This relates to our conversation today about modern tradition. I really enjoyed this opinion piece, as well as the NY Times article linked to it.
As I was wandering through the Mughal exhibit at the British Library I briefly viewed the various texts, pictures, and pieces of art as I passed them; however, when I saw this book I stopped. The first thing that caught my attention was the elaborate drawings that dominated the margins of the page, and then I noticed the description of the object. It was then and there that I decided that this would be the object I would write about. This book, with its beautiful calligraphy and its adorned margins, was a copy of the poems of Hafiz of Shiraz.
Having read some of Hafiz’s poems for class, I found this book fascinating. Reading the description of this object; I found that this books history was just as interesting. The book was originally copied by Sultan ‘Ali Mashhadi, who was one of the most greatest calligraphers in Iran. The manuscript eventually was moved to the Mughal library where the emperor Jahangir had his artists add the beautiful pieces of art in the margins.
What I found most interesting about this object was that it was not an Indian book, but rather a book in Persian by a famous Persian poet that was adopted by the Mughals. I think this was included in the exhibit to show how the Mughals adopted the culture and artwork from Muslim Persia as a connection to the Muslim world. The Mughal empire was a Muslim empire in a predominately non-Muslim part of the world. The poems of Hafiz were famous, and Jahangir only had his artists embellish the especially valued manuscripts. Furthermore, this manuscript lasted through different times and cultures. Hafiz lived in the 14th century, and the text was copied sometime around the beginning of the 16th century before finally finding its way to the Mughal court in the 17th century. In a way this object was used to connect the Mughals to the cultures and traditions of Muslim Persia.
Can war itself ever be beautiful? Perhaps not, but if anything, its trappings often tell a lot about the culture for which an army stands. As with books, paintings, maps and objects, the warrior himself becomes an icon of culture. Everything from the armor he wears to the weapons he represents his heritage. In effect, the warrior not only carries these arms into battle, but he carries his culture, spreading this cultural heritage by the sword as a book would spread ideas between the minds.
The above picture depicts the barding and armor of a Mughal cavalryman. Like his leaders, who were responsible for the spread of Islam throughout South Asia, his trappings reflect those of Arab and Islamic warriors. Characteristic of Islamic armor was the rounded plate helmet, and the coif that covered the chin and face, often made of chainmail. These items would have been worn in tandem with plate armor on the body and arms. The warrior also carries a round embossed shield, another key component carried by Islamic warriors, which, along with the quiver strapped to his hip, display intricate patterns in blue and gold trim. Even the legs of his bow come decorated with alternating zigzag patterns.
The barding on the horse is unlike any I have other seen either. It seems to be made out of plate armor, but unlike many other displays of barding I had seen, the armor contains intricate detail.The plate has been fashioned in marked strips, with pairs of concentric circles by the rear leg, front leg, and neck of the horse.
Not only does the armor and weaponry serve a functional purpose, but they are also works of art in themselves, and contain the most discerning details. The warrior becomes both fearsome and beautiful to behold, fully displayed and armored. For the Mughals, who founded their empire upon conquest of the Southern Lands, this warrior provided the vehicle by which their influence spread, both politically and culturally. Armed in this way with traditional Islamic armor, he became a symbol for Islamic Mughal ideology in the same way words written in Persian had.
Not only does the warrior icon bring up the question of the culture they represent, but it also poses a greater question: why do people go to such lengths to combine art and war? Beyond the example of functional equipment, many armies developed highly intricate coats of arms abundant with symbols of flowers and animals. They carried the standards of their generals, emblazoned with personal crests and heraldry. In function, these symbols were used to identify the combatants during the battle: battles would frequently become chaotic, and the bright colors and standards helped to identify friend from foe. But something seems to go beyond that in the way the warriors decorated themselves for war. Not only did these icons serve to identify the warrior’s allegiance, but it also seemed to define the warrior’s identity. Often times, warriors were one among legions, and in battle, it perhaps was very easy to feel like an unknown amongst endless ranks (the concept of the unknown soldier is a theme that has been explored in depth today, but I feel like the need for identification in this regard is not a new concept).
One’s armor and weapons, then, became the icons in which a warrior could define and express himself, and in the grand scheme, icons which could become key symbols of the culture for which these armies fought. In the same way the Roman gladius was unique to the legionnaires, the icon of the Mongol horse archer, a heritage adopted by the Mughals, became feared throughout the world at the time, and could unmistakably be associated with its rulers riding in to conquer the land both for the rulers and for their art, religion, and ideas.
This ornate document is a marriage contract from the Mughal Exhibition. What struck me about it initially was the grandeur of it. It shows the importance of such a document which is certainly a contrast to the documents we see today. Contemporary documents tend to be white pieces of paper printed with blank ink and no matter how important the document, it is rare that it would be more impressive than that. In a tangible sense, it de-emphasizes the importance of what is written in the contract. It is less stirring to a person to see a regular printed piece of paper than something like this. Historically, it may have been in order to establish the importance of the emperor that his marriage contract for one wife (thought he had a few) was this grand. Perhaps because it was his favourite wife? The description on the item said it was for a 19 year old woman whom he took with him when he was exiled as she was his favourite. It bears the seal, interestingly, of his eldest son. This reflects the societal norms of the time as it shows that polygamy was perfectly normal and accepted, to the point that the son of one wife would endorse a marriage between his father and another wife. It contains a description of the amount of money etc that would be given to the wife over the course of the marriage which I also found interesting. There was a much more business-like aspect to love than perhaps exists today but this does not seem demeaning to either party involved. It merely seems like a nice gesture. But it does give a different meaning to the idea of a marriage “contract”.
