An Introduction to Carpets

Carpet connoisseur, Dhruv Chandra shares his insights on old and antique carpets

New Delhi: Old and antique carpets are more than just floor coverings, and like all other works of art, have represented the aspirations, lifestyles, attitudes and limitations of their times. What makes these carpets valuable and works of art are their rarity, originality of design, quality of raw materials used, natural dyeing techniques and the skill and mastery of the weavers.

The key word I would ascribe to old and antique carpets is ‘quality’. Weavers used the best raw material they could afford. You will find that most antique carpets have been made with the finest clothing grade wool and sometimes even Pashmina or Cashmere, that would be used in clothing today (which is not what is used in contemporary carpets).

The dyes used in the olden days were generally all natural or vegetable dyes. Natural dyes are extracted from plants, rocks, minerals and sometimes even insects such as Cochineal or Laque emanating a resplendent Magenta pinkish-red hue. The other advantage with natural dyes is that they do not generally fade and can last a lifetime. The problem with new carpets is that they are generally manufactured using chemical dyes and have a tendency to fade with exposure to sunlight.

Tribal Afshar- South West Iran
Circa 1930s
Vegetable/natural dye
Approx. 7ft x 4ft 10in ( 213.4 x 147.3 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
For more details:

The primary thing to understand with old carpets is that they were completely made by hand and created as a ‘labor of love’, not manufactured with the intention to resell them. So they used the best skilled weavers who took a lot of pride in their work to create bespoke carpets.

If one were to buy a carpet let’s say a 100 years ago, one would not have gone to a carpet shop. One would have called a renowned carpet weaver and had the luxury to select a design from his hand drawn maps or khartouns which are also  called ‘nakshas’. Then one would have selected the colors and purchased the raw materials such as wool, Pashmina, or silk, and dyes etc. for the weaver. It would be like commissioning a painting today.

Kashgar Carpet- Central Asia
Circa 1920s
Madder – Indigo Blue natural / vegetable dye
Approx. 8ft 4in x 4ft 6in (254 x 137.2 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
For more details:

For modern interiors that embody cleaner lines, minimalistic accents and the efficaciousness of geometric patterns, carpets like Afshar, Shiraz, Quashgai, Samarkand, Kashgaar Khotans, Tibetan prayer rugs, Kazaks and Hamadaans are an ideal option.

Khotan Carpet, Pomegranate Design- East Turkestan
Circa 1930s
Approx. 7ft x 4ft 7in (213.4 x 139.7 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
For more details:

The Samarkand Khotan carpets from Uzbekistan embody influences from the Northwest Frontier Province, Turkmenistan, Persia and China, reflecting the multi-cultural iconographies of ancient Samarkand. One such iconographic motif prominently displayed is the pomegranate fruit. Traditionally, the pomegranate symbolizes abundance, fertility, lusciousness, generosity and union. Used in many cultures as a symbol of marriage, fertility and love, the pomegranate with its leathery outer skin and its pink juicy, sweet interior is a symbol of encompassing bliss, reminiscent of passion and luxury. According to the Quran, pomegranates grew in the ‘gardens of paradise’. The Prophet is said to have encouraged his followers to eat pomegranates to ward off envy and hatred. In Christianity, the pomegranate is a symbol of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life. Primarily it was also used as a symbol of aspiration, for us to tap into the luxurious side of life – recognizing the richness, abundance and wonder that surround us at every turn. They also used the seeds to make red dye and skins of the fruit to make yellow dye.

In keeping with this inspiration, these carpets have a rich vibrancy in their color palette: spectacular pink, orange and lavender hues combined with a unique aesthetic sensibility. Invariably, the designs of a Samarkand-Khotan are multicultural, one of a kind, displaying a rich array of medallions, Grecian pillars, stylized vases, Lotus blossoms, cloud-bands and sometimes even fantastical dragons. The lines are neither too ornate nor geometrical, just perfectly balanced. All these factors make Samarkands hugely versatile acquisitions, that fit into traditional as well as modern interiors.

