Delhi: Great Capital of India {Delhi: Die Grosse Stadt in Vorderindien} (1909) – Anon

Worshippers leave the Jamia Masjid mosque -‘Delhi: Great Capital of India’ [1909] – Anon
4 mins., stencil-coloured, silent: titles in German

Production : Pathé Frères

Source : can be viewed here

A beautifully shot film, that has been stencil-coloured, though some of the brightness of the original colours has been lost. Within a clear temporal narrative structure, it presents a series of moments during the celebration of Muharram, a major Muslim festival. This is in origin a Shiite festival at which, as seen in the film, models of the tombs of Hassan and Husayn, the martyred grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, are carried through the streets.

After a brief initial establishment shot, probably taken from the minaret of the Jamia Masjid, or Great Mosque of Delhi, there are some preliminary shots of street performers before we see the parading of the models of the tombs. The second half of the film consists of a sequence inside the mosque, first showing worshippers in an intimate sequence as they wash their feet, then showing them from afar as they kneel in prayer within the mosque courtyard. The film concludes with a beautiful framing shot of the worshippers leaving the mosque (see above).

Although Muharram was ostensibly a Shiite festival, at the time that this film was made, many different groups – local neighbourhoods, craft guilds, castes, even associations of prostitutes – would have participated, which would explain why many of the models being carried in the film look more like Hindu temples than Islamic tombs.

In fact, it is unlikely that there were any Shiites present at all, since Delhi is overwhelmingly Sunni, and the Jamia Masjid is the principal Sunni mosque of the city. Certainly, Shiites would have been exasperated by the joyful carnival-like atmosphere of the procession shown in the film, as indicated by the presence of the acrobats and jugglers in the opening sequence.

In Indian cities in colonial times, there were often rival Muharram processions, with  the Shiite processions being more sombre, as befitting what they considered to be, in effect, a funeral procession. Today, Muharram is no longer celebrated in Delhi since it has come to be seen as an exclusively Shiite festival.

[Many thanks to Faisal Devji, Reader in Indian History at the University of Oxford, for advising on these notes about the  film]