THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

214 posts categorized "Art"

20 June 2019

Islamic Painted Page: Growing a Database

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Today's post is by Stephen Serpell announcing the launch of the new version of his online database Islamic Painted Page, now hosted with the University of Hamburg. In a world where individual institutions still maintain their idiosyncratic approaches to locating and displaying digitised images, this resource is a major breakthrough.

Since its launch in 2013, Islamic Painted Page (IPP) has grown into a major online database of Islamicate arts of the book, with over 42,000 references to paintings, illuminations and bindings from over 270 collections around the globe – of which the British Library is one of the most important.

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IPP is found at www.islamicpaintedpage.com and it does two things. First, it enables users to locate and compare works worldwide using a single database, displaying images wherever possible; and second, it signposts users onward to more authoritative sources, with hotlinks direct to the specific image pages of collection websites where available, and page-specific references for printed publications.

The website enables users to search by picture description, collection, accession number, date, place of origin, manuscript title or author, or publication – or any combination of these. So it is possible, for example, to find with a single search 77 different interpretations of the famous scene where Khusrau sees Shirin bathing, with IPP itself showing images of 36 of them.

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4 out of 77: Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing” (BL Add. 6613, f.42r, IO Islamic 138, f.75r, Or. 2265, f.53v, Or. 2933, f.19v)

Or one could look into the development of non-figurative illumination and page decoration during the reign of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā in Herat, 1469-1506 (70 different results); or search under an accession number to locate reproductions of works not currently published online, such as the paintings from the Topkapi Royal Turkman Khamsah H762; or search by a particular classical author, for example to study the star charts in different manuscripts of the Ṣuwar al-kawākib of al-Ṣūfī. And one can even search the contents of a publication, perhaps to check if it contains relevant illustrations, or to cross-check for metadata that was left out of the printed text (IPP is good for filling in missing details).

IPP aims to help users find not just images of works, but also articles and commentaries about them; so its search results list all the publication references it holds on each item, with the collection website location topmost if one exists. This means that well-known works return multiple “hits” in a search; for example the Miʻraj painting in the British Library’s celebrated Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (Or. 2265, f.195r) is one of the most-published of all Islamicate miniatures and comes up with 25 references. However very few works achieve such fame, and in fact the database currently holds about 42,500 references for its total of about 30,000 separate items - so on average, each item only appears in 1.4 publications.

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Multiply published: “The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r). Public Domain

This illustrates a further use of the database; its very large size means that it could be used as a starting point for statistical analysis, for example to chart the production of particular illustrated works against place of production or by date, or how the popularity of certain scenes has varied over time.

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Finding needles in haystacks: Islamic Painted Page, main search page

The database originated simply from one individual’s frustration over the difficulties of studying Islamicate miniature paintings and illuminations, since they are dispersed all over the planet and references to them are scattered throughout a daunting corpus of literature; and even though many are now published online, it can still be very laborious to find relevant links. This led to a personal database that soon grew to point where it seemed likely to be useful to others, if only it could be placed online. A grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation made the website possible in 2013 with an initial 12,300 entries. Subsequent support from the Islamic Manuscript Association in 2015 improved the website’s utility for manuscript studies, including proper attention to transliteration. By this time the database had already grown to 20,600 references and had built in item-specific links to VIAF, WORLDCAT and FIHRIST so that users can just click to find fuller, authoritative information on authors and works, print publications, and - for UK items - manuscript details. Needless to say, a private sideline had by then become a mega-hobby.

However the most exciting subsequent step has been adding actual images of the paintings, illuminations and bindings wherever possible. Copyright prevents the database from reproducing illustrations in printed works, but IPP also covers works published online; and in many cases this has enabled IPP to show images that have been published as Creative Commons or Public Domain, or where a collection has given special permission.


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Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)


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Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

It was a particular pleasure in 2018 to receive permission to incorporate images for the British Library, since it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts and has been digitizing many of its finest holdings. Together with coverage of 19 other collections, IPP is now able to display thumbnails and larger images for about 50% of its references so far; and it is the inclusion of images that transforms the usefulness of the site for most researchers. It should be stressed that every thumbnail and every flyout image in IPP acknowledges the collection source and provides a folio-specific weblink to the relevant collection webpage, together with a recommendation to proceed to the collection website for authoritative images and other details.

