Mughal Series|Decontextualized Display of Mughal Manuscripts

This article attempts at demonstrating the importance of the context of Mughal illustrated manuscripts. My examination starts with the collection from the South Kensington Museum (now V&A) by focusing on the “proper framing” provided by the art institution. Then I will discuss the history of the pages that had been detached from the binding, the practices of exhibiting and display in the museum space decontextualized the Mughal manuscripts, the digital archive further decontextualized the books.

Single Frames

In 1881, Caspar Purdon Clarke, the first Keeper of the South Kensington Museum’s Indian Department was sent to India to buy contemporary “industrial arts”. He bought some ‘large paintings’ in one of the wooden huts in Kashmir, and brought them to London, which were later identified as Hamzanama, the adventure stories of Amir Hamza, the paternal uncle of the Prophet produced in early Mughal.

Nine Lines of Nasta‘liq Script, folio from a manuscript of the Hamzanama, c. 1570

In 1895, 273 folios held between lacquered covers were brought into the Museum. They were purchased from Mrs. Clarke, widow of Major-General John Clarke who bought the manuscript in Oudh. After it was brought into the Museum, the miniatures were separated so that they could be framed and displayed in the large Indian galleries of the Imperial Institute on Exhibition Road as merely foreign illustrations without further consideration until 1905. Removing the pages from the binding as a conservative approach last over a century. Curatorial staffs inlaid individual pages and treated them as single sheet drawings.

The Akbarnama on display in the Mughal Room of the South Kensington Museum, ca. 1936
The Akbarnama on display in the Mughal Room of the South Kensington Museum, ca. 1936

Henry Beveridge, the retired Indian Civil Servant had a chance to see the display, and immediately realized that these pages depicted historical events of the third Mughal emperor, Akbar (r. 1556-1605). From the artists mentioned in the text and the inscription on the first folio, he confirmed that the manuscript must be Akbarnama, the memoirs of Akbar, which belonged to Akbar’s son, emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27). Also he pointed out that Mughal manuscripts were read from right to left, and the Museum’s numbering of the paintings was not accurate and caused confusion in understanding the narrative.[1]

The Imperial Identity in Mughal Manuscripts

Mughal Empire, founded by Babur, a descendant of Timur in 1526, ruled a vast territory of Indian subcontinent as a unified Islamic kingdom. It was to last, if only in name, until 1858, when British Governor-General of India was appointed and Hindustan became part of the British Empire. Mughal emperors were fond of book arts and aware of the importance of books like their Timurid predecessors in order to legitimate their rule over a heterogeneous population whose identities could be defined in various ways. A newly enthroned Mughal emperor visited the library to affirm his reign by adding his signature on the manuscripts proclaiming the new ownership of the volume and his ultimate power.

Through the manuscripts, the Mughal emperors wanted to gain the power of communication and delivered their own imperial identity as both a secular and a spiritual guide. The royal family and the nobles were able to have the access to the manuscripts, which means the audience was an exclusive but crucial one, so the control on the production and distribution is a means to control communication and imperial ideology. For the nobles at the court, they needed to identify and position themselves by looking at the illustrated manuscripts since clear hierarchy and order had been depicted in the pages. For example, the hierarchical principle is apparent in the painting of Shah-Jahan hunting lions at Burhanpur.

Shah Jahan Hunting Lions at Burhanpur, ca. 1635

The prominent figures on the elephants occupy the middle ground depicted in hierarchically correct profile.[2] The netted enclosure separates the middle ground from foreground where identical figures of attendants are placed. The emperor with a halo behind his head accompanied by the princes on both his sides is facing a lion, a lioness and two cubs. The lion is only looking at the emperor and threatening him. The halo and the arrangement of main figures highlight the emperor’s centrality and divinity. Though the painting depicts a real event, it was not the exact scene on the hunting ground. The style and composition were carefully determined. The attendants are shown to position themselves according to their rank. They are standing outside the net and appearing as still figures not moving or talking. From their gazes, the viewers would know they were not engaged in the royal sport. Everybody is just in his place and waiting the emperor killing his prey.

