Sufi Shrines and Built Environments in Visual Culture:
The Significance of Historical Resonances in Present-Day Flows

Sandria B. Freitag


Sufi shrines provide a unique entry point for exploring the implications of changes over time in popular visual-culture artifacts and believers’ practices while interacting with these artifacts. Not least, the shrines serve as locations centered by genealogical orderings, an important characteristic for theorizing about their functions that we explore in the next section of this essay. Further, the inclusiveness that is a trademark of South Asian Sufism in general, and saints’ shrines in particular, opens up a popular space inviting in a wide range of participants engaging in action (that we’ll come to call “performative” productivity) to shape meanings – another important aspect for theorizing, discussed below. Synchronicity in these interactions of performative productivity, in turn, keeps genealogical knowledge current and relevant, while also enabling ambiguity and negotiation to cope with change and challenge.

 Consequently, the shrines allow us to look through and beyond the immediate spaces occupied by these specific built environments and their popular visual-culture representations, to their broader, meaning-laden place in South Asian everyday life. As a historian surrounded by ethnographers and other scholars interested in contemporary developments emerging at the shrines, my purpose here may be to remind all of us that current phenomena do, in fact, resonate in part because they participate in a very long series of precedents. Indeed, even the transnational flows that served as the focal point of the Heidelberg workshop “Changing Popular Visual Cultures of Muslim Shrines: Transcultural Flows and Urban Spaces” (2010) are also part of a long-lived tradition, as both the appeal of particular shrines and their renown have moved into, within, and out from India since Sufis first arrived in South Asia in the 12th/13th centuries (in flows that brought these Sufis from the Middle East and beyond). Certainly from the time dargah complexes were established around sufi saints’ tombs in the 14th century (in a movement that encompassed not only India but also the graves of holy men in North Africa, Central Asia, and Iran). These sites and their material mementos have served as both stationary and mobile points in a much larger universe. If the scale and, sometimes, the directions of these flows have altered over time, the impulses and sense of authority infusing the flows provide important continuities.

It is to examine the resonances of these precedents, particularly in terms of the interplay between, on the one hand, past expectations and experiences and, on the other hand, contemporary developments, that is the purpose of this historically focused essay. Let us begin by looking at helpful theorizing that contributes to the framing of this topic.

Theorising a framework

Fig. 02

Fig. 01

Central to our understanding is an emphasis on the reception of these images, rather than production and the intent or meanings issuing from the producers and artists involved. A number of theorists of popular visual culture provide us with helpful explorations of the role played by identity-formation in this reception, which we will take as given, here.1 Beyond that basic level of understandings of reception, there is an immensely significant frame provided by what Christopher Pinney has called “performative productivity” in a series of essays located within a body of theory that has grown up around the movement for an 'anthropology of art'.2 This movement focuses on the premise that art is not about meaning and communication but about doing– that is, this theoretical frame deliberately moves away from the emphasis on linguistic analogies and towards scrutiny of the 'acts' committed through visual culture, or – to put it a bit differently – an insistence on a study of materiality that resists the “linguistic turn.”3

Fig. 03

Although Pinney himself has developed this concept in several directions,4 it is, first, his understanding that “(i)nstead of exegesis, instead of an outpouring of language – there is a poetics of materiality and corporeality around the images”5, and, second, his emphasis on action – performative productivity – that are most helpful for us: consumption and viewing function as aspects of performance in a dialogic and fundamentally material interaction with the objects themselves. Not least in expressions of this performativity, with evidence from the early 20th century, are the simple acts of bringing home (and perhaps framing) a print like this one of Nagore Sharif from the 1910s (figure 01), or collecting either postcard representations of shrines (Ajmer: figure 02) or Manchester textile labels of similar buildings, such as the Taj (figure 03). (In the next section we will examine more closely how these acts, such as ‘bringing home’ or ‘collecting’, are significant for our purposes.)

We might note that this theorizing, in the South Asian context, has been somewhat fraught, as most analysts have fallen back on Hindu cosmology to explicate the meanings6 embedded in these corporeal interactions with the materiality of posters and other prints. Yet many of the images produced by early poster companies were not of Hindu subject matter, so that our understanding of what is meant by corporeal interactions must be situated within a broader imaginaire and set of dynamics. Here, for instance, we have other important built environments represented in early posters (from the 1910s and 1920s) for consumption/viewing (e.g., framing/hanging and collecting, which often also meant displaying in albums) including Bhargava’s very geometric images of Medina (fig 04) and Karbala (fig 05), along with the Ravi Varma Studio’s Mecca (fig 06), apparently useful also as a pilgrim’s guide, since each structure is labeled in red-inked Urdu.

Fig. 04

Fig. 05

Fig. 06

If we take these six early images as constituting something of a universe, they help us see several different kinds of flows, all of which indicate the extent and scale of the ways in which popular visual culture has long been affected and, in turn, has itself affected such flows (as this is very much a multi-directional set of phenomena). Nagore Sharif (near Madras) in Figure 1, is always taken as emblematic of sufi inclusiveness: along with styles of processions similar to those of nearby Tamil Hindu temples, the inclusivity is attested in this print by the featuring of the flags (one flagpole is sponsored by Hindu merchants and known as the “Chettiar” one, while one is sponsored by Singapore-based, Tamil-speaking Muslims). The five minarets and the clock tower (a common sign of British influence7) are the other distinguishing features by which Nagore Sharif is known. Figure 2’s postcard of Ajmer is one of a range of postcards of significant shrines that were purchased and mailed by Europeans, and more often purchased and collected by Indians. (See also the image in footnote 16 of Baghdad Sharif, which shows an oft-repeated gesture to Sheikh Adul al-Qadar Gilani, usually viewed as founder of the earliest Sufi order (the Qadiriyya) – see Figure 8 – thus emphasizing the world-wide network of flow that is Sufism.) Taken together, the subjects of this range of postcards also create a shared universe of Sufism knitted together by flows embodied visually (suggesting the physical experience when present at the shrine). Figure 3 is a textile label produced by British manufacturers in the latter part of the 19th century to “naturalize” their foreign textiles through visual repetitions of Indian-built environments; these proved attractive enough that South Asian consumers would collect the labels.8 When local entrepreneurs took over this market of print capitalism’s collectables, they (in this case, Ravi Varma’s printing press and Hem Chander Bhargava’s press in Delhi9) appealed to what I have called the “Muslim niche market” through the picturing of other buildings made significant by their places in the larger flows of people, ideas, values and goods, as we see in Figures 3 through 6.