Along the way, IPP has had to confront some difficult issues. Users need to be able to search efficiently, especially if they are trying to find a painting of a particular scene; but this requires consistent descriptions, whereas different authorities give different titles to the same scene (eg Khusrau sees Shirin bathing; Khosrow spies Shirin bathing; Shirin bathes observed by Khusrau….). To help manage this, IPP uses just one consistent description for each scene, but also holds the corresponding alternative descriptions. This ensures that users who cannot find what they want among the “consistent descriptions” can still search among the “alternative descriptions” if necessary.

The price for this simple-sounding device is that IPP not only has to check for consistent titling across the entire database for every new entry, but also has to maintain entire sub-databases of descriptions listing every scene encountered in each of about 30 of the most popular painting cycles, such as those illustrating the Khamsah of Niẓāmī (where artists have represented over 300 different scenes), the Haft Awrang of Jāmī and the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (which extends to over 1,000 scenes and where the work of the Cambridge Shāhnāmah project must be fully acknowledged). Hobbyists, beware!

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Four scenes from the Shāhnāmah painting cycle (Royal Asiatic Society MS 239, ff. 7r, 16v, 32v, 44r)

Different authorities also ascribe different dates and places of origin to the same items. IPP respects this but it does result in inconsistent metadata between the relevant IPP references. And even authorities can make mistakes, or fail to provide essential details, and publications can suffer misprints; IPP has filled in a lot of missing accession numbers and corrected a lot of wrong ones.

IPP includes thousands of references to non-figurative illuminated pages and bindings, as well as covering figurative pictures; and an important upgrade is in hand to improve the detail of its 2,500 references to decorated Qurʼan pages.

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Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration (BL Add. 16561, Add. 18579, IO Islamic 843 f.34v, Or. 12988 f.2r)

IPP is an academic resource and its future clearly needs to lie with an academic institution, not with an individual. For that reason, about a year ago IPP began a relationship with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures that aims to enrich the database’s features and extend the coverage of works published online as well as in print. One of the first fruits of this collaboration has been the re-launch of the IPP website hosted and supported by the University of Hamburg, with a new look and a number of improvements to the user interface.

Meanwhile the database continues to grow and it is planned to include more images, enlarge its coverage of collections and secondary sources from the Muslim world, and extend its geographical scope. In this way, it is hoped that IPP can act as a multi-disciplinary resource and assist not only art historians and manuscript scholars, but also contribute to digital humanities and wider cultural studies.

The author would like to thank Dr. Barbara Brend, Professor Charles Melville and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, as well as his own wife Elizabeth, without whose support, encouragement and patience Islamic Painted Page would never have come into being.

Stephen Serpell, Islamic Painted Page
Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg
stephen.serpell@uni-hamburg.de
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4547af8200c-pi

13 June 2019

Same-Sex Relations in an 18th century Ottoman Manuscript

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            June is Pride Month, which means we celebrate the histories and experiences of LGBTQQ2SA+[1] people. A common complaint that we hear during the month is that the acronyms attached to it are unwieldy and incomprehensible; a criticism that’s easily dispelled through a quick explanation of each letter or symbol. But this discussion obscures a far more complex, and trickier, question: what does it mean to be gay (or, for that matter, lesbian, trans, queer or two-spirit)? Is it just a matter of who you fancy, or is it much deeper, a nexus of desire, outlook, self-image and social relations? Answers aren’t always easy to give for those of us who live in the post-Stonewall era, and they’re even thornier when we try to apply contemporary terms to historical content.

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Stamped and gilded binding of the Hamse-i Atā’ī (Or. 13882), alongside f. 1v with one of its magnificent ‘unvāns.  noc

