Traditional Devotional Objects from India

In conjunction with Saffronart’s upcoming auction of Indian Folk and Tribal Art Elisabetta Marabotto shares explores the significance and use of some devotional objects featured in the catalogue

London: I’d like to share my thoughts on some of the lots that I found most interesting in the catalogue of our upcoming auction of Indian Folk and Tribal Art. These are a selection of devotional objects crafted from metal and related to the God Shiva, which can be divided into two major categories: mukha lingas and Khandoba masks. These objects, made and used in rural folk communities, are largely associated with daily or ritual worship.

According to the tradition, every morning these objects are awakened, bathed, clothed, adorned with flowers and fine garments and are worshiped in the same way as the temples’ main icons.  In fact, no matter their size or material, these devotional objects are essential in religious rituals since they represent the link between devotees and gods. They embody the presence of the gods on earth as well as receive the prayers of the believers on behalf of the gods.

During excavations, statuettes of female dancers and animals were found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, confirming that the tradition of metal casting in India dates back to the second half of the third millennium BC. Over time, this practice spread to Western and Southern India, and was consolidated there after a pantheon of deities was established and more temples started to appear in these regions. From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the practice of casting metal sculptures spread in the northern regions too, and the late part of the eighteenth century in particular saw the prolific production of metal Mukha lingas, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Lot 75, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka.

Lot 75, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8099

The term linga refers to a cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, a powerful symbol of Shiva, and a mukha linga refers to its covering, usually bearing human features.  Mukha lingas are one of the many emblems of Shiva and they are found in a devotional context underlining the god’s aniconic, non-human essence, beyond all forms and qualities.

Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka

Lot 1, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8025

Mukha lingas, like Lot 1 in our catalogue, are generally portrayed with prominent mustaches and bear Shiva’s third eye in the middle of their forehead. They are usually crowned or the hair is neatly combed back. Most of the time, mukha lingas depict Shiva in a calm and serene state, but there are examples of Shiva depicted as Bhairava, one of his fiercer aspects. Often, mukha lingas are portrayed atop the serpent Vasuki, whose hoods cover their head.

Mukha Lingas are thought to be the visual representation of the namah Shivaya mantra repeated to invoke Shiva’s blessings. The five syllables composing the mantra embody the five elements of the microcosm and macrocosm and the five senses.

Lot 18, Khandoba Mask, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka

Lot 18, Khandoba Mask, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8042

Khandoba masks, like Lot 18, are also devotional images used in temples, processions and pilgrimages. They are personifications of Shiva depicted in the attire of the folk hero-king, Khandoba. These sculptures are especially popular in Western and Southern India, and are believed to protect and patronize farmers, herders and warriors. Like mukha lingas, these masks are used to front and give a face or iconic form to the abstract Shiva lingam and are usually placed next to them in temples.

Khandoba is also often represented as a full figure, as in Lot 61, where he is depicted riding an elephant with his consort Mhalsa. In this lot, a richly decorated elephant carries a mahout along with Khandoba and his consort Mhalsa ensconced in a domed howdah on its back.

Lot 61, Khandoba and Mhalsa on an Elephant, Brass, 20th century, North Karnataka

Lot 61, Khandoba and Mhalsa on an Elephant, Brass, 20th century, North Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8085

The Folk and Tribal Art Auction is a rare occasion to acquire some very meaningful items embodying some of the unique traditions and spirituality of India’s diverse communities.

Similar objects can be found in the permanent collections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Highlights from the Exhibition Akbar: The Great Emperor of India

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart shares a few notes from her visit to the Mughal exhibition in Rome

London: Last week we posted about the exhibition, Akbar: The Great Emperor of India. I had the opportunity to visit this exhibition, and I wanted to share few thoughts and images from the show.

Even though Italians are well known for being very proud of their cultural and artistic heritage, this time I felt a great effort has been put in curating the present exhibition and especially in introducing Indian culture and history to Italian audiences.

The space hosting the show has been transformed in order to resemble the structure of a traditional Indian building. Jalis and Islamic arches are used to divide one room from the other, and Indian music and scents complete the atmosphere and help visitors immerse themselves in a new and fascinating art and culture.

The exhibition mostly includes miniatures, textiles and jewellery from important international private collections and museums such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Museum in New Delhi.

Hopefully this show will trigger a deeper interest for Indian art and culture in Italy as well.

Below you can enjoy a slideshow of images from the exhibition.

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

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.

