Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from April 2014

04 April 2014

Islamic seal matrices in the British Library Philatelic Collections

The word ‘seal’ can refer to two quite distinct, yet related, entities: the object used for stamping, sometimes called the ‘seal matrix’, and the seal impression, also called a ‘seal stamp’ or ‘sealing’, which refers to the mark made by the seal matrix.  Seal matrices are usually made of a hard material such as metal or gemstone, and may be set in a ring, and are most commonly found in museum collections.  Seal impressions, on the other hand, are found on manuscript documents or books, and are thus usually encountered in libraries and archives - as illustrated by a recent blog post on the 'Islamic' seals used by British colonial officials, found impressed on documents in the India Office Records.  

An Indian seal engraver, preparing jewels for seal rings, drawn in the Benares style, ca. 1825.  British Library, Add. Or. 169.
An Indian seal engraver, preparing jewels for seal rings, drawn in the Benares style, ca. 1825.  British Library, Add. Or. 169.    noc

It was therefore a very natural partnership when the British Library and British Museum came together in 2010 to produce a travelling photographic exhibition, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  The British Museum’s rich collection of seals with inscriptions in Arabic and Persian, made of materials such as carnelian, onyx, turquoise and rock crystal as well as brass and silver, were complemented by royal letters, treaties and books bearing Islamic seal impressions from the British Library. The exhibition toured libraries and museums throughout the UK, and led to a further collaboration with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

I was therefore very surprised when, in late 2011, my colleagues in the British Library’s Philatelic Collections, David Beech and Paul Skinner, mentioned in passing that the Library, too, had a small collection of Islamic seal matrices, alongside other European seals and philatelic paraphernalia. On further investigation there turned out to be ten metal seal matrices with inscriptions in Arabic script, unaccompanied, however, by any information on their provenance. On the basis of the calligraphy and style of inscription, nearly all the seals appear to be Ottoman, and all but one are dated.  A catalogue of the 10 seals, by A.T. Gallop and M.I. Waley, can be found here: Download BL Philatelic Collections Islamic seals-ATG-MIW.

Seals and other objects in the Philatelic Collections of the British Library.  The ten seals with inscriptions in Arabic are in the cluster on the right.
Seals and other objects in the Philatelic Collections of the British Library.  The ten seals with inscriptions in Arabic are in the cluster on the right.  noc

The ten Islamic seals, together with three others in Greek.  British Library, Philatelic Collections
The ten Islamic seals, together with three others in Greek.  British Library, Philatelic Collections.  noc
Side view showing the handles of the ten Islamic seals.  British Library, Philatelic Collections, Islamic seals 1-10
Side view showing the handles of the ten Islamic seals.  British Library, Philatelic Collections, Islamic seals 1-10.  noc

In Ottoman Turkey, seal engraving was a well established and highly regulated profession. Seal engravers belonged to professional guilds, and had to adhere to a strict code of practice, designed to prevent the fraudulent use of seals.  In the early seventeenth century there were separate guilds for engravers who worked in semi-precious stones such as carnelians and jade, those who produced seals for the officials of the state, and those who worked in silver, producing talismans as well as seals.  From the late eighteenth century and into the early twentieth century some Istanbul sealmakers engraved their pseudonymous signatures in tiny letters on the face of the seal.  It is therefore of great interest to find that three seals in the British Library collection appear to bear the initials/signatures of their engravers, two of which occur in the list of Ottoman seal engravers’ signatures published in Acar (1999: 290-295).  These signatures are always written in much smaller letters than the main inscription.

Ottoman brass seal, engraved with the name Ahmad Bijan / Ahmed Bican and the date 1343 (AD 1924/5), with in the bottom right corner the tiny signature of its maker ‘Aşki, one of the seal engravers listed by Acar (1999: 295). Width 17 mm. British Library, Philatelic Collections, Islamic seal 10.
Ottoman brass seal, engraved with the name Ahmad Bijan / Ahmed Bican and the date 1343 (AD 1924/5), with in the bottom right corner the tiny signature of its maker ‘Aşki, one of the seal engravers listed by Acar (1999: 295). Width 17 mm. British Library, Philatelic Collections, Islamic seal 10.  noc

Further reading:

M. Şinasi Acar. Türk Hat Sanati / Turkish calligraphy.  Istanbul: Antik A.S., 1999.

Annabel Teh Gallop & Venetia Porter.  Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World. A travelling photographic exhibition from the British Library and the British Museum. [London]: British Library and British Museum, 2010.

Annabel Teh Gallop & Venetia Porter.  Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World. With contributions from Heba Nayel Barakat ... [et al].  Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2012.  [Available online from Areca Books.]

