Given we are in the month of Muharram, I wanted to investigate the historical depictions of the rituals of Muharram in the Indian subcontinent in both miniature paintings from the Mughal, Deccan, Lucknow & Faizabad schools as well as company school paintings.. While there has been much scholarship on this subject in Iran and is easily accessible, I was surprised that a great deal has not been written or compiled on the Muharram depictions in the Indian Subcontinent. This essay is an attempt to start the process of investigation in this history as well as encompassing modern and contemporary art forays into the subject.
Nobility and rulers in Muslim dominated areas of the sub-continent mostly commissioned such works and these are collected and archived in British institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library. Minimum scholarship and archiving has been carried out in the subject before the British rule. Most of the paintings available are from the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century period.
Mourning During Muharram - Lucknow or Murshidadad, Early 19th Century
Gouache on paper, depicting male and female mourners gathered before the Taziya, replica tomb of Husayn who was martyred at Karbala during the tenth day of Muharram, black border.
Scene in the Imambarah during Muharram, a watercolor, Patna, c.1790-1800* (Source: British Library)
The medium used is mostly gouache (watercolour) on paper. It is only in the mid to late nineteenth century that oil on canvas was used as a medium, mostly by the British artists depicting colonial India. From the second half of the nineteenth century, a variety of illustrations and paintings depicting Muharram processions were published (steel engravings) in British newspapers such as The Illustrated Times and The Graphic.
Some of the most exquisite paintings on the subject are in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. According to the Museum, “The pictures made by Indian artists for the British in India are called Company paintings. This one depicts part of the Muharram ceremonies, which Muslims carry out in memory of Hasan and Hosein, grandsons of the Prophet Muhammed. Shiah Muslims regard them as his successors in the caliphate. The bamboo and paper models being carried aloft represent the tombs of Hasan and Hosein. Gilbert Eliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 1st Earl of Minto, once owned this picture. He was Governor-General of Fort William from 1807 to 1813”.
Place of origin: Patna, India (made), Date: ca. 1807 (painted); Painted in opaque watercolour on paper (Source: Victoria and Albert Museum – VAM, London)
The Muharram Procession: Murshidabad, India (possibly , made) / Calcutta, India (possibly , made); ca. 1795 - ca. 1805 (painted); Opaque watercolour on paper. (Source: VAM, London).
The above painting is one in a group of nine paintings. According to the museum, “They depict a durbar (public reception) at the Murshidabad court, and various Hindu and Muslim festivals and religious scenes. A Murshidabad artist copied it, probably from an original oil painting by George Farington. He had been working in Murshidabad from May 1785 until his death there in 1788. Farington's original is lost. This painting shows the Muharram procession, in which Muslims carry 'tazias' or 'ta'ziyas' (bamboo and paper replicas of the tombs of Hasan and Husain) to the river for immersion. The festival commemorates the deaths of these two grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. Shiah Muslims regard them as the rightful heirs to his caliphate”.
Lanterns hanging above a tazia; a man with a flywhisk standing beside it (Varanasi, India (painted), ca. 1860 (painted); Watercolour).
Oil on canvas arrived in India with British painters. A series of such paintings were done by Captain Robert Smith who was stationed in India during the early nineteenth century. One of his paintings, ‘The Procession to the Bara Imambara’ depicts the Muharram procession in Lucknow in the mid nineteenth century.
Captain Robert Smith. Attributed to Jivan Ram, 1822-25. Oil on canvas. 29 by 24.5 cm. (British Library)
The painting is exquisite in its details of not only the procession but also the architecture of the Bara (Big) Imambara in the background which was one of the last large buildings to be built using traditional techniques without the use of any European elements. A drawing by Robert Smith from the same perspective is in the V&A Museum (D.183-1891). It is dated 1832 and may have been used as a study for this painting (see A. W. Skempton, A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, London 2002).
‘The Procession to the Bara Imambara’, Lucknow, oil on canvass. (Source: Christies)
Since the arrival of newspapers and illustrated magazines, Muharram has been well documented through the British newspapers like the Illustrated Times and The Graphic. Apart from the known hubs like Murshidabad (West Bengal), Azeemabad (Patna) and Lucknow, steel-engraving based scenes of Muharram processions were documented in Bhopal, Hyderabad, Bombay, Madras, Varanasi, amongst others.
While Lahore has been a centre for Muharram processions for over two hundred years, one does not encounter any woks from this city in the sub-continent. Similarly depictions of Muharram artwork were not in vogue in post-independence Pakistan. Though a great number of of Sadequain’s artworks (figurative, abstract as well as calligraphy) are based on the philosophy of Karbala, his works do not depict Moharram and its rituals..
An exceptionally good example of this theme is displayed in the Lahore Museum; a painting by Anna Molka Ahmed titled “ Tazia’ 10th Muharram (at Rang Mahal, Lahore). The painting has been done in Ahmed’s traditional impasto style and the painting reflects the energy and exuberance which she was known for (see ‘The Eye Still Seeks’ by Salima Hashmi and Image and Identity by Akbar Naqvi).
Tazia’ 10th Muharram (at Rang Mahal, Lahore); Anna Molka Ahmad, Oil on hardboard (Source: Lahore Museum)
In the contemporary space, the most vivid depiction on the topic of Muharram and Karbala has been done by Mohammad Zeeshan. As the name ‘Zuljana’ suggests, the painting is a beautiful illustration of Imam Hussain’s horse, Zuljinah.
Zuljana, Muhammad Zeeshan, 2014
Sources and References:
1. Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no):Archer, Mildred. Company Paintings Indian Paintings of the British period Victoria and Albert Museum, Maplin Publishing, 1992 108 p. ISBN 0944142303
2. The Sun blazes the colours through my window – Anna Molka Ahmad, by Marjorie Hussain
3. Image and Indentitiy - Painting and Scuplture in Pakistan, 1947-1997 by Akbar Naqvi
4. Professor Mazhar Naqvi
5. Victoria and Albert Museum Archives
6. British Library Archives
7. British Museum Archives
8. Columbia University Archives
12. Lahore Museum Collection