Like any work of art, choosing a carpet is a very personal thing. It’s not just about making a judicious investment but buying something that you will live with for decades to come. The carpet has to please you, not your decorator, or your relative or friend who accompanies you in the purchase. The carpet you choose should be the one you love, it should ‘sing to your senses’ and ‘talk to you’. I would recommend really doing your research before you make your purchase. Carpet catalogues, seminars, museums and auctions are a great way to train your eye and hone your taste.

Carpet collecting is still at a very nascent stage in India. There are a growing number of Indian collectors who have been bitten by the ‘Carpet Bug’ and  are beginning to understand the fine nuances  of buying a good Oriental Carpet and about carpets as an asset for investment.

Shiraz Kilim- South West Iran
Circa 1930s
Approx 8ft 5in x 5ft 1in (256.5 x 154.9 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
For more details:

With our economy doing substantially better than the world markets, and enormous wealth being created here, there is  a huge  demand for a trusted source of fine and rare carpets, Kilims and textiles. The pie of old carpets is limited, and people who possess such pieces do not wish to part with them that easily. If they do, then they want a premium price for their ‘treasures’. In my view, it is because of this shortfall in supply that it is obvious that the price of collectable antique rugs will go in one direction only.

Dhruv Chandra is a second generation Collector and Curator of old and antique carpets, Kilims and textiles and owns The Carpet Cellar which also houses India’s largest private collection of antique rugs. As part of his drive to revive the declining trade in carpets, he offers talks and seminars at The Carpet Cellar in New Delhi. He is working on opening a first of its kind Carpet Museum in India.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia – Part I

Josheen Oberoi explores the stunning new galleries of Islamic art at the Met, a few centuries at a time.

New York: It would be fair to warn visitors of a possible sensory overload when they visit the galleries presenting the Islamic Art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; not that it is a serious complaint considering the wealth of objects and information available for viewing. These collections have been mostly unavailable since 2003 when these galleries were closed for renovation. They opened again in November 2011 in an expanded space of fifteen galleries and have been feted far and wide.

The galleries are titled Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.  When I visited, I was fortunate enough to speak with Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic Art, who walked me through this space and introduced some highlights of the collection. In speaking of the nomenclature of the collections, she said, “the name of the galleries speaks to the parameters of our collection, our department’s collection”.  Instead of the overarching phrase “Islamic Art” that suggests a monolithic construction of an Islamic culture; this title is in fact a clue to the physical and historical reconfiguration of these galleries, and a particularly apt one in these times of misleading narratives of Islam worldwide.

Through the course of our conversation we walked chronologically through the numbered galleries (Galleries 450 – 464). Each of these galleries is defined both by geographical region and by time periods (from ca. 7th century AD through ca. 20th century), clearly illustrated in the handy map the museum shares with visitors.

Floor Plan of New Galleries
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, part of the curatorial vision of this space is the interconnectedness of these galleries. There is no forced flow of traffic. As viewers, we are free to move between regions and eras as we wish, making our own connections. Of course I have to admit, I was grateful for the direction that the numbered galleries gave me as a first-time visitor. Following Dr. Ekhtiar’s flow of narrative optimized the experience for me while subsequent visits allowed for an even deeper engagement.

What follows is a textual replication of my experience and the highlights of Dr. Ekhtiar’s talk. Because of the extensiveness of this collection, the talk has been divided into three posts. This post will walk through galleries 450 – 453 and primarily cover the 7th through the 13th centuries of present day Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Errors, if any, are in my understanding:

We started with Gallery 450: This is an introductory gallery containing a gamut of objects that reference what you will encounter through the rest of the spaces: textiles, calligraphy, pottery, wood carved architectural elements. This gallery also contained designs and shapes that became increasingly familiar to me as we walked through the rest of the galleries.

One of the unifying elements in art from the Islamic world, found across centuries and geographic region is the use of text, in the form of calligraphy. It was one of the most revered forms of artistic expression because it was the means of transmitting the Qur’an in Arabic.

