An exhibition in America celebrates the coming together of Persian and Indian influences during the Mughal rule
It was four years before Shah Abbas, the Safavid ruler of the Persian empire, captured Kandahar from Jahangir. The Mughal emperor had dreamt of ruling over the Iranian ruler. While most of Jahangir’s associates were aware of his political ambitions, in 1618, one of his closest aides, Abu’l Hasan, painted his desire in ink and gold. Among the finest painters of the imperial atelier, he used his wit to project the superiority of his ruler. The painting shows Jahangir and Abbas on the top of a globe that alludes to the former’s name (which means conqueror of the world). It shows Jahangir’s duplicitous embrace of the less opulently dressed Abbas. While the subsequent seize of Kandahar changed the political equations, the artwork served its purpose — it made Jahangir term Hasan as “the rarity of the age”.
More than a century later, in 1739, it was to travel to Iran after the conquest of Delhi by Nadir Shah. There, it attained an intricate border, consistent with 18th century Persian preferences. Hence, an Indo-Persian work, it exchanged several hands till it was acquired by the US-based Freer Gallery of Art. Kept in its vaults for years, it is now being exhibited. It is one of the 50 works that comprise the ongoing exhibition titled “Worlds Within Worlds” at the Washington gallery.
“We are showing the best paintings from the combined museum collections of the Freer and Arthur M Sackler Gallery, which form one of the world’s most important repositories of Mughal and Persian paintings,” notes Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the gallery. She adds, “We only allow these light-sensitive works to be exhibited for six months every five years.”
The paintings in the gallery space are grouped chronologically, according to the Mughal emperor under whose reign it was produced. If one section focuses on the synthesis achieved by Persian emigres and Indian artists under Akbar, another has works created under the rule of his son and grandson — Jahangir and Shah Jahan. “The collection reveals a constant play of references to Persian heritage along with innovations of the Mughal atelier. The Mughal innovations include naturalistic portraiture that captures the appearance of the real, copious quotations of motifs from European paintings, and Persian translations of Sanskrit and Hindu manuscripts,” notes Diamond.
Giving a glimpse into the past, the detailed works also provide an insight into the lives of the emperors. So an opaque watercolour has three-year-old Akbar hugging his mother after a long interval, as he was left in custody of attendants when Humayun had to seek refuge in Iran. A folio from the Gulshan Album, produced during the reign of Jahangir, reflects his interest in the arts of the books — with the border recording the work of artisans involved in manuscript production, from burnishing paper to stamping designs on a leather cover. Akbar’s aim to establish a cross-cultural milieu is documented in a 1585 paperwork with Lord Krishna holding court in a resplendent palace.
Commemorating 25 years of the gallery, the show is accompanied by several events celebrating Indian culture. On August 11, storyteller Surabhi Shah will narrate anecdotes about Akbar and his trusted aide Birbal, and art historian Anna Seastrand will decode luxury garments worn by Mughal emperors in the works on display. “The aim is to disseminate the art and culture of India/Asia,” says Diamond, who hopes for an encouraging feedback.