Book Review: Roda Ahluwalia (Ed.), ‘Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture’


By Mohammad Asim Siddiqui

Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture is an excellent book with thirteen well-researched essays and fascinating figures on almost every page of the book. This book requires a very slow and close reading of the text and images most of which are beautifully interpreted in the text. This book may be a rich source of historical information for historians but for lay readers it is also a lesson on how to look at old paintings, describe and interpret them, and establish connections between different paintings and works of art. Philosophers like John Berger have educated lay readers in ways of seeing and interpreting images. This book employs the theory and practice of art criticism, blended with sound historical research, while presenting the richness and effervescence in the world of art during the Mughal period in India. Different aspects of art are covered in the book: lapidary art, textile art, decorative art objects, miniature paintings, murals, architecture, design of gardens and even the art associated with books. The scope of the book is also fairly comprehensive in that it lays bare the important connections between Safavid, Ottoman and Mughal empires in the realm of art. A comprehensive bibliography and thoughtful endnotes further enhance the value of the book.

“The Death of Khan Jahan Lodi” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In an excellent essay, Kavita Singh studies three Mughal paintings which illustrate an episode each from Padshahnama, the official chronicle of Shah Jahan’s reign, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, Jahangir’s memoirs, and Akbarnama, Akbar’s official biography. Abid’s famous painting “The Death of Khan Jahan Lodi” (Shah Jahan’s courtier turned rebel who was beheaded) shows Abdullah Khan and Syed Muzaffar Khan, two main persons who pursued and killed Lodi, in a less prominent role merely doing the bidding of the emperor. Abid makes the severed head of Lodi attend to his own execution, presents a chinar tree as symbolic of Shah Jahan’s presence, and turns the battlefield into an alfresco durbar showing the hierarchy of the court metaphorically. The painter successfully imparts new and subtle meanings to the painting where it is not merely a representation of an event but his interpretation, turning the painting into a higher art form than one attempted in prose. The second painting apparently illustrating an event from Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri shows Jahangir mounted on a horse in a dominant position and Khusrau’s friend Mirza Husain, his hands bound, brought before him with all other officials and soldiers on one side and Akbar’s tomb at Sikandara in the background. Jahangiri paintings, not known for their accuracy, often exclude unwanted characters from the scene but interestingly in this painting can be seen Mirza Aziz Koka in Jahangir’s retinue who was Khusrau’s father-in-law and the governor of Gujarat, with whom Jahangir had a very uneasy relationship. Historians have expressed doubts about the participation of Koka in this compaign, so was the painter, asks Kavita Singh, trying to show that Jahangir’s courtiers were always loyal to him even in extreme situations. By showing the tomb of Akbar in its complete form, though it was completed after this painting was made, the painter has also tried to present Jahangir as the loyal son of Akbar.

“Akbar Fights with Raja Man Singh” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the third painting “Akbar Fights with Raja Man Singh” the painter Daulat shows Akbar in an unflattering manner, not giving him a prominent or dominant position, a position bestowed on Saayyid Muzaffar instead, who, standing on the right, restrains Akbar by twisting his hand. The vulnerability of Akbar in this painting is in sharp contrast to Abul Fazal’s description of this incident in very hagiographic terms in Akbarnama. The gap between the text and the image, though not always present in Akbarnama paintings, is unusually pronounced in this painting. Yet another painting in the collection of royal family of Kota shows Maharao Bhim Singh, king of Kota and a Mughal mansabdar, fighting and killing Qilch Khan, a former governor who rebelled against the Mughal emperor. However, in this fight it was Bhim Singh, not Khan, who was killed but the painting shows what should have happened rather than what actually happened.