Carpet with Scrolling Vines and Blossoms
Object Name: Carpet
Date: ca. 1650
Geography: Northern India or Pakistan, Kashmir or Lahore
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Carpet with Niche and Flower Design
Object Name: Carpet
Date: mid-17th century
Geography: India or Pakistan, Kashmir or Lahore
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

“Akbar Hunting with Cheetahs”, Folio from an Akbarnama
Painting attributed to Manohar (active ca. 1582–1624)
Object Name: Illustrated album leaf
Date: ca. 1604
Geography: India
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

“Rama Receives Sugriva and Jambavat, the Monkey and Bear Kings”, Folio from a Ramayana
Object Name: Folio from an illustrated manuscript
Reign: Akbar (1556–1605)
Date: ca. 1605
Geography: India
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

“Shah Jahan on a Terrace, Holding a Pendant Set With His Portrait”, Folio from the Shah Jahan Album
Painting by Chitarman (active ca. 1627–70)
Object Name: Album leaf
Reign: Shah Jahan (1628–58)
Date: recto: 1627–28; verso: ca. 1530–50
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!

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

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

New York: Last month I had started posting about the Islamic Art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that opened to the public after an eight year renovation in November last year. For those reading this series for the first time, here is a little introduction to these new galleries. Organized by geographical regions and time periods (from ca. 7th century AD through ca. 20th century), these fifteen new galleries (Galleries 450 – 464) present historically rigorous exhibits of arts that flourished under the aegis of Islamic rulers through many centuries. These galleries are also incredible in representing the diversity of mediums and contexts of these artistic practices.

In my last post, I had described the highlights of Galleries 459 through 461, that present the arts of the Ottoman Empire (ca 1299 – 1922), as shared with me by Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic 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

Today, I look at Gallery 462 and its arts of Safavids and later Iran (from the 16th – 20th centuries). We have followed Iran from the 7th century onwards from Galleries 451, 453 and 455 and this gallery brings our understanding of art from the region almost to contemporary times

Iran was united and ruled by the Safavid dynasty from 1501  -1722.  Shah cAbbas who ruled from 1587–1629 was an important patron of the arts and this period saw an expansion and revival of production in arts for local consumption and commercial exchange with Europe. Ceramics in the style of Iznik pottery from Turkey that we saw in the last post and luster ware that has also been discussed previously were both encouraged extensively as is visible in the objects in this gallery.  But when you enter this space, there are a few works of art that dominate the conversation – the carpets and the illustrated manuscripts.

Persian Garden Carpet
Object Name: Carpet
Date: second half 18th century
Geography: Iran, Kurdistan
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Under Shah cAbbas, carpet weaving and textile production was transformed into a state industry, designed and produced in royal workshops at the new capital of Iran – Isfahan, in southern Iran. There are many different types and styles of carpets on exhibit here – medallion, garden, a possibly royal carpet, the “Polonaise” and carpets known as ‘Portuguese carpets’.

The Persian garden carpet or the char-bagh, (on the left)  represented a bird’s eye view of a traditional garden, which included water channels, fish swimming in these channels, birds and trees.

The “Seley Carpet” below, in style of a medallion carpet, is an exquisite example of the combination of medallion and vegetal motifs. These carpets centered around a medallion, similar to what appeared on book covers and texts, suggesting a cross pollination of designs between different art forms. These medallions were then surrounded by scrolling vegetal designs.

The Seley Carpet
Object Name: Carpet
Date: late 16th century
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This ‘Portuguese’ carpet below shows the central medallion with floral vines combined with explicit maritime scenes with ships sailed by Europeans in the four corners, possibly testifying to an active export and mercantile exchange between Europe and Iran at this time. Just these few examples of the pieces exhibited in this gallery showcase the complexity and diversity of carpet production in Iran at this time, especially under Shah cAbbas.

“Portuguese” Carpet with Maritime Scenes
Object Name: Carpet
Date: 17th century
Geography: Northeastern Iran, Khurasan
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Rustam’s Fourth Course, He Cleaves a Witch”, Folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp
Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
Artist: Painting attributed to Qadimi (active ca. 1525–65)
Object Name: Folio from an illustrated manuscript
Reign: Shah Tahmasp (1524–76)
Date: ca. 1525
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The other highlight in Gallery 462 are the intricate folios of the Shahnama or “Book of Kings”. This is one of the great treasures from the rule of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524 – 1576)  the second ruler of the Safavid dynasty. It was commissioned and made in the royal workshop. The Shahnama is a Persian national epic based on an oral tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times and was versified by Firdausi in the early 11th century. It contains within many Zoroastrian threads with the ideas of polarities, of good and bad – an illustration also intended as education to the rulers and princes. This particular manuscript of the Shahnama is the most luxurious Persian manuscript ever produced and the best artists were employed by the royal workshop – painters, calligraphers, binders, illuminators with two generations of artists working on these manuscripts. The Met has 78 illustrations out of a total of 258 illustrated folios, presenting epic love scenes, battles of fantastical creatures with humans or among animals. There are multiple folios on display at any time in the gallery, with seating available to engage with them at leisure.

