Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

This is What They Look Like

Stereotypes of Muslim Piety in Calendar Art and Hindi Cinema

Yousuf Saeed
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Disturbing as it may sound, the prejudices in the society about the people of certain communities usually come from the various stereotypical images one sees everyday in popular media and mass visual culture. Among various forms of popular art found in India's public spaces, an important category is the religious posters and calendars depicting deities, saints, and places of worship. Besides posters that deal with recognizable Hindu subject matter, one finds images with Muslim themes, typically portraying the shrines at Mecca and Medina, Quranic verses in calligraphy, the portraits of local Sufi saints, their tombs, miracles, and other folklore. Since a poster or calendar is frequently meant to decorate the walls of a home, its imagery is always bright and attractive - young women or children shown as embodiments of perfect innocence and beauty and a pious character. And this is where the typecast of communities too get established in the mind of the onlooker.
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To explore how these images help build popular stereotypes of certain ethnic or religious identities such as Indian Muslims, one could begin by examining some broad differences between various popular posters and media types. The images with clearly Hindu and Muslim themes differ, mainly, in the variety of subject matters they depict, and the purpose they fulfill in a devotee's life. Most Hindu posters represent deities, gods, and goddesses, their attributes and myths, utilizing narratives that have been followed since ages, even though the painting/art styles may have changed. In practice, a two-dimensional image of a Hindu god or deity serves more or less the same purpose for an average devotee which an idol or statue does, that is, worship or dhyana.

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However, India's Muslim devotional posters, which may or may not have been drawn by a Muslim, carry some distinct differences from such Hindu images - even though some elements of polytheism can still be found in it. Since the making of pictures, other than those of Mecca and Medina, has been frowned upon in most Muslim societies, human figures are often replaced by Arabic calligraphy, flowers, crescent moon and other inanimate icons illustrating various concepts, although it doesn't mean that human forms are never represented in Muslim devotional art. Portraits of Sufi saints and holy men have been regularly made and distributed in south Asia.

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Who are "Indian Muslims?"
Although this essay tries to study the stereotypes about Indian Muslim community established by Indian popular media, it runs the risk itself
of participating in the consolidation of such stereotypes by using the generic term "Indian Muslims". Probably a clarification is required.

Fig.05

It is not only impossible but also inappropriate to put all the followers of Islam residing in India into one monolithic category. They are culturally, linguistically, demographically, economically, professionally, and perhaps politically, as diverse as the rest of Indians. They even follow the tenets of Islam differently all over South Asia. Thus the author of this essay assumes that there is no one standard image which can represent the demographic diversity of Indian Muslims, even though India's popular media continues to depict them, consciously or otherwise, through standard emblematic images. However, one can also not ignore the recent (or past) trends among Muslims of South Asia to be inspired by the notion of Pan-Islamism where some of them start identifying with a more sanitized version of Islam, which practically orients them to a more Arabic or Middle Eastern culture devoid of the local South Asian roots. Although popular Indian cinema or TV may have started depicting such sanitized Muslims, often in the negative role of a religious extremist, devotional posters and calendar art still continue with the classic look of a Muslim. Hence the definition of Indian Muslims for this essay would depend on the context in which each image has been produced by the artist, used by the buyers, and featured on this web-gallery. We are open for comments, contributions, and suggestions.

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