In the 1970s and 1980s, filmmaker Yousuf Saeed would regularly visit the Urdu Bazaar opposite Jama Masjid in Old Delhi ahead of Eid with his parents to buy visually attractive Eid postcards from the 25-odd temporary shops jostling for space on the street. They’d then write short greetings and salutations for friends and family across the world, and in return the postman would start bringing a rich and colourful harvest of Eid cards from the other end as well.
Cut to two days before Eid al-Fitr 2018, navigating through the labyrinthine bylanes of Chawri Bazaar, repeated enquiries for Eid cards are mostly met with blank faces, or negative headshakes from the plethora of wedding card sellers that now dominate the area around Jama Masjid. Urdu Bazaar itself has been reduced to just a couple of shops, and it is only after about 45 minutes of asking every other shopkeeper that one is suggested that Gali Satte Wali might have some Eid card sellers.
I found one.
While Rakhi (August 26) greetings have already hit the wholesale cards market with full force, six packets of Eid cards sit tidily in a lone shop in Gali Satte Wali’s Ishwar Market. The shop boy, Mohan, tells me each card costs Rs 10.50 wholesale, and Rs 30 retail. “Before we used to get 50 designs of just Eid cards, but it has fallen vastly over the years, and for the past two years it’s just been really low, mainly because of WhatsApp and email, so we’re just doing six designs now,” laments PR Ray, the owner of Signature Cards Shop and wholesale cards printers. He adds that it’s Srinagar, Assam, Kerala and exports that mainly drive his Eid cards sales, which don’t hold a candle to the lakhs of Valentine’s Day cards he sells every year.
Big corporations such as Archies Ltd have been not been as acutely hit, vis-à-vis Eid cards. “This has always been a niche market for us, so the consumption has been stable over the past 20-25 years. We still print a set of 8-10 new designs every two years. But yes, overall the cards market has suffered a huge deal because of WhatsApp, SMSes and emails,” says Youhan Aria, Head, Corporate Communications, Archies Ltd.
In today’s Digital Age, when even SMSes are becoming obsolete, handwritten messages by post have become a rarity, not only in India but even in countries such as Pakistan, where people question the expense of Rs 40-50 for a single card, plus postage, when a WhatsApp image costs nothing. “Why should I purchase a Rs50 Eid card? I have my cell phone and laptop to greet my friends and relatives on Eid,” a Lahore-based youngster tells Pakistan’s Nation.com in a story on e-culture drowning the Eid card tradition.
Saeed, co-founder and director of Tasveer Ghar, has himself not sent an Eid card in years, but that did not deter him from researching and writing an exhaustive essay on the culture for his website, which has digitised hundreds of postcards from various collections. The 50-year-old has tried to document the early days of Eid cards in South Asia, especially to see “how they emerged as popular vehicles of iconography across cultures via the postal networks”. Going through the archival collections of Priya Paul (Chairperson of Apeejay Park Hotels), Reena Mohan (film-maker), Omar Khan (author of ‘Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj’) as well as his own, he found an interesting story by means of how the older Eid postcards were more European in design and Islamic symbolism intensified in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. An observation corroborated by Archies’ Aria.
FROM CHRISTMAS TO EID
It is assumed that while Christmas postcards started appearing towards the end of the 19th century in Europe and America, the earliest known cards with Indian visuals or made in India date back to around 1900s. These were mostly those postcards with Indian ‘native views’ to give a glimpse to a European recepient. Paul’s extensive collection interestingly shows that the earlier Eid cards — from the 1930s — didn’t necessarily all carry Islamic images, but seemed to be inspired by Christmas greeting cards. An example would be of an aeroplane showering gifts on children, which is acutely reminiscent of Santa Claus doing the same too.
But prior to this, it’s not that people didn’t send Eid greetings. In fact, sometimes children would send greetings messages and would we rewarded with gifts or money in return. Saeed’s essay quotes Delhi journalist Asad Kidwai, who says these messages were originally called Eidi. And even moulvis wrote such messages of prayers and well wishes for the rich Muslims, only to be presented with gifts and money in return.
But these were personal missives. The need for more mass mailing came in with migration to other parts of the country and world. This practice was facilitated with the advent of printing technology and in the 19th century and further by the expansion of the railway network, as the dependence on Mughal-era daak chaukis reduced.