Despite their openness to multiple ethnicities, argues Mika Naif, Akbar and Jahangir’s rule displayed a dynastic bias towards their Turko-Mongol Persianate heritage, a fact very much reflected in the paintings of Mughal women. Like Kavita Singh she also tries to “explore female representation together with the text they illustrate, in order to understand what such images imply about the relationship between gender, dynastic power and visuality.” She offers a critical reading of the representations of two influential Mughal women, Mahim Anaga and Hamida Banu, in portrait paintings, an important genre of Mughal painting. Focusing attention on the portraits of Mahim Anaga, Akbar’s advisor, without a veil, she reaches the conclusion that the question of pardah and visibility was related to the rank of the women in the court and influential women like Anaga were not required to practice pardah. Hamida Banu, Akbar’s mother, also appears in eight prominent Mughal paintings. The depiction and representation of Mughal women in Baburnama, Akbarnama, Jahangirnama and other texts “emphasize the signaletic aspect of the sitter, that is to say that they tend to appear more conceptual, recognizable by their attributes, position and context, and to a lesser degree by their life-like ‘realistic’ rendition of their physiognomy.”

In a long essay titled “A Noteworthy Ustad in the Imperial Mughal Kitabkhane of Akbar and Jahangir” Roda Ahluwalia first dwells on the influence of the Renaissance art on Mughal painting after 1580 and then talks at length about the career of Nanha, an important painter during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir, who excelled in drawing scenes from real life and portraits, two important genres of Renaissance art. She argues that Renaissance ideas of “chiaroscuro, aerial perspective, foreshortening, shading and imparting volumes to figures” were used by Mughal painters enthusiastically though a hybrid kind of Persian and indigenous Mughal art already existed. Nanha, first noticed in his painting “Zarir the Weaver in Nishapur”, specialized in Renaissance genre of painting real life. He brought out the psyche of the subject and used “thin layer of colours to enhance naturalism in his work.” Though he spent a major part of his career in Akbar’s time, his work gives a glimpse of what will become a dominant style during Jahangir’s time, thus becoming a link between the two styles. He also trained his nephew Bishandas and both uncle and the nephew were among the few painters from Akbar’s time retained by Jahangir.

Studies on murals are not adequate maybe because many murals painted during the Mughal period are not visible and hence difficult to interpret. In some cases, scholars conjecture scenes from Indo-Persian epic Hamzanama have been painted in Mughal murals. Trying to fill up the gap in the scholarship on Mughal miniatures, especially figurative murals, Subhash Parihar’s study includes the miniature “Babur Receives a Courtier” from Baburnama attributed to Farrukh Beg(1589), “The Physician’s Duel” from Khamsa of Nizami by Miskin (1595), “Festivities on the Occasion of Akbar’s Circumcision” from Akbarnama by Madhav and Narsingh (1602-03),  a  miniature figurative wall painting by Govardhan depicting Jahangir celebrating Holi (1620), and murals depicting birds, animals, and humans introduced by Persian painters like Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad.

Beginning with Babur, Mughals were great lovers and collectors of books and manuscripts, a point stressed in Ursula Sims-Williams’ essay “The Imperial Library of Mughals: The British Library Collections.” An important manuscript Juki Shahnama, named after Timur’s grandson (d.1445) for whom it was illustrated, was collected by Babur and remained with Mughals until the 18th century. Another rare manuscript Khamsa of the 12th century poet Nizami passed from one noble to another. Hamida Banu Begum, a great collector who had thirteen rare manuscripts, also had her own library. There was also a Mughal copy of Shahnama dating from the 15th century which was “extensively refurbished in India” with the addition of ninety illustrations. Unfortunately, from the 18th century onwards, largely due to many invasions, many important manuscripts and books were stolen, lost, or destroyed.

Architecture is also suitably represented in the book in Catherine B. Asher’s well-researched article on the construction of temples during the Mughals. Providing details of temples built in Muslim rule before the Mughal rule, she refers to two 14th century temples, Surya temple in Deo and Umga, and notes that one 14th century temple in Gaya has an inscription in Sanskrit praising Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq. These were small temples. She also refutes the idea that there ever were large, grand temples before the late 12th century in north India. North Indian temples were also built in clusters at “pilgrimage sites that are situated in hilly, wooden watery settings.” To the question as to why temples before the 16th century in Gangetic Valley have not survived, Asher agrees with Richard Eaton and other historians who do not consider Muslim destruction as the main cause of their non-survival. Considering neglect, use of brick rather than usable stone as the building material, population shift, lack of excess capital, and rebuilding as the reasons for their non-survival, she notes that South Indian temples were better maintained because of their urban location.

