The power of art

May 21, 2023

The power of art

Tryna Lyons holds a doctoral degree in South Asian art history from the University of California-Berkeley, USA. Prior to that, she was educated at the American University of Paris. Her interests span a wide range. She is particularly fascinated by the works of traditional artists and religious practitioners. She has received grants from prestigious institutions such as the Fulbright Foundation, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the American Institute of Pakistan Studies and the Guggenheim Foundation. Tryna Lyons has been affiliated with various universities in Washington State, California and the UAE. Her scholarly works regularly appear in esteemed journals including ArtibusAsiae and Archives of Asian Art. Additionally, she has contributed book chapters on the art of religious rituals and South Asian art. Currently, she is working on a book exploring the wooden Muharram shrines of Pakistan. She recently spoke to The News on Sunday about her research on religious rituals, specifically focusing on the history and decorative aspects of the ta ziyah tradition in South Asia.


he News on Sunday (TNS): What conditioned you to become an art historian?

Dr Tryna Lyons (TL): I remember looking at books with reproductions of paintings when I was a child and feeling a strange longing to enter and learn about these illusory worlds that seemed so real. I can’t explain why, but the images exerted a calming effect on my mind.

TNS: Why did you choose art history?

TL: I can only say that it must have been that early fascination. Of course, when one visits a museum, the spell cast by great works of art is stronger than with reproductions in a book. They have a presence, a kind of ‘life’ in them. But for me that experience came later.

TNS: What do you cherish most about art history?

TL: I must mention my professors at the undergraduate level, especially Drs Lacaze and Weinmann. They were teachers in the classical sense, who took seriously Plato’s admonition that mere book learning is insufficient. He insisted that words must be “written on the soul of the hearer with understanding.” Teaching should be an interaction, a give-and-take between the educator and the student that includes questioning, even expressing disagreement. If not, the lesson will fail to hit home.

TNS: What knowledge and skills are essential for an art historian to excel in research and writing?

TL: Photography is an important skill art historians should master. Then, of course, there is a special way of looking, of noticing what is really going on in an artistic representation. You might say we learn to perceive what lies beneath the surface, searching out the bones and ligaments of the artwork.

TNS: How did the University of California-Berkeley help you become what you are today?

TL: I was incredibly fortunate that a fine scholar of South Asian art, Dr Joanna Williams, accepted me as a student. One of her unusual qualities was an ability to see past a rough or unpromising exterior and recognise the potential of her students. She suggested a topic for my first graduate seminar that later became my PhD thesis and, in 2004, my book The Artists of Nathadwara. For this research project, I spent a year with a family of traditional painters in Rajasthan. Among other cultural adaptations, I needed to turn my classroom Hindi into a language in which I could conduct interviews, discuss issues and feel at home. It was quite a learning experience. Dr Williams even came to Rajasthan to check on me halfway through my fieldwork year.

TNS: How do you divide and relate folk paintings and story-telling traditions among people of Rajasthan and other parts of the sub-continent?

TL: There are quite a few narrative traditions in Rajasthan that make use of visual props like large painted scrolls or wooden boxes with doors that can be opened or closed to show various episodes from the lives of folk heroes and deities e.g. the Pabuji and Dev Narayan pars. French scholar Michel Boivin has mentioned some now-lost narrative murals, perhaps dating to the 18th Century, at Jhulelal temples south of Thatta. One wonders whether these frieze-like paintings portraying events in Jhulelal’s life might have been based on similar scroll paintings. Of course, it’s only conjecture until some physical evidence turns up.

TNS: How are the painted scrolls used in Rajasthan?

TL: The Dev Narayan pars are used to tell the tale of a god revered by the Gujar herdsmen. A narrator, who sings and recites the story, moves back and forth in front of the 25-30 foot long cloth scroll while pointing out painted episodes to his audience. Performances take place at night, with five to 10 hours required for just two of the epic’s 17 episodes. This extensive saga is the subject of a correspondingly epic doctoral thesis by Joseph Miller (nearly 3,000 pages).

TNS: Who could possibly remember all this information, these poems and verses, and events?

