posture religiously, making it a standardised – albeit rather mummified – icon used to identify and revere the saint. But in most such images, there is a marked difference between the portraits made by copying from photographs and those made afresh using the artist’s imagination or descriptive oral details – the latter usually being more graceful and better-looking.

Many older photographs of saints are now coloured or digitally restored and printed – often in poor quality – on small cards by local printers, to sell outside shrines. Such small portraits become objects of a more personalised devotion to saints, while the large posters of shrine buildings, which are better produced, are normally used as wall displays. But it should be noted that India’s poster industry has been rather reluctant to produce portraits of saints. This is unlike Pakistan, where their use and reproduction is more liberal. One of the reasons for this reluctance is perhaps because most Indian publishers come from the upper-caste Hindu kayastha community, who are especially cautious not to produce artwork that may hurt the sentiments of their Muslim clients, and mostly publish innocent and good-looking images of popular piety that would be acceptable in orthodox households. Today, larger numbers of Mecca-Medina images and Arabic calligraphy are replacing the more syncretic and celebratory portraits of local Sufis in the calendar market. While this trend may reflect the changing tastes and cultural alienation of Indian Muslims, one wonders if today’s Islamic posters are the repositories of a people’s religious history any more, or whether they reflect a more sanitised faith that discourages pluralism.

~ Yousuf Saeed is a New Delhi-based independent filmmaker and researcher. He runs Tasveer Ghar, a digital archive of popular Southasian visual culture. 

~This article is from our series of articles on the state of archiving in Southasia.

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