We return to the cautions about theorizing that leads to Hindu cosmology, and the resulting need for a more inclusive approach. This need for theorizing has been met, in part, in quite a sophisticated and interesting way by C.A. Bayly’s Empire and Information, where he distinguishes among four “idioms” of knowledge that served as a basis for understanding the kinds of information collected by pre-British rulers. Note that these ‘idioms’ compose a typology that works, as he details with specifics, for rulers regardless of whether their legitimizing ideologies drew on Hindu, Indo-Persian, and/or other cosmologies – it is this kind of approach that I argue we need, more generally.+ These four were a “purely empirical idiom”; an idiom of “spiritual anthropology”; one of “moral ecology” and “one of genealogy”10 Most important for our purposes is this last, “which held that families as well as races [and, we would add, spiritual silsilahs] could embody innate qualities, whether it was the charisma of the Prophet, still vital among the Sayyids, or the light of Godly rule nurtured even among the most distant descendants of Timur” (p. 25). Indeed, argues Bayly, “the elite was more deeply concerned with breeding and gentility (‘class’ here is anachronistic) than it was with religion and caste” (p. 26). 

Building on Bayly’s typology, William Glover enables us to see the connections between built environments and these forms of knowledge, especially the “genealogical” idiom.11 We will return to this point in a later section. First, however, we need to explore the historical development, over the 20th century, of the treatment of Sufis and their shrines in popular visual culture in order to understand the underlying contextual expectations and resulting patterns of change and continuity in these cultural flows.

Sufis and Popular Visual Culture

How shrines function in South Asian popular culture keeps our attention focused on genealogy and its relationship to material embodiments, especially the images that represent both the saints and their shrines. Authority conveyed through genealogical links from generation to generation not only ties a contemporary believer back through the revered master’s disciples to the founding shaykh or pir, and en route through the disciples of those disciples. Ideology also ties back further yet by linking each of these spiritual lineages (the silsilahs or brotherhoods including Chishti, Suhrawardi, Qadiri, Firdausi, Qubrawi, Shattari and Naqshbandi) to the Prophet, his family, and/or close followers in the first generations. Generally when these linkages are discussed, it is the flow of authority and power that is the focus. Here, given our emphasis on reception, we are especially interested in the implications of this inheritance-flow for how believers can interact with representations of these silsilahs and their founders. The updating through collage composition of these images, such as this one for Data Ganj Baksh and his complex, shows the flexibility of the images to cope with changing contexts and expectations.12

Fig. 0713

Images of individual sufi saints are ubiquitous, and as noted by many scholars are most often taken home to serve either as souvenirs from a visit to the saint’s dargah,14 or purchased from a roadside vendor to mark a holiday such as New Year’s. In either case, as Frembgen has pointed out, the poster serves as more than a memory-prompt once it is in the home; it also serves as a metaphorical presence of the saint himself.15 Indeed, Caron argues that the very name used for this persona of the sufi in figure 07 – Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh Sahib, rather than ‘Ali Ibn ‘Uthman Hujwiri, as he is known to scholars, alludes to “the continuing presence of the ‘Blessed Giver of Treasure’, who “continues to provide intercession” (p. 9).

This presence reminds us, then, of the synchronicity at work in these interactions between image and viewer, in the performance-productivity prompted when a poster of the saint is ‘brought home’ and involved in continuing interactions of consumption/ viewing. Our efforts to capture the essence of these interactions returns us to Bayly’s understanding of the genealogical as suggesting worth, emerging from a past that is ‘embodied’ so as to be present at the moment in which an interaction takes place. Indeed, this embodiment of genealogical space works in several different ways simultaneously. There is, as suggested by Frembgen, a “continuing presence” inviting interaction and the resulting meaning-making that inheres in the image each time the viewer/ consumer connects with it. That connection may be around the actual subject matter of the print, but it may also emerge from memories of the acquisition of the print, be that as a souvenir from a visit to the shrine, or even just a purchase from a shop or seller on a byway where such pictures are sold. In this case, the time/embodied context of acquisition collapses into the time/embodiment of the saint, and both meet with the time/embodiment of immediate interaction then taking place.

