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Beaming the Message Large and Clear

Urvashi Butalia

By Jurgen Wasim Frembgen
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 158, Rs. 1295.00


The poster, by its very definition, is an ephemeral product, and has only recently acquired the status of popular art. Tracing its history in a long essay entitled ‘Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity’, Susan Sontag differentiates between the political poster and that used for advertising and attracting consumers to particular goods. She draws on Harold Hutchinson’s definition of posters in his book The Poster: An Illustrated History (London 1968): A poster is essentially a large announcement, usually with a pictorial element, usually printed on paper and usually displayed on a wall or billboard to the general public. Its purpose is to draw attention to whatever the advertiser is trying to promote and to impress some message on the passer by. The visual or pictorial element provides the initial attraction—and it must be striking enough to catch the eye of the passer-by and to overcome the counter attractions of other posters and it usually needs a supplementary verbal message which follows up and amplifies the pictorial theme. The large size of most posters enables this verbal message to be read clearly at a distance.   Identifying the poster as an integral element of modern public space, Sontag links its development to the capitalist world and the industrialized economy ‘whose goal is ever increasing mass consumption’ (in the case of the advertising poster) and the rhetoric of mass participation that forms the basis of the ‘secular centralized nation-state.’ While both Hutchinson’s definition and Sontag’s differentiation remain useful, modern day posters now occupy many other, related spaces, enlarging upon the purpose of political and commercial mobilization. In The Friends of God, the author presents a selection of devotional posters featuring Sufi saints. Identifying such modern bazaar prints of Muslim saints and their shrines as an important medium of popular piety, Wasim Frembgen argues that while Hindu devotional posters have been widely discussed and analysed, the Islamic devotional poster has received much less attention despite its widespread presence in the Islamic world, and despite its mass consumption by devotees in different places.   Condemned as kitsch, such popular art therefore remains outside the realm of serious scholarship. Yet, not only do they provide a sort of counter narrative, but in their very use of bright, lurid colours, such posters contest the prosaicness of the official, normative, intellectualized Islam. And while the relegating of such posters to kitch or ‘cheap’ art is partially ...

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