New York: This winter, the British Library has brought its exhibition “Mughal India: Art, Culture & Empire” to New Delhi. This show provides an amazing opportunity for pieces that are usually hidden in the depths of the library collection to be shown to the public for the very first time. Originally established in Britain, and then later in Kabul, Afghanistan, this collection is a strong representation of Mughal art history. The New Delhi exhibition is produced by Roli Books in conjunction with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts alongside the original curatorial team from the British Library. It will offer an opportunity for this period in Indian history to be told in a beautiful and informative way.
The exhibition consists of paintings and alluringly illustrated manuscripts, most commissioned by the Mughal emperors and other important figureheads of the time. These pieces contribute an illustrative history of the Mughal Empire. Each piece contributes a beautiful crafted depiction of upperclass life at this point in history. Scenes of court gatherings, hunting, royal portraiture and Indian landscapes are all shown with picturesque detail. The emblematic quality of these images is rich. Each piece has a wealth of historical knowledge and narrative, even in a single image. In addition to these scenes, very rare books and manuscripts are featured in the exhibition including “Book of Affairs of Love” by Rai Anand Ram Mukhlis and “Notebook of Fragrance” by Shah Jahan. Because the British Library is not a museum with continual exhibitions, many of these pieces are rarely seen or displayed. Not only does this collection contribute to our overall knowledge of the cultural setting of Mughal India it also shows the worldview during this time period. Pivotal historical documents such as the first Indian atlas, a city map of Delhi and a trade route from Delhi to Qandahar are included.
This exhibition is a beautiful and informative retelling of the history of Mughal India. To learn more about events and publications associated with this exhibition please view the British Library website here.
Director of Islamic Art, Sophie Makariou explains the title was chosen to incorporate the expanse of the Islamic world throughout the centuries from Spain to India, The Empire of Islam, as it was known. Islam highlights cultural value of these works and their historical contribution spanning 1,300 years and three continents.
Comprising 18,000 objects dating from the 7th to the 19th century, the gallery explores the breadth and creativity of the civilization and is the largest collection of Islamic art in Europe. The collection is housed under an undulating structure made of aluminum and glass in the Louvre’s Visconti Courtyard, the most significant architectural addition to the museum since I.M. Pei’s glass pyramids of 1989. The project, by Italian architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, took six years to complete. Modeled on a silk scarf, the structure seems to float in mid air between the neoclassical buildings. Walking in to the gallery, there is an immediate sensation of being in a tent, with light pouring in from all sides.
The collection opens with an introduction to the Islamic world, beginning with the Prophet’s exile in 632 (Hegira in Arabic) and the subsequent conquest of Persia, Byzantium and beyond. The early period of Islam is represented by glass, metal and ceramics.
Vitrines of glass stamps, Egypt, 700
The gallery focuses on the intricacies of decorative texts on religious and secular objects and its various influences. Arabic writing predates Islam by a century. Then different forms of writing, Qu’ranic script and secular were used to adorn pieces, describe their function or offer protection to an object. The later incorporation of Persian, an indo-European language, further developed the use of decorative text and many objects with Persian poetry are on view. Read more about decorative calligraphy here.
A sleek, industrial looking metal staircase leads to the lower-ground floor. Large Turkish mosaics greet you at the bottom. They were found by a team of French-American archaeologists in the 1930s at Antioch (Antakya), once the capital of Syria, in the residential neighborhood of Daphne. A Roman tradition, mosaic making spread across the Roman Empire and was then used by subsequent civilizations for religious, public and private use.
Phoenix Mosaic, Antakya, 6th Century
This particular mosaic depicts a phoenix, a mythical bird that rises from ashes, bordered by pairs of ram heads. It was discovered in 1936 almost completely intact. Greek and Roman classical sculpture can be found in a two small rooms above the mosaics. Statues of Greek and Roman gods are housed there, a memory of an earlier civilization that had occupied parts of the region covered in the rest of the galleries.
Marble sculpture of goddess, Artemis, Akshehir, Turkey, 2nd Century
There are large vitrines of Egyptian textiles dating from the 6th century. They bear Roman and Byzantine iconography that later evoked Christian interpretations. Cherubs picking grapes, playing instruments and dancing references the Roman god of wine, Bacchus while Christians interpreted this theme of wine as reference from a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus is a vine and God the vine grower.
Cupid Picking Grapes Linen and wool tapestry, Egypt, 6th Century
The Islamic conquest of Persia (633–656) ended the Sassanid Empire. Iran became a part of the Islamic Empire and many of the objects in the gallery are associated with the mix of cultures that ensued.
Ceramic stars, Iran, c. 665
A silver and gold inlaid casket, Iran, 14th-century Image credit: Hughes Dubois/Musée du Louvre
The Islamic Empire expanded west to Spain and east to India. By the 16th century the Islamic world made up 30% of the global population.
Carved ivory pyxis of al-Mughira, Cordoba, c. 968 Image credit: Hughes Dubois/Musée du Louvre
Wood doors inlaid with ebony and ivory, Egypt c. 1380-1420
An extensive collection from the Mughal Empire (about 1526-1858) includes intricate armor, elaborate daggers, ceramic tiles and Indian carpets. Many of the carpets were made in factories founded by Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) in Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Mughal Empire for only about 10 years. To learn more carpets, click here.
Louvre Islamic Galleries Image credit: Philippe Ruault/Musée du Louvre
Jade dagger with horse head handle inlaid with rubies, emeralds and gold, Mughal Period, 17th Century Image credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk
The Ottoman Empire (14th–20th Century) stretched from the Balkans and Anatolia, around the Mediterranean basin, and as far as Morocco. Ottoman carpets are displayed, as well as large and small scale Iznik ceramics.
Ottoman ceramic wall, Turkey, c. 1560–80 Image credit: Raphaël Chipault /Musée du Louvre
Funding for the 98 million Euro gallery was provided by the French government and supported by endowments from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan. Of the 18,000 objects in the collection, 3,000 are currently on view and 300 objects will move to the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Guest contributor Saranna Biel-Cohen lives and works in London. She holds a Master’s Degree in History of Art from University College London with a focus on Modern Indian Art.
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!