TL: There is just one kind of person who can accomplish this mnemonic feat: the professional storyteller. Recall that the two great epics of ancient Greece were not written down until later on. They were recited by their composer, the blind poet Homer. In the same way, South Asia has its charans, barvas, jagas and mirasis. They hold in memory the genealogies of their patrons, including places of origin, great deeds and claims to fame. Often, these tales are encapsulated in a single, powerful image or an act of remarkable bravery.

TNS: Where do the Hussaini Brahmans fit into these story-telling traditions? What is the background of their claims?

TL: For the so-called Hussaini Brahmins (the Mohyals), the act of valour that launched their legend is their supposed defence of Imam Hussain [with whom Allah was pleased] on the battlefield at Karbala. Rather than enumerating all the events that led this Salt Range Hindu community to embrace their Shi`i brethren, let us simply admit that the hereditary bards of the Punjab are almost certain to have been involved. They were able to take advantage of caste and sectarian ambiguities to create a captivating backstory for an upwardly mobile group. The rest is history. I hope your readers will be able to access my chapter on this topic in the recent Routledge publication, Non-Shia Practices of Mu arram in South Asia and the Diaspora.

TNS: Are there other equally intriguing minority groups in our part of South Asia?

TL: Absolutely! Pakistan is situated at an historical crossroads. Sindh, in particular, was a site of trade and cultural exchange, a refuge for those fleeing persecution in Arab lands and elsewhere – but, of course, at the same time, vulnerable to invaders. I was privileged to review a new book, Africans in Pakistan, by German anthropologist Jurgen Wasim Frembgen. It tells the story of this diasporic community, estimated at 300,000 in Pakistan alone (a much smaller population is found in India). I’m fairly sure that you’ll learn much you didn’t know about these interesting people who have been living in your midst for nearly 1,200 years. I expect my review of the book to be published in Asian Ethnology’s spring issue this year.

The royal ta’ziyahs in Sorah Chauk, Kot Deji,— Photo by Tryna Lyons, 2009
The royal ta’ziyahs in Sorah Chauk, Kot Deji,— Photo by Tryna Lyons, 2009

South Asia has its charans, barvas, jagas and mirasis. They hold in memory the genealogies of their patrons, including places of origin, great deeds and claims to fame.

TNS: Do you think that the first colonial census in 1872 inculcated the idea of ‘separateness’ among the people of India?

TL: It certainly spurred competition among groups (religious, occupational, tribal, caste and so on). There’s evidence that some communities sought to redefine themselves in order to receive preferential treatment under the colonial régime. For instance, those classified as “martial races” had a better chance for military recruitment. That was one of the goals of the Mohyals (Hussaini Brahmins). However, I’ve never been convinced that the census was about “divide and rule” or setting colonial subjects against one another. As I see it, the British impulse towards taxonomy was more about trying to figure out a complex foreign culture. They thought that if they could get everybody classified properly, they’d be able to deal more effectively with complicated governance issues.

TNS: Some Sunni Muslims also took out ta ziyah processions. What were the reasons?

TL: I’ve come to understand that various motivations may lead individuals or groups to commemorate Muharram in this manner. Many people view Karbala as a shining example of the righteous few taking a stand against tyranny. Thus, when Bihari and UP camp-dwellers at Mirpur (Dhaka) parade ta`ziyahs, they are drawing attention to the unjust treatment they’ve received ever since 1971 at the hands of the Bangladesh government. As they explained to me when I met them back in 2003, they are Sunni Muslims but they revere Hussain [with whom Allah was pleased] because he stood up for the oppressed.

You are correct that Sunnis are apt to make use of ta`ziyahs, particularly in the Punjab. There’s a historical reason for this. Following their mid-19th Century annexation of the Punjab, the British came to the conclusion that they could best regulate communal festivals by setting out procession routes and issuing licences (including timings, precedence, the height of parade objects and so on). The result was a levelling of the field, with unintended consequences like increased sectarian competition and shifting affiliations. Hindus had any number of festivals for which they took out colourful processions, but Sunni Muslim holy days tended to be marked by prayers and recitations rather than public display. The Muharram rite, on the other hand, was visually and emotionally appealing to a wide audience. Religious leaders felt that it was best suited for adoption by the Muslim community as a whole, with the goal of presenting a united front against the Hindu and Sikh populations, which also tended to band together. As the sentiment for self-rule grew in the early 20th Century, so did what might be termed a “pan-Islamic” public ceremony.

