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April 2013, No. 1321 – Vol 155

Mughal India. London

Exhibition Review

Mughal India. London

Mughal India



As one would expect of the British Library, London, the exhibition Mughal India: Art Culture and Empire (to 2nd April) is very bookish and rich in documents, although there are also plenty of wonderful pictures. It covers the whole period of Mughal rule, starting with a document: a manuscript grant of land by Babur, the energetic founder of the Empire, dated 1527. It ends in 1858, with a photograph of the tragic last Mughal Emperor, Bhahadur Shah II, on his sickbed, awaiting trial for assisting the ‘Mutiny’, just before being exiled by the British to Burma.

The curators of this remarkable exhibition have treated it thematically rather than strictly by date, so here is a confluence of documents, books and pictures, all assembled to evoke particular aspects of life in Mughal times, such as warfare, foreign relations, court life and scientific study. It is not just another show of ‘Mughal Masterpieces’. The splendour of the art that Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jehan encouraged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is now broadly recognised, and there are outstanding examples on show. In the furthest room are lesser-known paintings by the artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who worked at a time when Europeans were gaining influence in Delhi, which add an unprecedented and valuable aspect to this exhibition.

An animated screen in the exhibition’s antechamber usefully plots the rapid Mughal expansion into India and its subsequent decline. Here also are two paintings of conquest: Babur surrounded by a mass of armoured warriors desperately hacking at each other at the Battle of Panipat, just outside Delhi, in 1526, and the other, a year later, at Kanua, with his cannons belching fire, where Babur forced his way westward into the Hindu territory of the Rajputs (Fig.63). The early Mughal rulers were deeply conscious of their descent from the world-threatening Central Asian warlords, Timur (Tamerlane) and, ultimately, Genghis Khan, and would take to armed conquest whenever it was thought necessary.

‘This sword of the prince called Dara Shikoh quells a thousand enemies in one go’ is the vainglorious inscription on the damascened blade with its splendid gold- and green-enamelled scabbard. Here is testimony to both the warlike character of the Mughals, and also to the brilliant culture and immense wealth that they generated, which made their oriental bejewelled pomp a byword in distant Europe for stupendous, unimag­inable riches. 
A vivid demonstration of such riches is the album page (Fig.65) in which Shah Jehan is being weighed against bags of silver and gold coins on his birthday, 23rd October 1632, in the presence of his nobles. Afterwards the coins were scattered in the streets of Agra for the benefit of the populace. Here, Shah Jehan’s birthday ceremony becomes a symbol of wealth itself, as was his fabled golden Peacock Throne.

A section entitled ‘Court Life’ displays a number of non-ceremonial objects that hint at something of the daily life going on behind such pictures. There is a little picture book for pigeon fanciers, a guide to archery (how to string a bow, either standing or on horseback) and a recipe book collected by Shah Jehan himself. Especially intriguing is the 1672 ‘Notebook of Fragrance’, a sort of manual containing advice about perfumes and soaps and on which day of the week each should be used. Here also you could discover how to arrange a house, a garden or a library; or even how to organise a firework display. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a serious interest in botany, ornithology and astronomy (in the context of astrology) are represented, as are outdoor pursuits with paintings of polo matches, hawking, and of course, that prin­cipal sport of kings, the hunt.

Akbar, the greatest Mughal emperor of them all, and an ever-victorious commander of armies, was the architect of Mughal superiority in North India during the sixteenth century. He had an abiding intellectual curiosity, especially for religion. Himself an unconventional Muslim of Sufi inclination, he set up frequent conferences to hear and discuss the contrary arguments of Muslim divines, Hindu priests, and the Christian Jesuits from Goa. Akbar’s rejection of the orthodox Muslim hostility to representations of living things left him free to embark upon a series of splendidly illustrated books, such as the Babur Nama, his ownAkbar Nama in several different copies, various Persian classics, and even a translation into Persian of the Hindu Mahabharata. A page from the Akbar Nama (nama means ‘story’), an illustrated manuscript commissioned by Akbar, shows him staring down thoughtfully at a recently killed mountain goat, his sword put away in its bag. His sudden fit of melancholy (‘divine revelation’ as his chronicler put it) has brought the hunt to an unexpected end – to the obvious astonishment of his retainers. Above, clambering away up the rocky background, are other animals now free to make their escape (Fig.66).

