Saturday, October 23, 2010

Captured in Miniature: Mughal Lives through Mughal Art

Image courtesy here
Captured in Miniature: Mughal Lives through Mughal Art
By Suhag Shirodkar
Published by Harper Collins Publishers India
Ages 8+

The Mughals would organise baithaks complete with hookahs and wine to admire their miniature paintings. The paintings were not hung on the wall and displayed. They would be held in hands and admired and then passed on from one person to the next.

This is what we read in an exhibition of miniature paintings at the British Museum in London one time. Suhag Shirodkar’s book is a collection of miniatures, and one that you will want to admire and pass all around. What is very clever is the way she has used them to tell her young readers all about life in those times. Several of the miniatures depicted in the book are currently being housed in the museums of Paris, London and New York.

Shirodkar begins by introducing us to the history of the Mughal dynasty and by telling us how they arrived in this land and came to rule it. The pages of this section have a colour and pattern similar to parchment, which makes you feel like you are reading some ancient text. We are told about how the emperors took great interest in art and patronised many artists of exemplary talent. We then read about the emperors themselves, examine their potraits depicted in miniatures and decipher them along with the author.

Shirodkar interweaves explanations of various techniques used in miniatures along with narration of the story it depicts, and this she does with great skill. For example she tells us about the complex relationshop between Akbar, his son Jehangir and his grandson Shah Jahan. In Akbar Hands his Crown to Shah Jehan created by an artist called Bichitr, Akbar is shown bypassing his son and giving his crown to his grandson. Shirodkar tells us that this would not have happened in real, but is a composition in which a story is told symbollically. This, she tells us, is what is called an allegorical painting.

The next section is titled Royal Lives. Here we analyse a depiction of Akbar supervising the building of Fatehpur Sikri. The author has magnified portions of the original painting to highlight details and thereby tell us more about lives led by both the royals and others as well about the history of the city. She asks questions to keep even the youngest reader interested - for instance, how many birds can you spot in the painting?

We then learn that the emperors enjoyed the glories of Mother Nature and that this was reflected in the miniatures that they commissioned. There is an exquisite painting by Abu’l Hasan here titled Squirrels in a Plane Tree, also on the cover of the book - a tree with squirrels darting around and a man attempting to climb the tree. There are gazelles in the background and many birds as well. The detail is what is truly captivating and Shirodkar succeeds in drawing the attention of her readers to them by asking many questions about the picture in question.

After this we look at the Mughals’ dress habits and examine their sartorial tastes. In a beautiful painting titled The Sehra Ceremony of Prince Aurangazeb, the author explains how appearances were very important at the Mughal courts. She points out the fact that the prince was barefooted when he went up to his father and this she tells us was a mark of respect for the emperor and was a Hindu custom that was possibly adopted by the Mughals. She describes the traditional garments and finery which the courtiers have donned for the occasion and brings to our attention the fact that though Indian men no longer wear them, women continue to use this type of clothing.

We join the celebrations in The Birth of a Prince and get a glimpse of the happy emperor and content mother and also into the dynamics of the zenana. The astrologers are drawing up the newborn’s birthcharts and the author asks us - would they dare predict anything less than glorious?

We move on to the jungles - shikar, after all, was a favourite royal pursuit. The scene depicts in great detail the scale of operations for the event. Thousands of footmen blowing horns and beating drums marched through the forests in order to flush out animals for the hunters. Many creatures were killed. The author points out this out and asks the reader what the painting makes her/him feel.

Finally we delve into the life of the miniature artist himself through a work titled Artists at Work. We see many of them working together in kitab-khanas or book-houses. We also learn about self-potraits that the artists were often asked to make and that they enjoyed a special closeness with the emperors.

A stunning book, and I am truly grateful to my friend who gifted this book to my children. We have often held and admired this work of art and now hope that you too, dear reader, will find pleasure in it.


sathish said...

Wow. Very nice book.

Would love to know more about the artists.

ranjani.sathish said...

Fantastic review Chox...felt transported to the Mughal times ! Will definitely check it out.

Vibha said...

Interesting review Chox. Can I borrow this one when we meet?

wordjunkie said...

Just got my copy of this stunner, and I'm flipping through the pages as I read this review. Do wish there were more pages, and would have liked to know a bit more about the way they made their paints.

Subhashree said...

Wow... that sure seems to be an amazing book. And the review was interesting.

utbtkids said...

Sounds great Chox.

I am happy about Indian publishers coming up with books on Indian art history. Much needed.

Meera Sriram said...

Thanks for "passing" this book on Chox:)
Liked how the author makes it interactive; ll mainstream History material in school should be made like this!

Tharini said...


sandhya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sandhya said...

Wow! The cover page is captivating enough to pick up the book.

The only time I have seen authentic mughal art is at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Although not in its original glory, it atill is incomparable. I can imagine how the attention to detail may have been in the miniatures.

Wonderful, too, how Shirodkar has brought the mughal history alive through the discussions. This is a must read, Chox. Putting in my claim to borrow it after Vibha. At least a dekko before you hand it to her.

Choxbox said...

Sathish: Thanks. The artsist often worked together on apianting apparently. There are more details in the book, its really worth owning. By the way, there are many books about miniatures and the artists as well - but this one is specifically targeted at children and is awesome in how it does not dumb anything down yet is child-friendly.

Ranjani: Thanks!

Vibha: Sure!

WJ: Agree - its a book you wish did not end at all. And hey maybe you can try your hand at it!

Subhasree: Thanks, do check it out, bet you’ll like it.

utbt: Yes there are many books now that creatively make history interesting.

Meera: My pleasure and agree!

Tharini: It is indeed.

Sandhya: Sure!

artnavy said...

Sounds lovely and the review makes it even more attractive!

Praba Ram said...

Aweinspiring, Chox! Your review captures very interesting details. The book sounds exceptional.

I love how the artform porttrays a mix of realistic and natural elements. An interesting aspect about miniature is the spill-over effect from the mughal court to the mainstream leading to so many artists creating pieces depicting indian fables, epics and other themes in miniature.

Interesting art history.Would love to recommend mughal/miniature theme and the book for art appreciation here. I am doing art of the Ming dynasty in the month of May for K's class. Each month it's a different country/culture. If you have any recommendations on the topic, please let me know. Thanks!

Anusha said...

fascinating! and really good to know Indian art history books available for kids. added to the list.

the mad momma said...

if only school texts were done in as interesting a manner...

Choxbox said...

Art: Danke!

Praba: Totally apt observation re the spill-over effect. For instance, in the exhibition I mentioned we pored over a series of twelve paintings depicting all the maasas or months of the year with Lord Krishna and the gopikas as the central theme.
Will certainly keep my eyes/ears open and tell you if I come across anything relevant to your Ming art project. Sounds uber interesting!

K’s mom: Wish they’d be more of these though. I know, I’m being greedy but hey one can always hope!

MM: Hear hear!

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