If you visit please do set aside some time for these folios. They are intimate in size but so detailed and beautifully rendered. I find myself noticing new details in them with each successive visit.  I have also been linking the title of each work (immediately under the image) to it’s individual museum page. This allows you to zoom in and look at enlarged sections clearly. If you cannot visit the museum, I would recommend using this feature to do the images justice, especially for today’s post.

Next week, in the last post in this series, we will visit the remaining two (out of fifteen) galleries, showcasing Mughal and later South Asian art. Stay tuned!

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

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

New York: For the last two weeks, I have been posting about the Islamic Art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that opened to the public after an eight year renovation in November last year. For those reading this series for the first time, here is a little introduction on these new galleries. Organized by geographical regions and time periods (from ca. 7th century AD through ca. 20th century), these fifteen new galleries (Galleries 450 – 464) present historically rigorous exhibits of arts that flourished under the aegis of Islamic rulers through many centuries. These galleries are also incredible in representing the diversity of mediums and contexts of these artistic practices.

In the post last week, I had described the highlights of Galleries 454 through 458, as shared with me by Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic 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

Today, I look at the arts of the Ottoman Empire (ca 1299 – 1922) that are placed in galleries 459, 460 and 461. Centered in present day Turkey, the Ottomans first emerged as a small principality at the time of the break up of the Seljuq Sultanate in Anatolia and the instability caused by Mongol rule. They subsequently expanded towards the east and west, defeating the Mamluk sultanate (discussed in the last post) in 1517, making them the strongest Islamic state in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

The Greater Ottoman Empire
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery 459 and 460: Ottoman Art

The Ottoman period, especially in the late 15th and 16th centuries, was defined by the royal arts, centered in Istanbul and various other artistic  and commercial centers. This era saw a further development of calligraphy, manuscript production, ceramics, carpets and textiles, amongst others.

Tughra (Official Signature) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66)
Object Name: Tughra
Date: ca. 1555–60
Geography: Turkey, Istanbul
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Süleyman‘s rule (1520 – 1566) saw the most powerful Ottoman presence and patronage of the arts, as is reflected in the calligraphic signature on the left in Gallery 460. The tughra was the official individualized seal and signature used by each Ottoman ruler. The aesthetic and skillfulness achieved under Süleyman’s rule is evident in the artistic masterpiece of his signature that went beyond calligraphy to include other Islamic art motifs like floral and vegetal  vines.

Iznik was the center of ceramics under the

Vase
Date: first half 16th century
Geography: Turkey, Iznik
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ottoman rule and saw a continuation of the use of stone paste and blue and white colors. Ceramics at this time often imitated metal works. There is also a use of swirling calligraphic elements in some on the pottery that reflects the tughra used by the rulers. This is referred to as the ‘tughra-illuminator’ style. The example below demonstrates not only the ‘tughra illuminator’ style but also echoes the shape of mosque lamps from the 13th century made in Egypt that we saw in the previous post in Gallery 454 and that is also copied below to the right for your reference.

Mosque-lamp-shaped Vessel with Arabic Inscriptions
Object Name: Mosque lamp
Date: 1525–40
Geography: Turkey, Iznik
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mosque Lamp for the Mausoleum of Amir Aydakin al-‘Ala’i al-Bunduqdar
Object Name: Mosque lamp
Date: shortly after 1285
Geography: Egypt, probably Cairo
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This gallery also has examples of royal carpets that were produced in Cairo, Egypt, and exported to the Ottoman court in Istanbul.

However, the production of carpets was not exclusively for royal use. Gallery 459 has grand carpets that were made and exported to Europe. These carpets were very popular in Europe from the 15th century onwards and can frequently be seen in paintings as well. They have come to be known by the name of the artists who depicted them. The ‘Holbein’ carpet below is named after the artist Hans Holbein the Younger who used a similarly patterned carpet in a portrait he had painted.

Holbein’ Carpet
Object Name: Carpet
Date: 15th–16th century
Geography: Turkey
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery 461: the Damascus Room (18th century)

A recreation of an upper class winter reception room, the Damascus Room provides us with a clear example of late Ottoman architecture. Originating in Damascus, Syria, it also suggests the wide ranging influence of the Ottomans over the provinces it ruled over. This room in the museum consists of the original ceiling and walls, constructed of fine woodwork, and containing original inscriptions. You can read more about the history of this room and its configuration here.

I had promised this would be the final post, but to do these galleries justice, I am going to end this one here. Next week, I will talk about art from Iran, from the 16th to 19th centuries. And the week after, we’ll look at Mughal South Asia and 19th century Company paintings. Till then, I leave you with an image of the intricately constructed, beautiful Damascus Room. Make sure to visit!

Damascus Room
Object Name: Period room
Date: dated A.H. 1119/ A.D. 1707
Geography: Syria, Damascus
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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