Another innovation was the album: a compilation of exquisite miniature portraits (always full-length, in profile) of Akbar’s allies, friends and officials. For such a vast output Akbar required a large staff of painters, calligraphers and bookbinders in studios attached to the palace, so that he could oversee the work in person. He searched everywhere for talented artists from all over India, Persia and Central Asia to add to his growing artist-colony. Every artistic influence was welcome, and the Jesuits brought from Goa examples of European prints, with their curious Christian imagery and novel use of perspective to introduce a sense of space. These were to influence Akbar’s artists, hesitantly at first, but more and more as they grew into the style favoured by Akbar’s son and successor, Jahangir, who even borrowed the saintly Christian halo for pictures of himself. However, the studios virtually ceased production soon after the accession of Aurangzeb in 1658. Suddenly the new ruler reverted to extreme Muslim orthodoxy, thus discouraging anything that required pictorial illustration. Without work, many artists left Delhi for the courts of local Indian Rajas and Nawabs who were still enthusiastic patrons.

On the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 a brief artistic mini-revival did occur under Muhammad Shah, whose sobriquet, Rangila (‘Pleasure Loving’), is appropriately represented here in a risqué (to us) painting in which he appears in flagrante delectu with a courtesan. However, Muhammad Shah’s genial rule was suddenly upset in 1738 by an invasion by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah, who had his eye on the celebrated piles of Mughal treasure in Delhi. He sacked the city with much slaughter and carted off as much as possible, including Shah Jehan’s famous Peacock Throne. This disaster was the prelude to many more in quick succession, as Hindu Marathas, Afghan Rohillas and Durranis all harried the ever-shrinking Mughal possessions, with the unfortunate Delhi as their principal target.

This chaotic situation enabled another fast-growing power, the British East India Company, to step into the role of ‘protecting’ the legitimate rule of the Mughals, and, in effect, taking over themselves. Sir David Ochterlony was one of the first of the so-called ‘White Mughals’.Huqqa-pipe in hand, he watches a troupe of dancers in his fine Delhi house in about 1820 (Fig.64). Other Britons regarded him scornfully as having ‘gone native’ because of his preference for Indian styles in comportment and costume. Nevertheless, Sir David was a person of great significance as the official British Resident in the Mughal court, whose job it was to persuade the Emperor to favour the interests of the East India Company above all else. Much of Delhi had been ruined during that destructive half-century, as attested by several of Beato’s photographs on show, while the Imperial treasury had been virtually emptied. As a result, there was little money left for expensive bookmaking or jewelled ornaments, except for Bahadur Shah II’s spectacular golden crown, which is on show here as a rare example of Late Mughal ‘bling’. It was put to auction after his death, bought by a British buyer, and then sold on to Queen Victoria. However, the reigning Mughal Emperor still carried immense prestige as the only living descendant of the house of Timur. Any funds that remained were largely spent on the great annual processions at the end of Ramadan which proudly proclaimed his elevated status. The panoramic painting, over two metres long, in the exhibition shows the entire progress in minute and fascinating detail. A magnifying glass would be useful here.

Now that the Emperor could no longer afford much in the way of picture-making, the British became the new collectors and patrons. Almost a third of the finest earlier Mughal pictures in this exhibition were collected in sixty-four albums by Richard Johnson around the 1780s, whose portrait is shown in a book of poems. Works typical of the European concern for topography produced the vast panorama of Delhi, which lies flat right across the gallery, as well as the beautiful view of the Diwan-i-Khas in the Red Fort with its European-style perspective, not quite accurate in certain details.

One especially remarkable patron of Indian artists was James Skinner, who assembled an album of pictures of his own troopers in the famous regiment he raised, called ‘Skinner’s Horse’. The son of a Scottish soldier and a Rajput mother, Skinner was looked down on by the British establishment as a half-caste, only gaining respect after leading his ‘Yellow Boys’, as he called his cavalry, into victory after victory on their behalf. His album was followed by William Fraser’s in which naturalistic scenes of village life are represented, as well as some extremely penetrating full-length portraits of local villagers about to be selected as troopers, and they bring this very enjoyable exhibition to its conclusion.

However, this reviewer has one major complaint, for there is no catalogue. The handsome and well-researched book that ‘accompanies the exhibition’ contains fine illustrations of some of the pictures in the exhibition, but not all.1 Worst of all, there is no account whatever of the many books and documents that make up such a vital part of the show. Yet the very informative labels beside each exhibit are all well done, and a printed list of them would be really worthwhile, plus a few more translations. Such a catalogue could have become a catalyst for further research. Could not the powers that be in the British Library print some sort of catalogue, albeit somewhat late? As it is, all the effort and expertise that has gone into this worthy enterprise will not have the permanent record they deserve.

1    Mughal India: Art Culture and Empire. By J.P. Losty and Malini Roy. 255 pp. incl. 167 col. ills. (British Library, London, 2012), £19.95. ISBN 978–0–7123–5871–2.