Easily the most striking feature of 20th century popular visual-culture images of the saints is not their ‘portraits’ per se, but the pairing of those portraits with the buildings or, more commonly the complexes (hence my use of “built environment” to refer to the whole of these complexes) that house the dargah, khanqah, mosque and other appurtenances that have grown up around the saint’s tomb. Indeed, it appears that this pairing of portrait and building in prints is virtually unique to the subcontinent.16 Caron, who called attention to this unique feature in 2004, went on to speculate that this distinction may relate to the extent to which these - what I call ‘Muslim niche’ market - images draw more on a “shared heritage of poster-art vocabulary” with Indian (Hindu) popular visual-culture practices, than they do with images from other areas of the Muslim world. With the passage of time, it is becoming possible to test this hypothesis, as the Pakistan poster market diverges in interesting ways from that of India.17

Fig. 08

Perhaps the most telling of these paired images is this Brijbasi poster, figure 08.18 Here, the repetitive pairing of portrait and tomb, accompanied by careful annotations so that viewers are able to identify each, represents a unique kind of picturing19 from which many points could be drawn. For our purposes, we will concentrate on the way in which these built environments come to serve as extensions of the personalities of the specific saints themselves, but do much more as the associations of personality and place across these six Chishti shrine complexes would be absorbed.

The range of the shrine-based world represented in Figure 8 is significant for the larger, Sufi- but also more general shrine-based universe. From bottom left they are: Baba Farid [Pakpattan in Pakistan]; Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki [Mehrauli, outside Delhi]; Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, also known as Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz [Ajmer Sharif]; Hazrat Ghaus-e Azam, also known as Sheikh Abd al-Qadar Gilani [Baghdad: usually seen as founder of the earliest Sufi order, the Qadiriyya]; Hazrat Bu Ali Sharaf [Panipat in Haryana, India]; and Hazrat Nizammudin Aulia [Nizamuddin Sharif in Delhi]. The specific nature of the links that would lead to combining these six is not completely clear, but among these are silsilah links that lead from Ajmer to Mehrauli to Pakpattan (the most famous shrine in Pakistan) to Nizamuddin/ Delhi. Certainly, the overall image addresses the ability of Sufi sheikhs to speak across boundaries, to represent flows of believers and those who wish to study under particular scholar-specialists that have marked the Sufi and Muslim (in their period, the Islamicate) world since the 12th century and down to the present.20

We should not lose sight of the fact that, among other resonances, these representations of Sufi presence are connected to very specific places in a specific locality. In this function they differ from the larger “general market” images of gods and goddesses, who – though sometimes associated with specific locales -- can nevertheless be moved into any number of place/contexts. The meanings associated with these saints and their built environments, then, are very specific; their power and efficacy, as well as their teachings, often are quite specialized. One Sufi saint may be known for his power in dealing with child-bearing, another with mental disturbances. Such efficacy is associated as well with the saint’s dargah, and thus with its visual representations. Believers bring those understandings to the interactions they have with the images, and this aspect, too, makes the ‘produced meaning’ specific and distinctive. With these points we also ought to state the obvious: those who seek out these saintly interventions come from different religious backgrounds, as the efficacy is recognized across ostensible religious (e.g. Hindu and Muslim) boundaries, and through class/caste distinctions.

We might note one further point in connection with this image before moving on: the very combination of such images – here and later in a “stacked” image of four shrines – has the capacity to move the interactions from those connected to an individual saint (and the believer’s relationship with him) to something more about Sufism generally. Indeed, it may be that these images functioned as a defense of popular Sufism, against the attacks of reformers/fundamentalists. In the course of this defense, the combined images (whether stacked or collaged) also underscore the networks and flows that connect the saints across national boundaries as much as across time. 

Fig. 09

The continuous consumption of these images that pair ‘portrait’ and built environment over more than a century has made South Asian viewers21 highly literate in the associations clustered around each of these saints and his tomb complex. From these pairings, then, it becomes a small jump to representations only of the shrines themselves (as noted, a practice distinctive to the subcontinent). These very localized representations from Lucknow show how this works.22 In figure 09, we can see separate images, respectively, of Waris Ali Shah and his mausoleum, offered for sale in Barabanki. (Some of these are even linked via their ‘framing’ device, in an accordion-style series that could fold to be stored.) In figure 10 we see two images offered separately for sale in figure 9, now combined within balanced, paired ovals as though each represents a portrait (the oval convention in use for photographed portraits in albums and on cartes de visite had rendered this format quite familiar by this time23)

Fig. 10

The image in the right-hand oval of figure 10, then, also shows us how the shrines come to be closely connected with a particular saint, until they can stand in for him; this enables the shrine and its representative images not only to convey the special sanctity and power that the saint himself possessed, but also all that is accomplished in the built environment of his dargah complex (usually encompassing not only the tomb of the saint, but other tombs of disciples, khanqah to feed pilgrims, mosque, etc.). Bringing home an image of the shrine itself, as in the bottom half of figure 9, just to the right of center, can make as much sense for the purposes of interaction and performative productivity as bringing home an image of the saint.

Fig. 11

Indeed, there well may be special efficacy in an image that combines the two. The quite different style of combining the images demonstrated in figure 11 is a Brijbasi-style image,24 and thus is sold more broadly across north India, making that style more familiar and accessible to a broad range of consumers. It is no doubt significant that, therefore, it is also displayed to potential consumers within a broad field of sufi saint/shrine combination posters rather than those devoted to a particular locality. Thus, this latter combination is more stylistically consistent with the images generally seen in dispersed markets.

Fig. 12

The possibility of additional efficacy through the combination of images within one poster-print, helps to explain Brijbasi’s propensity to combine a number of shrines together, so that consumers may ‘bring home’ several shrines, rather than just one, to install on the wall in no more space, and at no more cost, than would be required for one print.25 Viewers may see additional power in this combination. See, for instance, Brijbasi’s “4 in 1” image in figure 12: (interestingly, these are not the same representations of the built environments that are used in figure 8) clockwise from top left these are Ajmer Sharif; Baghdad Sharif; [Piran] Kaliyar Sharif (near Hardwar in north India); and Nizamuddin Sharif.

