Albums recorded in Mughal times

Perspectives on Persian Painting - Painting for the Mughal Emperor
July 11, 2003

These two publications offer wide-ranging surveys of the art of the book in the eastern Islamic world. Susan Stronge provides an overview of the imperial Mughal manuscript and album paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Barbara Brend, in an even wider survey, discusses the surviving illustrated manuscripts pre-1620 of the Khamsa, or Quintet, of the early 14th century poet Amir Khusrau of Delhi.

The V&A's collection of early Mughal paintings, although immensely famous, and displayed in rotation in the Nehru Gallery of the museum, has never been properly published either as a monograph or in a catalogue. This book will serve as an introduction to the collection and, given its limitations in length and size (some paintings are too large for "miniatures"), all students of Mughal paintings will welcome seeing so many of them published in colour (138 plates) together for the first time.

The most important manuscripts in the V&A from the reign of Akbar (1556-1605) include 24 pages of the Hamzanama and part of the Akbarnama, the first an enormous swashbuckling tale commissioned in about 1562 by the boy Akbar at the commencement of the Mughal studio, the second a history of his own reign commissioned in his maturity and illustrated by his finest artists at the height of their powers.

For the former manuscript, Stronge accepts the dating for its production as established by Pramod Chandra as c. 1562-77, and is at pains to point out evidence of the varied Iranian and Indian stylistic origins of its artists.

She distinguishes between underlying Iranian draughtsmanship and Indian details, but to this reviewer at least, the compositions of the later pages seem to owe more to earlier Indian styles than to those of Iran. Stronge was not, of course, able to use the recent catalogue of the Hamzanama exhibition in Washington by John Seyller (2002), of which the London showing is eagerly awaited.

The publication of the museum's great Akbarnama itself, the imperial commissioned copy, in a catalogue with full codicological apparatus, has long been a desideratum in Mughal studies. In the meantime, there has been much discussion of its dating, as its vigorous late-1580s style miniatures ill-accord with the commissioning only in 1589 of the text they illustrate, and the completion and presentation of the finished manuscript in 1596.

Stronge argues that the solution lies in the various drafts of the text that were in circulation before its final completion, and that the V&A's manuscript and its paintings represent an earlier draft of the text than that which was finally presented in 1596.

A final chapter on the Akbar period examines paintings in the V&A extracted from other manuscripts, while two further chapters deal with paintings from the reigns of Jahangir (1605-) and Shah Jahan (1628-58), including paintings from the museum's famous Wantage and Minto albums. Stronge weaves together art history, pictorial description and political and cultural history, and places the museum's paintings in their context. The book will be valuable to academics for its insights into the production of the manuscripts and albums, and to students of Mughal painting for its pictorial richness.

Brend's book weaves together a different complex of art historical and narrative ideas. The Khamsah or Quintet of poems by the Delhi poet Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) is the most famous of the imitations of the earlier Khamsah of the 12th century Persian poet Nizami and, like the exemplar, this later quintet consists of a didactic poem followed by four romances.

Unlike Nizami's poems, those of Amir Khusrau await full translation into any European language and hence are not well known, while, also as a consequence, the illustrated manuscripts of these texts have not been widely studied.

An exception is the recent study by John Seyller of Akbar's manuscript of 1597-98 in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, US. After an introduction on the adventurous life and times of her poet, and the place of his Khamsah within them, Brend summarises the contents of the poems, which she argues is essential for any understanding of the illustrative cycles. Her various chapters are then devoted to a discussion of the illustrated manuscripts and their miniatures painted in various stylistic traditions - from Iran, Ottoman Turkey and India. She thus includes various extremely beautiful and important manuscripts from Herat and Mughal India, as well as much other interesting material. In each chapter, she skilfully interweaves discussions of the relevant dynastic history, of the place of the relevant manuscripts within it, of their description and style, and of the illustrations and their artists. The book is elegantly produced: notes follow each section, followed in turn by the relevant monochrome illustrations - 16 pages of colour plates are inserted earlier on.

Whereas any discussion of illustrative cycles in manuscripts of a given text might be thought to be leading to the identification of an Ur -cycle and a stemma of influences, in fact, Brend is able to reach only general and tentative conclusions, as her material is too disparate and far flung: 151 subjects in 33 manuscripts, ranging from Istanbul to Mandu in central India.

She concludes briefly that the Indian and Iranian cycles evolved independently but that it is not clear whether either evolved from an original Indian cycle - and she distinguishes between a long cycle and a short cycle. In lieu of an extensive discussion of cycles, Brend throws herself avidly into discussions of attribution and style. She shows herself to be altogether at home with a wide range of other relevant manuscripts, none illustrated here, so that to follow all her arguments, access to a good library of oriental art is essential. This book is for the specialist, not the student.

J. P. Losty is head of the prints, drawings and photographs section of the Oriental and India Office Collections, British Library.

Perspectives on Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau's Khamsah

Author - Barbara Brend
ISBN - 0 7007 14677
Publisher - RoutledgeCurzon
Price - £55.00
Pages - 324

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