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

When a poster artist (not necessarily a Muslim by faith), explores new subject matters to draw an image, or to make innovative variations of Mecca and Medina, the first thing he/she recalls (in the absence of any deities) are the clichéd images of Muslim piety – cute little girls with headscarves reading the Qur'an,  innocent boys in skullcaps hugging each other after the Eid prayers, beautiful and pious young women with raised hands from which a translucent dupatta (scarf) cascades down, all this against the essential backdrop of the Kaaba and the green dome of Medina. An image epitomizing the emblematic image of the community shows a little boy sitting cross-legged, about to turn the page of the Qur'an, wearing a white sleeveless vest, a green check lungi or mundu  (printed loin-cloth), a little metallic talisman case in a necklace, and the embroidered skullcap. Not to miss the rosary, the incense-sticks, the prayer mat, and the crescent-and-star encircling Mecca and Medina in the backdrop. The child may just walk out, one imagines, into a noisy Muslim mohalla (locality) and chew a paan (betel) or enter a butcher’s shop.
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One wonders, however, if such stereotypes are simply a non-Muslim artist's or publisher's narrow perception of the "other" community? Or are they more real? There are of course some popular art genres such as the "educational" comics series called Amar Chitra Katha or even some popular movies where Muslims have been deliberately portrayed in negative roles. But a calendar artist and publisher have to consciously portray the community with a more favourable image, in order to sell. Thus a praying posture is the safest icon they find, since it can play many roles. One seldom sees a poster showing a pious Hindu woman worshiping a deity or a cute Hindu boy reading a holy book – Hindu posters generally depict the deity itself and not the act of worship. Since there is hardly any object of veneration in a Muslim picture, the believer herself becomes the subject of the artist.
In some cases, Indian Muslims themselves seem to legitimize such stereotypical images. A poster of the cute boy (sometimes with his elder sister) reading the Qur'an, or some other book, is commonly used in Muslim homes that have young children, to emphasize the importance of ilm or knowledge in Islam. A typical user is only aware of the evident message that the poster gives to a child, and not so much of the latent conditioning about community stereotype being imparted. Such images become probably become idealized forms to be emulated by youngsters. In fact, it would not be entirely wrong to say that some Muslims do make an effort to look different from non-Muslims. One has often heard in recent religious discourses (such as Friday sermons in many north Indian mosques) the emphasis on the need for Muslims to look like Muslims - a lament that Aaj kal ke musalman, musalman jaise nahin dikhte (today's Muslims don't look Muslim enough). What such sermons mean in practical terms is to follow the Prophet’s tradition of keeping a beard, trimming the moustache, covering the head, wearing a trouser or pyjama above the ankle and so on, for men, and a hijab or veil for women. However, it is difficult to say if this awareness about "looking like" a Muslim has always been a part of Muslim society or has it begun recently. It would surely be a challenging job for historians to find out how different did Indian Muslims look from other Indians a couple of centuries ago.

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