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Maharana Bhim Singh
Riding in Procession
, c. 1820
Opaque watercolor & gold on paper
India, Rajasthan, Mewar
© The Art Institute of Chicago,
Everett and Ann McNear Collection

Splendor and Intimacy:
Mughal and Rajput Courtly Life

August 4, 2007 - February 3, 2008

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60603
tel.: (312) 443-3500
hours: Mon-Wed, Fri 10:30a-5p; Thu 10:30a-9p; Sat-Sun 10a-5p

Fall in love with Mughal miniature painting, a delicate, vibrant and little-known art, as part of this modest exhibition of decorative arts of northwestern India showing at the Art Institute through February 3, 2008. Thirty-seven items dating from the 16th-19th centuries are on display, including jewelry in gold and enamel, daggers inlaid with precious gems, and a pair of stylized bronze lions that once graced the carrying-poles of a royal palanquin. But the high point of Splendor and Intimacy: Mughal and Rajput Courtly Life is the inclusion of ten hand-painted book illustrations known as miniatures. Exquisite, jewel-like color and fine handling in these works leave a dual impression of personable liveliness and visual perfection. These are splendid remembrances of courtly life dedicated to rank, retinue, royal achievements and worldly pleasures. Rarely exhibited, they are a magnet for anyone wishing to experience an example of flowering culture at its highest.

Of the ten miniatures on display, five are from the Mughal court. The word Mughal itself derives from 'Mongol'; from its inference of wealth and power comes the modern-day use of the term 'mogul'. At its height, the Mughal Empire controlled from a single, central location much of what is now present-day India and Pakistan as well as parts of Afghanistan. The early consolidation of kingdoms was begun under Zahir ud-Din Mohammad Babur (1483-1530), but the beginning of the classic period is dated to the rule of Akbar, Babur's grandson, in 1530. Having established a stable reign, Akbar gathered to himself the finest artists from the four corners of the empire and established them in an imperial atelier. Favored by his cosmopolitan interests, the Mughal school of painting reflected a unique synthesis of cultural styles: architectural interest and bold color from the Timurid Persians of Iran to the west, a stylized yet more realistic depiction of individuals and faces from Hindu illumination to the east, and the complex decorative flourishes, particularly the floral arabesques, of art of the Islamic world.

Vivid color is a hallmark of this art. The Mughal artist was not tied to direct representation, and could employ color freely as an emotional component. The crisp color contrasts are further enhanced by a definitive handling of line, a lively play of cutout forms. Especially in the group portraits, the complexities are an endless delight for the eye. Portrait of an Aged Courtier (opaque watercolor & gold on paper: India, Mughal, probably Deccan: c. 1680), included in the first half of this two-part exhibition, shows the featherlight line typical of this type of illustration. Flat decorative areas build up the body of the courtier, topped by the wonderful portrait-like naturalism of the face. The combination creates an image that is at once ornamental, and appealingly personal. Portrait of Namdar Khan (opaque watercolor & gold on paper: India, Mughal: late 17th cent.), depicting a Mughal general, and Portrait of Prince Azam Shah (opaque watercolor & gold on paper: India, Mughal, Deccan: late 17th - early 18th cent.), both now on display in the second half of the exhibition, also exhibit the charm and ornate possibility inherent in this portrait style, as well as highlighting the attentiveness to rank and position which regularly appears in Mughal miniatures. The association with a real name, and the execution of a realistic likeness, infuse human interest into the portraits of members of the imperial court while also giving a glimpse into royal attire and sympathies toward individual personnel.

Love, whether direct or in literary allusion, was also a favorite topic, and Lovers in a Zenana Garden at Night (opaque watercolor & gold on paper: India, Mughal: ca. 17th-18th cent.) (first half of exhibition) is a further typical example of a secular scene. The floral border is derived from Islamic arabesque, but is looser and with a more naturalistic handling, the result of the more cosmopolitan influence of the imperial ateliers. This is crisp, defined work, deriving from its decorative origins and providing delightful illustration.

The remaining five miniatures are from the Rajput courts, smaller satellite kingdoms fiercely independent, but eventually fused into the Mughal empire. The folk art influence of the region is more evident here in the use of brighter, cruder colors, handled with less fineness of sophistication. Maharana Bhim Singh in Procession (opaque watercolor & gold on paper: India, Rajasthan, Mewar: ca. 1820: attributed to Ghasi [active 1820-36]) (first half of the exhibition) shows the more explicit application of the broadly decorative. The rampant horse bearing the Maharana is a perfect cutout against the flat green ground, as are the bodies of his courtiers in their white garments. The faces show a more formulaic handling, with individuality represented by particulars of beards and mutton-chop whiskers to distinguish the various members of the retinue. At the same time there is considerable order, vigor and motion, with a particularly dynamic line in the flow of the seventeen courtiers from left to right, accentuated by the various directions of their gazes. Krishna Watches a Juggler (opaque watercolor & gold on paper: India, Rajasthan, Mewar: ca. 1750/90) (second half of exhibition), from a manuscript of the Sat Sai or Seven Hundred Verses, shows the commingling of literary themes and a conservative Hindu religious subject: the juggler may be taken as a metaphor for the fickle fortunes of love.

Though these ten works are only a sampling of Mughal art, nearly every aspect of the appeal of Mughal miniatures is represented: the airy lightness of color, the tiny details of the faces, the successful blending of naturalistic portrait and flat, decorative body with innumerable details of architecture and atmosphere. An underlying interest in providing a decorative scene is clearly evident in the attentiveness to color, line and the ornate complexity of arabesques and areas of patterning. Ten miniature paintings and twenty-seven other objects including gold and enameled jewelry, daggers and vessels from the Mughal period are enticing remembrances of an imperial court, steeped in cultivated tastes, loving the fineness of the visual arts, and engaging in a rich interplay of court life, royal endeavor and literary tradition. This is a small exhibition, perhaps not one to make a special trip for due to its size, but certainly one to enjoy if you are in the vicinity.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

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