            That is, in essence, one of the most perplexing issues in dealing with Or. 13882, an 18th-century Ottoman recension of the Hamse-yi ‘Atā’ī, ‘Atā’ī’s four extant mesnevis. The work is a beautiful specimen of the Ottoman arts of the book, featuring four illuminated ‘unvāns, thirty miniatures, marbled end-papers and black and maroon morocco binding that has been stamped with gilded cartouches and rope patterns. The presence of two seals and three inscriptions attest to the circulation and desirability of this particular volume; hardly surprising, given its beauty and the slightly scandalous nature of the content. The poetry itself is an oblique response to the earlier Khamsah of Nizami, but takes up local themes. Wine and music in the Imperial court; moral and ethical issues; and social mores and values such as heroism are treated in the first three mesnevis, the ‘Alemnüma, the Nefhatül’Ezhar and the Sohbet-ül-Ebkar. While these topics were often raised in mesnevis for the purpose of Sufi education and instruction, it does not appear that this was always the case in ‘Atā’ī’s work. The fourth mesnevi, Heft Han, is perhaps the most interesting for our purposes. Gibb, in the third volume of his A History of Ottoman Poetry, described it as follows: “The Heft Khwán or Seven Courses is more purely mystical in tone… I have never seen this poem, but Von Hammer describes it as a most unhappy work, consisting simply of a series of trivial stories and trite moralities.”[2] As Andrews and Kalpaklı explain in The Age of Beloveds, it contains seven accounts, the first six of which are moralistic tales, while the seventh relates the story of two male lovers. This final installment tells of the two young men’s “frolics” in Istanbul, of their eventual capture and enslavement by Europeans during a pilgrimage by sea to Egypt, and of the two European men who in turn fall in love with them.[3] This is a fairly original text, an example of ‘Atā’ī’s creativity and imagination.[4]

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Examples of the colourful, dynamic illustrations of the Bosphorus (left) and of a a group of men in a mosque, gathering around the minbar.  noc

That, however, is the beginning, rather than the end, of this queer tale. The British Library’s acquisition record for the item reads: “Some [miniatures] illustrate historical events and scenes, others various anecdotes. Those on folios 103r, 108v, 158r and v, 161r, 166r and v are of a pornographic nature. The double miniature depicting the Bosporus, ff. 68v-69r, is of fine quality.” Given that the manuscript was purchased in 1979, this mention of “pornographic” material likely relies on an understanding of the term closer to our own usage, rather than that of the Victorian age. Of course, the line between pornography and art is a blurry one. In 1964, it caused US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to explain that a precise definition of the boundary was unnecessary, as “I know it when I see it.” The American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag was perhaps more helpful when, writing about morality and artistic expression, she argued that art appealed to contemplation, while pornography, in turn, sought to excite.[5]

        Whether according to Stewart’s guidelines, or those of Sontag, a quick view of some of the illustrations included in the Hamse make it clear that these images would likely be kept behind the 18+ bar of any corner store’s magazine rack. Those highlighted in the acquisition slip contain graphic depictions of female and male genitalia; masturbation and vaginal and anal penetration; and sex between couples and in groups. Of importance for this article, a number of the illustrations narrate encounters between men; some bearded, others not. The pictures themselves often tell a story. One pair shows five men seated to eat together, after which three of them are engaged in a menage-à-trois. Another depicts two men having sex while a large group of onlookers spy on the lovers, ultimately exposing them to the authorities. Given what we know of the plot, these images are doubly queered: first, because they involve sex between men; and secondly, because everyone in them is in Ottoman costume, despite the setting of the tale in Europe. Boone interprets the Heft Han as, partly, an allegorical tale about morality and policing of sexuality in the Ottoman Empire (rather than Europe), and this geographical displacement might be the most visual evidence yet supporting his claim.[6]  

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Two horsemen, part of one of the other tales in the Hamse, along with the first part of the infamous dinner scene from the Heft Han.  noc

            Moreover, the images raise important questions about sexuality and identity in 17th- and 18th- century Ottoman circles. Were the characters depicted in these stories gay? Were their sex acts deemed to be indicative of their identities and self-perceptions? What of the male readers: can we infer anything about their desires? Did a female audience enjoy these stories too, and how does that inform our understanding of their sexuality? Such questions are hard to answer without the input of the individual readers themselves, highlighting the intensely personal and subjective nature of identity in the first place. What’s more, as Serkan Delice has shown in his work “‘When female friends increase, lovers decrease’: Gender, Sexism and Historiography in the Ottoman Era”, such questions can easily become fodder for those with political agendas about contemporary citizens.[7]  

            The act of asking such questions isn’t without its pitfalls. To start with, 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century European observers were apt to insist upon a widespread Ottoman practice of pederasty, despite a lack of firm evidence to suggest that it was any more common than in Western Europe.[8] This Islamophobic trope has survived in contemporary discourse, but it was tempered in 19th- and 20th-century scholarship by another trend: that of erasing sexual non-conformity. Translators and commentators have played down the presence of same-sex desire in Ottoman poetry. They instrumentalize authors’ predilection for allusion and allegory, as well as Turkish’s lack of gendered pronouns, to gradually nudge English versions of classical Ottoman poems into the realm of heterosexual love.[9] Similar dynamics are just as visible in 20th-century Turkish scholarship.[10] To paraphrase Shakira, however, these pics don’t lie. Both figurative and literal imagery pointing to same-sex desire and intercourse motivated scholars in the latter part of the 20th century to begin discussing more openly homosexual themes within the Ottoman canon. This is no niche field: a whole genre of Ottoman poetry, the şehrengîz, contains plenty of examples of the male poet’s love or lust for another man. It was interwoven into broader Sufi schools of expression and enunciation, a genre that is not as easily tied to specific segments of the population or identities as would be contemporary LGBT fiction.[11]