With the inclusion of Rajputs and other Hindus in Mughal nobility, Hindu trithas like Varanasi and Braj became favoured Mughal sites. Akbar also favoured Vaishnavas of Brajbhumi, Shaiva Nath Yogis of Jakhbar and Jains. Among Akbar’s courtiers Todarmal patronized Varanasi’s Vishvanath temple and Raja Man Singh, one of the richest men in north India, provided extraordinary patronage to temple construction, acting both as a Mughal governor and as head of Kachhwaha Rajput ruler. Man Singh’s temples, mostly commemorative in nature, include a Shiva temple and a Surya temple in Bihar commemorating his mother and father, Jagat Shiromani temple, and the more famous temple at Vrindavan. Another Rajput, Bundela ruler Bir Singh Deo who enjoyed the patronage of Jahangir, built many important temples which include Keshava Mandir in Mathura, Chaturbhuj Mandir in Orchha, and temples at Varanasi and Dwarka.

In the construction of temples by the Rajput kings, there was a “desire to be acculturated into the Mughal cultural enterprise.” Sisodiya ruler Jagat Singh’s (1607-52) Jagdish Temple has architectural similarity with Shah Jahan’s Delhi mosque. Mirza Raja Jai Singh, an important officer in Shah Jahan’s court, built Amber palace inspired by the design of Shah Jahan’s palace, using white marble which only the emperor was able to use in his buildings. Even Sawai Jai Singh’s (1699-1743) design of Jaipur, largely believed to be modeled on ancient Hindu texts, writes Asher citing Susan Johnson-Roehr, “was inspired by a typical Mughal garden divided symmetrically by water courses”, though she does add that “it is likely that these two forces, along with perhaps others, stimulated the city’s design.” Emphasizing the role of new factors like absorption of Jaipur State into India, the responsibility of the upkeep of temples passing into the hands of government agencies, and the population shift, Asher wonders: “In a hundred years from now will our descendants wonder why were so few temples built in 16th through 20th-century Rajasthan?”

Laura E. Parodi questions many established views about Mughal gardens, especially the concept of quadripartite gardens (charbagh) as examples of Islamic paradise gardens, in her remarkably researched essay “Mughal Garden: Typologies Reconsidered”. Finding no evidence of quadripartite gardens in Iran and dismissing the idea of their association with mandalas, she finds evidence of them only in medieval Andalusia and India. Neither does she consider funerary gardens like Akbar’s tomb or I’timaduddawla’s tomb examples of charbagh. She also finds no evidence of the use of the term ‘charbagh’ for quadripartite gardens in Mughal sources. Charbagh rather refers to “terraced estates built on sloping ground”, the best example of them to be found in Kashmir. Reading Baburnama closely she understands that “charbagh was the court’s residence, complete with stables”, living quarters and all other amenities and “it required sloping ground and a rich freshwater source to support its existence, revenue-yielding plantings.” But very soon garden residences became redundant as local customs found their way in Mughal plans. Providing a nuanced discussion of other terms like Baghchas, Baghs, Rawza, Maqbara, and rejecting the idea of Mughal gardens’ ‘paradisiacal’ association, she discovers a whole range of functions of charbagh: residential, administrative, political and productive” in Mughal, Timurid and Safavid sources. Conducting a discussion of Mughal funerary gardens, she offers an interesting view about Taj Mahal staying clear of its symbolic reading: “the mausoleum was probably positioned on the terrace so Shah Jahan could look at it unhindered from the windows of his palace, situated around the riverbend on the same bank.”

Susan Stronge’s essay on lapidary arts gives a fair idea of the use of agate, green aventurine quartz, rock crystal, and jade to make beautiful objects like wine bowls, thumb rings, daggers, pendants, and pan boxes under patronage of the Mughal emperor. In a similar effort Anamika Pathak details objects of decorative arts commissioned by the Mughal emperors, made of different materials like jade, brass, copper, glass, silk, cotton which include knife hilt, cooking utensil, bowl, shallow plate, huqqa, patka, and tent panel.

