New Delhi: Kashmir is considered to be a treasure trove of arts and crafts. While every region tends to have its own distinct specialty, Kashmiri carpets, shawls, papier-mâché objects and silverware are recognized worldwide for their fine quality and craftsmanship.
Carpet weaving is not indigenous to Kashmir and is thought to have been introduced there by Persian settlers. These settlers brought with them the knowledge of patterns and designs distinct to their communities, which is why many Kashmiri carpets carry motifs that are distinctly Persian, with some local variations. The Bakhtiari design, also known as the ‘paneled-garden design’ is named after a region in Iran called Bakhtiar. The field of the Bakhtiari carpet is divided into compartments or panels, containing individual motifs or patterns. Often a set of 3-4 compartments is repeated throughout the field. While the design may have originated in Bakhtiar, it is an often identified design in Kashmiri carpets.
The paisley design is said to have got its name from the shawl manufacturing town, Paisley in England. Also known as the Boteh or pine motif, it is believed that it first used in Kashmir during the seventeenth century.
The pattern can be traced back to ancient Babylon, where a tear-drop shape was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm provided food, drink, clothing (woven fibres) and shelter, and so became regarded as the ‘Tree of Life’. Other theories state that the motif is a stylized depiction of a mango, a fruit commonly found in India. Shawls from Kashmir have always been the most sought after for being woven from hair, and being lighter and smooth with a natural sheen.
Silverware and papier-mâché are two other equally popular items that Kashmir is known for. Local silversmiths incorporated the Chinar-leaf design into silver objects. Called booune in Kashmiri, the chinar tree came to Kashmir in the sixteenth century when Emperor Akbar arranged for the planting of several hundreds near the Hazratbal shrine. It is said that when the leaves on the trees turned red, the emperor saw them from a distance and exclaimed, “Chin-nar!” which means blazing colour.
Papier-mâché was also introduced to Kashmiri craftsmen by Persian settlers. Initially used to make boxes to transport expensive shawls to Europe, Kashmiri papier-mâché was so loved in countries such as France, that it started selling on its own. Today, it has become highly stylized with the use of real gold and silver paint, and by adding intricate decorations. The designs and decorations still have a strong Persian influence. Some items like bowls and vases are lined with brass, while some exquisitely carved items are ornamented with gold and silver leaf and depict beautiful landscapes and objects like house boats, that are an integral part of Kashmiri life.
Josheen Oberoi of Saffronart explores the stunning new galleries of Islamic art at the Met, a few centuries at a time.
New York: This is the last in a series of posts that came out of my visit to the Islamic Art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a consequent conversation with Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic Art there. This art collection is presented in fifteen new galleries that opened to the public after an eight year renovation in November last year.
The galleries are titled Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Dr. Ekhtiar, in speaking of the nomenclature of the collections, 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 my conversation with Dr. Ekhtiar we walked chronologically through the numbered galleries (Galleries 450 – 464) that are organized by geographical regions and time periods (from ca. 7th century AD through ca. 20th century). I have followed the same chronology here, bringing us today to the last two galleries 463 and 464 showing Mughal and later South Asian art.
Here’s the very useful museum map again, to help follow the information:
Floor Plan of New Galleries
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
We haven’t discussed South Asia previously but the time period (16th – 20th centuries) that we will look at today is contemporary to the arts of Safavids and later Iran and the overlap and exchange of culture is visible in the artistic forms of the time as well. Gallery 463, for example, presents the arts of the Sultanate, Mughal and Deccan courts from about 1450 through the nineteenth century. This gallery contains an extensive selection of jeweled arts that were practiced in South Asia, including jade carving (which was highly prized in China and was part of a commercial exchange with it). But like in Gallery 462, the two object forms that immediately capture attention are the carpets and the illustrated manuscripts’ folios.
The scrolling vegetal designs that we saw in last week’s post are visible in the image on the left as well. The carpet below, on the other hand, with a niche that nestles a flowering plant, appears to be designed vertically and possibly for hanging on the wall rather than laying on the ground.