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An unlucky ship on the rolling waters of the Mediterranean, alongside the manuscript’s colophon, including date it was copied: 10 Rebiülahir 1151 AH / 28 July 1738 CE). noc

            This leads us back to our original question: is it gay? Who knows if a definitive answer that satisfies everyone will ever be formulated. In some ways, even posing the question says more about us than it does about 17th- or 18th-century Ottomans. Identity is something intensely personal, and the categories that we choose or that we have chosen for us never manage to capture in full the reality of our existence. What is clear, though, is that sexual diversity is not something new; nor is it something that has been enjoyed only in recent years. As the miniatures of this version of the Hamse-i ‘Atā’ī demonstrate, desire has long come in many shapes and forms. As long as we avoid any ill-fated journeys by sea, it’s up to us to describe and celebrate it in any way we choose. 

 

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections, @BLTurkKoleksyon

 

[1] LGBTQQ2SA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Questioning, 2-Spirit, Allies and Others.

[2] E. J. W. Gibb. A History of Ottoman Poetry by the Late E.J.W. Gibb: Volume III. Ed. Edward G. Browne (London: Luzac & Co., 1904), p. 234.

[3] Joseph Allen Boone. The Homoerotics of Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 10-16.

[4] Rukiye Aslıhan Aksoy Sheridan. “Anlatıcının Rekabet Taktikleri: Nev’i-zade Atâyî’nin Heft-Hân Mesnevisine Anlatıbilimsel Bir Bakış,” in Prof. Dr. Mine Mengi Adına Türkoloji Sempozyumu (20–22 Ekim 2011) Bildirileri (Adana: Çukurova Üniversitesi, 2004), pp. 3-13).

[5] Susan Sontag. “On style” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2009), pp. 26-27.

[6] Boone, The Homoerotics of Orientalism, pp. 10-16

[7] Serkan Delice. “‘Zen-Dostlar Çoğalıp Mahbûblar Azaldı’: Osmanlı’da Toplumsal Cinsiyet, Cinsellik ve Tarihyazımı” in ed. Cüneyt Cakırlar and Serkan Delice, Cinsellik Muamması: Türkiye’de Queer Kültür ve Muhalefet (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2012), pp. 329-363.

[8] Stephen O. Murray. “Homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire,” in Historical Reflections, vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 103-105.

[9] Stephen O. Murray. “Homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire,” in Historical Reflections, vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 2007), p. 106.

[10] Tunca Kortantamer. Nev’î-zâde Atâyî ve Hamse’si (Izmir: Bornova, 1997).

[11] İrvin Cemil Schick. “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” in The Turkish Studies Association Journal, vol. 28, no. 1/2 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 88-90.

10 June 2019

Zee JLF at the British Library, 14-16th June 2019

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ZEE JLF at The British Library returns to London for its sixth consecutive year from 14th-16th June, 2019, to celebrate books, creativity and dialogue, creative diversity and varied intellectual discourse.

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The five-day ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, held annually in the Pink City of Jaipur, is a riot of colour, energy, ideas, and music against a backdrop of readings, dynamic discussions and debates.

This June, the spirit of the festival with its pervasive sense of inclusiveness and infectious camaraderie, will once again be at the heart of London as a caravan of writers and thinkers, poets, balladeers and raconteurs bring alive South Asia’s unique multilingual literary heritage at the British Library. You can book tickets through the British Library's box office.

Asian and African Studies Curators Malini Roy and Michael Erdman will be speaking in two of the panels:

Saturday, 15 June 2019: 13.45 – 14.45

Forgotten Masterpieces of Indian Art for East India Company

Malini Roy, Yuthika Sharma, Katherine Butler Schofield and Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in conversation with William Dalrymple

Reflecting both the beauty of the natural world and the social reality of the time, the Indian artworks commissioned by the East India Company’s officials in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offer a rare glimpse of the cultural fusion between British and Indian artistic styles. South Asian art expert and British Library curator Malini Roy, historian of South Asian art Yuthika Sharma, music historian and author Katherine Butler Schofield, historian on South Asian Art and British scholar and author Rosie Llewellyn Jones discuss this forgotten moment in Anglo-Indian history, with author and historian William Dalrymple.

