[Reader-list] Muslim pop art - posting # 6

Yousuf ysaeed7 at yahoo.com
Sun Jul 25 11:01:34 IST 2004

Sarai Fellowship, posting 6: Muslim Religious Posters

>From Ravi Varma to Rajesh Khanna – The Printers of God

Tracing the origins of the Muslim religious art in
India, one cannot ignore Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906),
the self-taught portraitist from the Travancore royal
family, and arguably, the ‘father’ of the industry
that mass-produces devotional images and calendar art
in India. Varma was one of the first Indians to have
used western principles and techniques of painting,
especially in perspective and figure-modeling, and
adapt them to Indian subjects and idioms, resulting in
a unique style of realistic portraits, which made him
a much sought-after artist, especially with the Indian
nobility and the Europeans in the country. His
depiction of the Indian woman’s ‘perfect beauty’ was
so idealized that people often remarked about
‘beautiful’ women in general, “Oh, she looks straight
out of a Ravi Varma painting”. 

>From the portraits, Varma moved onto Indian mythology,
painting the popular Hindu gods, deities, and other
characters from the epics. Interestingly, he used
human models to give shape to his vision of the gods.
By depicting deities such as Lakshmi, Krishna, and
Saraswati as sublimely beautiful humans in everyday
attire, he made the gods seem divine yet approachable.
These paintings became so popular that Hindus, ever
since, have visualized their gods very much the way
Ravi Varma presented them. Recognizing the need to
popularize his art, Varma set up a lithographic colour
press in 1894 (first in Bombay, and later shifting to
Lonavla), to print thousands of copies of his
oleographs that the ordinary people could buy. These
prints, loved by the masses, were widely copied and
re-copied by commercial artists and other publishers.
Millions of Indians continue to adorn these cheap
imitations in their houses without the knowledge of
their original artist. Ravi Varma’s style must have
also inspired the early painters of the billboards,
cinema hoardings, and even film sets that became an
integral part of the urban India’s popular culture.

So, where do the Muslim themes come into this picture?
And do they connect with Ravi Varma’s press in any
way? It may be difficult to pinpoint an exact date
when the popular Islamic themes started getting
mass-produced in India. The renowned curator and
cultural historian, Jyotindra Jain, saw in a private
collection in Mumbai, Muslim posters printed as early
as 1940s and 50s, “but that does not mean that they
didn’t exist prior to that”, he says. Some of the
images he saw consisted of shrines at Baitul Muqaddas
(Jerusalem), the tomb of Haji Malang, the dargah at
Ajmer, and at Nagpur Sharif, among others. Some of the
printers of these posters that Dr.Jain noted at the
bottom, were Hemchand Bhargava (Chandni Chowk, Delhi),
G.I. Press (Bombay), H. Ghulam Muhammad & Sons
(Lahore), Swastik Picture Publication (Fatehpuri,
Delhi), Muhammadi Fine Frame Works (Bombay), and so
on. “Hemchand Bhargava was in fact one of the largest
producers of Muslim images in the 50s and 60s”. The
posters available today on Indian streets, of course,
carry none of these bylines.

Coming back to Ravi Varma, a recent book “Popular
Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of
India” by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger
(OUP, 2003), features about six images of Islamic
themes printed at the Ravi Varma Press, in as early as
1920! It is not clear whether these Muslim themes were
originally drawn by Varma himself (he died in 1904) or
were produced by his successors after his death, as
their market potential was realized. Of course, the
typical Ravi Varma stamp is missing in them since very
little figure modeling was required in Islamic themes.
But most interesting is an image of the Burraq (a
mythical beast that the Prophet rode to heaven),
depicted here with the face of a European woman who
could as well be Queen Victoria, donning what looks
like the British crown! (We have earlier discussed
other local variants of Burraq’s face – a Hindu
goddess in the Tanjore style of painting, for

But somehow, these early Muslim images (from R.V.
Press) are more European in style than the Hindu
images produced there. The perfect blending of the
European technique and the Indian ethos found in Ravi
Varma’s sublime images of Hindu gods is somewhat
missing in the Muslim posters. It is unlikely that the
Muslim images from R.V. Press inspired the later
Muslim posters, unlike the style of Hindu images that
continues till date. Possibly, some other catalysts,
such as the photographs imported from Arabia (as early
as they were available), became the major inspiration
for the Muslim images produced in the 1940s and

But going back even earlier in time, one wonders as to
when and in what form did the images of Mecca and
other sacred Islamic sites arrive in India/south Asia
prior to the age of printing/mass production. There
seem to be four different channels through which such
images may have been imported here: (1) Miniature
paintings and illuminated books from central Asia/Iran
coming with the travelers/conquerors, (2) Lithographs
of European origin brought by the British or the
Portuguese, (3) miscellaneous items such as prayer
mats, carpets, cloth hanging, and other objects with
such images, brought by the Indian pilgrims returning
from the Hajj, and more importantly, (4) non-visual
accounts, either written or oral, about the shape and
size of the sacred buildings and the material culture
of Arabia told by travelers or pilgrims and passed
down the generations to those who could not visit
Mecca or had no access to its image.

