Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



India’s streets, public spaces and homes are filled with colourful, mass-produced images of various kinds, from calendars, religious posters and cinema heroes to large billboards, advertisements and roadside graffiti, all of it reflecting the aesthetics of the masses who revere and celebrate them. While religious iconography, such as that of Hindu gods and goddesses, dominates much of this visual universe, images with Islamic themes are also not far behind. Some scholars studying India’s calendar art have shown how the concept of nationalism, dominated by Hindu revivalist themes, was entrenched among Indian masses through the use of popular art. However, while Hindu images seem to easily adapt to political themes, such as Bhārat Māta (Mother India) being revered both as a religious and nationalistic icon,[1] one finds hardly any political content in Muslim calendar art—it is mostly icons of piety, or at the most, nostalgia for a decaying Muslim aristocracy. At least, that is how they have been represented so far.

But does it mean that Indian Muslim society was devoid of political subjects worth making images of? Or is it truly a biased representation of the community as apolitical and pious? Some would say that the religiosity of Muslims was not compatible with Indian nationalism, at least visually, except in the case of their being part of the clichéd images of ‘National Integration’. As a matter of fact, since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the loyalty of Muslims in India towards their homeland has always been a subject of debate and even discussed in popular culture such as cinema and mainstream media, if not in calendar art. It would be worthwhile to explore the representation of political themes in Muslim art before and after 1947, especially through what has been produced in the popular visual culture in Pakistan.

The Representation of Nation

The introduction of print technology from Europe triggered the production of literatures in the nineteenth century that were specifically targeted towards Hindus and Muslims, helping them formalize and often institutionalize their distinct identities.[2] As they lost the Mughal Empire, the Muslims suddenly realized that they were in a dār-al harb (a land where Muslim law doesn’t apply)[3] whereas the Hindus discovered the desire to invoke Vedic period as their original utopia. Such polarization started appearing in popular art too and, ironically, with the same publisher often catering to both identities. It is important to look at what kind of themes were being depicted in Muslim calendars (and in what ratio to the other themes) before and after 1947, which to me seems a decisive date for the trajectory to be followed by north India’s popular print culture.

ccccWe could begin with an example that illustrates the political leanings in early calendar images. Indian calendar producers in the early twentieth century came out with image catalogues for clients who wished to have calendars featuring their branding or product. These large colourful catalogues from the 1930s to the 1960s—some of which I surveyed in a private art collection—have a historical value, as they reveal popular trends in the users’ preference of images. Catalogues of then-well-known companies, such as All India Calendar Co., Oriental Calendar Mfg. Co., Ajanta Art Calendar Mfg. Co., Empire Calendar Mfg. Co. (all from Calcutta), and Imperial Calendar Mfg. Co. from Delhi, contain sample images of some of the following themes:[4]

Calendar image themes Catalogues from 1930–47 1948–65

The majority of images showing either Hindu themes or patriotic icons (and very often a potent mix of the two) grew in number after 1947, while the images with Muslim themes, which in any case were fewer with regard to the ratio of Muslim users, decreased further after the Partition. Although this survey is limited in many ways—possibly some other publishers were making more calendars for Muslims—it does compel us to ask: Are Islamic images incompatible with Indian nationalism or for that matter any politicization? To explore this further, we need to go beyond this set of images and see what constituted the political content in Hindu images in the larger popular poster domain of that era. There are some obvious features one should avoid associating with a religious identity, such as the widespread use of Urdu in the mainstream print culture before 1950s (even Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement, used Urdu for its propaganda literature!), or slotting images of leaders like Gandhi, Nehru or Maulana Azad according to their religious identity.