Venetia Porter. Arabic and Persian seals and amulets in the British Museum.  London: British Museum Press, 2011.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

01 April 2014

Curator's perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana

The digital version of the complete Valmiki Ramayana prepared for  Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in 1649-53 was launched on 21 March at the CSMVS, Mumbai, making freely available to the world one of the greatest achievements of Indian art.  For the complete digital version of the manuscript together with descriptions of the paintings and essays on its various aspects, see www.bl.uk/ramayana.  My own involvement with the manuscript goes back to 1971 when as a young Sanskritist straight from Oxford I first joined the British Museum, before the collections were transferred to the British Library in 1973.  I spent a lot of time exploring the oriental select manuscripts lobby, pulling the manuscripts off the shelf one by one for a brief examination.  The bound manuscripts were kept in so far as possible in strict numerical sequence in the main runs of Additional and Oriental manuscripts, so that Arabic, Persian, Hebrew or Sanskrit manuscripts could be found side by side, encouraging a serendipitous tendency to explore other cultures.  I was vaguely aware of the great Mughal manuscripts in the collections, the subject of British Library exhibitions in 1982 and 2012, but was there I wondered anything comparable from the Hindu world? 

Covers and doublure of a volume of the Ramayana as bound in the British Museum bindery in 1844.  British Library, Add.15295.

Covers and doublure of a volume of the Ramayana as bound in the British Museum bindery in 1844.  British Library, Add.15295.
Covers and doublure of a volume of the Ramayana as bound in the British Museum bindery in 1844.  British Library, Add.15295.  noc

I soon found three massive bound volumes which announced themselves on the spines as five volumes of the Ramayana, books 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7.  On hauling them off the shelf and opening them I found them crammed with paintings.  Each of the volumes had had all its folios, the unillustrated ones as well as the full page paintings, let into heavy guard papers which were then bound up in these elaborate bindings.  The folios being in landscape format, the volumes had to be turned on their sides to be read.  On further investigation, one of the volumes, the Bala Kanda or first book, with over 200 paintings, turned out to have been written in 1712 in Udaipur under Maharana Sangram Singh (Add.15295), but the other four books containing 286 full page paintings were prepared in Udaipur for Rana Jagat Singh between 1649 and 1652, as well as in the first year of his successor Rana Raj Singh in 1653 (Add.152396-7).  They had, I found, never been exhibited, since the volumes were too large to fit into the department’s then exhibition cases; they had never been lent to be exhibited elsewhere, not even to the great exhibition of Indian art at Burlington House in 1947, since the British Museum did not then lend at all; and I could find only one brief reference to them in the art historical literature, in Douglas Barrett and Basil Gray’s Indian Painting of 1963.  They were of course mentioned in Cecil Bendall’s Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1902), but he was concerned about the text and not the pictures:  back then in 1902 no one in the west knew anything about Indian painting, while A.K. Coomaraswamy had yet to publish his book on Rajput painting.  In 1971 when I told those of my colleagues who were interested in Persian and Indian painting about these great volumes, my excitement was greeted with some indifference: they knew of their existence of course, but Rajput painting and manuscripts did not conform to Mughal standards of painting, let alone Persian.  The volumes turned out to be illustrated in three different styles of contemporary Mewar painting, involving the artists Sahib Din and Manohar and their studios and an unknown master working in a mixed Mewar-Deccani style. 

Hanuman espies Rama and Laksmana as they approach Lake Pampa.  Ramayana, Kiskindha Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, 1653.  British Library, Add.15297(1), f.2r.
Hanuman espies Rama and Laksmana as they approach Lake Pampa.  Ramayana, Kiskindha Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, 1653.  British Library, Add.15297(1), f.2r.  noc

Since that to me momentous discovery in 1971, I have been occupied with trying to publish these volumes and to place them within their artistic and cultural contexts.  I had found only four volumes of Jagat Singh’s Ramayana – where were the other three?  I soon found some of the original Bala Kanda of 1649 ascribed to the artist Manohar in the then Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay, and most of the rest of the paintings in the book in a private collection in that city.  But when Dr Moti Chanda published some of its paintings in 1955, he was unaware of the four London volumes.  It emerged that one volume, book 3, the Aranya Kanda or Forest book, was still in Udaipur.  It had been transferred along with the rest of the royal Mewar library to the Udaipur branch of the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, and was subsequently moved to that institute’s headquarters in Jodhpur.  In 1982 the four London volumes formed some of the highlights of my exhibition The Art of the Book in India in the British Library.  

Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire.  Ramayana, Sundara Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650.  British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r.
Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire.  Ramayana, Sundara Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650.  British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r.  noc

While I was preparing that exhibition Mildred Archer and Toby Falk, who had been working on a catalogue of the Indian miniatures in the then separate India Office Library, brought to my attention a volume of 18 paintings of a Sundara Kanda that had been acquired in 1912.  This it seems was what remained of the final volume to be unearthed and I included it in my exhibition.  I also brought to London for the exhibition folios from the two volumes still in India, thereby uniting the entire manuscript for the first time since 1820.  Since then I have published various articles on different aspects of them and other scholars including Vidya Dehejia and Andrew Topsfield have also worked on them, but the task is immense, since we are concerned here with over 400 paintings as well as a most interesting text, which is earlier than most of the manuscripts used for the critical edition of the Ramayana prepared in Baroda in 1960-75.

Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (reg. 1778-1828) out hunting.  Mewar, 1810-20.  British Library, Add.Or.4662.
Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (reg. 1778-1828) out hunting.  Mewar, 1810-20.  British Library, Add.Or.4662.  noc

But how did these volumes get to London in the first place?  Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar was the typical Rajput ruler of the time, more interested in hunting and grand festivals than in literary pursuits, but he did revive the royal painting studio.  He was on very friendly terms with Captain James Tod, the future historian of the Rajputs, who was appointed in 1818 as the East India Company’s Agent to the western Rajput states.   On Tod’s final departure from Udaipur in 1820 the Maharana presented to him four volumes of Jagat Singh’s Ramayana as well as the Bala Kanda of 1712 prepared under Sangram Singh.   Tod on his return to London in 1823 presented the five volumes to the Duke of Sussex, one of the younger sons of King George III, who had accumulated a vast and important library, and it was at the sale of the Duke’s library in 1844 that the five volumes were purchased for the British Museum.  They were still in bundles in their loose-leaf traditional format and it was then that they were bound up in their handsome bindings, the enormous Bala Kanda in one volume (Add.15295) and the remaining four books in two volumes (Add.15296 and Add.15297).

It emerged over the 40 years since 1971 that the bound volumes in London had kept the paintings in absolutely pristine condition, since up to that time scarcely anyone had looked at them, but as I and other scholars turned their pages in subsequent years it became increasingly obvious that the paintings were suffering, since the folios housed in their rigid bindings could not be turned without the paintings flexing and with that the ensuing risk of the pigments flaking.  One of my first tasks was to organise the splitting of Add.15297 since the two heavily illustrated books within, including Sahib Din’s masterpiece the Yuddha Kanda (Book 6), were most at risk. 

Hanuman disturbs the divine inhabitants of the Himalaya when fetching herbs to cure Laksmana who had been wounded by Ravana.  Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda.  By Sahib Din, Udaipur, 1652.  British Library, Add.15297(1), f.150r.
Hanuman disturbs the divine inhabitants of the Himalaya when fetching herbs to cure Laksmana who had been wounded by Ravana.  Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda.  By Sahib Din, Udaipur, 1652.  British Library, Add.15297(1), f.150r.  noc

In Valmiki’s hermitage Lava and Kusa recite the story of Rama before Satrughna.  Ramayana, Uttara Kanda.  Style of Manohar, Udaipur, 1653.  British Library, Add.15297(2), f.88r.
In Valmiki’s hermitage Lava and Kusa recite the story of Rama before Satrughna.  Ramayana, Uttara Kanda.  Style of Manohar, Udaipur, 1653.  British Library, Add.15297(2), f.88r.  noc

Book 7 the Uttara Kanda was removed and a new binding matching the original was prepared for it, as well as a new spine for the Yuddha Kanda.  In 1995, some 20 folios concerned with Rama’s quest for Sita were detached and mounted separately in an exhibition at the British Library, The Mythical Quest, and were later lent to several exhibitions in the UK as well as to the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore. 

It seemed to me many years ago that the best way to ensure the safety of the paintings was to dismantle the volumes entirely and mount the paintings separately, but this raised opposition within the Library as the volumes themselves were of great historic interest.  However my view eventually prevailed.  The volumes were dismantled and the paintings individually mounted and a large part of the London volumes were shown in a grand Ramayana exhibition in the British Library in 2008 with my accompanying book published both in London and in India.  From them on it was but a step to conceive of reuniting the whole manuscript digitally, not just the paintings but the text as well, so that scholars could work in particular on the relationship between text and painting, and also so that everyone could have access to one of the greatest monuments of Indian art.

 J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)  ccownwork

 

Further Reading:

www.bl.uk/ramayana

Chandra, M., ‘Paintings from an Illustrated Version of the Ramayana Painted at Udaipur in AD 1649’ in Bulletin of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India Bombay, vol. 5, 1955-57, pp. 33-49

Losty, J.P., The Art of the Book in India, British Library, London, 1982

Losty, J.P., The Ramayana:  Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic – the Mewar Ramayana Manuscripts, British Library, London, 2008

Topsfield, A., Court Painting at Udaipur: Art under the Patronage of the Maharanas of Mewar, Artibus Asiae, Zurich, 2002