Artistic visions of the Delhi Zenana by J.P. Losty Curator of Visual Arts, Emeritus – British Library Blog

Three interesting portraits on ivory of Mughal ladies of the imperial zenana were acquired by the Visual Arts section in 2012, now numbered Add.Or.5719-5721.  All three were mounted in one frame with pasted down inscriptions below relating to the subject and the artist, while attached to the back of the frame were three envelopes which once contained the miniatures and which were written further particulars.  The paintings were sold in Delhi in these envelopes in 1900 by Sultan Ahmad Khan, who styles himself the son of one painter Muhammad Fazl Khan and grandson of another painter Muhammad ‘Azim, both of whom are named as artists in the inscriptions.  The purchaser must have put them into their present gilt frame and fortunately also preserved the various inscriptions and attestations.  All three are supposed to be portraits of some of the wives of the Mughal Emperor Akbar II (r. 1806-37).  For a more correct appreciation of who they might be, we rely on that invaluable on-line resource, The Royal Ark.  None of these ladies’ names unfortunately appears among the numerous wives of Akbar II, but that does not necessarily detract from the validity of the inscriptions of artistic interest.

 

See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2014/12/artistic-visions-delhi-zenana.html#sthash.XpaRep9e.dpuf

Further Delhi paintings on ivory by J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus) – British Library Blog

Previous posts on the subject of late Mughal or Delhi miniature paintings on ivory have dealt with portraits, with which the Visual Arts collection is well endowed. Not so well represented in the earlier collection are topographical paintings on ivory, so it was especially gratifying to be able to acquire two superb examples of the genre during my time as Curator of Visual Arts.  See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2016/04/further-delhi-paintings-on-ivory.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+asian-and-african+%28Asia+and+Africa%29#sthash.wIWEDnVZ.dpuf

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Cats in Persian manuscripts – From Asian and African Studies Blog, British Library

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Double-page opening to the tales of the two jackals Kalilah and Dimnah, by Naṣr Allāh ibn Muḥammad, dated AH 707/1307-8. Here the king is enthroned on the left, surrounded by courtiers with two lions beneath and, on the right, hunting cheetahs, a horse and a hawk – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/08/cats-in-persian-manuscripts.html#sthash.zofw507e.dpuf

Since August 8th is International Cat Day, it seemed a good excuse to publish some of the more picturesque felines from the manuscripts we have been working with during the last three years of our project ‘Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts’. – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/08/cats-in-persian-manuscripts.html#sthash.zofw507e.dpuf

More: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/08/cats-in-persian-manuscripts.html

AN INTERVIEW WITH PAKISTANI ARTIST FATIMA ZAHRA HASSAN Thirst of the Soul Aug 27, 2013 Interview by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D.

“Beauty is an abstract reality that needs shape and form for its manifestation. The process of its’ intentional and purposeful manifestation through form, colour, pattern and shape is what I call Art”.

(Fatima Zahra Hassan)

Fatima Zahra Hassan was one of the early graduates of the innovative miniature painting program established at the National College of Art in Lahore. Having mastered the age-old technique, Hassan set for herself the much more daunting task of infusing her work with the same perennial spirituality that emanates from the best of the Islamic miniature tradition. The artist explored the link between art and mysticism further while pursuing her Masters at the Royal College of Art and then Ph.D. at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. Currently a professor of fine art in the United Arab Emirates, Hassan continues to paint and show her work in Europe and the Middle East. She is presently participating in “Muslima”, the global online show organized by the International Museum of Women.

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Fatima Zahra Hassan / Courtesy of the Artist

The National College of Art is now known internationally because of the many outstanding artists it has generated. You were one of the early graduates of its miniature program. Is its’ success due to outstanding teaching or to the fact that the art of miniature allows students to connect with their past without turning their backs on modernity? Many contemporary artists working in the genre, including yourself, often bring to it a contemporary approach and aesthetic.

Well, I am one of those who believe that teachers should definitely get due credit for their students’ achievements. I can single out Ustadh Bashir Ahmad in Lahore and Keith Critchlow and Paul Marchant in London. But it is not entirely the teaching. It is the traditional training of that very art form, which has stood the test of the time and is part of a living tradition. This particular program connects so well with Pakistan’s illustrious history that students can relate to it. As an early graduate, I probably suffered the most only because I decided to follow the path, which was less travelled at the time. The trend was then to paint something that was popular and called contemporary art and apparently had more followers.

