Title: Shi'a Muslims Mourning Before a Ta'ziya c. 1800. Location created: Lucknow, India Original Source: Chester Beatty Library

Muharram in the 19th century: Indian paintings, British imagination

Colonial-era paintings depicting Muharram reveal how it was sanitised to fit the sensibilities of a European audience.
Updated 10 Sep, 2019 07:45am

This article was first published in September, 2018.

Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar, but not one to celebrate — rather, it is a month of mourning, observed in particular by Shias worldwide.

It commemorates the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, where amongst many, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Imam Hussain, was martyred and other family members of his were killed or subjected to humiliation.

Worldwide, and in South Asia, Shias mourn these deaths even today through elaborate processions and gatherings.

Sewak Ram, "A Muharram Scene", Patna, India c1807. One of the few paintings with an attribution, it is said to have been painted by Sewak Ram, a Hindu painter.—Victoria and Albert Museum
Sewak Ram, "A Muharram Scene", Patna, India c1807. One of the few paintings with an attribution, it is said to have been painted by Sewak Ram, a Hindu painter.—Victoria and Albert Museum

Leading the procession is an alam. Following it is a shroud of the martyr, decorated and bloodstained.

There is customary weeping as tragic stories from the battle are narrated.

Then begins the matam — synchronised self-flagellation as elegies and songs penned in the memory of Imam Hussain and his companions are sung.

For long in South Asia, the observance of Muharram has been accompanied by large gatherings, speeches and public grieving.

Participants are dressed in black — the colour of mourning — and as they chant poetry of lamentation, they beat their chest in synchronic unison.

Watercolour of the Muharram Festival, part of the Hyde collection, by an unknown artist working in the Murshidabad style, c. 1795. Inscribed on the back in pencil: 'The Nubob of Moorshedd.- at Prayers'; in ink: 'The Nawaub of Morshedabad at Prayers, a Night Scene.—Columbia.edu
Watercolour of the Muharram Festival, part of the Hyde collection, by an unknown artist working in the Murshidabad style, c. 1795. Inscribed on the back in pencil: 'The Nubob of Moorshedd.- at Prayers'; in ink: 'The Nawaub of Morshedabad at Prayers, a Night Scene.—Columbia.edu

"The Muharram Festival". Asaf al-Daula, Nawab of Oudh, listening at night to the maulvi reading from the scriptures. Late 1700s.—British Library
"The Muharram Festival". Asaf al-Daula, Nawab of Oudh, listening at night to the maulvi reading from the scriptures. Late 1700s.—British Library

Given the social and public nature of these gatherings, other communities and faiths such as Sunnis, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have a history of being involved, albeit in different capacities.

Even though, through the ages, Muharram has been commemorated with fervour and ferocity, there is little visual evidence of it in the subcontinent before the late 17th century.

The commemoration seems to have emerged as a subject of interest only after the European invasion.

Muharram festival procession. Anglo-Indian (a.k.a. 'Company School') at Patna, c. mid-19th century. Opaque watercolour on mica. Attributed to Shiva Lal or his workshop.—swarajarchive.org.in
Muharram festival procession. Anglo-Indian (a.k.a. 'Company School') at Patna, c. mid-19th century. Opaque watercolour on mica. Attributed to Shiva Lal or his workshop.—swarajarchive.org.in

This is particularly surprising given that a series of Muslim rulers governed the subcontinent prior to the British, and recorded even the most banal details of their lives through their paintings.

Muharram seems to have caught the fancy of the British, who, in their exoticisation of the Orient, found this mass mourning both strange and intriguing.

The British and Europeans were patrons of a school of art called the Company Style or Kampani Kalam.

"Festival of the Moharram, Funeral of Houssein and Hoossein, India," by H. Melville, Fisher, Son, & Co., London, c.1840.—Columbia.edu
"Festival of the Moharram, Funeral of Houssein and Hoossein, India," by H. Melville, Fisher, Son, & Co., London, c.1840.—Columbia.edu

"Prayers and recitations at the Imambara during the Muharram", Patna, 1820–30.—www.francescagalloway.com
"Prayers and recitations at the Imambara during the Muharram", Patna, 1820–30.—www.francescagalloway.com

These paintings were made by anonymous Indian artists, exclusively for European patrons in the British East India Company and other companies.

The style blended traditional elements of the miniature school with a Western treatment of perspective, often in watercolours.

With its ritual self-flagellations and dramatised public processions, it is not surprising that Muharram both horrified and fascinated the Europeans.

At first glance, the paintings depicting Muharram reveal how it had to be sanitised to fit the audience’s sensibilities.

