Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2016
Sumathi Ramaswamy Going Global in Mughal India Durham: Duke University, 2015.

The allure of some of the most inspiring digital projects resides in their ability to recreate sites that are now lost to us, by reconstructing, for example, the now dismantled buildings and urban spaces of ancient Rome or the halls of Egyptian temples. Other projects are admired for the opposite capacity to invoke impossible worlds that never existed, bringing dispersed or even lost works of art together in virtual exhibitions, or positing material relationships that can only be imagined through the portal of a screen. Sumathi Ramaswamy’s Going Global in Mughal India occupies the latter realm, using new technologies to render an object that is, at its core, fully contrived (accessed June 2016). Her illustrated album brings together works of calligraphy, paintings, and prints, mostly from India but also from Ottoman Turkey, Europe, and elsewhere, along with a whole array of other objects, to produce a book with pages linked by a virtual binding.

The premise is based on a long-standing display format in the Persianate arts: the muraqqa’, or album. The album stands distinctly apart from those illustrated manuscripts for which each page was expressly produced and circumscribed by textual continuity and visual cohesion. By contrast, the Islamic album was composed of disparate paintings, drawings, and calligraphic pages, possibly dating from different periods and encompassing multiple stylistic tendencies. By extension, one can consider the muraqqa’ as a locus for collecting and display, enclosed within the covers of a book, and its compilers and patrons as curators, charged with choosing or sponsoring the selected pages.

The author and curator in this case is a historian, but one who is remarkably attuned to the power of images and has been deeply engaged with South Asian art and visual culture, as exemplified in her work on the foundational artist of modern India, Maqbool Fida Husain. Indeed, Ramaswamy’s disciplinary orientation is of importance here because it drives the key question that underpins the project. Whereas seventeenth-century Mughal texts offer no mention of the terrestrial globe, this “master object of modernity,” as she refers to it, appears abundantly in paintings of the period, particularly during the reigns of the emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan. By juxtaposing the absence of extant specimens of historic globes in India and the textual silence on this object with its rich and varied record of imaging, the site makes us aware of the deep value of art in illustrating the significance of an imported object during a time when goods from both the east and west were flowing into the Mughal court. But Ramaswamy goes beyond a mere evidentiary project to probe the enduring place of the globe as it was adopted within the Mughal language of self-presentation, a topic that has received only fleeting art-historical attention. To this end, she considers three key forms: the globus cruciger or cross-bearing globe, the unmarked orb, and, most importantly for her, the terrestrial or terraqueous globe in seventeenth-century Indian painting. For Ramaswamy, the term “global” in the title refers not only to a set of material preoccupations with the globe as an object, but also, and more generally, to the kinds of spatial connections that cannot be circumscribed to a single geographic location.

Ramaswamy has culled many relevant paintings, most of which have long been dismantled from the manuscripts and albums that originally housed them and now reside in dispersed museum collections around the world. These come together through the technology of Turning the Pages, commercial software used by many UK museums and libraries for the online display of their rare book and manuscript collections. Turning the Pages also permits users to compile their own books, thus functioning as a content management system that offers the simulated experience of actually leafing through a volume. By clicking and dragging, one peels the corner of the page, which then slides over to reveal the next spread, allowing the viewer to delight in the progressive aspects of a physical book. Refreshingly, the interface also enables the viewer to approach the book as a Persian reader would, by flipping the cover open to the right, a capability that is not always provisioned in print editions that assimilate Islamic manuscripts to the left-to-right reading conventions of Latin scripts.

Clad in lacquer and leather, the first pages of the album open with the expected pair of decorative rosettes followed by portraits of the proposed imperial patrons, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The next paintings feature globes and orbs as key motifs, some small and handheld, others large enough to be stood upon. These images allow us to reflect on the central place of the globe in Mughal portraits, and sometimes in their margins, while also showcasing the repetitive nature of the genre, with its highly conventionalized poses. Some of these images work in tandem seamlessly, for they were originally grouped together in albums that have long been dismembered, such as the Gulshan, Kevorkian, and Minto, and they share many general visual properties. As we move deeper into the album, however, Ramaswamy pushes the limits of the book format that she is so devoted to exploring. For instance, the covers of the digital muraqqa’ swell when we get to page nineteen, which introduces images of actual spheres, both celestial and terrestrial. This elasticity is taken even further with the ivory carved objects from the Portuguese outpost at Goa, which are called upon to serve as “pages,” like the flat images that precede and follow them. We then consider the state of geographic knowledge in India, particularly the role that Jesuit missionaries and early European arrivals may have played in transmitting maps, printed atlases, and images featuring globes to the Mughal court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Key to Ramaswamy’s discussion is the famous dream sequences of Jahangir, which were painted in the last years of his life and often show the ruler standing on a globe in an imagined position of dominance over a rival. We then move forward in time to the “afterlife” of Mughal painting. Rather than being dismissed as modern forgeries, nineteenth-century copies of classic paintings are explored as nostalgic reflections that pointedly featured the globe during a time of waning imperial fortunes. The album concludes with the work of contemporary artists who have appropriated the visual conventions and techniques of traditional manuscript painting, and thus also embraced the globe as a motif, such as Melbourne-based Nusra Latif Qureshi and the Singh Twins of Liverpool. While toggling between different types of media, Ramaswamy oscillates between her two operative definitions of “global,” concerned at once with a single object—the globe—as well as the cross-cultural connections that made its transmission possible. In each instance, she is committed to showing that the globe, even as an imported object, was localized in India in contextually specific ways, thus imploring us to think twice about the hegemony of early modern European knowledge systems.

