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Mughal India: Art,Culture and Empire

February 23, 2013

Kensington and Chelsea Today

Mughal India: Art,Culture and Empire

The Mughal Empire has intrigued Europeans for centuries and the huge attendance at the British Library's splendid Exhibition shows how it still holds our interest.

The Mughal Emperors attained great power in India from 1526 to 1757. They lived surrounded by incredible opulence, created magnificent Architecture and developed Arts and Culture. They controlled all of what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Empire survived in a diluted form, for another hundred years, until 1858 when there was a British presence and the Mughal Empire was absorbed into the Raj.

The Exhibition made me see them as the embodiment of a true oxymoron, being warrior aesthetes, warlord artists, equally skilled with pen and sword. These Emperors were ruthless, yet, there was one among them who was capable of the passion for a lost love that inspired the creation of the Taj Mahal, a Mausoleum eternal in its ethereal beauty.

The name, 'Mughal' is derived from the original homelands of the Timurids of the Central Asian Steppes, an area once conquered by Genghis Khan which was named 'Moghulistan' or 'Land of Mongols'. These people became Persianised and transferred Persian Culture to India. They also spread Islam. It must be remembered that in 1500 the Persian Empire was widespread and powerful. There was a flowering of Art, poetry and literature in their Courts. The Mughal Emperors encouraged Persian artists to visit and reside at their own courts.

Although the Mughals and their rulers hailed from murderous, invading ancestors such as Genhis Khan and Amir Timur ( known in the West as Timberlaine ) they made a love of Arts and aesthetic principles very important in their rule. It was a central part of their identity. Their glorious citadels were a symbol of prestige and power. Their patronage of Scholarship has left us with many priceless treasures. Milo Beach, the Historian, observed that it was probably the first time that wealth was used to commission the Arts. In India there was no shortage of wealth as there was an abundance of jewels, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. He also commented on much international activity at the Court. The 'Grand Mughal' myth meant literally that, they were grand.

The British Library has not been phased by Mughal wealth and opulence as it is the owner of much priceless art from this Empire. Only twenty exhibits are on loan, the other two hundred and fifteen on view are from their own collection, many being shown for the first time. The vaults contain plenty more treasures, as many as there were jewels in the vaults of theMughal Emperors. Much was acquired from the Persian Library of the Red Fort at Agra after the uprising of 1857. There is also material from private collections , for example, that of the 18th century East India Company, merchant, Richard Johnson, who collected Mughal miniatures. Malina Roy, Curator,spent months selecting exhibits and they are displayed with artistry and imagination. We learn from the exhibits the formative stage of Mughal Art, how it evolved from Persian miniatures and the influences of Hindu, Buddhist and European art upon it. On view are miniatures, paintings, illustrated books and manuscripts, ink pots and armour.

Visitors to the Exhibition pass through a delicately pierced screen gateway, lit from the back, that casts geometric shapes on the walls and the scene is set with Indian music. The first room has on view, possibly the oldest surviving document from the Mughal Empire, a land grant issued by the first Emperor, Babur. The central area has portraits of the Emperors together with bgood biographical detail. The rest of the Exhibition is themed and the various subjects included are 'Life inMughal India', 'The Art of Painting' ,'Religion,Literature,'Science', 'Medicine' and 'Decline of the Empire'. The last room has two superb scroll paintings of the procession of Akbar 11 through Delhi. There is also a sad photograph of Bahadur Shah 11, the last and then deposed Emperor. It was taken by Captain Robert Tytler. The Captain purchased the Emperor's gilt crown which is on display.

The first Mughal Emperor,Babur, came from Ferghana ( now Uzbekistan ). He marched into Northern India, defeated Shah Lodi in the fierce Battle of Panipat in 1526. The illustration of this decisive battle is rich in colour and action. His daughter wrote about his life and a copy of the manuscript survives from the 17th century. His diaries show realistic animals and plants. The Mughal Emperors wrote their memoirs, often illustrated with scenes of court life, hunting and battles.

