Sarover Zaidi

Arts Research
2016-2017

Grant Period: over one year and six months

Sarover Zaidi is a research scholar and was based at the Max Plank institute for religious diversity, Germany for her research. In the past, she has worked with INTACH as a research fellow for the Documentation of Islamic Iconography in India, with a focus on metalwork in Shi’a iconography. She also worked as a Guest Lecturer for a course on Religion and Society at the Ambedkar University, Delhi and designed and taught a course on Sufism and Islam at the Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She has written essays and articles in various national and international journals and presented papers at seminars and conferences. Sarover enters this project as someone whose work has focused on religious architecture and quotidian life in urban space in Bombay for some years now.

This grant will enable Sarover to trace the manners in which the Shi’a community in contemporary India deploys the Panja or the Fatima’s Hand as part of a larger collection of visual and material artefacts, to show veneration for the Prophet Muhammad’s family during Muharram. The proposed locations for this project are Dongri and Bhendi Bazar in Mumbai. Dongri as the key location for this project is very important. Besides holding the key mosques of Shi’a groups, it has a thriving marketplace, catering to an active clientele of Shi’a and Sunni patrons of Muharram. The Fatima’s hand, also known as the Panja or Panjatan, is the most common artefact sold here. It represents the five significant people in the Shi’a faith, namely, Prophet Muhammad, Ali, Hassan, Hussain and Fatima. Sarover will explore the ways in which a Muslim group not only works strongly with images, icons and material artefacts to assert its identity, but also articulates a specific form of worship without entirely destabilising its location within the larger Muslim public sphere of India. Tracing the production and usage of the Panja, Sarover will look at the ethos of the artefact within the Shi'ite tradition and the sensorium it generates. She will examine the ways in which this artefact has been received beyond those who worship it and in Muslim communities in general.

Sarover will interview artisans who make these artefacts that obfuscate the debates on iconography and worship of images in Islam, and explore the material and spiritual aspects of decorating and putting up the Panjas and Alams throughout the ten days of Muharram. She will visit the Imambaras; watch Muharram processions and other rituals that use the Panja as an object of worship to show veneration towards the martyrs of Karbala through mourning at various occasions. Simultaneously, she will examine the shifts in design and aesthetics of the objects through technological advances and its impact on the market of these products.

One of the aims of this project is also to look into the responses of the conservative Muslim group to iconography in the context of the various debates currently within Islam, in India and Dongri in particular. This is because, of late, Dongri has emerged as the centre of conservative Islam in Mumbai.  

The outcome of this project will be a book. A photo documentation of different types of artefacts and their locations of production will be submitted as deliverables to IFA.  In the past, IFA supported Epsita Halder to work on the Karbala narratives across different districts of West Bengal. The two projects resonate with each other in various ways. They both look at the ways in which the Shi’as commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and consolidate their identity as a community that, unlike other Muslim groups, use images and icons in their religious practices.  The decision to support these projects is embedded in our aim to support work that investigate marginalised and unexplored areas in the arts and culture and offer new readings of artistic practices.