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Love Charms (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Water colour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

What were attitudes like then towards traditional art forms?

Artists like me who believed in the sanctity of traditional art were far less in number. I strongly believe that modernity grows from tradition and without tradition there is no modernity… there are millions of artists who are breaking away from tradition but people like us keep it alive, otherwise it will all be dead one day and there would not be anything left for posterity. It is also difficult to practice within a discipline and strict regime and follow certain parameters. Whereas it is easier to break away! One needs more time, passion, and skill to produce traditional work as opposed to something that needs manufacturing.

imageA Fall, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments on patterned and printed ‘Wasli’ paper, 2011/12, 15×25 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

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I Follow the Religion of Love, Watercolour gouache on printed tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 32×50 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Miniature painting in the Muslim world generally formed part of the arts of the book. Your work whether visually or conceptually more ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ is also grounded in text, inspired by Sufi literature, especially Rumi and Bulleh Shah. How do you understand and experience the relationship between the literary and visual arts in your own practice?

The book or kitab has had a pivotal role in Islam and Muslim history in imparting knowledge; therefore the arts of book or paintings done in order to convey what the text had to say became very popular in the Muslim world under various patrons. I grew up in a household where I was surrounded by books. My parents were keen on books, specially my father who had his own library that housed thousands of books and who was and still is an avid reader of history and theology. I grew up reading the poetry and literature of famous Muslim scholars. My maternal grandmother was also instrumental in introducing me to many leading poets and writers as she herself was a poetess and composed poetry in Persian and Urdu. At the age of twelve, I was already exposed to Sa’adi, Rumi, Attar, the Shahnameh, Firdawsi, Jami, Ghalib, Iqbal and many more…

I was keen on classical and Sufi music and was also interested in Qawwali which led me to the poetry of Bulleh Shah. I realized that politics, gender and socio-economic issues become irrelevant when one is a believer and has a spiritual connection with the Divine. For me, as a traditionalist, I have always felt the need to incorporate text in my work, using both image and words to convey the message of Divine Love.

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I Am A Flower, Photograph on archival paper and watercolour gouache, 2009/10, 20×30 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Some contemporary artists have appropriated or rather subverted the miniature genre to broach personal, social or political issues. But it seems that your work remains focused on the unchanging needs and aspirations of the human soul and the power of beauty, with the exception of the paintings addressing the issue cum violence of American drones.

A majority of contemporary artists chose to appropriate or decided to address issues pertaining to their circumstances or needs, I would say. I realized that I had to continue what I was taught and how I was taught. I was not trained to please galleries or collectors and buyers but to please my consciousness and paint on the ethos I believed in. My training in London harnessed the concept of sacred art and taught me a great deal about perennial philosophy, which is a cardinal element in sacred and traditional art. The Islamic Visual Arts’ program advocates “Art for Purpose” and not “Art for Art’s Sake”. Art should have utility and be functional which makes it more like design. However, its’ principal elements are: Truth, Beauty and Goodness. We have to question ourselves, when we look at some artwork, whether or not this art is truthful or whether it has beauty – which is sense datum – and, above all, whether it really emanates goodness.

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The Drones, Watercolour gouache, gold leaf on printed tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 25×8 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

The distinction that’s often made between narrative or figurative art and abstract art does not really apply to your work in the sense that even your most figurative pieces are allegorical and symbolic. Could you say a few words about this?

I personally feel that my work is both. My training in traditional South Asian and Middle Eastern manuscript illustration and then further grounding in ornament design including geometric and floral design has trained me to use symbols and allegories and create paintings that have stories to tell, for example the piece “Hide No More” named after the poem which inspired it and concludes with:

But I have fastened you in my heart. Now whither can you flee? O, the spouse of Bullah, I was your slave. And was dying for the sight of your sweet face. Ever and always I made hundreds of entreaties. Now sit securely in the cage of my body.

