Sufi Shrines and Built Environments in Visual Culture:
The Significance of Historical Resonances in Present-Day Flows

Sandria B. Freitag

Introduction

Sufi shrines provide a unique entry point for exploring the implications of changes over time in popular visual-culture artifacts and believers’ practices while interacting with these artifacts. Not least, the shrines serve as locations centered by genealogical orderings, an important characteristic for theorizing about their functions that we explore in the next section of this essay. Further, the inclusiveness that is a trademark of South Asian Sufism in general, and saints’ shrines in particular, opens up a popular space inviting in a wide range of participants engaging in action (that we’ll come to call “performative” productivity) to shape meanings – another important aspect for theorizing, discussed below. Synchronicity in these interactions of performative productivity, in turn, keeps genealogical knowledge current and relevant, while also enabling ambiguity and negotiation to cope with change and challenge.

 Consequently, the shrines allow us to look through and beyond the immediate spaces occupied by these specific built environments and their popular visual-culture representations, to their broader, meaning-laden place in South Asian everyday life. As a historian surrounded by ethnographers and other scholars interested in contemporary developments emerging at the shrines, my purpose here may be to remind all of us that current phenomena do, in fact, resonate in part because they participate in a very long series of precedents. Indeed, even the transnational flows that served as the focal point of the Heidelberg workshop “Changing Popular Visual Cultures of Muslim Shrines: Transcultural Flows and Urban Spaces” (2010) are also part of a long-lived tradition, as both the appeal of particular shrines and their renown have moved into, within, and out from India since Sufis first arrived in South Asia in the 12th/13th centuries (in flows that brought these Sufis from the Middle East and beyond). Certainly from the time dargah complexes were established around sufi saints’ tombs in the 14th century (in a movement that encompassed not only India but also the graves of holy men in North Africa, Central Asia, and Iran). These sites and their material mementos have served as both stationary and mobile points in a much larger universe. If the scale and, sometimes, the directions of these flows have altered over time, the impulses and sense of authority infusing the flows provide important continuities.

It is to examine the resonances of these precedents, particularly in terms of the interplay between, on the one hand, past expectations and experiences and, on the other hand, contemporary developments, that is the purpose of this historically focused essay. Let us begin by looking at helpful theorizing that contributes to the framing of this topic.

Theorising a framework

Fig. 02

Fig. 01

Central to our understanding is an emphasis on the reception of these images, rather than production and the intent or meanings issuing from the producers and artists involved. A number of theorists of popular visual culture provide us with helpful explorations of the role played by identity-formation in this reception, which we will take as given, here.1 Beyond that basic level of understandings of reception, there is an immensely significant frame provided by what Christopher Pinney has called “performative productivity” in a series of essays located within a body of theory that has grown up around the movement for an 'anthropology of art'.2 This movement focuses on the premise that art is not about meaning and communication but about doing– that is, this theoretical frame deliberately moves away from the emphasis on linguistic analogies and towards scrutiny of the 'acts' committed through visual culture, or – to put it a bit differently – an insistence on a study of materiality that resists the “linguistic turn.”3

Fig. 03

Although Pinney himself has developed this concept in several directions,4 it is, first, his understanding that “(i)nstead of exegesis, instead of an outpouring of language – there is a poetics of materiality and corporeality around the images”5, and, second, his emphasis on action – performative productivity – that are most helpful for us: consumption and viewing function as aspects of performance in a dialogic and fundamentally material interaction with the objects themselves. Not least in expressions of this performativity, with evidence from the early 20th century, are the simple acts of bringing home (and perhaps framing) a print like this one of Nagore Sharif from the 1910s (figure 01), or collecting either postcard representations of shrines (Ajmer: figure 02) or Manchester textile labels of similar buildings, such as the Taj (figure 03). (In the next section we will examine more closely how these acts, such as ‘bringing home’ or ‘collecting’, are significant for our purposes.)


1. For a short discussion of these theorists’ contributions, see Freitag, “Consumption and Identity…”, http://www.tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/96/index.html .

2. This theoretical approach began with the work of Alfred Gell, in his posthumously published Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998).  Since Gell had no time to reconsider or revise this seminal work, perhaps most useful for our purposes is the essay collection by his colleagues, Beyond Aesthetics:  Art and the Technologies of Enchantment (edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Thomas (Oxford:  Berg, 2001) For other approaches that seem less apt to our purposes – not least for identifying these processes as something new – see, for instance, Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (U Minn, 1996).

3. First point is taken from Thomas’ introduction in Beyond Aesthetics,  p. 4.  See also, for instance, Pinney’s protest essay “Things Happen:  Or, From Which Moment Does That Object Come,” in Miller (ed), Materiality (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2005):  this collection includes provocative disagreements between Pinney and Miller.

4. “Introduction” in Dwyer and Pinney (eds), Pleasure and the Nation… (New Delhi, Oxford Univ Press, 2001), p. 21.

5. Pinney, “Piercing the skin” (his article in Beyond Aesthetics) p. 169.

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