Entangled Images and the Corporeal Sensorium:

Shia religious iconography and ritual practice in the Deccan

Fiza Ishaq

The essay investigates the centrality of vision and its connection to the sensory body in religious practices of the Shia communities of Hyderabad and Bangalore. It documents digital practices involved in the production of imagery and its consumption during ritual practice. Through analysis of images and cyber ethnography it maps flows of Shia religious iconography, in order to understand the nature of image production in this age of digital reproduction.  This study is based on ethnographic field research conducted in two phases. The first phase of research was conducted before Muharram in October 2010. The second phase of research was conducted during the first twelve days of Muharram in December 2010. The essay has been further updated based on information gathered during fieldwork in Hyderabad in October and November 2012 and more recently from April to July 2013. Some data gathered during cyber ethnography conducted from June 2012 to July 2013 has also been used for further contextualization of image flows and entanglements.  In both cities, I have interviewed residents in Shia neighbourhoods, devotees, caretakers of ashurkhanas, clerics and artists about art making practices, the reception of devotional art and religious rituals. In order to observe devotees’ interaction with imagery in the context of ritual performance, I participated in religious gatherings, sermons and ashura processions. Data collected in Hyderabad and Bangalore has offered well for analysis of transcultural flows of imagery, particularly involving the use of new media technologies. This is because both cities have been at the forefront of information technology revolution in India and inhabitants have had easy access to computers and other equipment either through cyber cafes and printing presses or personal computers and their own printing shops. This has added a whole new dimension to the visual practices involved in a community’s everyday religious life, consequently the manner in which religious practice itself has been affected by transcultural visual vocabularies.

A brief history of the tragedy of Karbala

Hazrat Ali had two sons, Hasan (625-670) and Husain (626-680). After Hasan’s death, Husain received missives from Yazid’s subjects in Kufa (near Baghdad), to travel there, in order to lead the Muslim community in an uprising against the Caliph. The battle of Karbala began on the first day of the month of Muharram (680 AD), when Husain and his supporters were intercepted by Yazid’s army. The final battle occurred on the tenth day of Muharram, when all the men were massacred (except Husain’s son Zain al-Abedin), their heads taken as evidence of their death to Yazid’s court in Damascus along with Husain’s wives and female relatives.  

In Islamic history, the Battle of Karbala has been a moment which consolidated the split between the two sects; Sunni and Shia.  For the Shia community worldwide, it became the foundational moment, defining their identity as partisans and followers of Ali. Since then, Shia religious practice has incorporated intense expressions of grief for Prophet Muhammad’s family (Ahl al-Bayt) and the martyrs of Karbala. This moment of injustice is mourned and commemorated by community members throughout the year, particularly during Muharram and Safar by holding religious gatherings (majlis) and public processions (julus). The narrative of Karbala has influenced the development of aesthetic and ritual practices. For centuries, artists have written prose and poetry about the martyrs and also depicted the battle in the visual arts, rendering imaginary portraits of the Prophet and Imams along with narrative scenes of the tragedy.

I begin the analysis of Shia devotional art by briefly historicizing the artwork itself, tracing its origins to parda-dari practices of Qajar Iran and Mughal and Persian miniature paintings. In looking toward these historical art forms, I have attempted to demonstrate origins of contemporary Shia iconography as well as gain some insight into the transformation of motifs and styles of representations in Shia devotional art across time and space. Processes of exchange, appropriation and adaptation which began with the cosmopolitanism of Islam in the early centuries have facilitated the development of the art form into its present state.  

The flow of contemporary Karbala imagery is mediated through pilgrimage and, increasingly so, the Internet. New media has played a central role in propagating flows of Shia devotional imagery and it has enabled new image-making practices. Contemporary digital practices when traced to the internet reveal the journey of the image which may travel back and forth creating entanglements effectively losing its originality and making it nearly impossible to find its source of origin. In this process, appropriation plays a central role. Digital practices and graphic design have created new scopic regimes similar in their aesthetics to film imagery and video games. In the process of editing appropriated images, designers effectively localize the image.  Karbala imagery is a means of disseminating religious knowledge. It offers guidelines for moral and ethical behaviour to community members. At the same time, beliefs pertaining to religion and morality can impact the ways in which media is used and consumed by the community. Thus, the text that goes along with the imagery is determined in accordance with current religious ideologies. This makes Karbala imagery a tool, sounding out ethical behaviour and correct practices. It becomes a device to be used in the effort to avert the tide of ideologies that are brought from the Middle East.

Finally, I argue for a corporeal sensorium in which Karbala imagery has a performative dimension and the body functions as a living medium. In his essay titled Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture, Mieke Bal notes, “The act of looking is profoundly ‘impure’. First, sense-directed as it may be, hence, grounded in biology (but no more than all acts performed by humans), looking is inherently framed, framing, interpreting, affect-laden, cognitive and intellectual. Second, this impure quality is also likely to be applicable to other sense-based activities: listening, reading, tasting, smelling. This impurity makes such activities mutually permeable, so that listening and reading can also have visuality to them.[1] Thus, I highlight the broader sensory role of vision, and how it may be linked to bodily sensation by turing to the notion of “corpothetics”. The reference to the “performative dimension of artefacts” is made by Christopher Pinney in his work on image-worshipping practices in a village in Central India.[2] He derives this from the anthropological theory of art proposed by Alfred Gell, wherein Gell states, that instead of focusing on “symbolic communication” of an artwork, he places emphasis on its “agency, intention, causation, result, and transformation”.[3] Pinney terms this “performative productivity”, which indicates a deviation from the focus on symbolism and meaning of an artwork to individual/group actions involving visual imagery.[4] Corpothetics, the devotee’s “bodily engagement” with imagery or the “sensory embrace of images” [5] enables the devotee to connect with the historical moment of Karbala and arouses piety and grief within the viewer.  The bodily performance of matam before the images and certain symbolic aspects of the image, which are used an aid to enable the devotee to visualize the tragedy afford Karbala imagery with a performative dimension. While visual narratives of Karbala are embedded in the urban environment, the body in its performance of matam, reflects the narrative of Karbala, it narrates the injustice of this historical moment, the suffering of the martyrs and how in martyrdom lay victory for Husain who fought for humanity.  


1. Bal, Mieke. Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture. Journal of Visual Culture. 2003, pp. 9

2. Pinney, Christopher. Piercing the Skin of the Idol, in Beyond aesthetics:  art and the technologies of enchantment. Ed. Christopher Pinney, Nicholas Thomas, Berg Publishers, 2001, pp.157   

3. Gell, Alfred. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Clarendon Press, 1998, pp. 6

4. Pinney goes on to describe it as “the poetics of materiality and corporeality around the images.” 2001, pp.169

5. Ibid, pp. 158 
  

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