The poem’s language is so simple but has so much depth. As with all mystical poetry, there is a kind of double meaning. The subject is how elusive the Beloved is and how fast and fleeting the vision of Reality is. There is a perpetual game of hide and seek and the lover, again female, must constantly be on the watch so as not to lose sight of the Beloved, even though the Beloved tries to hide. The one who is constant and persevering and makes “hundreds of entreaties” will eventually capture the Beloved and fasten Him in his or her heart, so that finally He will “sit securely in the cage of my body.”

My painting shows a peacock and woman sitting against a pale sea-green background painted as a carpet, a crescent moon in the night-sky behind with stars like a jali screen with lotus flowers and leaves in between. The overall hues are different shades of blue and green. Green, as your readers know, is considered a mystical color in Islam associated with Paradise and the Prophet and blue is the color of the Heavens. I use these two colors most as they seem more than the others to indicate the infinite mystery of the Divine. The female figure is wearing yellow, which represents spring, new life and joy but it is also the color of longing and waiting for the Beloved. And while the peacock represents many different ideas in different traditions, one of its meanings in the Indo-Pakistani tradition, is that it stands for the male Beloved.

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Hide no More (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

From a Traditionalist perspective, art, life and the spiritual path are all seen as transformative, perhaps even alchemical, processes. Do you sense a direct link between the bettering of your soul and that of your brush?

In traditional society and in particular with reference to Islamic or Muslim society, all is connected. One’s profession, daily life and spirituality are all interconnected. It means that all your work as a visual artist is a spiritual process and has an alchemy, which transforms you into a soul that is contented, known as the “Nafs Al-Mutmainnah”.

You have stated elsewhere that it is not easy for artists like you to find a place in the art world even if prestigious collectors of Islamic art such as Prince Charles and the Aga Khan have acquired some of your paintings. However, in the last decade, we have increasingly seen work openly visually related to the Muslim world and Islam exhibited in mainstream art galleries, East and West. How do you explain this: the vagaries of the art market, the development of an active contemporary art scene in the Muslim world, the growing presence of Islam and Muslims in the West, a growing search and assertion of identity? Traditional Islamic art never ceased but it seems to be less confined to specific venues than before.

We have seen how the world changed after 9/11 and while it has done so much harm to Muslims as a whole, it has also done some good to Muslim culture. The world suddenly became interested in Islam and its culture and civilization. The world wanted to see the art, which was produced by artists living in Muslim countries. Curators, collectors, galleries and museum directors were all traveling to these countries to discover the art but the artists with Muslim identity, who were already living in the West, were in a different situation. The ones who submitted fully and were not resilient, they gained and the ones who kept the tradition alive were not necessarily getting any favors. The West generally wants to see art from the Islamic world that shows the negative side and all the lows rather than give an opportunity to everyone including those who are working on interfaith subjects, such as peace, benevolence, harmony and the love for humanity. The West is keener to see burka-clad women, women in niqab, and women who are deprived. I have yet to see interest in art from the Muslim world, which shows the positive side. In my case, I do not work with any gallery or agent but rather through a network, which helps me to see and undertake commissions.

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Rumi, The Seeker, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper / Courtesy of the Artist

I understand what you are saying about the West comforting stereotypes about Islam but I think that there are also many exceptions. For example, Western collectors are sensitive to the beauty of calligraphy –a traditional and beautiful art– especially when used in large scale paintings. Beauty is at the heart of Islamic art and this –I think– explains its great appeal beyond the Muslim world. The universal appeal of beauty is central to your own work as is its’ resuturing to goodness and truth. How would you define in words the beauty you seek to attain in your art?

As I mentioned earlier, beauty is a sense datum. Its’ importance is repeatedly stated in the Qur’an and the Hadith such as, “Verily, Allah is beautiful and loves beauty” and “God has inscribed beauty upon all things”. Beauty is an abstract reality that needs shape and form for its manifestation. The process of its’ intentional and purposeful manifestation through form, colour, pattern and shape is what I call Art.

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The Green Coat in Wilderness, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments on ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 20×16 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

What are you presently working on now and what are your plans for the coming year?

I am currently working on a series of paintings based on various topics such as construc-tion and building and how the South Asian labor force has played such an important role in building the modern UAE. I have taken an inspiration from an old 15th century Bihzad miniature in which he has painted a scene of the city of Herat’s construction.

