Hands That Pour Emotion Into Muharram Banners Work Seasonally

by Saifullah Bashir

SRINAGAR: Muharram is the first month of the Muslim Hijri calendar. This year, it coincided with August 9. With the day one marks the beginning of the Ashoora mourning by the Shia Muslims that marks the Karbala anniversary, the martyrdom of Imam Husain (ra).

The eventful 10-days have one thing in common, the display banners showcasing the sacrifices, the battle between right and wrong. Persian and Urdu language is the richest repository of Nawha and Marsia poetry and there has been huge prose written on the subject. The best of this prose and poetry finds its way into the use of these black buntings adoring the streets and lanes of Srinagar. Over the years, it has emerged as super fine art and a seasonal business as well.

In the Zadibal area of Hawal, Altaf Hussain, 40, is one of the painter calligraphers who is too busy in days and nights in anticipation of the Muharram mourning. Hussain operates from the top floor of his home, which is converted into his painting studio. He is always in demand because he knows art and emotion.

Muharram procession in Srinagar on Monday, August 16, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“I am a self-taught calligrapher and I have been doing this for the last 19 years,” Hussain said.

The demand for these banners is huge. Kashmir apart, Hussain said people pre-book orders from distant places including Leh and Kargil.

“These banners are integral to our Muharram procession. We apply perfume over them and they last long for two to three years, depending on the quality of the fabric,” he said.

The painters and calligraphers play an important role in keeping the tradition alive. Despite the evolution of machines and modern printing presses, their manual work is something that the mourners have never attempted to find an alternative for.

“Though printing presses are everywhere, they lack feel and essence,” Hussain said. “If your writing is excellent, people will like your product.”

The length of these banners varies. Normally 10×5 ft is used but in the end, it depends on the customer.

When Nayeem Akthar was education minister of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, Hussain started teaching students at the Government Girls Higher Secondary Kothi Bagh Srinagar. However, he admits “one cannot take this as a profession. You cannot survive on this as its market is little and seasonal.”

But Hussain is not the only one who is an expert calligrapher in banner painting. In certain cases, some people who are not professional painters or calligraphers also draw and draw well.

Sibtain Shabir, 20, a resident of Shaheedgunj says “we paint banners at home. We use particular cardboard. Sometimes a professional or elder draws an outline and we fill the colour into it.”

On different occasions, different colours are being used. Green and red are used on the day of Milad, the birth anniversary of the Prophet of Islam. Black represents grief and therefore has importance during Muharram.

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