East-West curiosities exchange

Goa and the Great Mughal
August 12, 2005

The first recorded contact between the Mughal emperor Akbar and the Portuguese took place in 1573, the year that the ruler conquered Gujarat. While at the port city of Surat - a contemporary centre of international trade - Akbar was approached by a delegation of Portuguese from Goa who presented him with "many of the curiosities and rarities" of the West.

These excited the ruler to the extent that, two years later, he sent a delegation to Goa to procure more. But the impact of Europe at the Mughal court was even more evident in 1580, with the arrival of the first of three Jesuit missions, each hoping to convert the emperor to Catholicism.

Akbar had for some time questioned orthodox Islam and regularly staged debates with holy men of different faiths at which he would sometimes spend all night discussing questions of religion. In the company of mullahs and sheikhs, Hindu and Zoroastrian priests, the Jesuits joined in dialogues with the emperor at his Ibadat-khanah (literally, "house of worship").

From Jesuit accounts and letters, it is evident that Akbar grasped the tenets of Christianity and understood the similarities and differences between that faith and Islam. He also showed an affinity for Christian imagery. In an account from 1580, Akbar is described as visiting the Jesuit chapel at court and being "so enthusiastic about the pictures that he continues to order replicas of the crucifixes and the other pictures made in ivory, gold, etc". To what extent such commissions reflected Akbar's curiosity about Western art, rather than his leaning towards Christianity, was clearly difficult for the missionaries at the imperial court to ascertain.

The dialogue between the Mughal emperors and the Jesuits at court is at the centre of a new volume edited jointly by Jorge Flores and Nuno Vassallo e Silva, both distinguished scholars of Indo-Portuguese history and material culture. The book accompanies an exhibition of the same name held at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum last summer, and a list of those exhibits is included.

Goa, the capital of the Estado da jndia, was the centre of Christian missionary activity in Asia and the port at which "exotic rarities" from the West arrived in Portuguese India. The ten essays deal with different aspects of the Portuguese-Mughal encounter, stressing Goa's role as a source of goods and the headquarters of the Portuguese exchange with Akbar and his successors.

The volume brings together work by a leading group of scholars that offers a significant new contribution to this field of study. The content spans a range of disciplines, which provide a historical context for the Mughal Empire, followed by essays on diverse themes in art and material culture.

The contributions are arranged roughly chronologically, covering first the Portuguese and Portuguese Goa, then the exchange of goods and images and finally the impact of these on Mughal taste and artistry.

The contributions of the editors are particularly noteworthy. Both introduce fresh contemporary Portuguese texts on Mughal India. Flores's essay provides an analysis of two valuable but little-known accounts of Jahangir's court written by the Jesuit Jer"nimo Xavier and the cartographer Manuel Godinho de Eredia. Even more compelling, especially for those interested in objects, are Vassallo e Silva's words on the Indian travels of Jacques de Coutre, a merchant of precious stones who spent time at the Mughal court. Pedro Moura Carvalho's "Rarities from Goa" and Sue Stonge's essay, "The land of 'Mogor'", explore the taste for Western luxury goods at court, their impact on Mughal taste and the involvement of European craftsmen in courtly workshops. Together, they help to explain the complex Mughal artistic fusion of Islamic and Hindu forms and techniques with those borrowed from the West.

Christianity, the impact of its imagery on Mughal art, and the Mughal artistic response to Western art are addressed in richly illustrated essays by Gauvin Alexander Bailey and Asok Kumar Das. Particularly fascinating are the concluding two essays, by Milo C. Beach and Amina Okada, which explore representations of the West and Westerners in Mughal art.

The volume is handsomely produced and beautifully illustrated. Regrettably, however, reference numbers to illustrations are not indicated in the text, making it frustrating and difficult to locate the images that are being discussed. In many instances, it is uncertain how words and image relate at all. For example, Flores's chapter on two Portuguese accounts of Jahangir's India opens with a plate of the Gulbenkian's celebrated nephrite jar belonging to Ulug Beg, made in Samarkand in the mid-15th century. Although later owned by Jahangir, the jug seems to have no link at all with the Portuguese, let alone the two accounts under discussion. Carvalho's chapter on "Rarities from Goa" at the courts of Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir is likewise illustrated with Indian-made ivory-inlaid woodwork, no example of which can be linked to the courts.

The catalogue of exhibits at the back of the book helps to link the volume with the exhibition, but as in all such cases, the information given is cursory and conveys very little about the objects themselves. The section titled "Mughal influence on Portuguese art" seems confused, for it consists not of Portuguese objects influenced by Mughal art, but articles of Indian manufacture illustrating some European influence.

But all told, these are minor criticisms and do not detract from the overall contribution of the volume to the critical dialogue between India and the West in the age of the "discoveries".

Amin Jaffer is curator of Asian art, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Goa and the Great Mughal

Editor - Jorge Flores and Nuno Vassallo e Silva
Publisher - Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in association with Scala Publishers
Pages - 240
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 85759 345 6

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