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

Poster piety

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?

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.

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