The expected quibbles of the art historian, such as concerns about image quality, may appear too generic in regard to a project that intends to push the limits of convention. But it can also be argued that there should be considerable pressure to present the multidimensional materiality of objects through digital portals given the tendency of the screen to normalize, and thus distort, images and objects in terms of their size and texture. For instance, the large-scale Mandu portrait of Jahangir (11), painted on cotton, is shrunken down, as if it were a manuscript page of the same dimensions and medium as the one facing it, which is actually less than a quarter of its size and executed on paper, a mismatch that could go unacknowledged by the casual viewer, even with the associated but hidden disclaimer that appears in the menu. One applauds Ramaswamy’s desire to use a format that is decidedly local and historically grounded in Mughal India, but the muraqqa’ concept may not have been capacious enough to fulfill all of her visual needs, particularly in the cases where three-dimensional objects are compressed into the space of the book. Moreover, many right-hand pages—as demarcated by the wider outer margin—are fixed on the left side (as is the case with the page facing the Mandu portrait mentioned above) and vice versa, a placement that undermines the project’s premise and visual credibility to anyone familiar with the layout conventions of Islamic books. The same can be said about the irregularly cropped borders that make it hard to crystallize some of the tight pairings that are being suggested. A more flexible digital exhibition platform could have provided a responsive, dynamic venue for this vast array of images and objects, in addition to the ability to highlight the tiny details on the globes that were painted with fine brushes and on an intimate scale. Moreover, the fixed pairings of the muraqqa’ sometimes restrain the multiple connections that Ramaswamy wishes to make between various pages. In two cases, she resorts to repeating key images: the much-copied portrait of Jahangir standing on a dais holding a small globe in his hand (12, 94) and the image of him aiming at the head of his nemesis Malik Ambar (71, 102, 114), both by Abu’l Hasan. These selected repetitions indicate the potential value of juxtaposing certain compositions against more than one facing plate, while also underscoring the limits of the album format’s strict linearity.

Although Ramaswamy has invested considerable confidence in the ability of images to speak on their own terms, which she refers to as “image-driven historical analysis,” her labels constitute much of the force behind the project. Divided into identifying information and analytical discussion, they enrich the image pairs considerably, while also navigating a range of complex issues in the history of cartography, the study of Mughal religious practices, and our understanding of early modern cross-cultural encounters. They also include detailed translations of the copious inscriptions, often in Persian verse, on and around the paintings. In general, Ramaswamy does not shy away from indicating differences of scholarly opinion, but she does so succinctly, without bringing the reader, possibly a general one, into the involved intricacies of any single debate. Her deep appreciation of the ingenuity of Mughal painting is clear and infectious. However, these thoughtfully written texts are kept out of sight in a menu that appears only when called for. One has to bring up the menu and, in some cases, scroll far down into the analytical section to engage with her scholarly proposals. For instance, Ramaswamy asks whether the Jesuits delivered the volume of Plantin’s Polyglot Bible that included a world map to Akbar in 1580, an unresolved topic. Ramaswamy believes definitively that they did, although this pertinent stance is relatively hidden in the depths of a pop-up menu that does not permit seamless transitions from identifying information to analytical content and from one page spread to the next. The concern about these functional protocols goes beyond mere usability issues because the cumbersome menu also ends up hiding much of the intellectual labor that went into the project. As we seek increasingly sleek and visually pleasing interfaces, we must recognize that these technologies also have the potential to mask the human dimension to digital work, thus obscuring the energies that went into its creation. This crucial problem comes into focus as we consider how a project like this should be evaluated and read as a work of scholarship, rather than as a mode of presentation and display.

Even if Mughal historical sources were wholly silent about it, the viewer leaves the digital muraqqa’ with the conviction that the globe was a significant object of imperial association in seventeenth-century India, rather than an imported anomaly or an unoriginal imitation of its Western counterpart. It was quickly assimilated into its own visual language at the Mughal court, embellished with keys, keyholes, and crowns, offered by saints to kings, and also associated with animals, such as lions and lambs, paired to present an idealized image of harmony. Going Global in Mughal India is thus successful in its central goal to assert the important place of the globe as an integrated element in a dynamic and inclusive royal Mughal iconography. It is also an inventive project that inspires the art historian to think about the ways in which traditional formats of viewing and display can come into contact or be integrated with entirely novel ones.

Nancy Um
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Binghamton University