Folio from the “Qur’an of ‘Umar Aqta”
Object Name: Section from a non-illustrated manuscript
Date: late 14th–early 15th century (before 1405)
Geography: present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a folio from probably the largest Qur’an ever produced.  It is believed to have belonged to Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid dynasty (late 14th–early 15th century, before 1405; Geography: present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand). The story goes that the emperor wanted something unusual so the calligrapher took the tiniest Qur’an to him that required a magnifying glass to read. But the emperor was not impressed and so the calligrapher then created the largest Qur’an possible. This is in keeping with the Timurid world view, where everything must be larger than life and should be visible from a distance; case in point their monumental architecture. This Qur’an is now dispersed with various pages in different collections around the world.

Although many of us are familiar with the Islamic art of books, calligraphy was also used extensively as ornament in religious and secular contexts. It is not only used to convey messages but also beautify objects.

Bowl with Arabic Inscription
Object Name: Bowl
Date: 10th century
Geography: Iran, Nishapur
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This 10th century bowl from Iran (the Samanid dynasty, 10thcentury AD) is one such example. Extremely elegant, its beauty lies is its simplicity and the contrast between the black and the white. But this is a secular piece, with the proverb, “Planning before work protects you from regret”, written around its rim. Made of earthenware, a basic material, the white surface gives a sense of stoneware or porcelain ware of China.

Moving on to Gallery 451: Arab Lands and Iran in the Umayyad and Abbasid Periods (7th–13th centuries)

The shaded portion indicates the greatest extent of the Umayyad caliphate.
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Umayyad dynasty(661 – 750 AD) was the first Islamic dynasty and was centered in Syria.

This gallery contains art from this dawn of the Islamic era. This is not to suggest a dramatic aesthetic break from this time onwards. On the contrary, it is in fact about the continuity with pre-Islamic traditions – in the west with the Byzantine and Coptic, and in the East with the pre-Islamic Persian and Sasanian, amongst others. This gallery celebrates both this continuity and the emerging distinctive vocabulary of Islamic culture.

Ewer with a Feline-shaped Handle
Object Name: Ewer
Date: 7th century
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This vase has a few very noteworthy elements to it. In shape, it resembles the elegance of a Sasanian vase but has mountain motifs that are typical of Central Asian and Chinese paintings. Interestingly, this motif is repeated on the surface. This element of repetition of pattern, calligraphic, vegetal, geometric, later became a prominent feature of art of Islamic culture.  The handle of the vase is another interesting feature because it is a feline stretched all the way, peering at ducks at the top. This central Asian vegetal pattern in a pre-Islamic shape allows it to fit into many historical parameters.

Panel from a Cenotaph or Symbolic Coffin with Marquetry decoration
Object Name: Panel
Date: second half 8th century
Geography: probably Egypt
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This work is probably a panel from a Cenotaph or Symbolic Coffin and shows an interesting conjunction of pre-Islamic eastern and Western traditions. It appears to be a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional space. This is like a Byzantine mosaic, with arches but also winged columns that are Sasanian in nature. A very unusual find, this is a treasured object for the Met.

The second part of the gallery is the art of the cAbbasids, from their early period that is considered the Golden age (from 750 to 1250 AD). The cAbbasid caliphate succeeded the Umayyad dynasty and shifted the geographic center from Syria to Iraq, where Baghdad became the political capital, and Samarra, the second, princely capital. Many of the objects in this gallery were found at Samarra.

The shaded portion indicates the greatest extent of the Abbasid caliphate
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

During this time, you see a new aesthetic approach emerging – the abstract vegetal designs repeating themselves, covering entire surfaces and a beveled design (so-called because of a certain, shallow slant in carving the surface) which is particular to this period and is found in many different mediums of plaster, stone, wood, ceramics, glass.

Bowl decorated in the ‘Beveled Style’
Object Name: Dish
Date: 10th century
Geography: present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was a time of innovation and one of these innovations was the use of paint on ceramics.  Luster painting predated Islam in Egypt but it hadn’t been used on ceramics. In luster painting, once the surface has been decorated with pen or brush, the object is fired in a kiln, permanently fixing the design on the surface.

