Body recovered and fog lifted, the second day of the new year is really its first day. So instead of wasting any time over the din of current affairs, not to mention the drip of the everyday, I set out last Thursday to catch a special exhibition.
Much of what is on display in The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is on expected lines. The wonderful reproductions from the extensive collection of the British Library brought together under one roof by Roli Books are precious to behold. The Mughal miniatures, bursting with colour and crammed dexterously on very finite flat surfaces, highlight what we all instinctively know about Mughal art.
In battle scenes, as well as those depicting royal hunts and congregations, stylised landscapes share space with animals, birds and human figures in an admixture of illustration and art. The most stunning painting in this style has to be the painting depicting an elephant trampling a tiger, painted by Mir Kalan Khan around 1770.
The dark grey downward-curving balloon shape of the elephant with a man atop it lancing the upward-curving, yellow malleable stretch of the tiger is a glorious balance of conflicting shapes on the cusp of a tumble.
But it wasn’t these wonderful pictures that left me reeling before I returned to my topical purgatory. A small painting, framed and not bigger than my BlackBerry, showed the head of a man. The reproduction looked like a pencil drawing, but it was a brushwork.
Attributed to the artist Govardhan, this 1600-05 masterpiece shows Akbar, his head lowered, probably studying a manuscript or a painting, his nostrils slightly inflamed and the bolder outlines of the face, with his heavy eyelids and the cleft on his chin, wisping into tufts of sideburns below his pagdi and the thinner lines slowly vanishing below his shoulders.
This is not a work of imperial art festooned by an ideology showcasing power as Mughal art and architecture overwhelmingly do. This is something subtler, more sombre, far more revealing of both subject and artist. It is, for the lack of another word, modern.
Art, like politics, never resides in a vacuum. So the shift we see from flat, two-dimensional ‘Mughal art’ bursting with colour and proto-Hergé cartoon lines to the hypnotic quietness and intimacy of this picture, its beauty magnified by its ‘non-Mughal miniature’ miniatureness, also stems from an older, more settled, more powerful patron’s change in aesthetic taste.
Art historian Milo Beach in his Early Mughal Painting challenges the view that Akbar abandoned Fatehpur Sikri, the glorious capital he built, only due to water shortage. "If we examine the changes in Akbar’s interests and taste in the 1580s, it seems equally plausible that the city’s architectural experimentalism and intimacy no longer fulfilled the more obvious imperial and epicurean taste that the ruler’s new projects had begun to reveal." A corresponding change is evident in Akbar’s taste in art from the 1580s.
As the Roli catalogue-book of The Mughals exhibition tells us, "Akbar was personally interested in realistic observations of an individual’s character. This had a major impact on the painting tradition. He encouraged artists to draw attention to an individual’s physiognomy and facial features." Apart from Govardhan’s palm-sized masterpiece of portraiture, we see this rupture from tradition in a work attributed to another of the great Mughal’s favourite artists, Basavan.
A Shepherd Offers A Flower To A Holy Man (1580-85) shows a man with a massively oversized stomach but thin limbs. Another man with a more sinewy appearance holds a dog by a leash. A beggar-like shepherd offers the mutant-shaped central figure a flower even as two children, without a stitch on, play astride a tree in the background.
"The figures could easily have been caricatured; instead Basawan (sic) sets them before us with sympathy, understanding, and even reverence... For this artist, human contact and interaction is all important," writes Beach. The picture is straight out of Premchand.
This is not imperial art, the equivalent of a work commissioned today by a government or an industrial house to celebrate ‘the Nation’ or a ‘national institution’. In Basavan’s mid-sized painting, non-religious everydayness takes the spotlight, even as it depicts the grotesque, something that even the ‘Golden Age’ of Mughal rule was more than familiar with.
These reproductions of two ‘Akbari’ paintings by Govardhan and Basavan on a January 2, 2014, Dilli morning, drove home two things for me: one, that a break from ‘tradition’ can be glorious in the right hands at the right time. And two, that power is not just about grasping on to power, but also about using it to unleash some kind of beauty.
Views expressed by the author are personal