Painted sounds

Imaging Sound
March 26, 1999

Some of the most eloquent words ever alleged to have been spoken by a parrot must be those in praise of music found in an Indo-Persian text, the Tuti Nama , written in the 14th century at the Muslim court of the Delhi Sultanate. The stories in this "framed" collection, derived from earlier Sanskrit collections (and itself the source of the tale of Tristan and Isolde), are told to one Khojasta, the wife of a merchant who has gone away to make his fortune. Being every night tempted to go out and meet a young man with whom she has fallen in love, Khojasta is repeatedly saved from infidelity by a series of beguiling tales told her by her pet. In answer to her questions about music, which she has heard is a powerful stimulant to love, the parrot tells her that its study "is a science of utmost sensitivity; every temperament cannot grasp it, and every mind cannot understand it, for it is not possible except for those noble souls who have been purified of nature's imperfections and base desires...

" A fine illustrated manuscript of the text, dating from about 1570 in the reign of the Emperor Akbar and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, has been regarded by many art historians as the earliest work of the Mughal school. It is one of the starting points in this latest contribution from Bonnie Wade, a US musicologist who has for many years taken a special interest in the "Hindustani" classical music of north India. Akbar, it seems, was illiterate. He had to be read to, and indeed he seems to have had a capacious and retentive mind that may have been particularly inclined to an appreciation and use of illustrations; he was also clearly sensitive to music and its powers. Imaging Sound is a pioneering, though curiously unsystematic examination of musical references in the rich and copious repertoires of paintings found in the Mughal ateliers of the 16th and 17th centuries. These paintings have been a surprisingly neglected source for the history of Indian musical culture. Studied alongside information in historico-literary sources for the earlier Mughals - such as the Ain-i Akbari , Akbar-Nama and Babur-Nama , many of which are available in English translations - they confirm in vivid visual detail the use and importance of music in military, ceremonial, festive and court domestic life. Wade has also brought in interesting parallel information from contemporary observations of European travellers and emissaries.

The book contains a "gallery section" of 166 black-and-white photographs, of disappointingly varying quality and definition, of paintings in Indian, British and US collections. There are also 20 colour plates, some of which have disastrously distorted the colour and shading of the originals and would have been better left monochrome. The subtleties of the British Library's superbly delicate Babur-Nama of c . 1591 are particularly badly served and should not be judged from these reproductions. But despite the flaws, students of Indian music should be grateful for this collection. A first perusal suggests a number of possible studies and approaches for the future. The instrumentarium, for a start, is fascinatingly varied and shows clear signs of "cultural synthesis". On the stylistic level, it has been previously noticed that the artists employed under early Mughal patronage, coming from many parts of the empire, brought with them diverse traditions and melded these to create a synthesis of Persian and Indian elements that is different from both.

In the "narrative" detail of the paintings, too, different ingredients can be seen. Here Akbar's clearly understood programme of integration, bringing together what he found in Hindustan with the central Asian legacy of his forefathers, receives pictorial support. Wade has been able to use allusions in the chronicles to argue precisely why certain musical instruments, as well as types of performers and dancers, appear in the contexts in which we find them. Her explanations or (as she often disarmingly classes them) "conjectures" are not all equally persuasive, and there are inevitable snares in wait for any single scholar attempting this kind of interdisciplinary study, but we can undoubtedly gain some glimpses of musical cultural change progressing together with the growth of political integration under successive Mughal rulers.

A careful reader of Wade's arguments will be able to look at the evidence and, even when in disagreement with her, use the opportunity to re-examine the detail in the illustrations she has found. One frustration will persist: we still know too little about the actual sounds and aesthetic character of this period of Indian music to be able to claim, as Wade seems to do at several points, that somehow the music rings out from the visual image. Nevertheless we may have some sympathy with her view that, to the artists and contemporary viewers of many of these pictures, "seeing" could also be "hearing"; we are left with a strong but non-specific feeling of "resonance", backed up by many observations of contemporary writers about the sweetness, impressiveness and evocativeness of the musical performances that they experienced as an auditory accompaniment to formal and everyday institutions. But the problem often remains of whether the artists are deliberately and accurately representing reality or are sometimes using, for whatever purposes, more traditional images and icons.

The book aims at a wider depiction and consideration of Mughal culture in the light of art history - issues of gender (including the important role of the harem), politics and literacy and aurality in the development of power. These appear in a series of anecdotes and observations that, at their best, invite serious questions. The book contains a useful bibliography of texts and secondary works from which Wade has gathered her material, and future researchers will be indebted to her. There is much to be done.

Jonathan Katz is master of the Queen's scholars at Westminster School and an Indologist specialising in the study of Indian music.

Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art and Culture in Mughal India

Author - Bonnie C. Wade
ISBN - 0 226 86840 0 and 86841 9
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £63.95 and £35.95
Pages - 6

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