Given the South Asian distinctiveness of this practice of featuring the built environment by itself in many of these posters, we may well ask why the shrines figure so heavily, and have done so for several decades, despite rather dramatic changes in the context within which consumers/ viewers “read” meaning into these posters.

Space, Time, and Meaning from Performative Interactions with Visual Artifacts

As the Lucknow images suggest, an important function performed by these representations of a built environment is the evocation of place, that is, historically contingent and specific locations of space. The ability to situate a viewer in a locale, even when s/he is actually standing at some remove from that place, is a powerful attribute made possible by the synchronicity of an image that we have already noted. This power, however, is intensified and complicated by a related capacity to situate such a built environment in other contexts simultaneously. The first temporal context, or situatedness, is, of course, the time of the saint himself, combined with his location in the place where his shrine comes to be built. Another context, as suggested by our earlier recognition of the power of genealogical link to originary times, is that represented by the reach back in time by the saint to the time and places of the Prophet, i.e., Mecca and Medina.26 Still another connects the particular shrine pictured to the larger network of shrines in the same silsilah, such as that of the Chishtis – this power and contextualization is definitely part of the appeal for figures 8 and 12. Further, there is the more general located-ness conveyed by the perhaps-uniquely South Asian practice of picturing these shrines on their own (i.e. without the figure of the saint).

Taken altogether, these invocations of locality as a base for broader located-ness may provide us with the broadest possible understanding of ‘flows’ that obtains: the images bring us to understand a simultaneous process by which viewers, acting on their synchronous situated-ness, are at once in their homes and within personal identities while also constituting members of a larger world linked through basic understandings and values. Beyond the functions of identity-formation and bonding that result, this process helps legitimize the changes in ‘flows’(that are marked by outside observers and the focus of this conference), even while providing for those changes a sense that they are continuities of larger value systems. For this reason, then, we return to what may be the most significant context from which meaning is drawn, that of the multiple readings of a built environment, such as those suggested by William Glover.

Valuable insights emerge if we apply to this study of popular representations of the built environments of shrines, aspects of Glover’s analysis of the new urban space that Lahore became over the second half of the 19th century. To make these most revealing, we will examine these analytical arguments through scrutiny of other posters in which buildings are featured, especially prints representing the buraq and duldul, Husain’s horse27. Both of these subjects are portrayed in posters because of their close relationship to the observance of Muharram story: in both cases, this association with Muharram has been developed in the subcontinent as nowhere else.28 They also, often, are printed as paired posters: they each retain their separate standing, but the posters themselves may be combined in a stacked poster that includes the two, separate, images. We should also note here that Muharram observances are usually treated as a statement about Indian Islam in general, not about Shi’as in particular.29

Most fundamental of Glover’s insights is that the various ways viewers had of imagining these built environments and the meanings imputed to them served as “confirmation of abstract principles in the shape of its visible features” (pp. 197-98). Viewed over time, some of these meanings are complementary; some developed serially as new experiences introduced new ways of imagining; some even, apparently, are contradictory. The interactions viewers had with these images, then, not only produced new sets of meanings accruing to the image itself with each viewing (a key point made by the anthropologists of art), but they also enabled opportunities to adjust the “abstract principles” linked to the images, infusing these new meanings into the visible features. We have seen shrine images that suggest how this would have worked; let us compare here several images of the buraq, to see how that would have worked.30 

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

Comparing figure 13 and figure 14 from the 1910s/1930s, we can see that the ground over which buraq is flying becomes increasingly significant in the story that is being told; or we might say (using Glover’s terminology) that that landscape comes to be infused with much more meaning as the process of confirming abstract principles in the shape of its visible features begins to shape closely the posters that are being mass-produced and –consumed. Even so, the only built structures of significance, here, are the tomb of Husain (constructed on the Karbala site)31 and (in Figure 14, across the water – probably the Euphrates river – from Karbala) Egyptian pyramids. These pyramids (often included) and the accompanying palm trees occupy a generic Middle East space, with no special Islamic markers on that side of the river.32 A third image dating from this same period (or, perhaps the 1940s) calls to our attention a very different ground.


Fig. 15

In figure 15, the ground is entirely related to the Prophet, with built environments drawn from both Mecca and Medina, along with the Prophet’s flag. Certainly this version of the buraq is meant to remind viewers of its role in the Prophet’s narrative. All three of these images also include indicators (moon, stars) that the buraq is traveling on the night journey.

The contrast of these early-20th century images with ones produced almost a century later, is telling, and can be linked to Glover’s second insight, that these perspectives on space that come to inhere in the images of a built environment, and inform the understandings of abstract principles, are not something that come about naturally, nor are they simple reflections of ‘reality’. Instead, these perspectives “had to be taught and learned, shaped to accommodate specific Indian contexts” – an especially important point when some of that learning attached to concepts or values or even iconic styles that flowed from outside the subcontinent – and “made able to demonstrate [their] relevance among, and in relation to, to other traditions of thinking about [the represented space] (p. 198).” Some of that “shaping” is revealed in the next two images.

Fig. 16

In figures 16 (a Brijbasi print – based in Bombay and/or Mathura, from the 1990s) and 17 (a J. B. Khanna print based in South India, from the early 2000s),33 we can see this “shaping” in action, especially through the inclusion of the Taj Mahal in both, and the change in the buraq’s wings to reflect the colors of the Indian flag. Fig 15 includes a number of other interesting buildings which, at least impressionistically (and here I defer to Yousuf Saeed’s speculations) suggest (on the far right) the Shah Rukh-e-Alam Shrine in Multan and Uchch sharif in Pakistan, while the building below the buraq’s breast looks more Himalayan: a way, perhaps, to suggest at least the subcontinent-wide if not universal applicability of  this story around the buraq.

