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Visual Culture of Early Urdu Magazines

Yousuf Saeed

In India, printed Urdu literature and Urdu language have recently been associated with Muslims and Islam, often assumed to be reflecting religious orthodoxy and austere iconoclasm due to an apparent absence of images, or at least the images of human figure in its contemporary printed examples. Furthermore, the ignorance about Urdu’s eclectic and celebratory past is often so acute that in a recent example, couplets of 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib were attributed by Mumbai Police as inciting hatred and terror.1  But this one-sided stereotype of Urdu may not necessarily be a construction of the non-Urdu people alone. Even many ‘Urdu-wallahs’ or Muslims consider it not only their language but also a symbol of their religious identity rather than a shared cultural entity. A handful of Urdu speakers though do make an effort to deter this identity myth.2

This typecasting about the language however did not always exist in India. Urdu language or script was the most common medium of mainstream communication, especially at the time when print culture began thriving in north India. While today’s Urdu printed literature such as books, magazines or other ephemera may reflect a lack of liberal visuals or artistic creativity, probably due to a decline in its readership, Urdu printed ephemera in early 20th century or before was the main carrier of ideas, news, business and education, with a large pan-India readership that was not restricted to Muslims alone. Its popularity can be gauged by the fact that Urdu magazines carried advertisements of almost all mainstream trade brands just as today’s major newspapers or magazines do. Most importantly, the advertisements and the illustrated features in popular Urdu periodicals were not restricted in any way about the depiction of culture, arts, cinema, glamour, and women etc. In fact, these were as liberal and celebratory as any mainstream magazine today. They also catered to the religious or cultural needs of Hindus and other communities as much as they did to the Muslims. Similarly, Urdu was one of the first Indian languages in which progressive ephemera such as greeting cards, calendars and business stationary etc. were printed and used widely.3 

Soon after India’s independence in 1947, however, one witnessed a decline in Urdu’s print culture, primarily since Urdu was removed not only from being a medium of education but even a subject in most schools in north India, mainly in Uttar Pradesh, which ironically was its birth place and natural home. In short, the entire subsequent generations were schooled without an essential language and script that their immediate ancestors were familiar with.4  Naturally then, the first thing to be affected was Urdu’s connection with mainstream media, industry, politics, and professional lives of people. Slowly, as the Urdu-literate generation dwindled, so did the liberal and inclusive image of the language and its printed literature. And today, much of Urdu works published in India are restricted to religious themes or the issues of Muslim community alone, and that too bereft of any liberal visual depictions. Through this short visual essay, the author would like to explore what caused Urdu to be gradually associated only with Indian Muslims even though its early print culture was not restricted to Islamic or Islamicate themes and was a more inclusive media for mainstream secular communication.


Urdu played a crucial role in almost every sphere of north India’s intellectual life in 19th century. It emerged not only as a language of courtly poetry but also of popular prose, to spread religious values, for the moulding of public opinion, and for the transmission of knowledge and education. In 19th century there was a boom in commercial publishing, not only to cater to the elite among Urdu and Hindi readers but also the neo-literate non-elites who had so far not accessed the written or printed word. According to Francesca Orsini, a large repertoire of popular literature such as detective novels, theatre transcripts, songbooks, saint biographies, serialised narratives, and popular poetry, printed on cheap paper, provided an activity of pleasure for thousands of new readers.5  Moreover, for those who see Urdu and Hindi today with two distinct identities, this early print culture also reflected a considerable hybridity and fluidity between the two languages. In the ‘commercialisation of leisure’, according to Orsini, the boundaries between Urdu and Hindi had somewhat collapsed. Obviously, much of these chapbooks also contained attractive illustrations, some on the book covers while many printed inside, such as those depicting characters or scenes in the works of fiction, often in the tradition of the older book manuscripts. The title of many of these books contained the word ba-tasveerat (with pictures) to attract the buyers. Some of the famous publishers of such illustrated Urdu literature were Matba’ Naval Kishore from Lucknow besides others in Delhi, Kanpur and Lahore. Naval Kishore Press, in fact, was the most prolific publishing house that brought out a large number of titles in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and Persian.6

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1 Gilani, Iftikhar, ‘Mirza Ghalib is fanning hate feelings: Cops' theory’, Daily News and Analysis (DNA), Mumbai, April 10, 2012.
2 Safavi, Rana, ‘My name Is Urdu and I am not a Muslim’, Tehelka blog, April 24, 2013, http://blog.tehelka.com/my-name-is-urdu-and-i-am-not-a-muslim
3 Saeed, Yousuf, ‘Eid Mubarak: Cross-cultural Image Exchange in Muslim South Asia,’ Tasveer Ghar, March 2011, New Delhi. http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/117/
4 Farouqui, Athar, ‘The Problem of Urdu in India—Political or Existential? An Interview with S.R. Faruqi’, The Annual of Urdu Studies, Vol.10, 1995, pp.157-67.
5 Orsini, Francesca, Print and Pleasure: Popular literature and entertaining fictions in colonial north India, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2009.
6 Stark, Ulrike, An Empire of Books: The Naval Kishore Press and the Diffusion of the Printed Word in Colonial India, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007.

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