[Reader-list] Muslim popular devotional art in urban context

Yousuf ysaeed7 at yahoo.com
Tue Jan 27 09:53:15 IST 2004

Dear friends
I am an independent filmmaker and writer based in
Delhi, India. I would like to introduce here my
research/documentation project (under the Sarai/CSDS
fellowships 2004). The topic of this research is
"Syncretism in the Popular Art of Muslim Religious
Posters in North India: Iconic Devotion in an
Iconoclastic Religion". Below is an abstract of the

Amongst the most vibrant examples of popular visual
art found in the Indian towns and cities are the
religious posters, calendars and framed pictures
depicting deities, saints, places of worship and
pilgrimage, and so on. While the religious posters
or a Hindu devotee can be found in large numbers and
variety, it is also not very difficult to buy posters
depicting Muslim themes and folklore. Although most
of the Muslim posters in India portray the shrines at
Mecca and Medina, or the Quranic verses in
calligraphy, it is also common to find portraits of
local saints, their tombs, miracles, and other
local folklore, represented as vividly as in a Hindu
mythological scene, and often employing Hindu
symbols and iconography.

This proposal seeks to collect the contemporary
religious posters depicting Muslim themes from 3-4
locations in north India (namely, Delhi, Ajmer and
Lucknow), and analyze their contents, focusing on
the symbols of multi-faith or composite culture,
besides studying briefly the industry and the artists
who manufacture and sell them, the devotees who buy
them, the environments where they are adorned, and the
reverence they evoke. The study would result in a
poster collection and an analysis report, besides
some photographs taken during the study. Moreover, a
slide show of the posters as well as a portable
exhibition could also be curated, subject to the
availability of resources.

What is important to explore during this study is
how this visual depiction and the Muslim iconography
as not only been legitimized in Islam (considered a
purely iconoclastic faith), but also allowed to
thrive in the form of an urban mass culture. Amongst
other questions that would be explored are: what
inputs/inspirations do these images get from the
present day urban popular culture, who conceives
the posters, who paints them, the artist's personal
attachment with the subject? Who commissions them,
who approves/legitimizes them, are these people other
than Muslims? How do the orthodox or the purists react
to these, and how are the local posters weighed
against posters/images from Arabia/Gulf?

Incidentally, the devotional posters also share
space in the market with many other types of images
devotional items, such as shiny stickers, framed
and gold-plated pictures, lampshades, key chains,
clocks and electronic gizmos with religious themes.
Although we cannot ignore such items while studying
specific images, we need to define our focus. This
study/collection shall concentrate on posters and
images meant to adorn the walls, bearing Islamic
themes or at least some elements/symbols of Muslim
folklore. The original images should have been
hand-painted by traditional or semi-traditional
artists/industry from India/south Asia, in a folk
or popular art style. Full photographs and images
designed on a computer are to be avoided, although
these could be surveyed to see if they reflect the
trend of sanitization of faith amongst Indian
Muslims, and what space they share with the indigenous
posters on a wall.

Some more details, images, and updates on this
project would also be available on the website:

You are welcome to send comments/suggestions on this

Yousuf Saeed
ysaeed7 at yahoo.com

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