Vivek Gupta’s extremely well-written article “ Splendour of the City, Nagarshobha: Textile Culture of Mughal Burhanpur” tries to understand how places were “defined and experienced” by working on the sketchy historical evidence in European travelogues and Persian and Hindi literary works about Burhanpur, conqured by Akbar in 1601. Agreeing with the view that Mughals were not exclusively Persianate, or Islamicate and reminding of the intrinsicality of Hindi, Sanskrit and vernacular languages to their life, Gupta refers to poet Abd al-Rahim’s interest in vernacular culture. Posted as Mughal governor in Burhanpur, his poem “Nagarshobha”, similar to the Persian genre shahrashub (lament for the city) and Sanskrit nagarvarnana (description of a city), dwells on the life and profession of a rangrejna (dyer woman). Referring to other such poems, Gupta avers that “juxtaposing them with objects and extant sites allows us to imagine a past cityscape. Known for its rich textile culture, the clothes made and dyed in Burhanpur were in demand in European markets. Armenian community also contributed to the mercantile culture of Burhanpur. Gupta also establishes a link between Mughal interest in poppy and the use of floral motifs in textiles and architecture.

Gulru Necipoglu’s essay “Transregional Connection” explores the rich interaction between the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mughals, with merchants, artists, architects, scholars, Sufis and diplomats travelling regularly from one region to the other. Both Istanbul and Isfahan used to be compared with a far bigger Shahjahanbad. The palatial building of the three empires also shared many common features. Necipoglu discusses at length the “international Timurid and Turkman pavilion type known as hasht bihisht, or eight paradises, close variants of whose plan were translated to local idioms in all three empires.” All three empires also worked out a creative relationship with the medieval architectural traditions of their empires and brought out their transformation.

“The Princes of the House of Timur” (Source: British Library)

Another level of interaction can be seen between Abbasid and Mughal painters. Sheila R. Canby’s essay “The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp and its Impact on Mughal Painting” subjects “The Princes of the House of Timur”, a painting showing emperor Humayun presiding over “a gathering of grandees, posthumously identified as his forefathers and children” to a close reading, seeing in it resemblance to Tahmasp’s (1524-1576) five paintings. In the second part of her essay, she talks about the career of celebrated Irani painter Dust Mohammad, who had made six paintings of Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp’s commissioned 258 paintings. One drawing on which is written “Oh, Dust” and a related work “Rustam Attacking a Demon”, made by a Bikaner artist in the 17th century, pay homage to Dust Mohammad “who sought a new life and work in India” when in all probability he sought the patronage of Humanyun’s brother Kamran.

Sunil Sharma offers a comparative view of Mughal, Safavid and Ottaman literary and visual cultures with reference to their representation of Indian woman. The blending of Persian heroines Laila, Shirin and Zulaikha with Indian Nayika in Indo-Persian literature, Abu’l-Faiz Faizi’s rendering of the story of Nala and Damayanti as a Persian masnavi, and the use of Indian folk traditions, like the tale of Heer-Ranjha, in masnavi, are some prominent examples of this representation. A number of Safavid paintings and poetic works present different kinds of representations of Indian woman as sati, Rajput woman in Mughal dress, or the pure woman in the 17th century Persian masnavi Gulzar-e Abbasi. In the Ottoman Turkish literature the most prominent example of the representation of Indian woman is the18th century work Zenanname (Book of Women) by Fazil Bey Enderuni (d.1810) where interestingly “the Indian woman has changed from being a self-sacrificing wife to an alluring courtesan and now to a frigid sexless creature.”

At a time when the University Grants Commission’s new curriculum of history is receiving a lot of flak for ignoring the contribution of Mughals to Indian society and culture, the value of this book certainly cannot be overestimated. It is a collector’s item and a valuable addition to knowledge about an integral part of Indian art and culture.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.


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