Mainly comprised of objects from the British Library’s own collections, the exhibition will focus on successive emperors’ patronage of the arts, particularly painting, and largely feature manuscripts, folios and paper-based documents. The preview on 20th September of some of the highlights of the exhibition revealed an assortment of arrestingly beautiful works from across the 350 year span of the empire, many of which are minutely detailed and illuminated with gold accents.
For the viewer almost entirely ignorant of the historical period and culture – by which I mean myself – the experience is similar to looking at late Victorian Aesthetic artworks, in that you are solely filled with a sense of overwhelming beauty whilst being unable to form any intellectual thought about them.
If you were the kind of child who marveled at teeny tiny dolls house parts or now spend happy hours enlarging images on a mac, this exhibition, which opens on 9th November, should definitely be visited. Hopefully the curators will decide to provide some kind of magnifying device as it is the delightfully miniscule details, such as the ruffled leggings in a portrait of Prince Dara Shikoh, which make many of these artworks so astonishing. One of the downfalls of the British Library’s Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition (11th May – 25th September 2012) is that some of the books are positioned too far back within glass boxes along the walls to have their smaller details appreciated. It would be a sincere shame if the same were to happen with these delicate images.
This being the British Library, what is always assured is the astoundingly high quality of document preservation. A pedantic remark, perhaps, but having worked with late 20th century British books and artworks in a seemingly worse condition than, for instance, the 16th and 17th century Mughal paper-based objects included in this exhibition, I found the standard quite extraordinary. Part of the reason for this may be that many of the images were originally contained within books or bound collections, which helped protect them.
Especial highlights of the exhibition include the painting ‘Squirrels in a plane tree’, ascribed to Abu’l Hasan, in which the lithe creatures squirm around the body of a tree, creating the appearance of actual movement, and the illustration ‘The devotee sees the fox crushed between the fighting goats’, ascribed to Mirza Ghulam. Again, the interlocking horns of the two feuding animals resist appearing static, whilst the harmonized paring of word and image on the page creates an object to surely rival anything William Morris and his contemporaries produced.
Both for those with previous interest in the subject and for the entirely uninformed a visit to this exhibition should be mandatory. Sideline frankincense and myrrh this winter and instead become entranced by gold.
Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire at The British Library, 9th November 2012 – 2nd April 2013