Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 15, 2002
Linda York Leach Paintings from India, Vol. 8: The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art New York: The Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1997. 260 pp.; 76+ color ills. Cloth $325.00 (0197276296)

Indian painting, especially that of the Mughal dynasty, is often considered among the most magnificent creations of the Islamic world, and is a highly prized commodity to many collectors, including Nasser D. Khalili, whose extensive collections include Indian art, Japanese art, Spanish Damascene metalwork, and Swedish textiles. This sumptuously illustrated volume on Indian painting is the eighth of a projected twenty-seven that documents the massive Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. Leach provides detailed documentation and description of the seventy-six paintings and manuscripts that compose the Indian portion of the Khalili collection. Most of the works included here come from the Muslim courts of India, most notably that of the Great Mughals (1526–1858), but also from the courts of the Deccani Sultans, those of eighteenth- to nineteenth-century splinter states such as Murshidabad, Rampur, and Lucknow, and some examples from the Mewar court, a Hindu Rajput state in western India. Khalili’s Indian painting collection is unusual, for unlike most truly significant Indian ones it was not amassed over an extended period of time; rather, the paintings in this volume have been collected only since the 1970s.

Included are some masterpieces of the sort that define an excellent collection of Indian painting. For example, three of the earliest works in the collection are: a page from the famous Hamza Nama, that is, the Mughal emperor Akbar’s massive illustrated text of the fictionalized adventures of an uncle of the prophet Muhammad dating to the 1560s; and two illustrated pages ca. 1589 from a dispersed autobiography of the first Mughal emperor known as the Babur Nama. The author’s tactic in these two entries is typical of her approach throughout the text. She opens this section with a detailed historical overview of contemporary painting in Akbar’s court, citing much previous literature on the material. Her discussion is intelligently clear as she narrates the rapid changes that took place in the Mughal court’s recently formed painting atelier. Following this are meticulous entries, which describe the page and, more importantly, relate it to other relevant works from the surviving 200 illustrations of the original 1,400. Examining issues of narrative sequence in an attempt to reconstruct the order of the surviving folios, Leach raises issues from artists’ hands to the surprising impact of European art in Mughal India even before the well-documented arrival of the print-bearing Jesuits in Akbar’s court in 1580. Leach’s text is supported by superb color illustrations and many details of these pictures, thus making it a visual feast for the connoisseur.

Leach organizes the seventy-six works she discusses into fifteen categories that are driven primarily by chronology. Within her chronological divisions individual works and thematic organizations are the subdividing factors. While a somewhat cumbersome approach, Leach is able to address a number of interesting issues and themes that cut across the chronological impositions of her arrangement. One of the most interesting is her discussion of manuscript ownership and/or patronage by women, an issue that is rarely touched upon by scholars of Islamic or Indian art. In the Islamic and Indian context female beneficence in the arts generally is considered in terms of architecture and perhaps the composition of literature, but not the consumption of painting. Recently John Seyller (“The Inspection and Valuation of Manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal Library,” Artibus Asiae 57: 243–349.) has done some groundbreaking work bringing to our attention manuscripts owned by women. Building on this, Leach discusses several books owned by court women in the Khalili collection, including a Quran belonging to Shah Jahan’s queen, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the emperor built the famous white marble Taj Mahal after her death in 1631. One of the most important items in Khalili’s collection is two pages from a manuscript of a Persian translation of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic of correct and moral behavior, owned by Akbar’s mother Hamida Banu Begum, which had been commissioned by Akbar himself and presumably given as a gift to the queen mother. Leach posits that the narrative would have been particularly appealing to the queen since she, like the mythic Sita, for more than a fifteen-year period accompanied her exiled husband through the desert of western India to Safavid Iran and Kabul. She lived in difficult and often dangerous conditions until Humayun was able to regain the Delhi throne in 1556. Employing a similar line of reasoning Leach suggests that Nur Jahan, the powerful Mughal queen of Jahangir’s reign (1605–27), copied in exquisite calligraphy a page from a book of sayings attributed to Timur (d. 1405), the greatly admired yet feared warlord. The queen, like Timur, was considered a formidable tyrant by her contemporaries, thus, Leach suggests that his sayings would appeal to her. However, later in the text Leach argues in a section entitled “Timur and the Mughal Royal House” that Jahangir, Nur Jahan’s husband, was fascinated by Timur through whom the Mughals claimed their legitimate right to rule India. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to think of Nur Jahan’s choice to copy the words of Timur in dynastic terms instead of parallel personality traits that may or may not have been how the queen perceived herself.

Leach broaches the issue of female imagery in a section of the text entitled “European Influences in Mughal Painting,” discussing an image of the Virgin Mary and Child that was adapted by a Mughal artist. She notes that Akbar and Jahangir were attracted both to the visual and verbal imagery of Mary. For example, Jahangir hung images of Mary in his throne. Additionally, the title of Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum, owner of the Ramayana discussed above, was Maryam Makani, and Jahangir’s mother’s title was Maryam al-Zamani (Mary of the Age). Making the same assumption as did the Jesuit priests present in the Mughal court, Leach believes that Mary was appreciated for her Christian associations. However, Mary in the Mughal context has a dynastic implication—not a religious one—for the Mughals trace their lineage to a princess who was miraculously impregnated, as had been Mary, by a ray of divine light. This is the source of Mughal fascination with the Mary figure, for she was the perfect visual vehicle to express the Mughal belief in their semidivine nature. The use of the image of Mary for dynastic purposes also explains the mode of dress she wears in the image in the Khalili collection that Leach posits was taken from an image of a goddess rather than a Madonna. No matter the source, the choice of dress, with its long flowing veil, is similar to the dress worn by some Mughal court women (as opposed to indigenous Indian dress) and likely also was chosen to underscore Mughal descent from Timur via the princess whose image Mary symbolizes.

Leach clearly has an excellent command over the understandings of stylistic development and the ability to recognize the subtleties in the hand of one artist over the other; she also has a good knowledge of the basic facts of Mughal history, but a reading of recent cultural studies that goes beyond the medium of painting and that explores recent approaches to Indian historiography might make parts of the text less Orientalist. A case in point is the pairing of religion with style, a fallacy which most recent scholars of Mughal history and architectural history have long since ceased to make. Leach seems to believe that whether artist is born a Hindu or Muslim will determine the style in which that artist will paint. For example, she states, the “artist … is likely to have been a Hindu in view of the stylistic softness and lack of prominent outline in the depiction” (82). However, it is well documented that the religion of the artist has nothing to do with the style in which the artist paints, rather it is the tradition in which the artist is trained that determines the style in which that artist will paint. Thus a Muslim artist is known to have worked extensively for the Rajput Hindu court of Mewar in the style that Leach terms “Hindu,” although it would more appropriately be considered Mewari, while many Hindu artists worked in the Muslim Mughal court as Leach acknowledges. Although unintentional, I am sure, the use of sectarian terminology to define secular painting is to buy into a communalist rhetoric that many who work in South Asia today are trying to hard to break.

In spite of the concerns addressed above, this magnificently illustrated volume provides a strong analysis of important works in the Khalili collection of Indian painting. While rather expensive for the average scholar of Indian painting, this volume is a must for any specialty library that deals with the Indian subcontinent.

Catherine B. Asher
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota

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