Interestingly, these styles remained active in the Iranian and South Asian regions. The early 20th century example below, from a Saffronart auction in March this year displays a combination of these design details – the visible Arabesque niche in the carpet is occupied by intricate and delicate flora and fauna, surrounded by a border.
Illustrated manuscripts, similarly, remained an active part of the region through the 20th century as indicated by the folios on display in this gallery and in Gallery 464. Akbar, considered the greatest Mughal rulers (r. 1556 – 1605), established royal ateliers and commissioned illustrated manuscripts, including the Akbarnama that was a chronicle of his reign.
His successors Jahangir (r. 1605-27) and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) continued this patronage,an example of which is the exquisite Padshahnama, or the Shah Jahan Album illustrated through the 1640s. These reigns saw a diversity of manuscript production that included Indian, Persian and European elements (like linear perspective and European motifs). A few of the folios shown below evidence this multitude of subjects like studies of animals, flora and fauna, portraiture,mythological narratives that were produced simultaneously at that time. It also underlines the development of a unique idiom within the South Asian region in the arts of the book both linking it to and distinguishing it from the Safavid and later Iran workshops.
Madonna and Child in a Domestic Interior Painting by Manohar (active ca. 1582–1624) Object Name: Illustrated single work Date: early 17th century Geography: India Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Black Buck”, Folio from the Shah Jahan Album Painting attributed to Manohar (active ca. 1582–1624) Object Name: Album leaf Reign: Jahangir (1605–27), recto Date: recto: ca. 1615-20; verso: ca. 1530–50 Geography: India Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Adventures of Hamza or the Hamzanama was another narrative commissioned by Akbar that recounted the stories of Hamza, an uncle of Prophet Mohammad.
“Misbah the Grocer Brings the Spy Parran to his House”, Folio from a Hamzanama (The Adventures of Hamza) Attributed to Dasavanta Artist: Attributed to Mithra Object Name: Folio from an illustrated manuscript Reign: Akbar (1556–1605) Date: ca. 1570 Geography: India Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Both Galleries 463 and 464 also have folios from the Islamic Deccan courts and later 19th century court arts of the Jain, Rajput, Pahari and “Company” style paintings. These are placed in conjunction with the Islamic art galleries to accurately represent the continuum of South Asian art, not compartmentalized by religion. There was a rich dialog between the two contemporaneous traditions that is visible throughout these galleries.
For example, the image below on the left, of a nobleman on a terrace is an 18th century folio from a late Islamic Mughal center in Bengal, and on display in these galleries. The image on the right, from a Saffronart auction in April this year is the portrait of a Hindu Bikaneri maharaja. Such cross currents in portraiture, amongst other subjects, is a constant in these artistic traditions.
Portrait of a Maharaja Late 17th Century Bikaner School
Nobleman on a Terrace Object Name: Illustrated single work Date: ca. 1780 Geography: India, Murshidabad Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ragamala paintings, also available for viewing, are a pictorial narrative mode for musical notes (ragas) that originated in the Islamic Deccan kingdoms but found their way to the ateliers of princely states in Rajasthan.
And finally, the “Company” school paintings, shown in Gallery 464 often documented the flora, fauna, topography and people of the land. These watercolors were commissioned by the British and executed by Indian painters in a European style.
Chronologically the last space in the newly configured galleries that we have been visiting over the last few posts, Gallery 464 can also be physically entered and understood independent of the remaining galleries.However, that is true of any of the fifteen galleries. Choosing your personal path through these spaces engenders a distinct experience each time.
Text (calligraphy), shapes (geometric, vegetal, figural, flora, fauna, zoomorphic), materials (ceramic, wood, metals, paper, textile), techniques (luster-painted, gilded, enameled, painted, carved), objects (utilitarian, luxurious, decorative, religious) – these are just a few of the forms that can be conceptually and visually followed through these galleries. Recurring, in various ways, in various objects, they tell a story of a cultural continuum, not an overarching structure – this is a testament to the impeccably curated experience of these new galleries.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this ride with me. The Saffronart blog hopes to keep taking you along for more of these!