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Art and Stories

Dazzling paintings and luxurious objects tell tales from Mughal India
Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art
June 15, 2016
The parrot mother cautions her young on the danger of playing with foxes, from a Tuti-nama (Tales of a Parrot): Fifth Night, c. 1560. Dasavanta (Indian, d. 1584). 1962.279.32.a

The inspiration for this major exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Cleveland Museum of Art was the December 2013 acquisition of works from the Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Ralph Benkaim Collection of Deccan and Mughal paintings. Made between the mid-1500s and mid-1700s, when the Mughals ruled India, the Benkaim Collection paintings have brought the museum’s holdings in this celebrated genre of Indian art to the level of comprehensive and world class. As a gift to our visitors during our centennial year, Art and Stories from Mughal India will be free to all. Also free to anyone anywhere is the innovative CMA Mughal exhibition app, in which the curator relates stories and describes paintings; the app includes hyperlinks to an illustrated audio glossary of names and terms and 100 short tweetable facts about the 100 paintings on view. 

The Mughals 
As can be seen in the art, the Mughals themselves were inherently multiethnic and multicultural, and these characteristics were indispensable for their success. Babur (1483–1530), who founded the Mughal dynasty of India in 1526, was the eldest son of the ruling family of Ferghana, a principality in eastern Uzbekistan. He was of mixed Mongol and Turkic descent and traced his lineage to both Chingiz (aka Genghis) Khan (died 1227) and the Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur (died 1405).

Babur was a bibliophile, and in his extensive memoirs he refers to his copy of a history of Timur, which often informed his decisions and military maneuvers. Babur’s son Humayun ruled from 1530 to 1556, with a 15-year hiatus in exile spent partly at the Safavid court in Iran. Upon his reconquest of India in 1555, he brought to Mughal imperial identity a deep admiration for and emulation of Persian court culture, which included being thoroughly conversant in poetry and literature. His son Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) recruited hundreds of Indian artists to work in his imperial atelier, and they incorporated the exuberance and fervor of Indian painting into scenes of dramatic action that Akbar enjoyed. Mughal painting is thus defined by its synthesis of multiple elements: Turko-Mongol dynastic ideals, Persian language and literature, the experience and training of Indian artists from diverse regional traditions, and selective appropriation of various European artistic sources brought by missionaries and merchants.

Posthumous portrait of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–48) holding a falcon, 1764. Muhammad Rizavi Hindi (Indian, active mid-1700s). Mughal India, probably Lucknow. Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; 14.6 x 10.2 cm. Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, 2013.347.a

The results are dazzling. Imperial resources were poured into the acquisition of high-quality materials for making the paintings, including pigments made from gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and other costly ingredients. Artists whose work the emperor favored received weekly rewards, and careful accountings recorded the value of illuminated books in the Mughal collections. These books were housed in the treasury or the women’s quarters, and select volumes were strapped to the backs of camels and taken on military campaigns. Women of the harem were encouraged to be multilingual and highly literate patrons themselves. The appreciation of art and literature was an essential component of life among the Mughal elite.

The Exhibition
In eight sections, the exhibition traces the story of the Mughals of India through 100 paintings drawn from the CMA collection. Four of the eight sections focus on a specific story: Tales of a Parrot, Life of Jesus, Story of the Persian Epic Hero Rustam, and Romance of Joseph the Prophet. Whenever possible the paintings are displayed double-sided to show complete folios from albums and manuscripts, a constant reminder that they were made to be part of a larger book or series.

Sumptuously designed to evoke the spaces of Mughal palace interiors and verandahs where paintings were kept and viewed, the exhibition opens with a 25-foot-long 16th-century floral arabesque carpet, rarely seen because of its scale. The first two galleries are devoted to Mughal paintings made for Akbar, who saw to it that his copies of fables, adventures, and histories were accompanied by ample numbers of paintings. On view will be some of the earliest works by celebrated named artists, such as Basavana and Dasavanta, and the culminating scene from the Hamza-nama, 70 cm in height, one of few surviving pages from this massive 1,400-folio project in which the Mughal style became thoroughly synthesized.

Dagger, 1600s. Mughal India. Steel, jade, ruby, and gold; h. 28.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collection of Giovanni P. Morosini, presented by his daughter Giulia 32.75.264


The next two galleries explore the relationship between Akbar and his oldest son, Salim, whose birth in 1569 was cause for great celebration. By 1600, Salim was ready to lead the empire and mutinously set up his own court where he brought paintings, artists, and manuscripts from Akbar’s palace and commissioned new works, such as the illustrated Mir’at al-quds (Mirror of Holiness), a biography of Jesus written in Persian by a Spanish Jesuit priest at the Mughal court, completed in 1602. Like the Tuti-nama (Tales of a Parrot), the Mir’at al-quds manuscript is remarkable not only for its historical importance and artistic beauty, but because it survives nearly intact, though unbound, with few missing pages. Both manuscripts, crucial for the study of Mughal painting, are kept in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and most of their folios have never before been shown.

The story of the Mughals continues with works made for and collected by Emperor Jahangir (the name Prince Salim took after the death of Akbar in 1605), his son Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58), and grandson Alamgir (reigned 1658–1707). This period spanning the 17th century saw the production of some of the most exquisite paintings and objects. Textiles, courtly arms, garments, jades, marble architectural elements, and porcelains—some generously lent by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Brooklyn Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, and Metropolitan Museum of Art—bring to life the painted depictions of the Mughal court’s refined splendor at the height of its wealth.

The Flagellation, from a Mir’at al-quds (Mirror of Holiness) of Father Jerome Xavier, 1602–4. Mughal India, Allahabad, made for Prince Salim (1569–1627). Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; 22.3 x 13.3 cm (image). John L. Severance Fund, 2005.145.182.a

Concluding the exhibition is a large dramatic gallery, painted black in keeping with depictions of the interiors of 18th-century Mughal palaces, with paintings framed in gold, hookah bowls, enamels, a vina, lush textiles, and a shimmering millefleurs carpet. The assemblage celebrates the joy in Mughal art of the mid-1700s. The scenes predominantly take place in the women’s quarters, where the emperor Muhammad Shah (reigned 1719–48), who was largely responsible for the reinvigoration of imperial Mughal painting, grew up, sheltered by his powerful mother from the murderous intrigues that racked the court after the death of Alamgir in 1707.

The selection of paintings and the object labels have been informed by decades of research and scholarship by the six contributors to the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition: the 368-page Mughal Paintings: Art and Stories, which presents 401 full-color illustrations of works in the collection. These distinguished scholars from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines tie together the paintings in engaging narratives that delve deeper into the themes of the exhibition. Like Akbar, who commemorated the millennium of Islam with a spectacularly 
illustrated book, his Tarikh-i Alfi (History of a Thousand [Years]), the Cleveland Museum of Art marks its centennial with this publication and exhibition of works intended to delight and amaze the viewer. 

Women enjoying the river at the forest’s edge, c. 1765. Mughal India, Murshidabad or Lucknow. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; 30.5 x 22.3 cm. Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, 2013.351


Cleveland Art, July/August 2016