In the late 1800s, Indian companies such as H.A. Mirza (Delhi), Gobindram Oodeyram (Jaipur), Rewachand Motumal & Sons (Karachi), Melaram (Peshawar) and Johny Stores (Karachi) began printing picture postcards. But these were more for the European consumer. A 2015 Dawn article says, “Hafiz Qammaruddin & Sons, H. Ghulam Muhammad & Sons and Muhammad Hussain & Brothers in Lahore, Mahboob Al Matabah in Delhi, and Eastern Commercial Agency, Shabbar T Corporation and Bolton Fine Art Lithographers in Bombay were amongst the earliest companies that came into the business of printing Eid cards in India. Postcards with Indian Muslim architecture, produced by Raphael Tuck in London, were also used for Eid.”
SECULARISM ON A CARD
While the visuals were still Western, the addition of Urdu poetry and verses would add the Eid touch. Paul’s collection has many used and unused Eid cards from the 1930-40s in Lahore, which feature images imported from Europe, stamped with messages of Eid greetings in Urdu. Saeed speculates that it could have been that postcards were imported in bulk from Europe and then stamped with Urdu/Arabic phrases Eid mubarak or Assalamu-aleikum (salutation) on the front and poetic messages at the back to make them suitable as an Eid greeting.
But often these images would be carefully chosen. For instance in one card, a poetic reference for Eid greetings between ‘ashiq (lover) and ma’shuq (beloved) is made for a photograph of an unidentified European dancer/actress; an Urdu couplet for a portrait of a smiling young Caucasian woman starts with the line “When I saw (her) eyebrows, I could imagine the Eid crescent…” Other cards would feature Indian actresses, and even women who would now not conform to the stereotyped “pious Muslim look”.
Another example of the migratory influences would be the inclusion of sailing ships in many cards — a motif prevalent in the 20th century — which could have multitudes of meanings, from ‘messages from overseas’ to a desire of travel to meet someone on Eid, or even a pilgrimage, explains the essay. Among the collections found, there were several that seemed to have Turkish influences as well with prominent depiction of the crescent moon in Urdu verse as well as symbolism. This includes the crescent and star icon that has been Turkey’s national symbol and which has been appropriated as Eid iconography as a sign of the sighting of moon, explains Saeed, adding several examples of repurposing other ‘native view’ cards — such as Jama Masjid of Delhi, Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque or the Shrine of Salim Chishti — by printing Urdu couplets or Eid Mubarak messages by Indian printers.
INTENSIFICATION OF RELIGIOUS ICONS ON EID CARDS
Saeed admits there is a gap in his research between the 1950s and 1980s, but he did notice a growth in the use of religious icons in the late 1980s onwards. These included images of Mecca, Medina, Quranic calligraphy, crescent-and-star icons, pious praying women and babies, and occasionally, romantic rose bouquets. Aria agrees, saying, “the crescent moon and calligraphy are typical of Eid cards”, though now there has been an increase of embellishments such as glitter and embossing as well. One reason for this, Saeed says could be the transition of these greetings from postcards to folded cards that would need to be enclosed in an envelope. “Since postcards are sent openly without an envelope and are hence possibly exposed to being treated in a disrespectful manner. Even the touch of non-Muslims on a card’s postal journey would have been sacrilegious. I noticed that almost all Eid cards using the sacred icons of Mecca and Quran etc. are large folding cards to be sent necessarily sealed in an envelope, and mostly produced more recently than in the early 20th century,” he writes.
For Ray, in Chawri Bazaar though, the shift has been from darker colours and iconography to more roses and floral prints, “because then I think non-Muslims feel more comfortable to give it to their Muslim friends… they’re also popular in the Middle East”.
While the Internet gets clogged with well-meaning wishes thanks to cheerful Indians every day, and on every occasion with more and more websites offering electronic cards and images to be circulated en masse, some even accompanied with music and prayer recitations, there is no denying that many miss the tangibility of touch and personalised notes that would turn an otherwise generic card into a keepsake.
Shruti Chakraborty is an editor with Sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. This article borrows from the research and collection of Yousuf Saaed, filmmaker and co-founder and director of Tasveer Ghar, who has written the Eid al-Fitr overview for Sahapedia, and his essay titled ‘Eid Mubarak: Cross-cultural Image Exchange in Muslim South Asia’.