Royal Family Albums Create Lavish Patchwork of Mughal Life
Scrapbooking — or compiling photos and other items into a book that reflects important aspects of a person’s life — has become increasingly popular in the United States.
Now, thanks to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s compelling new exhibition — “MURAQQA’: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin” — we learn that a sophisticated form of the concept was also pretty popular in the Mughal Empire, which ruled India from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
This comprehensive, meticulously curated exhibition focuses on six muraqqa’ (or scrapbooks, for lack of a more exact word in English) assembled for the Mughal emperors Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1627-58). The exhibit also commences a yearlong “Inspired by India” series of programming at the Freer and Sackler galleries.
The Persian word muraqqa’ means “patched” or “patched garment” similar to those worn by Islamic mystics as a sign of poverty and humility. The term became associated with the Mughal albums because of their patchwork construction, with each album folio consisting of numerous pieces of paper pasted together to form a single, continuous sheet.
The albums, assembled in the exhibition as loose folios, are only partial excerpts of the original bound volumes, but they provide viewers with an intimate glimpse into each emperor’s royal court and their passion for the poetic, beautiful and familial. In some of the muraqqa’ patches, text panels and decorated borders were added to each painting to form the composite folios that made up the album.
A stroll though the expansive exhibition gives viewers a feel for the elegance and splendor of the Mughal Empire, and the premium placed on beauty. The images of purple flowers or golden ornaments illustrating the private life of the imperial family — as well as Sufi saints and mystics, allies and courtiers, and natural history subjects — maintain a shimmering vitality to this day.
The scrapbooks were assembled roughly from 1600 to 1650, when the Mughal Empire was among the strongest, wealthiest and most powerful in the world. Many of the incredibly detailed images on display here demonstrate this wealth and sophistication, with the patron emperors typically rendered in regal, almost omnipotent terms.
Jahan, in particular, seemed partial to resplendent depictions of himself, as his bearded countenance is almost always silhouetted against a golden nimbus. “The Weighing of Shah Jahan on His Forty-Second Birthday,” for example, shows us a bejeweled emperor surrounded by no fewer than 20 subjects for the momentous occasion.
His predecessor, Jahangir, was an arts connoisseur in his own right who established his own atelier and began commissioning lavish paintings that expressed his regal sensibilities and peculiar interests. Hunting, nature and the animal world figure prominently in many of these works. “The Emperor Jahangir with Bow and Arrow” is a typical image, revealing the emperor as a man of action and nobility. Interestingly, Jahangir’s son built the Taj Mahal under Shah Jahan’s reign.
The museum provides magnifying glasses for visitors and their use is encouraged to help examine the exquisite detail and glorious colors contained in many of the muraqqa’. For instance, gold paint featured in many of the works was pricked with a needle, helping the brilliant color to capture light.
The exhibition is divided into 10 thematic sections, following an introductory group of Persian manuscripts collected by the Indian Mughal emperors. The manuscripts set the stage for the more than 80 dazzling Mughal masterpieces that offer a window into an imperial life of grandeur as well as a significant culture in world history.
MURAQQA’: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin through Aug. 3 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 1050 Independence Ave, SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.asia.si.edu.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.