The Decontextualized Display

It is important to note that when the illuminated pages and illustrations were removed from the volume, the manuscripts lost their royal or ritual significance and propaganda purpose and became aesthetic attractions. Influenced by Immanuel Kant’s idea that we do not have the knowledge of the objects as they are in the world, but only as they appear,[3] the formalist aesthetic on art rejects art’s functionality. Art is about artist’s genius and artistic forms of an age. Function diminishes the value of art since art serves no purpose other than simply to be art. Studying the formal properties and individuality required the curators seeing each of them as a single painting and detaching the folios from the binding. Rosalind Krauss points out that the space of exhibition provides legitimacy for the aesthetic discourse in nineteenth century. [4] The continuous surface of wall structured solely for the display of art seems neutral and placeless,[5] but its potent powers and self-consciousness make the wall a signifier of art. The signifier of inclusion determines and categorizes art under one singular framework. The arrangement in a space of exhibition tells an art historical coherent narrative of the artistic development. It underlines that the exhibitionary space represents, reinterprets these medieval Islamic manuscripts correctly within an invisible western interpretative framework. The audience in modern era does not recognize the Mughal emperor’s divine status and ideology by looking at the paintings. They see the framed pages as aesthetically enjoyable and understand them based on the other surrounding crafts in the same space of exhibition.

Gallery 464, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Furthermore, the manuscripts have been secularized through the decontextualization. In Mughal period, the access to the manuscripts was limited. Only with emperor’s permission can the female members of royal household and the male nobles read them. When they were brought into a museum in the nineteenth century, the manuscripts were exposed to the public and lost their symbolic character. They became a cultural treasure and educational resource in a museum space, which is open and accessible to all communities. Democratizing the manuscripts help educate the public. However, the secularized manuscripts have been inevitably reduced to essentialist stereotypes.[6] Without clarifying their social, cultural, and political conditions, the full identity is impossible to fully understood. Their broken identity, on one hand, served to legitimate the political and economic agendas of European colonizers; on the other hand, it validated the potency of curatorial practices. The same identity politics were also applied to the art of marginal groups, such as Latin America, Native America and Africa.

In terms of the physical existence, placing the miniatures on the monochromatic surface of the museum space, the folios have been separated from the context in which the manuscript was produced and appreciated. In Mughal period, the books were bound along a spine, and often encased in gilded leather covers decorated with jewels. They were created in the royal workshop and almost restored in the royal libraries. The second Mughal emperor Humayun assembled his own kitabkhana or manuscript workshop. His son Akbar inherited the royal workshop, and ordered the creation of the imperial library which was rich in illustrated manuscripts. The kitabkhana was a complicated institution made up of several units, including the workshop of manuscript production and painting and the translation bureau. The preparation of manuscripts is a communal activity under the supervision of a senior master. Many of the artists even lived in the workshop and worked from dawn to night. The production of manuscripts gained a lot of attention from the Mughal rulers. Emperors went to the workshop as part of their daily routine to examine progress on the entire range of the artistic commissions, with painters and designers showing their work alongside goldsmiths and architects.[7] Emperors visited the kitabkhana regularly and increased salaries of those calligraphers and painters who pleased them with the excellence of their work. The emperor and the nobles could sit on the floor with the books in hand and took time to read the calligraphy or examine the figures and landscape in the painting. Thus, the Mughal appreciation of the manuscript provided an intimacy between the viewer and the artwork. The physicality of the book signified eternity of imperial power. The act of reading real books conveyed the imperial ideology that has been always articulated to the viewers.