Another series is based on “Objects of Desire” from the 60s and 70s such as the Vespa Scooter, typewriters, Raleigh bicycles, the Singer sewing machine and so on. The idea is to show these objects well drawn and painted to a 21st century audience. These were every one’s dream objects as opposed to today’s gadgets. I was born in the late sixties and I grew up with these objects myself, which were very beautiful. Being a British Pakistani, I strongly feel connected to these objects. For my kids, however, they have no meaning.

I am also working on old maps of the world, in particular US maps, and trying to transform and insert one Islamic pattern using a part of it to symbolize a drone. I never take a direct approach; rather, I use symbols, allegory and metaphor. I believe in painting that needs to be unfolded. I like mystery and most of my works have a maze or a labyrinth like structure, which is complex. Traditional miniature paintings or paintings from manuscripts always had mystery and, to this day, when you view a painting you will keep on unfolding it. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

I have two solo exhibitions and one group show coming up and am trying to paint different subjects from what I have painted before. In addition, I write and have many writing projects on the go and so life is very busy.

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Night Of Union (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

I know you write about Mughal and Persian painting and have also published two really lovely children’s books on Ibn Sina and Rumi which can be seen on your website. We wish you every success with your numerous interesting projects.

I really want to thank you and the IAM team for giving this opportunity to speak about my humble contribution to the arts of the Muslim World. I shall surely keep IAM posted with my projects.

http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/thirst_of_the_soul/

30 January 2015

Akbar’s horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

Akbar’s horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

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The birth of Timur showing astrologers on the right, drawing up his horoscope. From an imperial copy of Abu l-Fażl’s Akbarnāma, c. 1602. Painting ascribed to Sūrdās Gujarātī (Or.12988, f. 34v)
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Editor: On 31 October 2014 we held a successful one-day symposium ʻBritish Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Researchʼ at which Dr. Stephan Popp of the Institut für Iranistik, Vienna spoke on ʻHoroscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahānʼ. Although he is planning an expanded version of his paper for future publication, he has kindly agreed to summarise it for us here.

In the 16th century, astrology was still an approved science both in Europe and in India, and many princes between Lisbon and Dhaka relied on the counsels of astrologers. Especially so the chronicle of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Akbarnāma by Abu l‑Fażl, which uses the emperor’s horoscope extensively to prove his claim to power. Akbar claimed to be the mujaddid (restorer of Islam) of the second Islamic millennium and the pre-destined perfect ruler. But first, some remarks on Mughal astrology and how it was supposed to work.
For this reason, let us then have a quick look at Akbar’s horoscope as it appears in the Akbarnāma:

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.32.43Akbar’s nativity as drawn at his birth by the astrologer Maulānā Chānd (Akbarnāma, p. 70)

A horoscope is a diagram showing the sky over a given place at a given time. It consists of: 1) the zodiac, 2) the houses, i.e. a second zodiac constructed with the ascendant (i.e. the point that is just rising) as the starting point, and 3) the planets at their places for that particular time. This horoscope is constructed on a square grid, with the east on top (modern horoscopes are in the form of a circle, with the north on top). The twelve fields are not the zodiac signs but the houses. They are equated with the zodiac sign their first degree falls in, although this is at the very end in the case of Akbar. House I is top centre, and the other houses follow counter-clockwise. The planets are entered, but without their exact position in the zodiacal sign. Aspects, i.e. significant angles between objects that strengthen or weaken their power, are not indicated in this horoscope but are mentioned in the text where necessary. Moreover, several kinds of subdivisions of zodiac signs also have properties that strengthen or weaken a planet, which in turn strengthens or weakens a house.

Thus, a horoscope contains ca. 250 interrelated data, and the art of the astrologer consists in picking the right influences and interpreting them in an appropriate way. This is obviously highly subjective, even if the planets had influences. No wonder, as Abraham Eraly has observed (Eraly, p. 109), astrologers have been called the psychiatrists or confessors of the Mughal Empire.
Akbar’s horoscopes