"Scene in the Imambarah during Muharram", a watercolor, Patna, c.1790-1800.—British Library
"Scene in the Imambarah during Muharram", a watercolor, Patna, c.1790-1800.—British Library

"Shi'a Muslims Mourning Before a Ta'ziya", c. 1800, Lucknow.—Chester Beatty Library
"Shi'a Muslims Mourning Before a Ta'ziya", c. 1800, Lucknow.—Chester Beatty Library

Rebecca M. Brown, associate professor of colonial and post-1947 South Asian art and visual culture at Johns Hopkins University, makes a noteworthy discussion of these European officers, who were often uncomfortable yet intrigued observers of this alien festival.

She asserts that the paintings are static and decontextualised when compared to the actual celebrations and processions.

They often lack a city context, strange for a festival so ingrained in active city life.

They also omitted the physicality of mourning.

The Muharram of the Company Style paintings may be solemn and static yet nevertheless, allow us a small glimpse of its presence from the silent pages of the subcontinent's visual history.


Are you researching South Asian art history? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com

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Onaiza Drabu is an anthropologist and works on Kashmiri folklore. She curates Daak (daak.co.in), a weekly newsletter and website. It is a collection of unknown stories, artworks and ideas from women and men who have shaped South Asia's cultural heritage.

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Prachi Jha studied literature and runs an NGO called Life Lab Foundation. She curates Daak (daak.co.in), a weekly newsletter and website. It is a collection of unknown stories, artworks and ideas from women and men who have shaped South Asia's cultural heritage.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (39) Closed