TNS: How do you see the oldest ta`ziyahs of our region, such as in Rohri, Sindh?

TL: I must confess that I am more interested in aesthetic concerns and questions of viewer reception than in the political and social considerations that invariably come up when Muharram is being discussed. The artefacts produced for this festival range from alams, swords and shields to model cradles, palanquins, mehendis and immense “arks of salvation.” These objects are the inspired creations of an array of artisans: wood carvers; painters on glass, mica and wood; and workers in papier-mâché, among others. Each sacred structure is the pride of its neighbourhood, with inter-mohallah competition sometimes arising over whose is the finest. When an artisan explains, in a quiet voice, now and then pausing thoughtfully, how it is that this particular processional shrine is able to convey the emotion of sorrow better than the others in his town (Chiniot, in this case), he catches my attention. Or, when a ta`ziyah’s guardian tells of a seemingly otherworldly event that took place in its vicinity, I listen because these things suggest not the power of art but the powers art can make visible to us.

Mor Shah jo Matam, Rohri. — Photo by Tryna Lyons, 2010
Mor Shah jo Matam, Rohri. — Photo by Tryna Lyons, 2010

That said, we must admit that there are no very old zarihs or ta`ziyahs in South Asia. By this, I mean that the pattern or design may be venerable, but the sacred object has been remade several times according to that initial pattern. We know that such structures are routinely declared za’if or, when badly damaged, shaheed. They may then be buried and made anew. The oldest processional shrine that I’ve been able to authenticate is in Hyderabad (Sindh). It dates to the very end of the 18th Century. Of course, there may be older ta`ziyahs, but the supporting documentation is missing.

Rohri’s Mor Shah jo Matam figures in the group of sacred objects re-made many times after an archaic pattern. Mor Shah was born to a Rizvi Syed family in the second half of the 17th Century. According to local lore, his extreme devotion to Hussain [with whom Allah was pleased] led him to return again and again to Karbala, making the trek on foot each time. Finally, the day came when he knew he was too old to continue these visits. He went to the imam’s tomb and, weeping, fell asleep. Hussain [with whom Allah was pleased] then appeared in a dream or vision, telling him to return home and promising he would send some of his people to Rohri. Not long after, two faqirs arrived from Iraq with a sketch of a sacred object he should build. They also brought with them a sword and a shield. What we see at Mor Shah jo Matam (Rohri), where ’ashura is a processional shrine very similar to the Iranian nakhl, which was also hung with swords, shields and daggers.

The wooden base of Rohri’s matam is kept from year to year, with its superstructure of date palms added just before the start of Muharram. The original shield and sword were copied — there are now nine shields and two swords. A shrine of similar appearance has been paraded in Dhaka since at least the early 19th Century. The shape and décor of the three artefacts are comparable, but the meaning assigned to them could not be more different. Iran’s nakhl is simply a large, resplendent bier for the fallen imam. Dhaka’s Kala Pahar is explained, surprisingly, as Caliph Yazid’s armoury. Meanwhile, Rohri’s matam is understood as the barrier of palm fronds set up by Karbala’s Bani Asad to shield the corpses of the 72 martyrs from desecration by wild animals. These interpretive shifts are liable to happen when a foreign model migrates to a new environment. In the case of Mor Shah’s Matam, the faqirs told the elderly man that if the imam was pleased with his efforts, he would be sure to return to Rohri every year on the night that marks the dawn of the ninth of Muharram.

TNS: Which other ta`ziyahs did you find remarkable in Sindh?

TL: Of course, historical Sindh comprised a greater area than it does today. It included the ancient city of Multan, with its historic ta`ziyahs. They were the subject of my essay in a volume on Shi`i art and ritual (People of the Prophet’s House, London, 2015). As for the now truncated Sindh province of our times, he extraordinary artistry is seen in the royal ta`ziyahs of Kot Deji. There is some dispute about which craftsmen built and decorated them (suffice it to say that Sikhs, Kashmiris, Rajasthanis and local artisans are all in the running).