 

Sunday, 16 June 2019: 16.15 - 17.15

From Hieroglyphs to Emojis

Irving Finkel, David Levy and Michael Erdman in conversation with Pragya Tiwari, introduced by Namita Gokhale

From carved stone inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and early printed works to beautiful calligraphy, iconic fonts and emojis, the written word has evolved in innumerable ways over the centuries. British Museum curator Irving Finkel, alongside technologist and calligrapher David Levy and scholar of Turkish historiography and one of the curators of the British Library’s exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark Michael Erdman deconstruct the act of writing and consider its future in the digital age, in conversation with journalist and editor Pragya Tiwari. Introduced by Namita Gokhale.

Presented by Bagri Foundation.

 

The full schedule is now available online: http://jlflitfest.org/zee-jlf-at-british-library/schedule.

 

26 April 2019

Vijayanagara Research Project at the British Library

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In January 2019 the British Library began a new research project with the Centre for Art and Archaeology (CA&A) at the American Institute of Indian Studies in New Delhi, focused on our Visual Arts collections. The project has been funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

The Vijayanagara Research Project examines both the Visual Arts collection of material (prints, drawings and photographs) related to Hampi Vijayanagara, a UNESCO World Heritage site in south India, including a recently acquired collection of modern architectural and topographical plans of the site produced by Dr George Michell and Dr John Fritz over a 30 year period. Sagera Kazmi, the Rutherford Fellow hosted by the British Library is researching and editing the metadata for the collections that will be made available later this year through Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

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Sagera Kazmi with John Fritz (left) and George Michell (right) reviewing the original drawings in February 2019.

On 25th March, we hosted a a day long workshop to bring together colleagues and researchers from relevant institutions who work on Hindu temple architecture and sacred spaces in South Asia. Participants included Dr Purnima Mehta (Director General, AIIS), Dr Vandhana Sinha (Director, CA&A), Rizvi Syed (Librarian, CA&A), George Michell, John Fritz, Richard Blurton (British Museum), Nick Barnard (V&A), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), as well as colleagues from the British Library. The aim of the workshop was to introduce the project and provide a forum to discuss how the VRP can have an impact on future academic research, digital humanities and cultural heritage management.

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Sagera Kazmi introducing her research at the British Library's workshop. Also pictured, Luisa Elena Mengoni (Head of Asian and African Collections, BL), Alan Sudlow (Head of Research, BL), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), and Nick Barnard (V&A).

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John Falconer (British Library), Vandana Sinha (CA&A) and Purnima Mehta (AIIS) looking at photographic collections.

As part of the day, Sagera Kazmi, the Rutherford Fund Research Fellow who is currently being hosted by the British Library from the AIIS CA&A, presented material from the VRP collections, including some of those produced by Michell and Fritz. Work undertaken by Michell, Fritz and their teams since 1986, has resulted in over  pencil and ink drawings of the architectural features of numerous buildings and temples found at Hampi Vijayanagara which have recently been donated to the British Library. These important archaeological records provide a chronological continuation of the Library’s established historical collections related to this site and will act as an important resource for researchers in a variety of fields.

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Pencil drawing showing the north elevation of the Raja Mahal, Chandragiri, scale 1:100. 

Wider collection items were also displayed during the workshop, including a plan of the site produced between 1780 and 1820. This map, part of the MacKenzie collection, shows the topography and fortifications found at the site during Colin MacKenzie’s survey of the Ceded Districts in the early nineteenth century. Other collection items included watercolour paintings of some of the buildings at the site and also photographs from the Archaeological Survey of India photograph series.