This blog will show how astrologers acted not only as the psychiatrists but also as the spin doctors of the Mughal Empire. Abu l‑Fażl ibn Mubārak, Akbar’s mentor on policy and official chronicler, had a genuine interest in astrology. That he regarded it as a fully-fledged science is clear from the fact that he comes up with four different horoscopes of Akbar and discusses their differences (Akbarnama, pp. 119–123). Eva Orthmann (p. 108 below) proves that the horoscopes are based on genuine calculations and not made up by Abu l‑Fażl. Abu l‑Fażl writes that an Indian and a Western horoscope were cast at Akbar’s birth in 1542 by Jyotik Rai and by Maulānā Chānd. The results were different due to the different definitions of zodiacal signs in Vedic and Western astrology. Indian astrology defines the zodiac as the constellations in the sky whereas western astrology defines the zodiac as the ecliptic divided into twelve equal parts beginning from the spring point (where the sun rises at the spring equinox). The spring point, however, slowly moves backward through the constellations, so that at the present time it is at the end of Pisces, not in Aries.

Equinox_path

The precession of the spring point (0° Aries) in the last 6000 years. Kevin Heagen via Wikimedia Commons
CC-BY-SA

Because of this movement, Abu l‑Fażl says, the Vedic results were 17° behind the Western ones in Akbar’s time (whereas now they are 25° behind). Thus, Akbar’s ascendant fell in Leo according to the Indians, which suited an emperor, but in the Western horoscope, it fell in Virgo. Abu l‑Fażl discusses this difference, effectively discrediting the Indian astrologers (pp. 119–122). Still, as acknowledged by Orthmann (p. 110), ‘royal’ Leo would have been a much more suitable ascendant for an aspiring emperor than Virgo.

When the great scientist and physician Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī joined Akbar’s court in 1583, Abu l-Fażl asked him to correct the two horoscopes. Instead, Fatḥullāh cast his own, using the old “star tables of the Greeks and Persians” of ca. 830 AD instead of the new ones of Ulugh Beg. In this way, he arrived at the ascendant falling at the very end of Leo (28°36’) instead of 7° Virgo. Abu l-Fażl calls this “the most reliable horoscope” (p. 94) although containing outdated data, and devotes two chapters to its description and predictions.

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How Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī managed to put the ascendant back into ‘royal’ Leo. The old tables shift the house grid 9½ degrees back. The grid has also passed over Venus, so that it is at the beginning of the second house now, not at the end of the first.

When the diagram was ready, the task of the astrologer was to pick those influences that suited successful rule. Combining the right influences from the vast data, Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī sings Akbar’s praises (p. 111):

As this (4th) house is a Fixed Sign, and its lord (Mars) is in exaltation and has a beneficent aspect, territory will continually be coming into the possession of the King’s servants…,

and even (p. 108):

The Native will exceed the natural period of life, viz., 120 years.

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Abu l‑Fażl’s chapter describing Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī’s horoscope.  Although the diagram has been left blank, the details are all supplied in the Persian text (Or.12988, f. 15r)
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Overall, the horoscopes emphasize Akbar’s success in conquest, acquiring wealth and in administration, and his supreme reason by which he guides the state and settles disputes. Moreover, the astrologer Maulānā Chand argues that Akbar is greater than Timur because Akbar’s Mars is stronger (p. 79). That the horoscopes contradict themselves is only superficial, Abu l‑Fażl concludes, for, he claims, God hides Akbar’s greatness from the undeserving (p. 123):

Owing to the jealousy of God, the truth of the holy nativity remained under the veil of concealment and was hidden behind the curtain of contradiction. But… if each of the horoscopes be looked at with the eye of judgment… it becomes plain that… there is nothing equal to them.

A person deserving special mention was, according to Abu l‑Fażl, Akbar’s father Humāyūn, an accomplished astrologer and “by the perfection of his personality enlightened by flashes of forthcoming events” (p. 124). Humāyūn danced with joy when he read the horoscope, Abu l-Fażl says. In this way, he tries to make his readers believe that if they see nothing but contradiction, this is because they do not see well enough. Even the astrologers, accomplished scientists, did not see everything. But they did their very best to combine their data in the way that Akbar and Abu l‑Fażl wanted them to: to “discover” that Akbar was the king of kings.