The central Asian miniature paintings are less likely
to be the source of a popular imagination about Mecca
since these were meant only for the royal consumption
and were never made public. The European lithographs
of Islamic shrines, drawn mostly for the travel books
published in Europe in the 17-18th century, probably
never made it to south Asia until the end of 19th
century. But some Muslim posters published by the Ravi
Varma press show an influence of the European
lithograph style. A 1920 image depicting the
battleground of Karbala (Iraq) shows a large empty
courtyard surrounded by a few European looking
buildings with domes! As discussed earlier, the
influence of these early images did not last very long
in the Muslim posters industry. Hence, major
inspiration for Muslim images seem to be the objects
and memories brought by Indian pilgrims returning from

But we need to make a distinction here, between the
images of Arabian shrines and the local Indo-Muslim
shrines and folklore. The more authentic images of
Mecca may have arrived late (probably via the
photographs), but the images of local Muslim saints,
their mausoleums, and miracles, may have existed in
south Asia from much earlier – along with the
traditions of Hindu mythology. What is interesting to
explore is the tradition of some folk artists such as
storytellers, bards, and folk painters whose services
were employed on special occasions to impart stories
and religious epics. One particular community of such
specialists, the Patuas or scroll painters of
Kalighat, Bengal, “who know about Hindu mythology more
than any one else, also know the Muslim themes equally
well”, according to Dr.Jyotinder Jain. The Patuas,
many of them with Hindu-Muslim combined names, follow
everyday customs of both the religions freely –
syncretism is a way of life, since their profession
depends on it. They could be just a small surviving
example of the pre-modern industry that preserved the
oral narratives of our culture, unbiased towards any
one religion. No wonder then that even today a
Balkrishnan puts his heart and soul in painting the
most evocative image of Mecca and Medina, and a
Fakhruddin carves the most sublime copper idols for
the Hindu temples.

While the artists Balkrishnan and H.R. Raja have
painted a large number of available Islamic posters,
other signatures one may find on them are M.S.S.,
Swarup (Meerut), B.M. Kamal, Kishore, Bhatia, Mohideen
Husain, R.C., and so on – a large number with missing
signatures too. H.R. Raja of Meerut, who revealed his
full name in Urdu on one of the Karbala posters as
Hasan Raza Raja, is probably no more, since some
posters now sign ‘Raja Studios’ - run by his
successors. Raja has also painted many secular
calendar themes such as the nationalistic Jai Kisan
Jai Jawan images of 1950s. Many new Islamic posters
are recycled or redrawn versions of what H.R. Raja or
others may have done in the 1950s. After the decline
of Ravi Varma Press and Hemchand Bhargava and Co., we
are probably witnessing today the third generation of
printers of religious posters, represented by bylines
such as Jothi, Brijbasi, J.B.Khanna & Co, and B.A.P
(these four names constituting more than 90 percent of
the posters available on the streets today). Even
though Mumbai and Chennai remained for decades the
most productive centres of religious art, presses in
other towns such as Delhi, Meerut, Gorakhpur,
Calcutta, Pune, Nagpur, and Mathura also churned out
cheap posters in large numbers. In fact, the Brijbasi
company is quite prolific in printing the themes of
Muslim saints, their miracles and tombs, and has a
well-established market base in north India.

Chennai, the Mecca of street art with its larger than
life billboards where politicians and film stars share
space with gods and market goods, still rules the
kingdom of pop devotion. Even the horns of the cattle
and the walls around a temple here are given the
symbolic paint jobs. The art style and symbolism used
in many of our religious posters seem closer to south
Indian costumes, jewelry, and facial features than
north – probably because many artists and publishers
are based in south India. Rajesh Khanna, the owner of
the Chennai-based J.B. Khanna & Co., probably the
largest and most widely networked publisher of
religious and decorative posters in the country today,
talks of his three generation old business: “this is a
massive business with distributors and hawkers all
over the country providing regular feedback for our
requirements of unique images and styles preferred by
each region and town”. Khannas’ have recently acquired
some of the latest state of the art equipment – the
Creo Trendsetter 800 pre-press and the Mitsubishi
Diamond 3000 LX 4-colour press - for the sole purpose
of printing cheaper and better quality devotional
posters more efficiently!

The biggest threat to the J.B. Khanna poster business
comes from the frequent piracy of their designs and
images. Besides pirating full images, many
unscrupulous printers even plagiarize Khannas’ images
or image parts by making slight changes in them and
printing in large numbers. The Khannas are constantly
creating and commissioning new designs, even though
their existing posters continue to be reprinted - the
successful ones merely in larger numbers and more
frequently. Their most recent posters on the streets
are eye-catching and much sharper prints – the new
technology also allows them to print posters in some
new dimensions and sizes never tried before. Rajesh's
calculations showed that on the new press he could
fully utilize a 28x40 inch sheet with as many as
twenty small posters. The increased prepress cost
using the new plates was less than 3 paise per poster,
and likely be recovered the next time he put the same
set of plates on press. “For a long run printer of
repeat work, it made eminent sense to have a modern
printing system in place that decreased variables and
increased quality and productivity”, says Rajesh. 

>From Ravi Varma’s steam engine litho press to Rajesh
Khanna’s 21st century Mitsubishi Diamond, it’s been a
long way for the Divine assembly line.

Yousuf Saeed
New Delhi, India


For those who missed the first 5 postings: this
project seeks to collect the contemporary religious
posters and calendar art, depicting Muslim themes,
mostly in north India, and analyze their content,
focusing on the symbols of multi-faith or composite
culture, besides studying briefly the industry and the
artists who manufacture and sell them, the devotees
who buy them, the milieu where they are adorned, and
the reverence they evoke.

This posting is only a section of the research and may
not represent the holistic picture or the
chronological sequence of the findings. More details,
updates and a colourful poster gallery of the project
can be seen at: www.alif-india.com/popart

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