Early Eid greetings and Urdu poetry
It would be natural to assume that the mass produced Eid cards and their movement via post originated in the colonial period with the introduction of colour printing and postal system in India. While picture postcards started appearing in Europe and America in the later part of 19th century, the earliest cards with Indian views or produced in India have been dated to around 1900.2 Most early postcards with India-specific images depict what can be called the “native views” of India for a primarily European consumer, with very few postcards being found usable by Indians themselves. The Priya Paul collection has some unused early postcards with illustrations of Hindu deities but probably not usable for greetings on a specific occasion such a Hindu festival; her collection, for instance, has no Divali cards.3 Eid cards from 1930s onwards are probably the only such examples, although not necessarily all with Islamic images. It seems as if the business of Christmas greeting cards and ephemera might have inspired the emergence of Eid cards in early 20th century, as we shall see in this essay.
But did there exist no modes of greeting one another on Eid via letters before the arrival of printing and post? That may not be entirely true. The culture of offering friendly greetings on Eid (the festival at the end of the month of Ramazan fasting) is usually accompanied by exchange of gifts and sweets among adults, and small amounts of money called Eidi that the elders gift to youngsters.4 In pre-colonial times, poets and courtiers even recited eulogies for kings and nobles on the day of Eid to be rewarded with khil’ats (gifts, especially honorific robes) by the ruler.5 In some Muslim families, children wrote messages of greetings and salutations (often in verse) on pieces of paper with colourful borders and presented to their elders to be rewarded with money in return. According to Asad Kidwai, a journalist in Delhi, these written messages were originally called Eidi: he has preserved one such greeting message that was written and beautifully decorated by his great-grandfather Nisar-ur Rahman for his father Newazish-ur Rahman in the mid-19th century Barabanki in Awadh region (Uttar Pradesh) (Fig. 02). At times even moulvis (religious scholars) wrote such messages of prayer and well wishes for the rich Muslims and presented in return for gifts or money. Incidentally, the Times of India Annual of 1940 (obtained from the Priya Paul collection) features a Persian Christmas greeting in verse that Mir Osman Ali, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, wrote presumably for the British monarch. It is printed with Islamic motifs and calligraphy and looks nothing less than a royal greeting card (Fig. 03).6
But the Eidis of course were personally prepared messages exchanged among family members or friends and never probably mass produced. However, their messages and salutary verses are very similar to the Urdu texts inscribed on the early printed Eid cards found in the Priya Paul collection. The need to send greetings to someone outside one's town may have started after more family members began travelling or migrating to far away towns for employment or business purposes, especially when better road networks and railways were introduced. Some people, fascinated by the launch of the postal system, might have sent Eid cards to friends and relatives even within a town. While the modern postal system in India was started by the British in 1764, an elaborate communication network called the dak chaukis already existed in much of the Mughal and earlier eras involving runners, dak daroghas (post masters) and even carrier pigeons, though mostly used for official correspondence.7 Even the larger pre-modern Islamic world had a well developed postal system of al-barids (couriers), used for several purposes besides delivering letters.8 The earliest postal documents preserved from the British India (not necessarily in the Priya Paul collection) are also mostly business or official correspondence (Fig. 04). But an interesting early example of sending personal messages and greetings by post is a set of witty letters written by Delhi’s celebrated Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) to his friends. Ghalib found the postal system to be the cheapest and quickest way to communicate with his well wishers: he wrote and received tens of letters every day, mostly to cope with his grief and isolation after much of his family had died during the turbulent events of 1857 rebellion. For him, receiving someone’s letter was “like welcoming a person home,” as he once wrote to his friend Har Gopal Tufta.9
While Ghalib’s letters have no visual element, nor was the postcard introduced in India until well after he died in 1869, they are worth a mention for the conversational and cheerful style of prose he initiated in Urdu letter writing, which so far had been obsessed with highly formal and hyperbolic salutations (alqab) to the addressee. Avoiding lengthy rhetoric, Ghalib wrote short messages in Urdu and Persian to cheer up even those who were mourning their dead. According to critics, Ghalib wouldn’t have developed this informal prose style if he had not been so excited by the quick sending and receiving of letters made possible by the new postal system. Could this “shortening” of literary expression after the arrival of a faster medium be compared to the present day shorthand lingo of cellular phone SMS? For many people in north India, the concepts of romance, longing for or meeting the beloved, or sending one’s regards etc., couldn’t be imagined more aptly than via Urdu poetry. Though it would not be correct to associate the use of Urdu language and poetry only with India’s Muslims, their social communication in general and greetings in particular were not possible without the use of Urdu she’rs (couplets), often composed on the spot by the writer to suit the situation. And this is the common element I find between Ghalib’s letters and the greeting messages, usually friendly and romantic, printed or written on Eid cards (Fig. 05).
2 Mathur, Saloni, "Wanted Native Views: Collecting colonial postcards of India," in Antionette Burton (ed.) Gender, Sexuality and Colonial Modernities, New York: Routledge, 1999, 95-115.
3 Although I have not looked exhaustively for earliest Divali cards, there are certainly no examples in the Priya Paul collection. For some insights on Divali cards and their association with Hindu nationalism, see Brosius, Christiane, Celebrating More Than the New Year: The Hindu Nationalist Greeting Cards, Tasveer Ghar, http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/57/
4 De Tassy, M. Garcin, Muslim Festivals in India and Other Essays, translated by M. Waseem, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 79.
5 Umar, Mohammad, Islam in Northern India during the Eighteenth Century, Delhi/Aligarh: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1993, p. 309.
6 The poem is titled Navid-e Masih (The promised arrival of the Messiah), and features a miniature style border with illustrations of birds in a garden, besides the regal insignia of the Hyderabad government.
7 Deogawanka, Sangeeta, Postal systems in Mughal period: A wrap-up, Postal History of India, http://postalhistoryofindia.blogspot.com/ (accessed January 11, 2011).
8 Silverstein, Adam J., Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
9 Anjum, Khaliq (ed.), Intekhab-e Khutoot-e Ghalib (Selection of Ghalib’s Letters), New Delhi: Monumental Publishers, 1994, p, 26.