Muraqqa`: Imperial Mughal Albums
Image: Photo courtesy of the Honolulu Academy of Arts

The Honolulu Academy of Arts showcases a special collection of Mughal paintings


Sun, Mar 1

Muraqqa`: Imperial Mughal Albums / “As long as the patched cloak (muraqqa`) of the celestial sphere contains the sun and the moon, may this album (muraqqa`) be the object of your perpetual gaze.” In this subtle linguistic play, the renowned Persian calligrapher Mir Ali invoked the power of a word to create a world. The term muraqqa` literally makes reference to a patched garment (such as those worn as a mark of poverty and piety by Sufi mystics). It also came to signify an album that, comprised of multiple folios of alternating image and calligraphy, exquisitely painted and gilded, was an artifact of imperial wealth and culture for the Mughal rulers of the Indian subcontinent. The works in Muraqqa`: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin are currently on view at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, drawn from the collection of American-born industrialist Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968), who become an expatriate living in London before finally establishing a home for his library in Dublin. Beatty managed to bring together, at least in part, several albums that had, in the 18th and 19th centuries, been taken apart, folio by folio—album leaves blown across continents by the winds of time and commerce. The story of how the collection came to be, well documented in the extensive and fully illustrated catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, is telling in itself, pointing as it does to the whole tradition of collecting (perhaps a form of empire-building writ small) and to the perfume of orientalism—that fascination with things non-Western with which much 19th and early 20th century collecting was infused.

We also come to know the Mughal rulers who originally gathered these folios together. The exhibition includes a number of works seen in their entirety as bound or folded structures. There is, for example, an anthology of Persian poetry that introduces us to the framing of the page, with sections of text inset within an ample decorated border. An album of calligraphic specimens in Nasta’liq script by Mir Ali uses an accordion-fold structure that creates a delicate rhythmic counterpart to the calligraphy itself. In the Tuhfat al-Ahrar (Gift of the Free) of Jami, the pages reveal complex and storied layers of image and inscription, including multiple sections of calligraphy written at different angles across the page, reinforcing the notion of a patchwork entity; prominent among those who inscribed this page are Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

The exhibition also includes individual folios, fragments of six different albums, of which the Minto Album and the Late Shah Jahan Album are most prominent. Linked to these are two members of the dynastic lineage linked to Timur (Tammerlane): Jahangir (eldest son of the great Akbar, and who ruled from 1605 to 1627) and his son Shah Jahan (who ruled from 1627 to 1658, and is perhaps best known as the ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal.) In these pages we see the multi-faceted and surprisingly multi-cultural world these 17th century rulers inhabited.

The theme of cultural accommodation is one that resonates strongly in these works, reinforced by both historical reality as well as stylistic variations. Mughal emperors, who ruled for more than three centuries, held sway over a Hindu majority in terrain that had been visited centuries before by Alexander the Great; the 16th and 17th centuries also saw the incursions of Christian missionaries. Such mixing contributed to the patchwork nature of iconography evident in a number of the works with initially startling juxtapositions. In one side of a folio page from the Minto Album, for example, bust portraits of Jahangir and Jesus are linked together. Jahangir is seen in profile, holding a green orb (as befits the “World Seizer” his name signifies), his turbaned head surrounded by a halo of golden rays against a dark ground. Below him, in another window-like frame, the figure of Jesus, head bowed and eyes downcast, carries a cross. Elsewhere, a full-length portrait of Jahangir, again holding a globe, mirrors a portrait of Shaykh Mu’in al-Din Chishti holding a globe on which is inscribed “The key to the conquest of the two worlds is entrusted to your hand.” While many of the images have to do with the nuanced but still very masculine world of the Mughal court, there are a few images of women that suggest a restrained eroticism that complements the evident delight in ornament and arabesque. One of the most mysterious of these is an image of women bathing in the moonlight, their nocturnal play observed by a figure half-hidden in the nearby woods.

The theme of patchwork, of fragments brought into a coherent pattern, is also evident in the fundamental composition of the folios, which are often comprised of various sections united according to certain structural paradigms. Typically, a wide outer border of stylized ornament or more naturalistic floral subjects surrounds an inner window, further bound by a narrow frame of ornament or calligraphy. Within that frame, one might see a formal portrait, or an event—an animal hunt, perhaps, or a courtly gathering. Such graduated framing, often created with separate sections of paper, has the effect of telescoping one’s vision, drawing the eye into the center, where the world becomes miniaturized, every detail distilled, every color intensified. We are reminded that the weight of governing a world might be counterbalanced, at least for a moment, by holding the world within one’s hands, within the pages of a book.

Muraqqa`: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St., through Sun 3/1, [], 532-8700