Elephants are soulful majestic creatures. They are gregarious animals like human beings that live among family units. They can be distinguished from other animals as they share immense emotion. They weep for the dead and express depression. They are social animals that are larger than human beings and for this reason we are in awe of them. One of the historical figures that understood the value of Elephants was Akbar.
Akbar owned 5,000 elephants and had around 40,000 to serve the rest of the empire. It was said that one armored elephant was equivalent to 500 horses. Therefore, these elephants were carefully taken care of and were usually used in war. He knew that they were key to military success and armed them in order to protect them in war. Elephants also played a role in the construction of towns as they cleared paths for agriculture and roads. These powerful creatures were the main force to the presence of the Mughal Empire.
The court historian Abu’l Fazl states that “this wonderful animal is in bulk and strength like a mountain; and in courage and ferocity like a lion. It adds materially to the pomp of a king and to the success of a conqueror; and is of the greatest use for the army.” As aesthetic as an elephant may seem it is resilient. It endures pain and patience as its rider wipes it. It is better than a man as it acquires the characteristics of an angel: sweet and patient.
Moreover, the image of an armored elephant trampling a tiger symbolizes power. A tiger is usually at the top of a food chain. As the elephant kills the tiger it symbolizes dominance. It becomes the top predator and the ruler. It possesses characteristics of a ruler, which is patience, calmness, strength and power, but it remains dominated by human. I think the soldier on the elephant is important as it emphasizes that ultimately man conquers all.
Unlike everyone else I was not able to snap a photo of this beautiful book of songs without getting scolded. Nor was I able to find the image on the web. So instead of leaving it all to written description and memory I drew out some key elements, and smaller parts that drew my attention to it. This (or what I tried to draw with my talented artistic skills) is A book of songs of Nayak Bhakshu. First its contents; it contains 1,004 dhrupad (Indian classical songs) written in Braj Bhasha (related to Hindustani). These songs were intended to royal use in the courts. One thing that is pointed out is that Shah Jahan’s name is written on every page in gold calligraphy, and the calligraphy is absolutely beautiful, unlike my squiggles to not even attempt the language. Inside this book held the most popular songs to be sung at that time and the book sure did look important.
This is not like one of our books nowadays, it is not black ink printed on white paper, with the only thing that could be unique the font and size of the letters. No, in this time books were taken differently, especially ones to be used in court. They were as much a part of the decoration and scenery as a chair, to be used but also to be seen. The book in the British Library was opened up to one page, I’m not sure if it was a random one, the best preserved, or the most beautfiul, but it is hard to believe that the rest of the pages didn’t reflect what I saw on just those two. Along the border of the page was dark blue. Then there was a gold design against it (crudely shown in my picture). Then came a black outlined box which inside held more gold and blue. The lettering was in black ink while surrounding each curves and groove was light blue. Then surrounding the blocks of text of light blue was gold. What I only saw upon closer inspection was the veins with flowers in intricate patterns both between the blocks of text and along the border. These veins were also done in gold. These two pages alone were so vibrant and beautiful I wanted to flip through the book to see the rest. The beauty of the book is important. The art of the book establishes legitimacy. Anyone can have a plain book with the same words written in it, but only the Shah has one so beautiful with his name written in gold on every page. Even a special calligrapher is hired to make the book, an artist doing his craft.
The first time I went to the British Library, I saw an exhibit called Writing Britain. The setup was dull- a mixture of grays and blacks and whites, a page come to life. Even though the Mughal exhibit was in the same set of rooms, I felt as though I was entering a new world of color and culture. There were so many fascinating objects- ranging from paintings to crowns to books (with a replica set of armor, thrown in for good measure). It took me a while to decide which piece to write about. Yet I found myself going back to the painting “A European in Indian Dress Watching a Performance”.
It wasn’t the most important object in the exhibit. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one else found this piece as interesting as I did. It is a picture of Sir David Ochterlony, who was born in Boston, MA, was of Scottish heritage, and eventually became a British General. Though he is typically presented in his military uniform, he is wearing Indian attire in this piece. Why did I find this so fascinating? For me, it seemed to represent a blend of cultures and countries. I am far more familiar with Western history. Throughout the exhibit there were notes on what was happening at different times in the Mughal empire. Occasionally these would include names I was familiar with. Names that I had associated with specific places, ideas, times. There were also Mughal images of saints, influenced by foreigners. And I had a moment, one of those ones where you realize that everything is connected. It was not the first time, and, I am positive, it will not be the last. There is an entire world of cultures- people and stories and themes traveling through lands, blending, coming together.
This blend of cultures comes through in the painting. A British General, born in a land that would fight and gain its independence within his lifetime, sits in India, wearing native attire. The mixture continues within the room. The painting itself is done in a Delhi style- yet the room is decorated with British Portraits. One of the miniature portraits within the painting is of a woman. She appears to be holding an instrument, most likely a harp. In the crowd locals are playing their own music. The British Portraits also show an alternate style of dress.
I am currently taking an Art History class on British Art in London. For my first essay for the class, I wrote about British court portraits. Though the portraits included in the painting are rather different from 17th century court portraits, I couldn’t help but think of my other class. One thing we talk about a lot is that British art is truly a blend of influences. Even the court portraits of Charles I were famously done by Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck. So, how British is British Art? We are constantly influenced by an entire world, a collection of cultures with their own histories and traditions coming together. When we look at a piece, we must remember the context- all the influences, all the world.