TT Epaper
The Telegraph
 
IN TODAY'S PAPER
WEEKLY FEATURES
CITIES AND REGIONS
ARCHIVES
Since 1st March, 1999
 
THE TELEGRAPH
 
 
CIMA Gallary

PAINTED WORDS

In his memoirs, the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, describes a picture gallery in the royal gardens. It has two levels packed with landscapes and portraits of his ancestors and noblemen, painted by the masters of the age. The emperor’s keen interest in life and art comes through in his description of an incident involving Inayat Kahn, a courtier who was dying of opium addiction. Jahangir ordered Kahn to sit for his portrait before he went home to die: “He was put in a palanquin and brought. He looked incredibly weak and thin... his bones had begun to disintegrate... It was so strange I ordered the artists to draw his likeness.” While this portrait, which must have captured the vitality of death, has been lost in the whirlwind of time, its worded self continues to live in Jahangirnama. Given the death-defying power of letters, it is small wonder that books were counted among the coveted spoils of war in Mughal India. They also made for ceremonial gifts, conferred on noblemen or on kings as a way of honouring them. What made them worthy objects to be fought over and possessed was not only the metaphysical import of words, but also the worldly value of the materials that went into their making. In an age still unspoilt by mechanical reproduction, the work of art, in the physical, palpable form of paintings and books, was a treasure in itself. All the Mughal emperors — from Babur to Aurangzeb — commissioned and collected richly illustrated manuscripts. Akbar reportedly left behind 24,000 books when he died in 1605.

The revised and expanded edition of THE IMPERIAL IMAGE: PAINTINGS FOR THE MUGHAL COURT (Mapin, Rs 3,900) by Milo Cleveland Beach does justice to the emperors’ passion by reproducing the illustrations contained in the books and folios of the Mughal era in rich detail. Beach’s introduction is as illuminating. He describes the hard labour that went into the production of completed manuscripts: workshops would hum with artists, copyists, papermakers, leatherworkers, gilders, scribes and apprentices toiling together to bring heavily decorated manuscripts into being, copy by copy. The marginal decorations on a page of Jahangir’s Gulshan Album recreates these men at work.

Bottom right is a craftsman practising calligraphy. Others in this series include figures burnishing paper, sizing folios and preparing gold leaf. The system of shared labour also meant that manuscripts of the same work differed in their various versions. As Beach points out, the illustrations often suffered from the mixing of disparate sensibilities and talent. The second Akbarnama illustrations being chiefly the work of individual artists working unassisted, the overall quality of the book is better than that of an earlier illustrated copy where artists had collaborated. Left, from one of the versions of Akbarnama, is Akbar receiving the news of the victory at Gogunda. Akbar’s facial expression and body language would suggest that the good news confirms his belief, perhaps sustained against contrary views, that his heroes would bring home the trophy.

As parts of his endeavour to assimilate Islam with Hinduism, Akbar commissioned the translation of the Ramayana. Top left is the lively scene of the battle between Rama and Lakshmana and the demoness, Taraka. The brothers look like close kins of the Mughal emperors. Lakshmana has blue almond-shaped eyes and joint eyebrows.

Middle is Adoration of the Christ Child (circa 1630). The divine family and the angels in the illustration have Mongoloid features, like Rama and Lakshmana in the other one. The Virgin is even wearing a bindi and a nose-ring. This painting, alongside the Ramayana illustration, would indicate how, as different religious cultures were being assimilated under the aegis of the Mughal rulers, a new art was emerging that was uniquely Indian. That art, like the elaborately illustrated books in which they featured, became one of the best gifts bestowed by the foreign invaders on their adopted country.