In the region that became West Pakistan, Lahore and Karachi had been the major centres of printing even before 1947. North India’s most prolific poster producer, Brijbasi, had a sprawling business on Karachi’s Bunder Road – their 1930 colour posters were even printed in Germany. But Punjab’s Lahore and Amritsar had an older and more bazaar-based tradition of printmaking and lithography starting in the nineteenth century, comparable to Calcutta’s print culture of the same time. In fact, Lahore had hundreds of talented designers, painters, calligraphists, bookbinders, and later, engravers and printers even before the arrival of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (d. 1839), some of their art and skills are still being bequeathed today.

For instance, one finds a Hindu religious chromolithograph printed by Kirpa Ram engraver of Anarkali, Lahore, showing a devotee Dhyanu Bhagat presenting his severed head to goddess Durga, with a title and lines of Punjabi poetry in Urdu script, probably dated circa 1930. Further pre-1947 religious as well as nationalistic colour posters were published (with Urdu titles and bylines) by other Punjab publishers like Pandit Ram Saran (Firozpur), Mehta Halftone Co and Aror Bans Press, the latter two being block makers and publishers from Lahore. A 1930 Urdu advertisement of the Aror Bans Press, a business that started around 1882, is titled Dharmik tasveeren (religious images) informing the readers that “if they wish to decorate their homes with the pictures of Lord Rama, Krishna and other deities and brave leaders, they must buy the pictures made by the Aror Bans Press, Anarkali, Lahore”.

In 1947, the family’s scion, Anand Prakash Bajaj, shifted the business to Delhi and in a few decades started Mayapuri, a popular film magazine in Hindi, besides a children’s comic magazine Lotpot.

There were direct and prolific business relations between cities like Lahore and Delhi, or Karachi and Bombay until 1947, including products of printing presses such as books, calendars and posters, manufactured in one town and distributed in another. For instance, Lahore’s Aror Bans Press was also the distributing agent of Delhi’s Imperial calendar company and so on. While a poster with Qura’nic calligraphy produced by the Taj Company of Lahore got sold and put up in a house in Meerut (Uttar Pradesh), an Islamic poster from the 1940s published by Hemchandar Bhargava of Delhi (actually printed in Bombay) got distributed all over India by Hafiz Qamrud Din and Sons of Mochi darwaza, Lahore, who appear to have been prominent booksellers and poster makers.

A large number of Hindu publishers of Lahore produced Hindu religious books such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hanuman Chalisa, and others in Urdu which were distributed in the rest of North India. Jantaris – almanacs (also known by Hindus as panchang or kal nirnai) which contain horoscopes, astrologically calculated suitable dates and timings to start important daily chores, according to the Hindu as well as the Hijri calendars – were also a popular item. Pandit Girdhari Lal Munajjim of Sialkot (now in Pakistan) began publishing his Mashhur-e Alam Jantari in Urdu in 1896, which turned into a flourishing business that was brought to Delhi by his son and grandson in 1947 and continues to be published a century later in chaste Urdu, with a countrywide distribution. Even though the partition of Punjab and western India has been the focus of this essay, one should not ignore the simultaneous partition of Bengal in 1947 and its impact on popular visual culture. For instance, Dhaka was a thriving centre of print and book publishing which got disrupted by the Partition. Pakistan, Bangladesh too had a thriving culture of Sufi shrines, local holy festivals, folk devotional music and popular visual arts that continued to remain in vogue even after the political events of 1947 and 1971.

Among the popular printed ephemera that circulated between South Asian cities later separated by the Partition were greeting cards for festivals like the Eid-ul Fitr. Lahore and Bombay were the centres of production of such picture cards that Muslim families sent by post to friends and well-wishers every Eid. While the earliest Eid cards carried images imported from Europ – even Christmas cards were recycled for Eid by stamping Eid Mubarak in Urdu over them – later Eid cards featured specifically Islamic or Indo-Islamic iconography and Urdu poetry.

Many examples of such cards from the 1930–1950s (for instance in the Priya Paul Collection of Popular Art) reveal a heavy postal traffic between Delhi, Lahore and Bombay (besides other towns like Lucknow, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, etc). Many popular Urdu periodicals published from the late-19th century onwards from Lahore and Delhi had a large circulation on either side. They also carried advertisements of commercial products and brands that catered to a wide region all over South Asia. The Partition obviously disrupted the circulation of such ephemera as the postal networks were compromised after 1947. The Partition led to the large-scale, unplanned and hurried migration of people to and fro various cities across the border. In the ensuing violence, arson and looting that accompanied it, several homes and shops were damaged or burnt, and people’s belongings devastated.

The newly arriving migrants in cities like Delhi decided to sell furniture, valuables and other ephemera they found or looted from the homes of the evacuees. Since Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Lucknow had seen better days of erudite culture and the arts during the Mughal and British periods, the volume and quality of such ephemera were so enormous that the junk dealers made fortunes trading it – a lot of which continued to be resold by collectors until recently. The Partition evacuee property also comprises printed material and images, especially posted envelopes, periodicals, advertisements, pamphlets and packing material, among other things.

It is only recently that the value of such popular ephemera – not really considered “antique art” – is increasing, allowing us to imagine the flow of thoughts, messages, ideas and images across various cities in undivided South Asia. There have been efforts such as the creation of an online Partition archive as well as a Partition museum in Amritsar and Delhi, to preserve artefacts and oral histories. While much has been lost, if one still combs through the old chests and trunks lying in a dark corner of one’s house, or maybe chance upon some fraying, yellowed pages, one just might find the forgotten remains of South Asia before the Partition.

Excerpted with permission from Partitioning Bazaar Art: Popular Visual Culture of India and Pakistan around 1947, Yousuf Saeed, Seagull Books.