Worth mentioning in this context are the ta`ziyahs and related artefacts paraded by several sufi establishments. We can’t always be sure whether they were added later on (as was perhaps the case at Sehwan) or are relics of a time when sectarian distinctions were differently configured. For example, I was shown the ta`ziyah that makes the rounds of Old Delhi from the Nizamuddin Dargah. Great antiquity is claimed for this object, which its caretakers claim dates to the days of Emir Taimur. As historians, we would like to differentiate truth from legend whenever possible.

TNS: Around 1850, art schools in India were formed, and in 1875 an art school in Lahore was established. All these schools were meant to improve the craft of hereditary artists, but became schools of the elite. What was it that worked against the original idea?

TL: You’re correct. The art schools were not very successful at attracting hereditary artisans. These skilled workers belonged to lower echelons of society and had little access to formal education. Without a sponsor, they found it difficult to navigate the colonial bureaucracy or pay for their studies. As for 19th Century British administrators, their objective in founding the schools was to train a cohort of craftsmen skilled in decorative art with the long-term goal of building up local industrial production. They wanted artists with “good taste” (that is, European aesthetic sensibilities) who understood perspective and other fundamentals of Western representation. They did not want “fine artists” interested in self-expression. However, we know that the hereditary craftsmen had their own fine art traditions. For example, naqqashi painting, with its origins in Persian art, lends itself to delightful murals on themes related to the world of nature. One of my favourite research projects involved pursuing the motif of the hamagul, a mythical tree that produces every imaginable kind of flower, fruit, vegetable and herb. My essay on this topic in Themes, Histories, Interpretations, Ahmedabad, 2013 could be read in this regard. Interviews with descendants of the Multani painters, the study of old sketches in family collections and discussions with the present-day owners of the palaces and other sites where the “marvellous tree” can be seen, convinced me that this image conveys deeply felt convictions about the unity of being. You might call it hama ust for the common man.

TNS: What books should be on an art historian’s nightstand?

TL: Ah, now you are asking a difficult question. When I was at Berkeley, they used to call art historians the “theory heads.” They read too much post-modern French philosophy, and, once they found a theory they liked, they tried their best to make the art conform to it. So, as for books on the nightstand, at least for those of us who study other cultures, I’d say that literature in the local language(s), including fiction and poetry, might take us further than Barthes, Foucault or Derrida.

TNS: What is a must-read for an aspiring art historian?

TL: Sometimes, reading the mémoire of a historical personage can almost collapse time. For instance, the Confessions of St Augustine was penned over 1,600 years ago, but it is so lively and of the moment that the reader feels he is the companion of an extraordinary person, charismatic but certainly not devoid of human foibles. It’s a similar experience with the Babur Nama. That’s why I was so enchanted to climb the Takht-i-Babari this past winter and gaze at Kallar Kahar lake) as though seated beside a long-lost friend, with whose sense of humour, love of gardens and quick temper I was familiar. Historical reading in the mémoire genre should capture any aspiring historian’s imagination.

TNS: Could you please introduce us to your forthcoming book?

TL: Thank you for asking. I have been researching and writing about Pakistan’s processional shrines since 2004 when I first visited your country. Of course, I had witnessed Muharram before that, in India and Bangladesh, but I was only really taken with the topic when I came here. Most of the parade objects in India are ephemeral, made of card, paper, panni and so on, but in the north, they are more likely to be constructed of permanent materials and exquisitely embellished. Of course, some areas are off-limits to foreign visitors, but I have been fortunate enough to complete documentation at many locales in the Punjab, Sindh and Baltistan. When I was teaching in the UAE, I also had the chance to meet with expatriate Shi`ahs from Khyber Pakhunkhwa. They recreate some of their ritual objects inside their imambargah in Abu Dhabi. Without the kind assistance of so many people on the ground, I’m sure this project would have taken far longer than it has. I hope to bring it to completion soon.

The interviewer has a PhD in history from the University of Malaya, Malaysia. His areas of interest are peasant history, colonial history, heritage and history of archaeology. He may be reached at

The power of art