Chasing the original image: An exploration of devotional visual culture at the shrine of Sailani Baba.
Amit Mahdeshiya and Shirley Abraham
This research and visual documentation project locates itself in the space of an urus around the shrine of the Sufi saint Sailani baba in Maharashtra. It attempts a layered way of exploring the traveling sites and images in the jatra (fair), starting with tracing the journey of the image which now commonly represents the saint in popular visual culture. The project explores the various folkloric, mythical, syncretic, geographical and transcultural flows that shape this mechanical reproduction- borrowing, exploiting and harmonizing with the contemporary popular visual culture and in turn enriching it. The devotional popular visual culture thriving around the shrine of Sailani Baba exemplifies the refurbishing and co-opting of the contemporary pan-Indian devotional popular visual culture, presenting us with a unique opportunity to explore the various influences and flows that mediate the spawning of such a rich and divergent material from one lone ‘original’ image. Additionally, the syncretic idiom in the representation of Sailani Baba is distinctive as it not only places him with other Hindu saints rather also places his image on the popular symbols of Hindu piety like the Shivalinga and Om. This urus endorses a range of devotional material which at one hand is homogenizing and on the other represents rare syncretism. This also manifests itself in the small traveling photo studios where vsiting pilgrims get themselves photographed along with the image of Sailani Baba interestingly in gestures typically found on calendars, posters etc. representing popular piety. Studying this space as a site of performance and ritual- where such gestures have come to the first response to being photographed makes it a significant and insightful site for exploration.