Fig. 17

This very significant altered built environment over which the buraq flies, then, marks profound changes from the early images, not least in the insistence of the Indian context in which these Muslim viewers live (and, by implication, the centrality of their understandings in the universal system that is Islam). One wonders, in fact, if this insistence may not have been an early response to the flows that began creating closer relationships with other Muslims systems of understanding in the Gulf and elsewhere, some of which were involved in the disparagement of shrine reverence (and thus would constitute a resistance to that).

Figure 17, by contrast, employs both a peacock tail (so often a symbol of India) and a different convention to invoke a South Asian locale – this convention places the buraq’s feet virtually on a foreground landscape that, in other prints (most noticeably those of duldul), implies an Indian location (see figure 18, below) separated by water from the Middle East background, with the Taj internationalized as a Mughal symbol.

Fig. 18

Fig. 19

Fig. 20

Figures 18-20 tell us more about shaping for specific South Asian meanings and contexts that change over time. In terms of the place of Muslims in India, as this is understood both by those located in South Asia and by those who have had an opportunity to be exposed to Muslim-majority countries in recent decades, duldul is an especially revealing image. In figure 18, the single figure sufficed in the early 20th century to stand in for Husain’s claims to leadership (see the warrior’s shield along with a fairly royal caparison) as well as his martyrdom (see right foreleg with arrow). By the later 20th century, it took two figures to convey these now-separated meanings. In figure 19, the royal umbrella (and Shi’i hand [panjatan], though it did not only convey meaning for Shi’a Muslims in India) made this image address leadership, while in figure 20 (here called zuljana), many more bloodied arrows and wounds emphasize martyrdom. The separation of the two meanings is, again, historically contingent, as the “martyrdom” of Muslims becomes a dominant motif, beginning with the Khilafat movement (early 1920s) and extending to various built environments such as the mosque in Kanpur, which was altered by the British in 1913.

From these specific, pre-independence causes, the treatment of Muslims since independence (in part by the state, through legislation as well as police actions, and in part by the populace, such as the destruction of the Ayodhya’s Babri mosque and the Gujarat riots) have kept the theme of martyrdom alive and relevant. Another interesting difference between early and late 20th century images is the invocation of space. In the early poster, duldul is located in a military base camp, separated by the river from pyramids, palm trees and Husain’s tomb – truly, a synchronous rendition of time, since Husain’s tomb could not have been built when duldul returned to the camp. In the later ‘royal’ duldul, he stands in a foreground that can be read as Indian, separated by water from buildings all representing Karbala’s tombs. In Figure 20, the darkness of war and martyrdom are conveyed not only by the colors of the background but by the buildings that bring us back to a base camp (on the right) and the tombs built after the battle on the left.

In the context of martyrdom of minority Muslims in India, it is useful to compare two recent images related to Muharram collected in Pakistan in 2007, which both show the “shaping” process still at work, and the implications of new flows and influences:

Fig. 21

Figure 21 appears to be an insistence on layering, on top of the Indian Muharram association (attested by the presence of duldul), the original story for the buraq by referring back to the Prophet-related context, for it is pictured with the Dome of the Rock, from which buraq and the Prophet ascended to heaven. The importance of the Prophet is further insisted upon with the addition of the ka’aba of Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque of Medina. Figure 22 reflects another kind of influence or flow entirely, as we see a major shift in imagery, in the Iranian-style picture of Husain and other humans associated with the Muharram story, augmenting the duldul stand-in.34 

Fig. 22

A third valuable insight provided by Glover is that earlier meanings attached to the built environment, especially those related to genealogical understandings of values and how the world works, continue as submerged but nevertheless powerful ways to understand the world. He demonstrates for us, through a literary study of three works written about Lahore, how new ‘modern’ understandings of built environments must constantly negotiate with older, genealogical ways of reckoning significance and meaning. One suspects that this negotiation process, or even the tensions involved in moving amongst these various understandings, are even more pronounced with respect to popular visual culture in general, and the poster market from shrines in particular. In a city like Lahore, those monuments and similar buildings that continued to carry old resonances with their place in the cityscape nevertheless became surrounded and overbalanced by new and ‘modern’ architectural and spatial understandings. Around the shrine complexes, and certainly around their poster images which continue to be pictured as pristine and uncluttered by competing elements in the built environment, by contrast, many of the old associations continue to hold up. As Yousuf Saeed shows us in his paper (this volume), the very shrine complexes themselves are subject to change and ‘modern’ understandings of space. But continuing, as well, are these older understandings of space that inhere in these built environments. My argument would be that this can be attributed, at least in part, to the constant shift to synchronous time in viewers’ perceptions.

This process of negotiation that becomes required of viewers in these complex circumstances, where they must negotiate between the “genealogical knowledge” idiom and the “modern” one, is also a long-lived one. However new the circumstances may be in our contemporary case studies, the process of reconciling two or more perspectives on a sacred space has been a recurring (if not continuing) one. We can see an earlier version of this process in relation to shrine space, in a recent study by David Lelyveld that draws upon Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s dreams.35 This pre-eminently modernist figure in the history of British India, rather late in his life. recorded the dreams he had had as a boy and young man. They reveal a man still steeped deeply in understandings of space that were ordered by genealogical knowledge, with hierarchical characterizations of both space and persons based on the values they were presumed to possess. Much of the social positioning he hoped to convey for himself through retailing his dreams, for instance, stemmed from the maternal branch of his family’s relationship with two Sufis and their shrines located in the Delhi neighborhood in which they all resided. The significance of these places eclipsed the status and resulting significance he attributed to the connections to the Mughal court enjoyed by his father and grandfather, and even (given his own efforts throughout his life) the connections to British administrators his grandfather could demonstrate.36 Although Sayyid Ahmad Khan introduced science into Urdu and established a college for Muslims intended to prepare them for a modern world, yet he still thought about space in these very hierarchical/genealogical terms. Indeed, just as today – in the face of UNESCO’s “Heritage” designations drawing on very modern conceptualizations of what space/built environments deserve preservation – older forms of knowledge convey significance and authority to the built environment of the saints, and still circulate in their images.

