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: Smithsonian’s Exquisite Exhibit of Mughal Art

The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has brought together 86 jewel-like masterpieces of Mughal art. A Siliconeer report.

(Above): Soldiers Listening to Music Beneath a Mango Tree. A single folio from the Late Shah Jahan Album. Attributed to Payag, c. 1640. [Photo: © The Trustees of The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin]

The Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. is hosting a three-month exhibit May 3-Aug. 3 that takes viewers right back several centuries into the Mughal era as seen through the eyes of the finest Mughal artists of that time.

The Mughals ruled India from the 16th through the 19th centuries, a time when remarkable paintings and calligraphy commissioned by Emperors Jahangir (1605-1627) and Shah Jahan (1627-1658) for display in lavish imperial albums. A window into the world of the emperors, these albums (called muraqqa’ in Persian) illustrate the relaxed private life of the imperial family, as well as Sufi saints and mystics, allies and courtiers, and natural history subjects. Produced by the greatest Mughal artists of the time, these paintings offer a fascinating, detailed lens into the lives of these great rulers.

(Above): Yog Vashisht (bound manuscript) made for Prince Salim (Jahangir), Allahabad. Attributed to Bishndas, 1602. Colored pigments and gold on paper. [Photo: © The Trustees of The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin]

At the turn of the 20th century, American-born industrialist and philanthropist Sir Alfred Chester Beatty began creating one of the world’s greatest collections of Mughal paintings, establishing the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, in 1954.

The exhibition “MURAQQA’: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery brings together 86 of these jewel-like masterpieces from this renowned collection and include masterworks from the Freer Gallery’s famed collection of Mughal paintings.

This exhibition commences the yearlong “Inspired by India” programming at the Freer and Sackler galleries. In addition to “MURAQQA’” the programs include the exhibition “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur,” opening Oct. 11, as well as India-related performances, films, lectures and gallery talks.

(Above): Akbar Fights with Raja Man Singh (left half of a double-page composition). A single folio detached from a copy of the Akbarnama. Dawlat, c. 1600-03. [Photo: © The Trustees of The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin]

Similar to their Timurid ancestors, the great Mughals had a deep appreciation for the art of the book and the expressive possibilities of the muraqqa’. Even before the death of his father Akbar, an active patron of the arts under whom the Mughal Empire reached its zenith, Emperor Jahangir established his own atelier and began commissioning lavish paintings that expressed his refined sensibility, as well as his own personal interests and curiosities. Jahangir was a connoisseur who preferred a single painter to work on his images — as opposed to the collaborative painting method of his father’s time — and favored naturalistic paintings and drawings that drew on Persian, Indian and European ideals. With the rise of individual styles, Jahangir claimed that he was able to recognize any painter’s work from merely looking at the faces of subjects depicted in the paintings.

(Above): Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan with their Ministers. Bichitr, 1630-31. Colored pigments and gold on paper. [Photo: © The Trustees of The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin]

Under the patronage of Emperor Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son and builder of the Taj Mahal, the Mughal fascination with floral imagery and imperial grandeur reached its zenith. Paintings under Shah Jahan’s reign are notably characterized for their formal portraits, courtly scenes and jewel-like qualities. Revealing the expressive achievements of the Imperial atelier, these album folios, displaying both paintings and calligraphy, were mounted on pages with superbly painted borders and then bound with covers of stamped, gilded, painted or lacquered leather.

The exhibition is divided into 10 thematic sections, following an introductory group of Persian manuscripts collected by the Indian Mughal emperors. These manuscripts set the stage for a look at the Mughal dynastic histories and memoirs, and reveal the cultural and historical milieu in which these albums emerged. An exciting feature of the exhibition will be several recto-verso displays of double-sided folios. Other sections of the exhibition are devoted to separate albums, allowing the visitors to view the pages as they would have been viewed by the Mughals themselves. The sections are titled: “Iranian and Central Asian Manuscripts in the Mughal library”; “Poetry and Other Non-Historical Manuscripts”; “Memories, Biographies and Official Histories”; “The Salim Album”; “Shikarnama”; “The Gulshan Album”; “The Minto Album”; “The Late Shah Jahan Album”; and “The Nasir al-Din Shah Album.” Within these albums, visitors will view paintings by master artists, such as Abu’l-Hasan, Balchand, Bichitr, Govardhan, Mansur and Payag.

(Above): Jahangir Celebrates the Hindu Festival of Holi. A single folio from the Minto Album. Artist unknown, c. 1635. Colored pigments and gold on paper. [Photo: © The Trustees of The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin]

Elaine Wright, curator of the Islamic Collections at the Chester Beatty Library, is the exhibition curator; and Debra Diamond, associate curator of south and southeast Asian art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, is the exhibition coordinator.

The Freer Gallery of Art and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, readers can visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, readers may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.

Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Special thanks to Amanda M. Williams.


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Smithsonian’s Exquisite Exhibit of Mughal Art
The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has brought together 86 jewel-like masterpieces of Mughal art. A Siliconeer report.

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