Further reading
Abu l‑Fazl ʿAllāmi: The Akbarnama of Abu-l-Fazl, tr. Henry Beveridge. 3 vols. Calcutta 1897–1939 (1907 reprint digitised by Google available here).
Abraham Eraly: The Mughal World, Life in India’s Last Golden Age, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Kushyār Ibn Labbān: Introduction to astrology, ed. and transl. by Michio Yano, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1997.
Māshā’allāh Ibn Asari: The astrological history of Māshā’allāh, ed. E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.
A. Azfar Moin: “Challenging the Mughal Emperor: The Islamic Millennium according to ʿAbd al‑Qadir Badayuni”, in Metcalf, Barbara: Islam in South Asia in Practice, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Eva Orthmann: “Circular Motions: Private Pleasure and Public Prognostication in the Nativities of the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” in: Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin, and Kocku von Stuckrad (ed.): Horoscopes and Public Spheres, Essays on the History of Astrology, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005, pp. 101–114.

Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (email: stephan.popp@oeaw.ac.at)

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The Spirit of Indian Painting by BN Goswamy review – an out-and-out masterpiece

A book that recovers and celebrates entire dynasties of forgotten painters will rank among the greatest works on Indian art ever written
William Dalrymple
Saturday 24 January 2015 12.00 GMT

Sometime in the late 18th century an Indian painter, clearly frustrated with his patron, scribbled a small prayer in the margins of a manuscript on which he was working: “Protect me O Lord, from oil, from water, from fire and from poor binding,” he wrote. “And save me from falling into the hands of a fool.”

Most historians of Indian art have tended to look at their subject from the point of view of the patron. The great master bronzes of southern India are known after their Pallava and Chola patrons; the most accomplished court miniatures, such as the Padshahnama of Shah Jahan, tend to be seen through the prism of the Mughals who commissioned them. The patronage of individual rulers – the emperor Jahangir, Ibrahim Adil Shahi II of Bijapur, Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur – are the subject of detailed academic studies and exhibitions. But until recently, few scholars have attempted to look at the production of Indian art from the point of view of the artists who actually held the brushes and burnished the paper.

There is a reason for this: very little evidence survives to illuminate the lives of Indian artists. In particular, there is no Indian Vasari providing the kind of detail that has illuminated lives of the artists of the Renaissance: the hot-blooded womanising of Fra Angelico, say, or Uccello’s passion for geometry. All we have to go on is a series of minute inscriptions, often hidden in the details of paintings, sometimes in a deliberately humble position: the Mughal master Abu’l Hasan, who won from Jahangir the title Nadir al-Zaman, “wonder of the times”, deliberately chose to sign his name on the spade used to clear up the dung of his patron’s elephant.

Raja Balwant Singh's Hunt by Nainsukh Mughal Painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari

BN Goswamy, the highly respected historian of Indian painting, has been trying for nearly five decades to look down the other end of the art historical telescope. Like an Indian avatar of Bernard Berenson, who dug in the Tuscan Ducal archives to unearth the bills of exchange between the artists and patrons that would enable him toprovide attributions to a host of anonymous canvases, Goswamy has succeeded in reconstructing whole dynasties of previously obscure artists, given them names, and restored their identities and honour.

This is no easy task: many painters came from the humble carpenter caste, in ancient India ranked alongside lowly musicians and dancing girls. There survives in the Jahangir album, now in Berlin, a heartbreaking self-portrait of the Mughal master painter Keshav Das coming in old age to beg for assistance from his former patron. The old artist shows himself ragged, hollow-chested, bowed and emaciated. In his hands he holds a petition to the emperor who had once numbered him among the greatest talents of his court – but before the old man can present himself, a lathi-weilding attendant advances on him, stick raised, driving him back. In a similar mood, a moving letter found by Goswamy was written by the 18th-century painter Shiba asking his patron Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra for permission to return home, “for your humble servant here has fallen on bad days. Your servant has been living on debts, but now no one will give him a loan. He is helpless and goes without food.”

In 1968, Goswamy wrote a ground-breaking article, “Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style”. Employing a combination of detective work and intuition, he managed to marry the evidence from inscriptions on the back of miniatures with 18th-century pilgrim records kept in the Ganges holy town of Haridwar. In this way he reconstructed the entire family network of arguably the greatest of all Indian painter families: that of Pandit Seu and his sons, Nainsukh and Manaku, as well as their numerous artist grandchildren.