We might think through this point by returning to Figure 7, that of Dada Ganj Baksh’s shrine in Lahore, pictured in this 2007 poster from Pakistan. In this poster, the saint is posed opposite Muin-ud-din Chishti, with each occupying one of the two lower corners, to bracket a representation of the shrine that includes both the older space of the tomb, and the new part of the complex constructed over the last decade.37 The saints’ poses and accessories differ, enabling the figures to fit better with the older and newer parts of the shrine complex, respectively. It does not become such a stretch to see the poster itself as a form of negotiation. 


Perhaps the best indication of this ongoing process is captured in this “9 in 1” combination print from Brijbasi (figure 23). The flows captured in this print suggest the process by which viewers’ actions, through their performative productivity, construct meaning related to images, and thus are called on to negotiate very different idioms.38

Fig. 23

In making these negotiations, viewers bring to “9 in 1” many understandings that can vary among them. As they interact with the image and create new meaning to inhere in the image, the very array and even ambiguity of such a complex combination allows for differing meanings at any given time, and even more over time. Moreover, where certain understandings may seem most obvious for one of these squares when it existed as a single image on its own, this juxtaposition suggests new kinds of possible meanings.

Invocations of the buildings that are the shrines occupy a shared conceptual space with duldul, the buraq, and representations of Mecca and Medina, respectively. Figure 23 thus helps us see a number of flows and influences and the ways in which those are both implicitly and (here) explicitly made to cohere to form an overall, perhaps composite whole of understandings and values. That is, the representations of the ka’aba in Mecca, for instance, owe much to the development over the last couple of decades of images rendering this space in resolutely hard-edged photography (with and without the thick crowds of believers, circumambulating, here reflected in the central block as well as the top right one). This hard-edged, photographic approach appears quite consistent with the fundamentalism emerging from Saudi Arabia and seems to have a real effect on the way Mecca is now represented. For instance, while in this composite 9-in-1 Brijbasi has opted to render these pictures of the ka’aba in the same, painted style as the shrine images for visual consistency, they nevertheless now betray the strong influence of the hard-edged style of photographic representations seen so much more often.

A very different set of resonances is set up in the square representing Medina and the Prophet’s mosque: a long tradition of imagery putting the dome and minaret together with these accompanying decorative elements, each with its own gloss, makes this an expected image, with a wealth of meaning attached. This range of imagery draws on the movement, strong in South Asia for some decades now, to place an emphasis on the Prophet as exemplar, urging believers to replicate the behavior of those original Muslims. In all likelihood this reflects two influences: first, the emphasis by reformism (and now, fundamentalism) on the key locales in Islam’s story, so that Mecca and Medina provide visual prompts for this importance of the Prophet as exemplar. This emphasis on the Prophet is, as noted earlier, non-geneological in its focus and represents a different emphasis that viewers try to reconcile even if it has been intended to contest the reverence viewers accord to the shrines and their images. Second (and possibly quite distinct from the fundamentalist understanding, and thus serving here as a form of negotiation instead) Mecca and Medina are the two locales shared by all Muslims, whatever differences they may have in how they understand Islam’s story. This invocation of originary times, then, brings a different valence to the juxtaposition than do the shrines, the Muharram-related images, or the ka’aba, respectively.

Each square, that is, has arrived at this point of “9 in 1” with a related but distinctive lineage of meanings, all created by some combination of flows, within the subcontinent and linking the subcontinent to movements and concerns elsewhere. Some of these underscore the very South Asian-ness of the usages (especially the buraq and duldul); others reach outward from the South Asian-distinctive representations of the shrines without their saints, to the larger world of sufi networks and place of Sufism in a believer’s life in general. And all operate within an Islamic world invoking the shared basics represented by Mecca and Medina (e.g., profession of faith and revelation, along with qaum and related understandings of a community of faith).

These composite understandings, all brought to the meaning-making that emerges when viewers interact with images, have many sources, over time and place. Yet the sheer repetitiveness and ubiquity of these kinds of prints contributed significantly to the “teaching and learning” process, more so as small details changed and the central figures remained the same. (And though we have called out important changes that reflect changes in historical context, such as the nationalist movement and independence/ partition, these small details were often prompted not so much by real changes in the sources or impulses of the flows, as by the built-in impulse to constantly produce something “new” for consumers/viewers to buy or acquire for the home walls – this was a central characteristic of the poster market in general.) Having a century’s worth of these primary source materials thus enables us to track the changes and continuities in these meanings so that we may better understand the flows taking place in our own time.

1. For a short discussion of these theorists’ contributions, see Freitag, “Consumption and Identity…”, .

2. This theoretical approach began with the work of Alfred Gell, in his posthumously published Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998).  Since Gell had no time to reconsider or revise this seminal work, perhaps most useful for our purposes is the essay collection by his colleagues, Beyond Aesthetics:  Art and the Technologies of Enchantment (edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Thomas (Oxford:  Berg, 2001) For other approaches that seem less apt to our purposes – not least for identifying these processes as something new – see, for instance, Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (U Minn, 1996).

