Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Ishtihar Tasveeren

Visual Culture of Early Urdu Magazines

Page 2


Along with print technology from Europe, there came European commercial products and their advertising images appearing in newspapers and magazines in English as well as local languages. Looking at a few mainstream advertisements published in English press in early 20th century, a distinct feature of representation seems to be the contrast between European and Indian facial features and lifestyles, as if different products were meant for clients of different classes or identities, even if the product was imported from Europe. This is interesting because the two contrasting advertisements were often published in the same English periodicals or printed spaces that were seen or read by Europeans as well as the Indian elite.7  But often, the European dress or mannerism is also presented to the Indian readers (such as in a 1930 Urdu advertisement for a health supplement drug Okasa) as a role model of modernism which the Indians (or Urdu readers) ought to adopt. The style of art or illustration used in much of this print culture is definitely influenced by photography, even though the photographs themselves are not used so liberally due to technical limitations. Much of colour printing in early era was done in Europe since colour presses were not so much in vogue in India until the start of 20th century.

Many illustrated Urdu newspapers and magazines had started appearing in north India from the middle of 19th century, mostly published from Delhi and Lahore, some of the first being Avadh Akhbar8  and Dehli Urdu Akhbar which was started in 1836 by Maulvi M. Baqar. These were followed by many other periodicals, and soon there appeared some women’s magazines too, catering mostly to the purdah women in ashraf or elite families of north India. Among them, Tahzib un-Niswan was started at Lahore in 1898, whereas Khatun of Aligarh ran from 1904 to 1914. Similarly, Ismat, started by Delhi’s Urdu novelist Rashid-ul Khairi in 1908 ran the longest until 1950s. These magazines raised important social issues, especially the degrading position of Muslim women in society, even though reaffirmed their domestic roles by dealing with topics like sewing, cooking, childrearing, and home economics etc.9  Many of them carried images not only to illustrate the topics but also for decoration. This popular print culture also featured illustrated Urdu books on cookery, embroidery and other similar topics that were quite sought after in the families. The images at this point carried a somewhat European style of human features and backdrops, and there was no hesitation in the depiction of human body, even of women.

In some of the early Urdu magazines, the printed visuality and ‘beauty’ is not taken purely for its sensuousness. There have been efforts to connect or compliment the images with ideas in written word, especially poetry, which is supposed to take the images to a higher level. Many magazines carried images of natural beauty or pretty women, usually in colour, accompanied by creative captions and often complete poems written to pay tribute to the image. Some magazines, such as Alamgir of Lahore (circa 1920-30s) carried reproductions of oleographs depicting scenic beauty (often painted by the local artists like Hakim Faqir M. Chishti or Prof. Allah Bakhsh), which were ‘commented upon’ in romantic poetry by well known poets.

Delhi and Lahore were not only great centres of print production but even had complementary business relations until 1947 with a large postal traffic between them.10  Besides books and magazines, these two centres also produced other popular ephemera such as religious and decorative posters and calendar art that was sought after all over India.11  But the 1947 Partition of India gave a big blow to the print culture as these large business centres were cut off. The family business of Ismat magazine was carried from Delhi to Karachi by Rashid’s son Raziq-ul Khairi, and continued there for long. But the partition also reoriented many businesses on both sides of the border, and after a brief lull, Delhi’s Urdu print culture picked up slowly. There appeared many other popular magazines in Urdu from Delhi around 1950, some of them continuing until the end of the 20th century.

Whether in the magazines meant specifically for women or for general readers, when it came to attracting potential buyers towards a product, the female body has always been used as a staple feature in advertising right from the time commercial advertisements started appearing in India. Urdu magazines and their advertisements were also not devoid of such gender stereotypes. The female body not only solicited the attention of the male viewer, it also assuaged masculine anxiety in reproducing and reaffirming traditional roles for women. This regressive tendency of the media towards women is somewhat paradoxical given the advertising industry’s self projection as the face of “modernity” and “progress”. In Urdu printed literature, most of the images and advertisement messages reflected a romantic notion of the female body, largely promoting cosmetics and beauty products. Moreover, the modern woman also had many more chores to do in her daily life, as the advertisements showed - maintaining new standards of domestic cleanliness, handling the new gadgets of kitchen and laundry, and using newer ways of keeping the husband and children happy.12  In a popular Urdu novel of 19th century, Mirat ul-‘Arus (the Bride’s Mirror) the protagonist Asghari’s house was in such perfect order “as if the house were a machine, with all its works in good order”.


7 Saeed, Yousuf, ‘Setting Gender Roles in Early Indian Print Advertisements’, Marg, Mumbai: Marg Publications, Vol.62 No.4, June 2011, 84-91.
8 Stark, Ulrike, ‘Politics, Public Issues and the Promotion of Urdu Literature: Avadh Akhbar, the First Urdu Daily in Northern India’, Annual of Urdu Studies 18, 2003, 66–94.
9 Minault, Gail, ‘Urdu Women’s Magazines in the Early Twentieth Century’, Manushi, No. 48, September-October 1988, 2-9.
10 Sunaga, Emiko, ‘A Study of the Urdu Print Culture of South Asia since the Late Eighteenth Century’, Kyoto Bulletin of Islamic Area Studies, 6 (March 2013), 136–144.
11 Saeed, Yousuf, Muslim Devotional Art in India, New Delhi: Routledge, 2012.
12 McGowan, Abigail, ‘Modernity at Home: Leisure, Autonomy and the New Woman in India’, Tasveer Ghar, http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/95/
13 Ahmed, Nazir Ahmad, The Bride's Mirror: A Tale of Life in Delhi a Hundred Years Ago, trans. G.E. Ward, Delhi: Permanent Black, 1869.

Select Page Previous Next
Visit The Gallery
Tasveer Ghar Home - Gallery - Disclaimer on images - Contact us - UnSubscriber