Suryakant Agrawal
Sep 20, 2018 02:57pm
South Asia is truly a rich continent. M0urning of the grief is a great tradition. Thank you for showing up beautiful pictures. It will not be out of place mentioning Raja Dahir here for his contribution.
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Tapas K Som
Sep 20, 2018 03:15pm
This is why I love dawn - brings in so many beautiful facets of our shared heritage in the subcontinent. tapas
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shah
Sep 20, 2018 04:05pm
Great article, history of arts gives a window to our collective past.
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Saifuddin Takhtawala
Sep 20, 2018 04:15pm
Thanks to Prachi and Onaiza. Well done.
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ranga
Sep 20, 2018 05:17pm
Wonderful paintings and article. Thank you.
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Guru
Sep 20, 2018 05:27pm
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the sub-continent, historical recordings were mainly done in an autobiographical context by the rulers with their memoirs placing emphasis on their deeds in war and peace. We have works like the Akbar-nama, Jehangir-nama as examples. Very little was written about the daily life of the common man. The Europeans were more analytical and not so class bound which is why they were not averse to recording daily life. This would not have interested the scribes of Indian rulers who were paid to extol the deeds of the rulers, not the ruled. This is also why we have so much more information about things as they happened during British rule, unlike the time prior to it.
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Observer1234
Sep 20, 2018 05:30pm
@Suryakant Agrawal Thanks for mentioning Rajah Dahir. He was a great benefactor. Not many want to and like to know about his contribution. More recently another Indian Rajah gave sanctuary to Poles displaced due to war. No one in world gave them sanctuary. Roads in Poland are named after him.
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abbastoronto
Sep 20, 2018 06:02pm
The dimwit English did not realize that Muharram became and remained the only legit panel to oppose their own rule in India. They did not connect that the whole essence of Muharram was the protest against oppression that their own rule had become. Even Gandhi himself used the Karbala theme when he chose exactly 72 to lead his Salt March, the number of Imam Hussain's companions. Dr. Anita Rai has compared the universal theme of freedom struggle in her seminal work Kurukshetha, Calvary, and Karbala.
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Habib A. Zuberi, PHD
Sep 20, 2018 06:13pm
A great approach by the British to sow the seeds of dissension between Shias and Sunnis. As stated there were no such elaborate procession in India until 17th Century, when British involvement in India increased. Divide and rule was the policy British followed and succeded.
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Observer
Sep 20, 2018 06:34pm
I am an Indian, Hindu from the State of Bihar. All these paintings from Patna drag me back to my childhood. My grandmother, who was a devout Hindu widow, would give us some money and encourage us to go to the Imam Baba and make an offering and to seek his blessings. We youngsters were allowed to pass from one side to the other under the Tazia as an act of benediction. Alas, that India is lost forever.
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Zoya
Sep 20, 2018 07:42pm
Great. I appreciate both girls. They have shared an amazing collection.
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Asim
Sep 20, 2018 08:48pm
@Guru agreed.
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Asim
Sep 20, 2018 08:50pm
Thanks for this beautiful article. It seems if it weren't for the British, Azadari in those times wouldn't have been recorded in mainstream media.
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Minhaj
Sep 20, 2018 09:27pm
Truly remarkable paintings that show details of life and culturen and a great article that goes with it. Well done!
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Tayab andrabi
Sep 21, 2018 12:18am
great job!
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Nusrat
Sep 21, 2018 12:19am
These are amazing pieces of art, they preserve our history and culture. Thank you Dawn. Thank you authors for this.
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naji
Sep 21, 2018 01:27am
Very impressive pictures and paintings of 17th and 18th century. Beautiful work of art. Extremely top quality, really appreciating.
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Shah
Sep 21, 2018 09:44am
We Muslims had a great civilization in India and these paintings are yet a reminder of it. Had the majority not fell for the Hindu-Muslim devide put in place by the British then we, Hindus and Muslims of India and Pakistan, would have considered us the same and belonging to the same country. My own grandfather worked in Bhopal, Indore and Assam pre-independence. Now we can not even live in peace as neighbours and Kashmiri-Muslims are in great pain.
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Srinivasan Kailasam
Sep 21, 2018 10:21am
Many Thanks for letting us have a glimpse of our heritage. We still do not have enough information on the Paintings of a bygone era. Your above contribution is most welcome.
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Suren
Sep 21, 2018 10:41am
Thanks the authors and Dawn for making it possible to look at history and culture of Indian heritage through the paintings . Great anthropological stuff. If you look closely, two paintings shows our four legged friends present ! I believe, everyone was welcome and that has been the culture of this subcontinent, reflects the basic human ethos of the Indus people , no matter what their religion is .
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Mohnish
Sep 21, 2018 11:05am
This Article will be treated as heritage in coming times.
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praveen chopra
Sep 21, 2018 03:40pm
There is diversity in Islam and should be allowed to flourish peacefully.
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Hamid Hameed
Sep 21, 2018 03:44pm
Thank you Dawn News for this precious article.
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M. Emad
Sep 21, 2018 04:24pm
Eid and Muharram processions in (Bengal capital) Dhaka city during Mughal period (17th & 18th century) were grand and arranged gorgeously --- drew huge crowds in the streets including women enjoying from their windows.
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Zahid MALIK
Sep 21, 2018 04:34pm
Shia and Sunni divide was known to Mughal Rulers because of interaction with Iran. From Iran and central asia (Samarkand Bukhara etc.) many people immigrated into Afghanistan and India during Mughal times. As the court language changed from Turkish to Persian the poetry of "Marsia" came along and it is still a part of the "Muharam" rituals. There are a lot of references to "Muharam" in Persian literature of India.
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ECHO
Sep 22, 2018 02:01am
Thank you for bringing to light the beautiful old paintings. Narrative adds the missing dimension...
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irshad
Sep 22, 2018 10:57am
Dawn is symbol of tolerance and secular minded paper based on truth and tolerence.
Recommend 0
dilawar
Sep 22, 2018 11:59am
This way truly brilliant!
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danish
Sep 23, 2018 08:49am
Team Dawn... You are Great... Thanks
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fatima
Sep 24, 2018 11:39am
beautiful. these paintings are part of our very rich cultural heritage
Recommend 0
Omer
Sep 10, 2019 08:32am
Dawn produces masterpieces almost every day
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Omer
Sep 10, 2019 08:33am
@Guru, well said
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Chris Roberts
Sep 10, 2019 10:44am
One of the things the British did was leave visual and written records of the Sub-continent's past. It would have been interesting had the columnists included the names of some of the more prominent English people who commissioned these paintings as well as some background information on these people. When cultures meet, there is always a period of discovery and exchange.
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Nadeem Mukhtar Chaudhry Advocate
Sep 10, 2019 11:16am
The British were obsessed with a superiority complex of being more civilised than Asiatics and for that matter they destroyed our arts and culture. We continue to look westward for all our problems.
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subroto
Sep 10, 2019 11:22am
Yes This activity of knowledge Sharing has to be appreciated
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Haseeb haider
Sep 10, 2019 11:35am
Towards the end of British rule in 1947, Mrs Anna Molka Ahmed, a British art teacher, who was part of Mayo School of Arts now National Collage of Arts or NCA, continued this tradition of painting Moharram. In her paitings, she focused on Ashura in Lahore.
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Shah
Sep 10, 2019 12:44pm
@Shah, It is the miscommunication which lead you think Kashmiri Muslims are in pain. The general public is excited to be fully integrated with a progressive state of India. Only the political families are in pain who used to exploit the rights og common Muslims of Kashmir. As it is universally known that media can be influenced by the powerful and hence you are hearing the oppression stories of common man. I know it is difficult to get the correct information sitting abroad so you may have to depend on information pouring from illegitimate sources.
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Zain
Sep 10, 2019 03:44pm
This is journalism at its best, revealing what few knew in a way that most can understand
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Chinpaksaddique
Sep 11, 2019 01:27am
These are paintings by Pakistani ancestors of the Pakistan nation.
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