ar from the madding crowds of Chawri Bazar, in a tiny 8X8 room hidden in one of the many lanes of old Delhi, sits katib Abdul Rahman. Inside its packed confines, he tells a tale, both story and history rolled into one. A man well into his 60s, he has been a katib (Persian word for scribe), crafting Urdu and Arabic calligraphy for over 30 years. "I learnt the art at the Ghalib Academy in Nizamuddin; it took me four years to learn it. We used to do extensive work for posters and books. Now, with the widespread use of computers, our demand has considerably dwindled," he says.
The story of Rahman, and the few katibs in and around old Delhi, is intricately bound to the history and current relevance of Muslim devotional art in India. Though imagery (especially facial depiction) and anthropomorphism of any kind is not allowed in Islam, there continues a thriving tradition of poster art in India that constitutes a significant aspect of Muslim piety. Common elements found in Muslim devotional art constitute images of the Kaaba, the holy mosques of Mecca, and the Prophet's mosque at Medina, dargahs, Sufi saints, verses from the Quran and the Prophet's name in ornate calligraphy along with exquisite floral designs.
"Muslim religious art in India does not have aspects that could take a political character while Hindu religious art is more vocally political. Interestingly, Pakistan has a more vibrant tradition of Muslim poster art than India. The Hindu publishers here tend to play safe," says independent filmmaker and researcher Yousuf Saeed, who has recently brought out Muslim Devotional Art in India with Routledge.
Though the origin of the earliest images is impossible to locate, it is widely believed that a lot of the reference material was derived from literary and illustrated works from Central Asia, travelogues, prayer mats and oral traditions
Publishers who've been in the industry for decades vouch for the fact that they operate within a set paradigm of what they deem as safe. "We are very careful to not print anything that is objectionable. We keep checking with the maulvis and people who follow Persian and Arabic," says M.L. Garg, MD of Brijbasi Publishers, which has been in the business for over 90 years.
Initially based out of Mathura and Karachi and now operational in Noida, the publishing house has commissioned and produced various posters over the years that have been both widely accepted and rejected by Muslims in the country. "A lot of these posters are used in shops owned by Muslims who believe that it would bring them prosperity and good luck. We used to buy designs from artists that cost us an average of Rs 5,000-6000. Most of these posters were made in the '60s. But everything is now computer generated. We also have a few of the original designs made by artists that we reproduce," explains Garg.
His company has been fashioning religious posters for all communities – Sindhis, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, highlighting the dynamism within the industry. "What we should remember is that a lot of these artists were non-Muslims, while Muslim artists also drew figures from Hindu mythology (for posters for Hindu devotees)," he adds.
The collapsing demand for original work has badly damaged if not destroyed a breed of artists whose is not only exquisite, but represents an important element of the history of popular art in India. "I set up my studio in 1949 right after partition. I used to have people making very specific demands and requesting images. Now, nobody wants such work," says 82-year-old Rasheed Chowdhary, owner of India Art Studio in Urdu Bazar, near Jama Masjid.
In their heyday, artists used to churn out images of child and women praying, beautifully illustrated drawings of the Kaaba, pictorial narratives around the tragic events of Karbala and images of the Sufi saints as imagined and valorised in local traditions. A very interesting image, Burraq-un Nabi, by an unknown artist created during the 1940s depicts the Prophet's steed, which took him to heaven during his mi'raj; the steed has wings and the face of a beautiful woman. This became extremely popular, and continues to be circulated. "Among all the sombre images of Muslim piety, Burraq's has probably been the only playful and action-oriented icon, evoking a happy and celebratory spirit among onlookers," points out Saeed in his book.
The depiction of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina significantly defines and continues to dominate popular Islamic devotional art. Though the origin of the earliest images is impossible to locate, it is widely believed that a lot of the reference material was derived from literary and illustrated works from Central Asia or Iran, travelogues, prayer mats and oral traditions. With the arrival of photography, the element of imagination was replaced by exact reproductions of the holy mosques.
Like every industry in the world, the printing establishment too has been defined by technological advancement. In the words of Hameed, owner of Islamic Publishers in Urdu Bazar, "It is the era of consumerism. What relevance do the artists have here?" Paradoxically, the poster art industry also has a large influx of framed photographs and carvings of Quranic verses from atheist, Communist China indicating the reach of globalisation. These trends of web-generated images have led to dissociation from local traditions almost leading to a standardisation of the Muslim 'devotional gaze' across the world.
The katibs, unlike the artists, have managed to survive despite the changing nature of the industry and a lot of this has to do with Islam's rejection of idol worship. "We don't work with pictures," points out Kausar, owner of Maqtabe Jamnur, a publishing house in Urdu Bazar. "Islam has discouraged portraying human figures and face. This was done as a pre-emptive measure to ensure that images don't get venerated," says Prof Akhtarul Wasey, head of the department of Islamic studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.
This characteristic of Islam has enabled calligraphy to thrive as one of the strongest elements of Muslim devotional art. "The history of Indian calligraphy is fascinating and no detailed study has been done on it. Calligraphy was pre-Islamic but it may be seen as the first art of the Islamic period and was developed massively during these times. During the initial years, it was employed for writing the Quran as it was the immediate requirement for the preservation and propagation of the word of God. Then it moved on to different texts," says Majid Ahmady, Iranian artist and calligrapher who has been keenly studying Indian calligraphy over the last 10 years. "Calligraphy was largely brought to India by Humayun and thrived under the patronage of Akbar. Aurangzeb was also a professionally trained and a great calligrapher."
However, not everyone would be comfortable with the idea of associating calligraphy as Islamic art in a monolithic sense. Says writer and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi, "What about the Chinese and the Japanese? One should be weary of calling anything Islamic. I'm comfortable with geographical and not denominational ascriptions. The exchanges that happened during those times were remarkable and it is difficult to ascribe a singular cause for such historic events."
But, he agrees, that a lot of the creative urge went into fashioning an ornate style. "For example, tughra, a style that creates animal form with letters and texts, was executed by Dara Shikoh (son of Shah Jahan) at the Jamia Hamdard near Tughlaqabad, depicting the Sura-Yasin in the form of an elephant."
Despite the rigid contemporary understanding of religious art and its purpose, studies prove that the depiction of notable religious personalities of Islam were not completely alien to Muslim devotional art. In his study of the evolution of the development of portrayal from 13th Century Ilkhanid miniatures to 17th Century Ottoman art, the scholar Wijdan Ali clearly shows how images of Muslim personalities were prevalent in the pre-modern era. Iran too has a tradition where images of the Prophet's family have become objects of veneration. But of course no image of man is worshipped by Muslims, who believe in tauhid, or the unity of God.
"These are only seen in Iran and present even today; so I am assuming it has to do largely with the Shia population," adds Yousuf. Though not common in India, Yousuf mentions the 1686 manuscript of Khavarnama, a Persian poem on the epic narrative of Hazrat Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and leader of the Shia, which features a painting of the family. "Their publication today, especially of any image depicting the Prophet, is bound to evoke outrage among the Muslim world," he notes.
Today, asks Hashmi, "Due to increasing intolerance, Ambedkar cartoons cannot be published, MF Husain cannot draw nude goddesses...it affects all forms of creative expression. What is Hindu? What is Muslim? What is permitted? What is not? Who decides?" It is a puzzle which might just take forever to solve.