Mughal Painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari c1750
Detail of a Mughal painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari, c1750. Photograph: Stapleton Collection/Corbis
He then showed how many members of the family shared a common style, and that their mobility between different noblemen effectively made nonsense of the existing system of categorising miniatures by courts and patrons. What was important, Goswamy made clear, was not where a particular painting was produced, or who paid the bills, but which artist, or family of artists, was holding the brush. Court styles could vary hugely, depending on who was at work; but families had recognisable techniques and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Since then Goswamy has been working at reconstructing the lives first of the painters of the Punjab hills, and then of those elsewhere in India. The culmination of his work was the Master Painters of India show three years ago, which travelled from Zurich to New York and which amounted to a dramatic re-evaluation of the human and biographical reality behind Indian painting.

Now, in The Spirit of Indian Painting – a book that is in many ways the summation of Goswamy’s whole career – he tries to get inside the heads of those artists, to understand what made them paint the way they did, how they came to choose their iconography and what were the daily circumstances of their lives.

The process was painstaking. As Goswamy writes, we are dealing with “a world of silence in which one has to strain very hard to pick up whispers from the past … a layered world that does not reveal all its treasures immediately … One has to fall back on one’s own resources … to piece things together, the willingness to construct a narrative, the imagination to flesh it out … One needs to make an effort to receive from these paintings all the riches that reside within.” But if we strain hard, he says, it is still possible to “feel the breath of those times – even if lightly – upon our skin”, and so gain access to the highest state of pure aesthetic pleasure – to experience what Indian aesthetic theory describes as romaharshana, meaning literally: “the hair on my body has become happy”.

In the Hindu scriptures, “time moves in a cyclical fashion, making bends and loops, turning back on itself”. As a result, the art of the Hindu courts, and even more that of the Mughals, often shows the same figure appearing more than once in the same frame; this indicates that the artists are “completely at home with the notion of time as manipulable and elusive”.

We follow Goswamy into the workshops of his painters as they collect their materials – brushes made from a single hair from a calf’s ear or a squirrel’s tail – or as they grind their pigments from Afghan lapis, saffron derived from the flower of the palash tree (which later gave its name to the battle of Plassey) or the gaogoli yellow, concocted from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. Goswamy also carefully teaches us the difference between paintings produced in the family workshops of the Rajput or Pahari courts, where the artists worked at home and all generations lent a hand, and that of the Mughal ateliers, where the best talent from across the empire was deployed under the strict discipline of a master ustad.

As with any sweeping survey, there are insights one can quibble with, here perhaps the lack of space Goswamy gives to India’s rich tradition of mural painting, which is dismissed in a single paragraph: this is a book exclusively about works on paper. His distinction between the Rajput and Mughal ateliers is too absolute – later Mughal master artists such as Ghulam Ali Khan, while proudly calling themselves “palace born”, had the freedom to travel around Hindustan taking commissions from other nobles and East India Company officials. These were men who went where they pleased. Equally, the suggestion that even the grandest Mughal painters were sometimes treated as chattels is countered by their own self-portraits: Jahangir’s beloved master painter, Govardhan, for example, portrayed himself as an eager, sharp-eyed and intelligent young man with raffishly long sideburns and a carefully trimmed moustache, an immaculate white jama and dashing black cape. Govardhan knew he was the crown prince’s protege, and proudly depicted himself as such.

Yet these are small matters. Old age, Goswamy writes, referring to a specific Mughal portrait of an old man, is often a time when “the meaning of things begins to dimly unfold”. Certainly the historian, now in his 80s, has never been more prolific, lectured so brilliantly or written so well. The Spirit of Indian Painting is that rarity: an out-and-out masterpiece, and will undoubtedly come to be looked on as one of the greatest books ever written on Indian art.

• William Dalrymple’s most recent book, Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan, is out in paperback from Bloomsbury.

• The Spirit of Indian Painting is published by Allen Lane India

The Aga Khan Museum’s collection includes a painting by a renowned Mughal artist

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Image Credit: bufordworld.wikispaces.com

The Mughals were a Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, after which it continued to exist as a considerably reduced entity until the mid-19th century. The Mughals built a magnificent empire based on well-founded and enduring institutions, laying the foundations of a dynastic rule which inaugurated the most glorious period in the history of Islam.

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