Soaring Deccan, circular Baghdad

The New Cambridge History of India, Part Seven - Islamic Art and Architecture

January 7, 2000

The two recent books on the art and architecture of the Islamic world vary considerably in their content and approach. While George Michell and Mark Zebrowski concentrate on one region, Robert Hillenbrand gives a broad picture of the whole of the western Islamic world, from Spain to Central Asia. Both books are geared to a general readership and provide a basic picture for students and those with a broad interest in the subject, rather than specialists or scholars.

During the past ten years, Cambridge University Press has been producing a new history of India, and several volumes have so far been published. Those on art and architecture include the Architecture of Mughal India by Catherine Asher and Architecture and Art of South India by George Michell. The new series aims to update and expand on that published between 1922 and 1937 edited by the distinguished historian Sir Wolseley Haig. The form and method of delivery of the new series is indeed very different from the previous one, as is the weight given to art and architecture, which in the new series appear as self contained volumes.

There is a further distinction in the historical period covered by the two series. The old series took in the whole span of Indo-Muslim history, while the new one is concerned only with the period from the Mughals up to modern times. This approach is understandable as there appears to have been little progress since the 1930s in historical studies on the sultanates, let alone their architecture and arts. It can even be argued that the competence of modern scholars does not match that of the pioneers of the time of the British Raj and their Indian munshis , in that scholars in India and elsewhere no longer have the command of Persian that had been the language of culture in India from the end of the 12th century to the mid-19th century.

The approach towards the arts of India has, however, evolved greatly in the past 80 years. Early in this century there were few publications on the subject, and while much valuable material such as illustrated books, miniatures, fine objects and jewellery had found their way to the museums, they were still mostly awaiting detailed study. This is not, of course, the case with architecture. Sound groundwork for its study was established by the Archaeological Survey of India, but since independence - with the exception of a few works, such as Tatsuro Yamamoto's Delhi: Architectural Remains of the Sultanate Period (1967-70) - little has been added to the monumental contribution made by the handful of prewar scholars including James Burgess, Henry Cousens, A. Fuhrer, Maulwi Zafar Hasan, J. A. Page, E.W. Smith and Ghulam Yazdani, the last of whom, along with Cousens, shaped our understanding of Deccani architecture.

However, in spite of massive primary studies there was still little coherent structure to the architectural history of India as a whole. When Haig was compiling the sultanate history he recognised that some space should be given to its architecture, and asked John Marshall to contribute.Marshall was no ordinary scholar. He was appointed by Lord Curzon to be the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, and served from 1902 to 1928, shaping the institution as it exists even today, and working closely with most - if not all - the above-mentioned scholars. He was a classically trained archaeologist and although familiar with Indo-

Islamic architecture, he did not admire it greatly. Nevertheless, Marshall's small section on the sultanate architecture of India in the Cambridge History of India (1928, volume three), laid down a structure adopted first by Percy Brown and still followed today.

Marshall had little to use as a base for his architectural history, except James Fergusson's 1876 History of Indian and Eastern Architecture , revised and extended by Burgess in 1910. Marshall, therefore, modelled the structure of his work on a historical format, given by the 17th-century Indian historian Firishta, who had been the first to distinguish between the Islamic history and culture of different regions of India, and arranged his history systematically by region. The Deccan takes a central part, and appears after Delhi, which includes the Mughals. He begins the history of the Deccan from the time of its independence from Delhi, first as an empire under the Bahmanis in the 14th to the 16th century and then when it was divided into the smaller kingdoms under the Adil Shahis, the Nizam Shahis, the Qutb Shahis and the Barid Shahis, all contemporaries of the Mughals.

This structure is also adopted by Michell and Zebrowski. A main part of the work is on the Bahmanis, although they predate the Mughals and their contemporaries. There is, of course, no doubt that the Bahmanis were the most influential dynasty in shaping the Islamic culture of the Deccan.

As rivals of the Delhi sultans, who were

of the Sunni sect, the Bahmanis sympathised with the Shi'ites and established links with leading sufis in Iran. With the influx of

Persians to the Deccan in the 14th and 15th century came Persian literature and art, which was to develop in a separate direction from that of Iran. On the other hand, the Mughals were later to import the court versions of the arts of Persia directly from 17th-century Iran to north India, characterised by styles that are markedly different from those of the Deccan.