3. First point is taken from Thomas’ introduction in Beyond Aesthetics,  p. 4.  See also, for instance, Pinney’s protest essay “Things Happen:  Or, From Which Moment Does That Object Come,” in Miller (ed), Materiality (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2005):  this collection includes provocative disagreements between Pinney and Miller.

4. “Introduction” in Dwyer and Pinney (eds), Pleasure and the Nation… (New Delhi, Oxford Univ Press, 2001), p. 21.

5. Pinney, “Piercing the skin” (his article in Beyond Aesthetics) p. 169.

6. E.g., Pinney Op Cit, along with Kajri Jain (2007) or Arvind Rajagopal (“The Commodity Image…”, ).

7. The British introduced new conceptualizations of time by putting all of India on the same time zone, which was designated – after much dispute – as 30 minutes different from surrounding countries. They also facilitated the introduction in industry of time cards, factory shifts and related ways of dealing with time – all of which depended on clocks, rather than lunar or solar phases. (For treatment of clock towers and the British, see e.g. Thomas Metcalf, An Imperial Vision [Berkeley: UC Press, 1989], p,80.) Thus the introduction of a clock tower was a marker of “modernity” and part of the larger flows of values and symbols embraced by the shrine complex. This provides another example, too, of the ways these flows – which emerged over prolonged periods of time – become collapsed in a synchronistic context for interactions with shrine and print.

8. For history of this label production, see image essays in Tasveer Ghar, by C. Asher, “Fantasizing the Mughals…” and S. Freitag, “Consumption and Identity…” .

9. For a short history of Bhargava’s, see Pinney’s ‘Photos of the Gods’…, pp. 74-78; for Ravi Varma, see Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, Popular Indian Art…(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003)

10. C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information…1780-1870, pp. 20-25. Of the first two idioms, we might note that Bayly sees in them evidence of an inclusiveness deemed essential by rulers who came out of a different cultural tradition: “Formal knowledge”, for instance, included such things as astronomical observations presented in a section preceding kingship, because the “regulation of festivals was a prime duty of kings” (p. 23). Similarly, for the second idiom, that of “spiritual anthropological” knowledge, many descriptive works emerged from a “search for dispassionate knowledge about human faith” as well as “the details of Indian folklore, arts and music.” This collection of information reflected, among other things, a political strategy by rulers who had a “growing dependence on the Hindu population” (pp. 23-24). Certainly these idioms related, as well, to the growing support by Indian Muslim rulers of Sufis and their emerging shrines.

11. William J. Glover, Making Lahore Modern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

12. This collage approach to poster composition is much more pronounced in Pakistan than in India, and may relate to the different place of the print-capitalist production in each country’s economy.

13. This image has an immensely interesting set of resonances to which we will return at the end of the essay. It was acquired in Pakistan in 2007, and contrasts rather dramatically with the posters of Dada Ganj Baksh reproduced in Caron’s article (both of which are dated to a Lahori publisher in the 1980s). The saint appears in many images, as in a pastiche of sufi saints still circulated today, exactly as the figure on the right (suggesting the same figure is cut and pasted). That this poster includes the addition of Muin ud Din Ajmeri conveys the connections of sufi complexes without regard to current political borders. See Jurgen Wasim Frembgen, The Friends of God: Sufi Saints in Islam; Popular Poster Art From Pakistan (Oxford: OUP, 2006) pp. 22-23 for a fuller discussion.

14. See, for instance, James Caron, “Three Posters: Negotiating Time/History and Community in Pakistanti Sufi-Oriented Lithograph Portraits” in the AIPS Newsletter, Fall 2004, vol. VIII, Issue 1, No. 13.

15. Frembgen, Jurgen, “Saints in modern devotional poster-portraits: Meanings and uses of popular religious art in Pakistan,” Res 34, Autumn 1998, p, 186: quoted in Caron, Ibid, p. 1.

16. Caron notes that “in Centlivres/Centlivres-Demont’s 1997 thematic collection of such art from many Arab countries as well as from South Asia (where many or most of the very major personalities in this sort of depiction are of Central Asian origin), it is striking that the posters of saints from Arab countries do not include the shrine, with one possible exception. Furthermore, a related genre, that which depicts only the dargah, is represented in the publication exclusively by Indian and Pakistan prints, excepting a poster of the Ka’aba from Syria” “The collection” refers to Pierre Centlivres & Micheline Centlivres-Demont, Imageries Populaires en Islam (Geneve: Georg, 1997).

17. See below, for instance, for the treatment of Muharram imagery and the buraq.

18. Brijbasi is a Mathura- and Mumbai-based poster firm that has been in business since the early 20th century. See Pinney, ‘Photos of the Gods’…, especially pp. 86-103, and Freitag’s discussion of Brijbasi’s middle generation’s experience (i.e., M. L. Garg) in “The realm of the visual…” in S Ramaswamy (ed), Beyond Appearances?... (Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003), especially pp. 384-88.

19. Here the various saints are brought together in a single, coherent image. Generally speaking, their separate images are simply stacked (see figures 12 and 23).

20. Long-standing interest in the image of Baghdad Sharif can be attested, as well, by a number of posters produced throughout the 20th century (see, e.g., Figure 12 here and an early 20th century image in the Priya Paul collection).

21. Consumers would be predominantly Sunni Muslims open to “customary”, rather than reformist, practices. As noted, however, the saints’ shrines do appeal to a very broad South Asian base, including Hindus and others.

22. For this fascinating documentation of popular visual culture in Lucknow, see Subah Dayal & Suzanne Schultz, “Outside the Imambara…” a Tasveer Ghar image essay ( (accessed on 4/12/2011).