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Map of Vijayanagara from the Mackenzie Collection, c.1780-1820. British Library, WD 2646. Noc

 

Cam Sharp Jones, Sagera Kazmi and Malini Roy 

15 April 2019

The 'Gilbert artist': a possible pupil of Sita Ram

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When writing an essay recently on the artist Sita Ram for a forthcoming exhibition in the Wallace Collection in London of great artists of the ‘Company’ period, I started rethinking to what extent he influenced Kolkata artists and indeed artists of other Indian schools. There is of course his obvious influence on the beginnings of the ‘picturesque’ school in Delhi asociated with Ghulam ‘Ali Khan and his circle, but Sita Ram’s own picturesque style, the culmination of the Murshidabad style with its loose, expressive brushwork, seemed to have had no followers (for Sita Ram see Losty 2015); and Kolkata painting thereafter reverted to a harder style exemplified by Shaikh Muhammad Amir and his circle.  Yet there is one artist, little known, who perhaps did work with Sita Ram and followed in his footsteps in producing picturesque topographical drawings with occasional forays into portraiture and natural history painting. This was an as yet anonymous artist who worked for Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Raleigh Gilbert (1785-1853).

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Bridge of boats across the Ganga at Kanpur and Major Gilbert’s house. By Sita Ram, 1814-15.  BL Add.Or.4747 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

As Mildred Archer remarked in 1972, Gilbert and his wife Isabella belonged to a circle which was intensely interested in drawing and painting. Gilbert began his distinguished career in India with the 15th Bengal Native Infantry in 1801. From June 1812 to May 1813 he was A.D.C. to Sir George Nugent, the Commander-in-Chief, whose wife was an avid collector of paintings by Indian artists (see Add.Or.2593, Add.Or.2600, and the great volume of Agra architectural drawings, Stowe Or. 17).  On 1 June 1814 he married Isabella Ross, whose sister Eliza in the following year married Charles D’Oyly, the skilled amateur artist and later patron of Indian artists in Patna.  The sisters were cousins of Flora Hastings, wife of Lord Hastings, the Governor-General 1813-23, who were soon to embark on their long journey up-country, for which they employed Sita Ram to make a visual record of what they saw.  In 1814 Gilbert was barrack-master at Kanpur when Hastings and his party arrived in October. Indeed Sita Ram included, so the inscription tell us, a view of the Gilberts’ house above the River Ganga when depicting the newly erected bridge of boats to enable easier communication with the encampment of the new Nawab of Awadh, Ghazi al-Din Haidar, who had just arrived on the north bank of the river, which was part of Awadhi territory.

Gilbert and his wife then would certainly have been aware of Sita Ram and his place in the household of his wife’s cousin, and possibly even then they started commissioning their own paintings. Gilbert returned to Kolkata as Commandant of the Calcutta Native Militia, while Charles D’Oyly was the Collector there 1812-21. Besides owning a number of standard sets by Kolkata artists (still in private hands when examined by Mildred Archer), the Gilbert couple’s most interesting collection documented the next stage of their life when Gilbert was Commandant of the Ramgarh Battalion based on Hazaribagh (Jarkhand) from 1822 to 1828.  From 1825 to 1827, he was also Political Agent for the South West Frontier with head-quarters at Sambalpur (Odisha).  The BL has fifteen large drawings from this period, twelve acquired in the early 1960s (Add.Or.2514-25, see Archer 1972, no. 56), while three more were acquired privately by the Archers and entered the collection later (Add.Or.3949-3951). Seven other drawings from the set were acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum (I.S. 10-1963 to I.S. 16-1963, see Archer 1992, no. 74).

The artist the Gilberts employed was trained in the Murshidabad style as practised at Kolkata, favouring the yellow and blue tonality often found in that style as opposed to the pink and brown favoured by Sita Ram. He must have been part of Sita Ram’s artistic circle in Kolkata and received the same sort of training in watercolour techniques.

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The Gilberts’ bungalow at Sambalpur on the bank of the Mahanadi. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2517 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

He had already mastered the picturesque style when he makes his first appearance and he uses the same techniques as Sita Ram, of soft, impressionistic brushwork and the tricks of aerial perspective. Unusually he sometimes employs a very low viewpoint showing off his grasp of recession, as in his view towards the Gilberts’ house in Sambalpur on the bank of the Mahanadi, and he uses the same viewpoint in his view of the fort at Sambalpur.

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The fort at Sambalpur on the banks of the Mahanadi River. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2519 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Here the artist is demonstrating his grasp of aerial perspective.  Little now seems to remain of the fort or the palace within it. The Rajas of Sambalpur, Chauhan Rajputs, had been dispossessed by the Marathas in 1797, but the captive Raja Jait Singh was restored by the British in 1817 (see O’Malley 1909 for details of this period in Sambalpur).  His young son Maharaj Sai succeeded in 1820.  The last Raja died without an heir in 1849 and the state lapsed to the government.

