Sunday, August 5, 2012

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through September 16, 2012

"There are many that hate painting, but such men I dislike." This quotation is attributed to Akbar, one of the Mughal rulers of India, and I couldn't have said it better myself.  The Mughals ruled India from 1526 to 1827, and in an effort to tie themselves closely with the Timurid part of their heritage, they stressed the Timurid ethos in their art.  Specifically, they identified with the great Timurid leader Timur, aka Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid dynasty.

One of the ways in which they did this was through the art of the book.  It warms my heart to think of rulers establishing their credibility by becoming patrons of book illustrators - truly it does.  One of the books in which they were most interested was the Gulistan, which means Rose Garden, and is one of the most influential works of Persian literature.  And just when I thought I was an educated person, I find out there are great works of Persian literature of which I have spent my life ignorant.  Not that this is the first time, mind you.  I still need to get a copy of Shahnama, which I learned about last year.

But I digress.  I was pleased to learn that it was not just the men who were readers; women owned books, read them and passed them along to others.  I wasn't sure there would be much to cheer about as regards the Mughals and their treatment of women, but clearly I was wrong.

Akbar, he of the quote above, was only 13 when he became ruler, and he was open to the influence of the many cultures under his rule.  New religions, new styles of art, new ways of doing things were welcome in his court, and he incorporated them into a new type of painting that was more naturalistic and sophisticated.  You can see the changes in the depictions of people before and after his reign.  Earlier works are more formalized - people don't have much in the way of individual expression.  Afterwards, however, it seems as if people are painted as if they are actual people, not just representations of a particular type.

It was not just Akbar who was a patron of the arts.  His son, Jahangir and his grandson, Shah Jahan continued to emphasize the arts while they ruled India.  Jahangir began the production of the Gulshan album, pages from which are on display, and Shah Jahan finished the work.  Perhaps my favorite work in the show is a painting of Shah Jahan listening to a Sufi Shaykh over the kings pictured below him.  One of the kings is James I of England - proof that the Mughals were aware of countries far beyond Asia and were influenced by them.   Note that Shah Jahan's great claim to fame (at least outside of India) is that he was the one who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal.

All of the paintings are small, and all are incredibly detailed.  Magnifying glasses are provided, and if you want to examine the paintings in any depth, you'll need them.  The colors are beautiful, and I'm impressed at how rich they are, hundreds of years after the works were first painted.

Verdict: This show can be managed on a lunch break, but you won't have much time to admire the intricacies of the works.  Either pick a couple of pieces to examine closely, or content yourself with an overview.

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