Certain connections between Hinduism and Indian nationalism are very obvious in the images and have been explored extensively by scholars such as Christopher Pinney, Lawrence Babb, Sumathi Ramaswamy and others. Hence, rather than repeating them here, I would like to describe a couple of image themes to extend my argument. It is well known that both Hindus and Muslims made equal and often combined efforts in the struggle for India’s freedom. In fact, in some cases, Muslim individuals and institutions initiated independent local efforts to protest against the British Raj.[5] If the popular calendar art of the early twentieth century made heroes out of freedom fighters, it certainly oversimplified the history of this struggle by deifying only a handful of individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Rajendra Prasad and so on, usually in that order of preference, and ignoring many other equally active leaders and their complex stories. Most of the celebrated leaders belonged to the Indian National Congress—in fact, Gandhi and Nehru alone feature on more than half of all such images. Almost all members of Nehru’s family—father Motilal, wife Kamala, daughter Indira, and sister Vijay Lakshmi—feature in the posters.[6]

Maulana Azad—the prominent Muslim member of Congress who refused to migrate to Pakistan—is shown in a few individual portraits but hardly as part of the Indian map and never along with the Mother India figure, which most other leaders from the above list do. He also appears with Jinnah and Gandhi in a poster showing a meeting with the British Viceroy, Lord Wavell, in Simla. Another calendar showing the larger Simla Conference of 1945, where Wavell tried to discuss in vain the reconstituting of an Executive Council, includes many Muslim leaders such as Khwaja Sir Nizamuddin, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, Hidayatullah Ghulam Hussain and others.[7] But these meeting scenes have more of a factual or news value rather than of creating heroes. While several minor events of the freedom movement have been illustrated through posters and postcards, one finds none illustrating, for instance, the Khilafat Movement, a major campaign started by Muslim leaders to buttress a collapsing Ottoman Empire after World War I—even though Gandhi supported it and benefited from it in his cause of Hindu–Muslim unity. Muslim sentiments about the Khilafat movement were however extensively represented by Urdu publications produced in Calcutta at the same time when the mainstream patriotic images were being made in the town.

Other prominent Muslim freedom fighters or reformers, such as Sir Syed Ahmed, Hakeem Ajmal Khan, Dr M.A. Ansari, Maulana Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Mohammad Iqbal, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Dr Zakir Hussain, or Saifuddin Kichlew, are all missing as patriotic images. In fact, older Muslim icons like Tipu Sultan (considered by some as India’s first nationalist) or Bahadurshah Zafar who initiated an uprising against the British, don’t come close to the popular legends created for, say, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Rana Pratap, or Chatrapati Shivaji. One exception is Abbas Tayebji, a Bohra Muslim associate of Gandhi from Gujarat, who is shown working on a charkha (spinning wheel) in a postcard or small poster. Captain Shahnawaz is shown once in a 1946 calendar depicting other brave Indian soldiers who fought against the British. A small portrait of Ashfaqullah Khan features once at the bottom of a 1931 poster depicting martyrs Bhagat Singh, Azad, Ramprasad and so on, but never when the latter are shown presenting their decapitated heads to Bhārat Māta in many illustrations.

But these few representations are insignificant compared to those of the mainstream Hindu leaders, typically shown blessing a map of India. In many posters, Bhārat Māta, and sometimes Vishnu, is shown blessing Nehru and Gandhi. Often, clearly Hindu divine images have been recycled by substituting the deity’s face with that of a political leader like Gandhi. The contours of the Indian map itself are such that they can easily adapt to the image of a sari-clad woman which has very frequently been illustrated as Bhārat Māta, a Hindu deity.[8] More interesting and problematic are the images deliberately trying to represent the role of religions other than Hinduism in the making of modern India. A poster titled Message of Love shows Bhārat Māta standing on the map of India flanked on the top by a crucified Jesus Christ, Gandhi and Gautama Buddha (on a lotus), besides other leaders like Bose, Swami Vivekananda and so on. Another image titled Agriculture from a calendar catalogue shows Christ, Gandhi and Buddha blessing the scene of Indian farmers with a tractor and a plough while Rajendra Prasad, Nehru and Patel look on. It is obvious that, for such a concept, even if the artist wished to represent Islam or Indian Muslims, there was no human icon or religious personality imaginable. But this could also be a convenient excuse to exclude Islam.