The Iraqi potters of Basra created these painted ceramics that looked like metal works (metal works were very expensive and reserved for royalty and wealthy people, ceramics were more easily available). This had a huge impact. Luster painted ceramics subsequently traveled from Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Iran, then to Spain, and from Spain to Italy and all over Europe having an enduring effect.

When the Abbasid caliphate started getting weaker, princely states started emerging. They all had their own rulers and ateliers but were still loyal to the Abbasids.  A few of these dynasties are represented in this gallery.  One of these dynasties is of the Samanids, referred earlier in Gallery 450, with their capital at Nishapur.

In the 1930s and 40s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum in Iran collaborated on excavation projects in Nishapur where every day architectural elements and objects of the Samanids were found. These were not meant for royal use.

Gallery 452 is a recreation of a 10th century room in Nishapur based on the architectural objects from these excavations, at a mound known as Tepe Sabz Pushan (“The Green-covered Mound”).

Gallery 452 – Nishapur and the Sabz Pushan Site
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery 453: Iran and Central Asia (9th – 13th centuries)

This room focuses on the far-reaching impact of the Abbasid style in the eastern Islamic world and the princely states that rose around and after the Abbasids like the eleventh-century Ghaznavid and twelfth-century Seljuq Sultans. The Seljuqs (ca. 1040 – 1157) were of Turkic origin, from the steppes of Central Asia. They embraced Islam and took over Iran and the surrounding regions.

Seljuq sultanate in Iran, ca. 1080
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Incense Burner of Amir Saif al-Dunya wa’l-Din ibn Muhammad al-Mawardi
Ja`far ibn Muhammad ibn `Ali
Object Name: Incense burner
Date: dated A.H. 577/ A.D. 1181–82
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Seljuq sultanate had very opulent courts and were very interested in figural art. There is a popular perception that figural art is forbidden in Islamic culture and that is inaccurate. It is not seen in public religious buildings and contexts but is seen widely in a secular context.

A wonderful example is this incense burner in the shape of a feline. The largest of its kind, it is inscribed, which is how the identity of the patron and the maker is known and so it can be dated to the 12th century. Constructed in two parts; it can be separated, filled up with incense and lit up and the fumes come out of the holes in the body of the feline.

Two Royal Figures
Object Name: Figure
Date: mid-11th century–mid-12th century
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Two Royal Figures, these life size statues in the gallery, made of stucco, could potentially have been palace guards or princes. Scholarship on these figures is ongoing. The presence of jewels, the clothes and headdress suggests that they could have been princes. They have Central Asian features, as do many paintings on the ceramics in this gallery, because these dynastic rulers were of Central Asian origin and this was the ideal of beauty and it remained so in the Eastern Islamic world for very long, till the 17th century or later.

The Seljuqs were very innovative in terms of ceramics. An important development in that period was the introduction of stone paste as a medium for ceramics in Iran and surrounding regions. This was closest to porcelain (the material used to make porcelain was not available in the region till the 20th century) and was harder, whiter and easier to manipulate.

Ceramics in these galleries are made of stone paste. These ceramics have mina’i narratives from the art of books from the Shahnama, and princely portraits, audiences, and a variety of scenes. Mina’i meaning “enameled” was a laborious process and required firing the kiln many times.  These ceramics are also often seen with turquoise blue backgrounds, primarily because of the resources available there – copper and cobalt.

Dish with horse and rider
Object Name: Dish
Date: 13th century
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reign: Jahangir (1605–27)
Date: dated A.H. 1034/ A.D. 1625
Geography: India, Agra
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This gallery also includes a thematic case of astrology and astronomy with multiple objects like the Iranian books of stars and Mughal gold coins with star signs like Libra, amongst other objects with astrological signs – signs that are still used and remain familiar to us.

Bowl with Astronomical and Royal Figures
Object Name: Bowl
Date: late 12th–early 13th century
Geography: Central or Northern Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You can read more about the history of Islamic Art’s display at the Met prior to these galleries here.

We’ll explore some art from later Syria, Iran, Central Asia and Turkey in the next post. Stay tuned!