23. It was often used for portraying the genealogical array of rulers for princely states, such as those in Udaipur and Jaipur; the Priya Paul collection also contains one for Mughal rulers and their wives.

24. Brijbasi is one of the largest poster-producing companies in India, based in north India, with distribution across the north and throughout western India as well. For its history back to the 1930s see especially Christopher Pinney, ‘Photos of the Gods’.

25. One observer has suggested that consumers would buy these prints in order to cut them apart to use individually. This is certainly possible, but there is a strong precedent for combinations used within the poster market more generally. The style of Figure 11 shows us a step beyond the “stacking” of separate blocks of images, as a decorative framing device or border works to unite the two images – and thus suggests that the intent is not to have the two parts cut apart.

26. The saints could, indeed, have literal genealogical links to high-status Shaykh or other families dating back to the circle around the Prophet. Alternatively, their link could be through their quest to know the creator through self-knowledge: Bruce Lawrence comments that the Prophet “is alleged to have linked self-knowledge to the highest knowledge, knowledge of the divine, when he declared, “Whosoever knows himself knows the Lord.” “Introduction: Dargahs, the Abodes of Peace” in Dargah…, edited by Mumtaz Currim & Geo Michell (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2003). While this supports the emphasis here on synchronous time, it is not truly genealogical. See Conclusion for more on the way this sufi understanding of the Prophet’s words helps to negotiate the tension between the emphasis on the Prophet and sufi shrines.

27. Duldul is also known as zuljana in Lucknow, Lahore and other places.

28. The buraq, elsewhere known for taking Muhammad to heaven, is often pictured in India as conveying taziahs – replicas of the martyrs’ tombs of – on its back. The earliest example I have found is a portion of a storyteller’s scroll in the India Office collection, from c. 1830. Duldul stands in for Husain who is not pictured. Consequently, duldul may be pictured bloodied, impaled by arrows (he is the only survivor of the Karbala battle in which Husain is killed), or with ‘royal’ accoutrements signifying good rule (see figures 18-20 and related discussion, below).

29. For an analysis of the complexities of that statement, see Freitag, Community and Collective Action (UC Press & Oxford Univ Press, 1989). We should also address the place of the buraq in South Asian visual culture. Many see her role as a reminder of the Prophet (see especially Figure 15); Mrs. Mir Hasan Ali may serve as a source of this explanation: “Duldul was the name of the Prophet’s mule which he gave to ‘Ali. It is often confounded with Buraq, the Assyrian-looking gryphon on which he alleged that he flew to Mecca [after flying from Mecca to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and from there to the 7th Heaven]” (Mussalmauns of India (Karachi: OUP, 1974, p. 37, footnote). Others argue the kinship is with the Kamadhenu, the ‘wish-fulfilling’ cow figure with female head and wings. For a fascinating discussion of Punjabi informants’ “gloss” on the fungibility of the buraq and kamadhenu, see Patricia Uberoi, “’Unity in Diversity?’…” in Sumathi Ramaswamy, Beyond Appearances?, pp 207-8, fn 23.

30. As must always be the case when talking about these popular visual-culture artifacts, we must take these as representative of their periods, without knowing how the entire universe of such images was constituted.

31. Construction of the present city of Karbala began almost immediately after the battle (680 CE), and elaborations of the initial tombs continued until these tombs were destroyed; they were replaced in 979 CE.

32. Markers of pre-Islamic Middle East still appear frequently, especially in the backgrounds of images relating to reformist women and “fat babies’.

33. Both printers distribute widely throughout the subcontinent: both have strong presences, for instance, in Delhi. The style, as demonstrated in these two images, tends to be distinctive between them.

34. I’m told that such images are also available in Lucknow, where they are displayed only in the inner rooms of a Shi’a household, not in the more public spaces that outsiders may visit. Some of these Lakhnawi images have been brought back from Iran, but there are enough of them to suggest a local purveyor, as well.

35. David Lelyveld, “Young Man Sayyid: Dreams and Biographical Texts” in Muslim Voices: Community and the Self in South Asia, Usha Sanyal, David Gilmartin and Sandria B. Freitag (eds), Yoda Press, forthcoming.

36. These reckonings of worth based on genealogical knowledge were also evinced by SAK in a book he prepared on Delhi architecture, Manifestations of the Noblemen, written in Urdu in 1846 when Sayyid Ahmad Khan was still young. Both Glover and Lelyveld draw on SAK’s depiction of the built environment, Glover noting that the organization of the book and terminology drew ona familiar idiom and historiographic tradition which “assumed that certain known families and individuals embodied innate moral and spiritual qualities and that these qualities could be invoked for a reader simply by reciting lines of descent. More importantly, perhaps, the qualities did not need to be specified: Listing the names was enough. … The codification of attitudes of esteem, deference, and reverence towards some social classes or types of behavior… were the codes that mattered in a social milieu where distinction devolved largely upon one’s personal or familial comportment and location in a nexus of hierarchical relationships.” (p.188).

37. Different explanations have emerged, for instance, for the flows that led to the new minaret, with some observers seeing a Saudi influence, and others noting a similarity to Ottoman architectural style. (The closest parallel seems to be the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, which was built with Saudi money, but which does have an Ottoman / Turkish style to it.)

38. Pictured here are Ajmer Sharif and Nizamuddin Sharif, but also Jerusalem’s “Betal Muqaddash” (as the 1996 catalog describes it), the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, and the Qu’ran with Medina behind it, along with the royal duldul and the buraq flying over South Asian landmark buildings (see Figure 16). While much of Brijbasi’s motivation for this combination to sell more prints may be commercial, the flows suggested by the combination point up much more.