The early images also aim at reflecting the supposed all-inclusiveness of Hinduism—all faiths coming under its umbrella, except Islam. An image titled Prajātantra (democracy) from the same catalogue shows the trio of Christ, Gandhi and Buddha looking from above the clouds upon a queue of marching Indians who seem to represent, from their attire, male couples of king and pauper, farmer and a learned man, low-caste and high-caste, and so on. Only towards the diminishing end of the queue one can spot a person dressed probably as a Muslim; women come at an even farther diminishing point of the queue—a sort of patronizing effort to depict egalitarianism, yet the biases are apparent. To explore such attitudes of the 1950s further, it would be interesting to study other forms of popular culture, such as Hindi cinema or its music to see how the different identities have been represented in the portrayal of freedom struggle. A recent author points out how a popular patriotic song ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ (the earth of my land) from the film Pukār (1967) by Manoj Kumar mentioned only a few mainstream leaders and excluded many popular ones (especially non-Brahmins and Muslims!). The lyrics try to associate the key colours of the Indian flag with the names of some freedom fighters but in an oddly selective and biased way.[9]

ccccMuslims and Islam did get represented in the later political images but only to be equated with other religions in the Nehruvian project of ‘National Integration’—a concept often defined as the adoption of a blend of many religious identities necessary for peaceful coexistence in a multi-religious land. There is at least one postcard from 1940s that illustrates how the death of one Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi in a Hindu–Muslim riot of Kanpur had a heart-rending affect on the people, thus leading to further unity among them. But post-1950s, most calendar images of this category show cute children wearing the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian headgear, often with the title Hum sab ek hain (we are all one).[10] In one poster, Gandhi is shown meditating under a tree while his backdrop has silhouetted icons of a Hindu temple, a mosque, a church and a Sikh gurudwara. Educational charts used in Indian schools sought creative ways to represent the diversity of Indian culture and religions. But even here the artist was challenged in some ways to keep the supposed Muslim sensitivities about images at bay. A chart showing the prophets, deities or originators of all religions uses the image of Delhi’s Jama Masjid for Islam even though it shows Emperor Akbar as the originator of the new creed Deen-e Ilāhi.

The national-integration project could not take off in real life beyond poster competitions and exhibitions in some Indian schools. However, themes of communal harmony and Hindu–Muslim unity have been tried more extensively in popular cinema, theatre, music, and literature, some of them becoming quite a hit among the masses. But their effect on popular calendar art has been negligible. In contrast, some adverse propaganda based on religious or ethnic identities has thrived in printed literature. The Hindu revivalist movement in the nineteenth century promoted, for instance, the protection of the cow as the sacred mother of Hindus through images of chaurasi devtaon wali gai (the cow containing 84 Hindu deities within). Initially, some printed versions of this image had shown a Muslim butcher raising a sword at the cow but being stopped by Dharmaraj. The butcher in the later posters was replaced by a carnivorous demon of kalyug after some Muslims were reported to have objected. Some versions also showed a Muslim, a Parsi and a European being given the cow’s milk to drink, with the caption: ‘Drink milk and protect the cow’.

   Other recent religious campaigns in the twentieth century, such as that of the Ramjanmabhoomi, translated into posters, literature and videos of hate against Muslims.[11] Some Hindu nationalist organizations have been producing a body of printed images, such as greeting cards for New Year or Diwali, that depict Mother India calling against alien cultural domination, i.e. Westernization, Christianity and Islam.[12] On these cards, Muslims and Christians are often shown as demons destroying Mother India and so on. But these images belong to a different political stream and should not be seen as related to the independence movement. Nevertheless, the above examples indicate that the very seeds of Indian nationalism sown in the popular imagination through printed images were rather biased and not representative of the region’s wide cultural and religious diversity.

