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.
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.
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Artist Jitish Kallat’s latest installation Epilogue was on view at the San Jose Museum of Art earlier this year. The Mumbai-based artist photographed 22500 rotis, the Indian pancake-like daily bread to draw profound links between the household food, life, mortality and loss.
Interestingly, each image of the roti represents a phase of the moon, and the successively eaten rotis simulate the moon’s waxing and waning. Viewers could notice that there is a poetic rhythm in this monumental work. Throughout the images of rotis, the lunar cycle comes back over and over again from the first photo frame to the last one. When viewing the images, the continuity would make the viewers feel comfortable in the first place and prompted them to count the moons of each month. Interestingly, some rotis have very similar shape yet not being identical. The black or brown burnt spots on the rotis are different in size and color. Just like the homemade food cooked following the same recipe from our daily dinner plate looks different, the images of the rotis are not repetitions copied from month to month. Instead, there is a sentiment of individuality throughout Kallat’s Epilogue. Moreover, the roti crumbs scattered around are visible on the black background, which look like the romantic moon rings in the dark sky.
However, a discontinuity is also present in this work. Kallat uses solar calendar to show the time cycles and his father’s lifespan. Thus one single moon phase cycle cannot be represented within one frame. A sense of incompleteness is given by the frames cutting through the lunar cycles. The discontinued visual experience would bring viewers feelings of anxiety and instability while imagining a scene in which the artist’s father witnessed the moon with his naked eyes every night, and think about the nature of life, sustenance, and the relationship between cosmic principles and human beings. Also, the fullness is interrupted by a lot of emptiness purposefully left by the artist. Between the last quarter moons and the crescent moons, a few spots are left and darkness takes place. Plus, the last frame has only one image with the rest of the space remaining black and empty.
Unlike most of the contemporary Indian artists who focus on creating art to search for national identity and cultural roots, in Epilogue, Jitish Kallat explores various issues that are more personal and emotional such as family tradition, personal loss, daily food, life and death, and monumentalizes an ordinary man’s lifetime in a universal humanistic way.