Ananya Vajpeyi on Abanindranath Tagore at SAA-JNU, Delhi

New Delhi: Here are details of an interesting talk scheduled for this coming Friday, August 31, 2012 in New Delhi. The School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University is hosting noted South Asian  scholar, Ananya Vajpeyi, who will deliver the talk, “Signifying India: Abanindranath Tagore and the Aesthetic Shock of Indian History.”  Vajpeyi teaches colonial and modern South Asian History at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Her teaching and interest areas include imperialism, colonialism, and decolonization in South Asia, as well as the comparative history of ideas in India and Europe. Her writing has been extensively published in newspapers and magazines in South Asia, Europe and the UK. For a list of her professional publications and contributions, visit her Author Page on ScholarWorks. This talk is an extension of her forthcoming book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Harvard University Press, October 2012).

ARKEN Museum of Modern Art presents INDIA: ART NOW

Medha Kapur of Saffronart shares a short note on India: Art Now, an exhibition at the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

India: Art Now Copenhagen: INDIA: ART NOW, on view from 18 August 2012 to 13 January 2013, is part of the project India Today/Copenhagen Tomorrow. It is the biggest exhibition in the Danish art museum ARKEN’s history. The purpose behind this exhibit is to promote cultural and commercial exchanges between the two countries. The work of 13 of the most well known Indian artists and artist groups will be showcased at the museum. Included are works by Rina Banerjee, Hemali Bhuta, Atul Dodiya, Sheela Gowda, Shilpa Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Reena Kallat, Rashmi Kaleka, Bharti Kher, G. Ravinder Reddy, Vivan Sundaram and Thukral & Tagra, among others – artists who have found ways to express the aspirations and conflicts of a new generation, through media varying from painting, sculpture and photography to installation and interactive art.

Subodh Gupta, Terminal, 2010 at ARKEN Brass and thread Dimensions variable.

Subodh Gupta, Terminal, 2010, Brass and thread, dimensions variable

Several works have been created specifically for this exhibition, and they both encourage and defy all our preconceived notions of Indian art. For the subjects, materials and narratives the artists often take their point of departure in local Indian phenomena, but their works extend far beyond the idea of exotic India into global culture. Thukral & Tagra present a new installation called ‘The Escape’, about the migration from India. It is a passenger terminal built like a pinball machine.

Thukral & Tagra: THE ESCAPE

Thukral & Tagra, THE ESCAPE!, 2012

‘INDIA : ART NOW’ is an impressive exhibition, and promises to offer visitors a rarely seen manifestation of modern India.

Click here for more information on the exhibition

Between the Lines: Identity, Place, and Power

Sneha Sikand of Saffronart on Waswo X. Waswo’s private collection of Indian printmaking exhibited at India Habitat Centre

Untitled, Somnath Hore
Image credit:

Fishing, Haren Das
Image credit:









New Delhi: The Visual Arts Gallery recently exhibited Waswo X. Waswo’s private collection of prints. An avid collector of etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, Waswo’s prints range from a 1916 hand-coloured drypoint etching by Mukul Dey to works by newer artists like Durga Prasad Bandi and Kurma Nadham.

A photographer by profession, Waswo was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (U.S.A.). He went on to study photography in Italy, and after traveling extensively around the world settled in India in 2001. His collection of prints is not so much a historical or chronological evolution of printmaking in India, but more so a personal association with the imagery of the country he creates within his mind.

Villagers of Selaidah visiting Rabindranath Tagore, Mukul Dey
Image credit:

The exhibit has been curated by Art historian, Lina Vincent Sunish who has carefully picked out the works which went on display from Waswo’s vast collection. The aim of this exhibit was not so much to delve into the technicalities of printmaking, but more so to emphasis on how the medium is used to depict images from everyday life.

There are over seventy-nine artists whose works have been exhibited as part of the collection. The art of printmaking emerged in Bengal which is why one sees several early works by Bengali artists, with later works coming out from other art hubs such as Baroda. The collection will be exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru later this year.

Read more about prints on Waswo X. Waswo’s blog: Collection of Indian Printmaking



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