The Mughal India exhibit at the Sackler Gallery is a tough one to decipher. Unless, of course, you get the tour from Smithsonian docent Roshna Kapadia. At that point, the context, symbolism, politics and artistic content come alive. In fact, I will make a point of catching all of Roshna’s tours and recommend that all of you do the same. She has deep understanding and passion for the subject.
Muraqqa’ Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library
Say “Mughal India ,” and the first image to pop up in anyone’s mind is the Taj Mahal. Currently on view at the Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington DC , you can see miniature paintings from the ateliers of Emperor Shah Jahan (who had the marmoreal mausoleum built), his father, Jehangir, and grandfather, Akbar among other royal notables. This collection, on loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, comprises about 80 miniature paintings featuring impressive examples of portraiture, historically important court life scenes, accurate depictions of natural phenomena—birds, beasts, flowers accompanied by foliage clumps—and outstanding works of calligraphy.
There are many ways to categorize and view these paintings. You could view them by album—there are six: the Salim album, the Shikarnama (hunting album), the Gulshan Album, the Minto album, Nasir al Dinshah album, and the late Shah Jahan album. Or you could follow the works of the most notable painters. Iif you go this route, please pay special attention to my favorites: Govardhan, Bichitr, and Balchand (the last painted for three generations of Mughal rulers). If superb penmanship is your fancy, focus on the calligraphic works, particularly those rendered by Mir Ali. If you’re especially interested in painted designs, give equal attention to the borders as to the subjects within the frames—I guarantee no disappointment. By any means, use a magnifying glass (provided) to catch the finer details—gray beard hairs to show advancing age; frayed edges and soft folds of a draped shawl; bejeweled belts, turban ornaments, rosaries, and sword hilts; even a butterfly flitting above flowers on a painting’s border.
However you choose to tour this exhibit, you’ll be impressed enough to want to return for a second look. Aptly entitled Muraqqa’ (Persian for patched garment), the show runs through August 3, 2008.