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Royal rendezvous

A rare exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery London of paintings and manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent

Royal rendezvous
Mughal, Akbar Shah II and his sons, circa 1810.

British rule in India produced several unintended outcomes which historical developments like that often do. These include teams from the subcontinent winning cricket world cups, English language writers from this part claiming prestigious prizes, like Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel, industrialists acquiring mega businesses from former colonisers, and artists trained in the British curriculum emerging as important figures in world art.

Apart from politics and commerce, it is the realm of art and culture where barriers are broken — of past and present, heritage and nationality, faith and ethnicity. Long before the term globalisation became familiar, there were exchanges between communities, regions and peoples.

This exchange is evident in the development of Indian miniature painting, particularly in the Mughal period — from the emperor’s court to provincial seats and Rajput states. In these miniatures, one can detect a growing element of foreign influence incorporated into local themes, taste and tradition.

Payag, Jahangir presents Prince Khurram with a turban ornament, circa 1640.

Payag, Jahangir presents Prince Khurram with a turban ornament, circa 1640.

Mughal miniature painting in India evolved after the arrival of two Iranian painters — with Humayun on his way back to reclaim the throne of Delhi. In the reign of his son and grandson, European envoys brought examples of Western painting which contributed towards shaping a distinct vocabulary of vernacular art.

Now you can converse in that language if visiting The Queen’s Gallery at the Buckingham Palace, London. The exhibition, ‘Splendours of the Subcontinent: Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts’ (June 8-October14, 2018),“brings together some of the finest examples of craftsmanship and literary and artistic production from the Indian subcontinent. Both are drawn entirely from the Royal Collection”, which offers “150 works from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, most of which are on public display for the first time”. The show is an impressive essay on the history, diversity, styles, subjects, and makers of these works.

Curated by Emily Hannam, the exhibition is superbly separated in terms of themes and periods. Thus, from illuminated manuscripts of Gulistan of Sa’di (1584) and Divan of Hafiz (c.1600) to Loyal Address (1877, on Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India), it presents a pictorial view alongside the political history of India. Because when a person paints or patronises a work of art, he is also inscribing the currents of his times, infusing social and economic aspects. The story of art can be a history of trade as well as the history of suppression and terror. In the same manner, the chronicle of Indian painting unfolds power and political relationships — from the splendour of Mughals to the subjugation of India in colonial era.

When a person paints or patronises a work of art, he is also inscribing the currents of his times, infusing social and economic aspects.

But the interaction was not always in that order. A number of Mughal paintings, ‘The Madonna and Child, after Durer’ (c.1605-10), and ‘The Day of Judgment’ (c.1605-10) show Christian subjects rendered in miniature style with an addition of border and Persian text. These and several others from Akbar and Jahangir’s courts confirm an interaction between European and Indian art, evident in the way the space was dealt with in many miniatures.

This blend of observation and convention suited Mughal painters who in a sense were ‘modernising’ miniatures long before this became a trend. This isn’t surprising because in the exhibition one spots some works with this sensibility; particularly in the portraits of Jahangir and an Ottoman Sultan. The Mughal Emperor is represented with a halo behind his head and holding a golden cup with the engraved figures of The Madonna and Child, whereas the Turkish sovereign is rendered in profile with a few, selected shades.

The work can be an early specimen of ‘diplomatic’ dialogue, further observed in another illuminated front piece with faces of Timur and Shahjahan (c.1657). Two individuals from two different epochs are made to exist in the same moment, as “Timur, the great ruler of Central Asia, is passing the imperial Timurid crown to Shah-Jahan”.

Mansur, Chameleon circa 1612.

Mansur, Chameleon circa 1612.

A significant feature of the exhibition is that it reminds one of the power of an artist’s brush working for different emperors and princes. In some works, ministers, governors, noblemen and other important personages are drawn in exquisite form often as part of a composite image: the court scenes of Jahangir and Shahjahan. In these miniatures, details of faces, bodies, movement and dresses are captured in an incredible manner. For instance, in ‘Jahangir Presents Prince Khurram with a Turban Ornament’ (c. 1640) a number of courtiers are composed with their profiles towards the Emperor, his heir and throne. But in this miniature by Payag, the painter shifted the gaze of those standing underneath the royal balcony; one of them is looking at the assembled, another glancing in a different direction. This trait turned the work from more than an illustration of court scene to an art piece that exists, and can be enjoyed beyond its temporary needs and justifications.

Likewise, when a viewer comes across monochromatic drawings of personages ‘Mir Muhammad Sa’id, known as Mu’azzam Khan’ (c.1660) and ‘Suleman Shikoh’ (c.1650), he is bewitched by the economy of line within a single colour amid a spread of sky, ground and green vegetation. The artists’ observation of their subjects (ironic since these ‘subjects’ were the masters and painters were subjects) contributes in converting these characters into ‘living’ beings even though they are long dead.

What is presented in these paintings is the human element, common across cultures and confines of time. A man would look at a flower in the same manner as he did centuries ago. In essence, human beings’ reactions, feelings and aspirations hardly change.

But their portrayal may change, as was the case in a painting — a significant inclusion in the show — in which the second last Mughal Emperor is painted in oil, in western style. ‘Abkar Shah II and His Sons’ c.1810 (presumably by the Emperor’s painter Ghulam Murtaza Khan) depicts the Emperor with his three sons — including the last Mughal ruler of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

This work is significant because it documents how image-making was not contained or confined to the strict discipline of classical miniature painting; it moved and modified according to the practices of its age, rather than adhering to the tradition of Jahangir and Shahjahan. In that respect, the painting, ‘Chameleon’ by Mansur (c.1612) is a symbol of art practice of a region, which instead of being stuck to its original hues, hence in danger of extinction, kept on altering its format, appearance and body, so it can survive difficult times and different situations.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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