Babur was succeeded by his son, Humayun, who started his reign in 1530. He was exiled for a time due to problems with the Afghan Suri dynasty. During his exile he was exposed to the Art of miniatures which he liked. On his return to India he bought two Persian artists with him, namely Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad. Humayun commissioned a Khamsa of Nizami with thirty six illuminated pages. It is on view open at the wonderful painting by Dharm Das, 'The man Carried Away By The Simurgh' Behold the glorious colouring. This Emperor welcomed Persian artists to this Court and is on record as having said,

"Artists are the delight of the World".

Akbar The Great succeeded his father Humayun at the age of thirteen in 1556 and ruled until 1605. The Mughal Empire was at its most opulent and powerful during his reign. There was cultural and economic progress together with religious harmony. He commissioned the translations of the great Indian classics from Sanskrit into Persian. He was a free thinker who set up libraries and cultural institutions. He absorbed Hindu practices, sought peace among his peoples, presided over a multi ethnic state and filled his Court with intellectuals and artists, providing an atelier for the latter.

Akbar invited a group of Portuguese Jesuits from Goa to his Court and following the visit, displayed paintings of Christian subjects in his Court and on tombs. He had a nativity scene in his private chamber. The Jesuits failed to convert him to Christianity but tried.

There is a small printed book by Johannes de Laet published in Leiden in 1631 recording Akbar's wealth on his death in the Exhibition. His manuscripts were worth more than his weaponry. Unlike most Muslims he had no problem with the depiction of the human form saying,

"..........for a painter sketching anything that has life.......must come to feel he cannot bestow individuality on his work and is thus forced to think of God, the Giver of Life.".

Akbar The Great suffered the fate that his son, Jahangir, took power from him and ruled from 1605 to 1627 and he is famous for opening up relations with the British East India Company. He was very keen on art and brought about a golden age for his Empire. Look at that jade terrapin,a native of the Ganges, in the Exhibition. Janghir encouraged single point perspective instead of flattened multi layers as seen in miniatures. He encouraged paintings of his own life and of flowers,birds and animals. This Emperor patronised Abu 'l Hasan and made him a great artist. It is possible that this artist painted 'Squirrels in a Plane Tree'. By the way, there were no squirrels in India , but they could have been seen in Jahangir's zoo.

There is a work, ' The Jahangirnama' which is a biography of the |Emperor with illustrations of saints and tigers in sexual situations.Well?! There are also illustrations of spider fights. Now, that is unususal !

Jahanghir was succeeded by his fifth son,Prince Khurram, who ruled 1627 to 1658. He commissioned the Red Fort at Agra and the Shalimar Gardens, the Jama Masjid of Delhi, the Lahore Fort. His name, 'Shah Jehan', means ' King of the World' A great honour never held before by an uncrowned Mughal Emperor. He commissioned the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz. This was the immortalisation of the splendour of an era and of love. The name Mumtaz means ' The Chosen one of the palace ' The art of this period was a little rigid. There were love scenes and ascetics around fires.

Jahanghir was succeeded by his son, Auranzeb, who imprisoned his father at the Red Fort in Agra whence he could see the Taj Mahal. However, he concentrated on expanding the Empire Southwards. From his reign there are letters from the English King William 111 and the Emperor's reply.There was a decline of art in his reign. Schools of Indian painting developed.

Empires do not survive forever and the Mughal, nor the British nor the Roman,nor the Persian were any acception.

I wish to end with two quotations from Rabinadranath Tagore,firstly on the Taj Mahal and secondly on Pleasure.

"Let the splenduor of the diamond,

pearl and ruby vanish like the

magic shimmer of the rainbow.

Only let this one tear drop, the

Taj Mahal,glisten spotlessly on

the cheek of time.

"But in this world, there is an

ancient tradition; sweet pleasure

is not without bitterness......."


(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)


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