School Scene. Attributed to Mir Sayyid Ali, ca. 1540
Akbar in discourse with the Jesuits Rudolf Aquaviva and Antonio Monserrate at Fatehpur Sikri, 1580

The intimate interaction is lost when the audience looks at works on the galley wall. The museum suggests a correct treatment of the paintings as framed, single sheet drawings on the wall. The audience usually walks into a room, an enclosure, browses the collection without knowing problematic display of the pages. In The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Mughal Razmnama Folios, a 2007 exhibition took place in Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 8), a typical exhibition of Mughal manuscripts was shown. The folios from a single manuscript were displayed on the dark wall. Given a clear visual path, the spectator followed the logical and linear sequence from the first to the last painting the museum numbered. The attention laid on the artistic experimentation and cultural exchange between Mughal India and Europe in the sixteenth century. The folio of the text was absent. The exact narrative was lost. The influence of Hindu culture and Central Asian heritage was not present. By telling the history of the manuscript, the museum highlighted the difficulty in conservation rather than their treatment of non-western artwork.

Gallery 227, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Gallery 227, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

in the last decade, libraries and museums turned the paper-based manuscript to a digital presence on the web in the hope of saving all the information and providing greater access.[8] Nevertheless, the physical entity is absent from the public domain. When the viewer browses the collection on the museum’s website or searches the library’s massive database, their experience is fragmentary.The folios of the manuscript are neither existing in real space nor being displayed in front of the viewer, relationship among the pages is not immediately present. The digital archive focuses on the easy way in which information is accessed, used, valued, and preserved.The intimacy and the political significance are still missing. Studying these equalized pieces, the nature of materials is not well observed. The functions, the spirit, the scale of the artwork are reduced as information. Browsing the pictures on the web is not an experience of works of art, but moments of art.[9]

Generally speaking, the ahistorical and conceptual presence of the manuscripts form the decontextualized display, so anthropologist Denis Dutton believes one should not experience the objects through the curator but should discover the significance from the viewpoint of the original communities.[10]  Context as a key term in the discussion of decontextualized display in museums refers to the context of production of the manuscripts. Context is not given but produced as Bal and Bryson argued in “Semiotic and Art History”,[11] and context can always be extended. Thus, context refers to the context of the production, as well as the context of their commentary in different discourses. When the discourse of art exhibitions is brought into debate, the museum’s hidden agenda has been realized by the viewer. The consciousness becomes the medium through which the viewer organizes and creates new narrative for the pages. The trained spectator is fully aware that the museum is manipulating the meaning and significance of the artworks. The spectator’s mind made the transformation of the separated folios from decontextualized objects to cultural emblems by placing them in a historical context. The meaningfulness is not produced by the curators but the spectators. A culturally accurate exhibition is impossible to be held in an exhibitionary space. However, inspired by the critics on curatorial practices, viewers are conscious of what museums do and what political and cultural concepts are underlined. Displaying in the enclosed cube, the museum should inform the audience the folios they see were not viewed as single framed painting, and they were not functioning as merely illustrations to highlight the text. Moreover, when the museum is providing its western perspective, the viewpoint from original communities should be present as well.

[1] Susan Stronge, Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560-1660 (London: V&A Publications, 2002), 38.

[2] Ebba Koch, the King of the World: An Imperial Manuscript for the Royal Library Windsor Castle (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), 210.

[3] Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk, Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 67.

[4] Rosalind E Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 133.

[5] Bruce Altshuler and Shamita Sharmacharja, A Manual for the 21st Century Art Institution (London: Koenig Books, 2009), 27.

[6] Bruce W Ferguson et al., Thinking About Exhibitions (New York: Routledge, 1996), 23.

[7] Ebba Koch, the King of the World: An Imperial Manuscript for the Royal Library Windsor Castle (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997),131-132.

[8] Bruce Altshuler and Shamita Sharmacharja, A Manual for the 21st Century Art Institution (London: Koenig Books, 2009), 73.

[9] Bruce W Ferguson et al., Thinking About Exhibitions (New York: Routledge, 1996), 345.

[10] Denis Dutton, “Mythologies of Tribal Art,” African Arts 26 (1995): 32-43.

[11] Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” The Art Bulletin 73, no. 2 (June 1991): 175.

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