HRA9 Project on Popular Islamic Iconography

Satellites of Networks, Cluster of Excellence: Asia and Europe a Global Context

Conducted by Yousuf Saeed and Suboor Bakht
Under supervision of Christiane Brosius

This project, located in the Heidelberg Research Architecture (HRA) of the research cluster "Asia and Europe in a Global Context" began to study the popular visuality of Muslim shrines with a two-folded objective: (1) It aimed at being a specific 'thick description' of devotional practices, media and images at a major Islamic shrine in New Delhi, India. (2) With these findings, a larger transcultural mapping of shrines and pilgrimage centres in South Asia and beyond was sought to be traced, ultimately trying to connect them in a larger map following cultural flows as they move across national borders, transgressing media and publics of kinds.

The research question for the first objective was as follows: How does the variety of popular visual media, which is also connected to a host of social agents and devotional and secular practices around the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin in New Delhi, respond to the multiple changes and challenges brought about by massive urbanization and the concept of cultural heritage. How does it reflect the movement of pilgrims and the introduction of new media technologies? Moreover, if we look at it as a 'contact zone', that is, a zone of different entanglements and contestations of seemingly 'different' forces and concepts, does it allow us to examine competing strings of Islam, for instance, reformist Tableeghi and Wahhabi ideologues, in the vicinity? The second objective places heritage, publics, media and the entangled relationship between religious and secular fields in the larger framework, reaching even beyond South Asia, as far as diasporic contexts in Canada, and the Middle East. The transnational context is relevant because it further enable us to trace flows of images, people and ideas across national boundaries, and opens up questions of locality and emplacement, change and stability (e.g., of devotional practices), and the fabric of social networks as they are also shaped by media technologies.

The project was based on collaboration with two colleagues in New Delhi with whom we share a longstanding relation: Yousuf Saeed (Tasveer Ghar) and Suboor Bakht (research associate), who are also active in another initiative on visual popular culture in South Asia: Tasveer Ghar: The House of Pictures ( Their personal expertise in the field of Muslim popular culture, filmmaking, and knowledge of Sufism – particularly in Delhi, has qualified them for this project. The study of the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia for this project commenced in early 2009 in New Delhi and was carried for more than a year. It involved various activities such as the collection of devotional objects, popular videos/audios, and religious posters, besides video shooting of the rituals and sacred sites, as well as recording of interviews with the devotees and local business folk. Moreover, Bakht has undertaken research (interviews, collection of religious paraphernalia) among Indian and Pakistani Sufis in Canada. The idea behind this was to explore the role the producers of literature, images and other devotional ephemera play in the lives of the pilgrims and devotees to this area, how do they decide what to produce and sell to augment a ‘visual pilgrim's experience, how the production of such vernacular and grey literature and images has been transformed over the years due to changing aspirations of the pilgrims in the diasporas. Considering the global movement of people and images across the globe, often back and fro, we also ventured into studying people’s relation to specific sites. One central question during research was how other media formats, such as religious television channels, play into the notions of locality and religious community and how the notion of a religious site as a site of cultural or national heritage impacts relationships of agents vis-à-vis a shrine, thus also inviting for other discourses to enter.

A few words about the method: Each year, two major ritualistic events take place at the shrine of Nizamuddin, which attract thousands of pilgrims from near and far. These 4-5 day long events, held six months apart (according to the Islamic calendar dates), are the urs or death anniversary of the saint Nizamuddin Aulia and his disciple Amir Khusrau. We visited and attended almost all sessions of these events, which sometime go on from morning till evening, and some even over night (such as Qawwali music sessions). Besides participant observation and interviews of in-formants, a large number of still pictures were taken at the shrine to depict the complex visuality and popular devotion exhibited by the local entrepreneurs as well as the pilgrims visiting from outside. Most of these images have been fed into the Transcultural Image Database of the Cluster (HeidICON) along with relevant metadata that provides them context and dynamics. Parts of it have already been discussed in a workshop on Muslim popular cultures and sites at Heidelberg in 2010 and will be further linked to a series of visual essays that evolved from stipends awarded by this project to scholars in India and Pakistan in 2010 and that will be published soon. The material collected, including interviews and excerpts from commercial videos is woven into this web-based atlas of shrines. We hope that it opens up new approaches of studying popular culture, as both mobile and rooted, as local and transcultural, as religious and much more.