In this jointly authored work Michell is mainly responsible for the discussions on architecture, while Zebrowski deals with the visual arts, including the arts of the book and miniature painting as well as metal work and other minor arts. Discussions on these topics are clear and informative and are supported by illustrations, many in colour. In certain areas where art relates directly to architecture, such as stone carving, epigraphy, wall paintings and glazed tile-work, the authors seem to have worked together closely. Wall painting and tile-work are particularly important in the arts of the Deccan, as they are closely related to the Timurid traditions in Iran and Central Asia. In architecture, however, the Deccan's link with northern India is more pronounced.

In the present work the authors make extensive use of Cousens's Bijapur and its Architectural Remains (1916), Yazdani's Bidar, its History and Monuments (1947), and the Annual Reports of the Archaeological Department of H. E. H. the Nizams' Dominions . Most of the book's drawings are simplified versions of their surveys, but there are some exceptions, such as the plan of the Jami mosque of Gulbarga, which follows Fergusson's, and the plan of the city of Firuzabad, which is the result of a survey carried out by Michell and his team and published in 1992. Together with Bidar, the ruins of Firuzabad provide the grounds for drawing analogies between the architecture and urban planning of the Deccan with the Delhi sultanate and Central Asia, themselves apparently modelled on Sasanian traditions. A chapter on Hindu temples also expands the cultural context of the book.

For later periods a range of scholarly works has been consulted, but as a whole the architectural analysis relies strongly on the already published and well-attested material, perhaps somewhat conservatively. This approach makes the book a reliable source for those who are entering the study of the art and architecture of the region, and the bibliography at the end is a useful guide to the original sources, although oddly it omits Marshall.

Persian and Arab contributions to the art and architecture of the world are, on the other hand, the subject of Robert Hillenbrand's recent book. A compact book full of clear information, it includes brief descriptions of monuments and art objects at appropriate points, supported by many colour and monochrome illustrations. It is also very reasonably priced, which cannot be said for the Cambridge volume. The book does not include the Indian subcontinent or South-east Asia, so some of the greatest Islamic monuments such as the Mughal palaces and the Taj Mahal are omitted, but almost all other regions are discussed, ranging in time from the 8th to the 17th century.

The content is arranged partly on a chronological and partly on a dynastic and regional basis. This arrangement is a pragmatic approach to introducing the subject, as in different periods the centres of art and culture shifted from one country to another. There are, of course, times when several centres existed side by side, each with its own artistic characteristics, but such overlaps do not challenge the principle chosen to represent the arts of Islam in this book, which begins with the early days of Islam and the establishment of the Umayyad empire. Hillenbrand demonstrates how the Roman, Byzantine and Sasanian traditions and architectural principles were absorbed by early Muslim craftsmen in Syria to provide an everlasting vocabulary for Islamic art.

Other chapters take the reader on a journey through the Islamic world, first to the Abbasids' newly founded Baghdad, designed on a circular plan following a Sasanian model, and then to the Fatimids of Egypt, who challenged the authority of the Abbasid Caliphs. They made Cairo a centre of art and culture, which was to influence the 10th and 11th-century European art of the Mediterranean coasts. Then there are the Seljuqs of Iran and Anatolia, the Atabegs of the Near East and the Mamluks of Egypt, followed by Muslim Spain and North Africa, before returning to Iran and Central Asia under the Mongols, the Timurids and finally the Safavids, and ending with Ottoman Turkey.

Through this journey through space and time, we witness that in spite of evolution in design and progressive changes in technology, Islamic art retains a certain continuity of artistic expression. Hillenbrand brings a fresh viewpoint to the old and standard concepts repeated in many earlier books many times over. In many cases he challenges the traditional views and re-investigates the subject from a fresh angle derived from more recent research. For example, in the case of the realism seen in the illustrations on Fatimid lustreware he points out that it was not entirely their own innovation but had its roots in the Coptic and even earlier art of the region. Elsewhere in the case of the earliest Persian illustrated book, the provenance is suggested to be Seljuq Anatolia rather than the more commonly accepted northern Iran, and he goes further to suggest that there seems to been a much older school of Persian illustrated books, which distinguished them from the books produced in Iraq, the principal centre of production in the 12th and 13th century. There are many other examples of this kind throughout the text, making the book an interesting and refreshing work.

Mehrdad Shokoohy is reader in architecture and urban studies, University of Greenwich.

The New Cambridge History of India, Part Seven: Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates

Author - George Michell and Mark Zebrowski
ISBN - 0 521 56321 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 300

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