The Popular Visual Culture in Pakistan

The politicization of religious images seems to have acquired different dimensions in Pakistan. While the real impact of the Partition on Muslim popular art is yet to be studied in detail, I would like to share some experiences from my limited sojourn in Pakistan in 2005.[13] Most Indians or non-Pakistanis see Pakistan as a land of Muslim fundamentalists and steadfast Wahhābis running an Islamic state that keeps strictly away from anything non-Islamic or non-shari’a. The outsiders take it for granted that since Pakistan was born out of the two-nation theory that assumed Hindus and Muslims of India as two separate entities who could not coexist, present-day Pakistan must not have any traces of the Hindu or syncretic past. No doubt, the orthodox and reformist institutions and individuals have always remained in a powerful position in Pakistan, continuously trying to redefine or dictate what the cultural identity of Pakistanis should be according to the Islamic tenets. But their efforts of over six decades have neither yielded into a definitive national identity of Pakistan nor have been able to culturally alienate the entire society according to their terms. Although as a result of the process of ‘Islamization’ in the 1980s the religious extremism and its related violence has certainly grown into a monster. But equally prominent has been a thriving culture of popular Islam represented by Sufi shrines, syncretic rituals and a vibrant print culture of devotional art and literature, which in its figurative iconography crosses many limits that even India’s Islamic images have been reluctant about. Even a cursory look at the representations in the poster art of Pakistan can reveal a popular visual imagination that has been running parallel, or sometimes contrary, to the very idea of Pakistan as a nation.

Needless to say, almost all Sufi orders and shrines dotting the landscape of Pakistan are in a continuum with those in India—in fact, the Sufis, coming from central Asia, had to cross the region which is now Pakistan in order to arrive in the region which is India, and many of them settled in places like Multan, Lahore and other towns of Sindh and Punjab, helping in the emergence of a rich Sufi literature and music.[14] While Lahore and Punjab are famous for saints like Ali Hujweri (Data Ganj Baksh), Baba Farid Shakar Ganj, Baba Bulleh Shah, Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Baba Shah Jamal, Barri Imam, Pir Mehr Ali, Sakhi Sarwar and others, Sindh and Multan have famous saints such as Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Shahbaz Qalandar, Rukn-e Alam, Shah Abul Latif Bhitai, Bahauddin Zakariya, Sultan Bahu and many more. Their historical significance as well as contemporary popularity has been extensively studied and documented by scholars such as Annemarie Schimmel, Richard Eaton, Carl Ernst, Wasim Frembgen, and several other Indian and Pakistani scholars.

What may surprise any Indian in Pakistan is the cultic hysteria among the crowds of devotees at many religious sites, especially on certain auspicious days of the week. The Thursday nights or the urs’ of saints are great occasions of folk rituals, chanting and celebration. In fact, observing the celebration of any festival, especially in a town like Lahore, was quite an eye-opener for an Indian Muslim. I happened to witness in Lahore at least three major festive periods—Basant, Eid-e Miladun Nabi and Independence Day (14th August). Each of these amazed me for its exuberance, colours, sounds, and the spirit of people, comparable to the celebration of Diwali or Holi in India. Even though Basant, the spring festival in Lahore, famous for kite-flying, food and other celebrations, has recently been discouraged; at least the kite-flying has been banned (due to many fatal accidents), by the local government as well as the clergy, who declared the festival non-Islamic.[15] But the festive spirit of Lahore’s ordinary residents does not let it die.

On the Prophet’s birth anniversary, Lahore’s children make hundreds of miniature replicas on pavements outside their homes depicting events from the Prophet’s life, including shrines of Mecca, Medina and the cave of Hira (where the Prophet received revelations from Gabriel), often using common household items and modern toys like Barbie dolls and GI Joes! Even adults make fine and expensive paper models of Medina mosque and the Kā’ba, exhibiting them on Lahore’s streets with pride.[16] There are public gatherings on every street—after stopping all traffic at night—involving recitations of milāds or religious oratory—comparable again to the Hindu jāgrans (night-long singing and prayers) in India. Cauldrons of food are cooked and distributed. Many of these festive gatherings happen to be in and around takiās or baithaks (shrines) of saints, where qawwals and other musicians perform. In fact, the practice of traditional music with its rich syncretic components, especially the lyrics and the musical modes, (a subject of research for which I actually visited there) has mostly survived in Pakistan, despite many efforts to mute or alter it to suit ‘Islamic’ identity.[17]

Saint Posters in Pakistan