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The old palace in the fort at Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2521. https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Again in his view of the palace in the fort he uses a typical picturesque device, making use of a tree on the left as a repoussoir to throw the foreground into shadow.  Our artist also follows in Sita Ram’s footsteps in occasionally including his patron in his paintings.  Thus in his view of the palace above, we see Gilbert on a caparisoned elephant approaching the palace for an audience with the young raja and his advisers.

Add Or 2520
Temple of Maa Samaleswari in the fort, Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2520 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Sambalpur owes its name to Maa Samala or Samaleswari, a mother goddess of great sanctity in western Odisha and Chhatisgarh.   The temple has a square sanctum wherein the goddess resides and a vaulted arcade surrounding it for worshippers to perform pradakshina,features which are carefully depicted by our artist. Here he also includes features of village life – a cattle shelter, a little shrine with a worshipper, men working a well, and a sepoy of the Ramgarh Battalion standing guard outside a hut where other sepoys must have been stationed judging by the rifles stacked neatly outside.

Add.Or.2522
Gilbert and other British officers being entertained with a nautch by the Raja of Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2522 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

 Later in the series is a lively painting of Gilbert and his staff attending a nautch organised by the young Raja, who sits between his guests and his advisers all in European chairs. Our artist’s elongated figures like those of Sita Ram are derived of course from earlier Murshidabad painting, but in his familiarity with internal light sources in his paintings and in his treatment of the dark sky our artist comes close to Sita Ram’s work in his night scenes. 

Add Or 2525 copy
Landscape with huge banyan tree beside a river. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28. BL Add.Or.2525 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

He follows Sita Ram again in his penchant for making great trees the subject of his pictures. A great banyan tree beside a river with villagers bathing, unfortunately uninscribed, dominates another of our paintings.  It recalls in its massive and dominating bulk with small figures scurrying around beneath it Charles D’Oyly’s contemporary painting of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (Losty 1995, fig. 16) and its associated drawings done in 1824/25.  D’Oyly and his wife passed through Hazaribagh, Gilbert’s permanent station at this time, early in 1823 on their way overland to Patna (sketches in the D’Oyly album BL WD2060, Archer 1969, pp. 163-68) and must have stayed with Lady D’Oyly’s cousin Isabella, since D’Oyly drew her bungalow there. The D’Oylys would have been back again at Christmas 1824 when several drawings of the Bodh Gaya temple and its great tree were added to the album.  All in all it is very likely that our artist saw D’Oyly’s work in this field and was influenced by it.  A second great banyan tree near Surguja (Chhatisgarh) is the subject of another of his pictures (BL Add.Or.2523, Archer 1972, pl. 31), but this is more in Sita Ram’s manner and is less overwhelming. Surguja was another of the small tributary states on the borders of Orissa, Jarkhand and Chhatisgarh – the view of the palace there is in the V&A (I.S. 15-1963).

Add.Or.3949
Gilbert’s munshi and diwan working in Gilbert’s bungalow.  By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3949 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Occasional portraiture too comes within our artist’s purview, albeit less successfully, as in a double portrait of two men who appear to be his diwan and munshi, the men who looked after Gilbert’s official accounts and Persian language correspondence.  Another of his group portraits is of the Gilberts’ ayah and their table servants in red livery (BL Add.Or.2524, Archer 1972, pl. 31).

Add.Or.3950
Gilbert’s race-horse, ‘Beggar Girl’, standing on the race course at Hazaribagh. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3950 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

The natural world too could engage our artist’s attention, as in his depiction of Gilbert’s racehorse standing on the course at Hazaribagh. Like Sita Ram he is concerned with a naturalistic approach reproducing the animal’s volume and skin covering rather than anatomical details.  Gilbert was famous as a patron of the turf and could organise races anywhere he found himself posted.  It would seem certain that the walls of the Gilberts’ bungalows would have been covered with prints of famous racehorses posed against landscapes, by artists such as Stubbs and his successors, whose compositions Gilbert would have directed his artist to follow.  This is one of the earliest of the genre in Kolkata painting, and perhaps experimental, in that the right foreleg is wrongly positioned (the legs are often wrongly positioned in traditional Indian horse portraits too), a type that was later brought to perfection by Shaykh Muhammad Amir. 

Also in the BL collections are two other drawings of his racehorses which were given to James William Macnabb, son of another Ross cousin Jean Macnabb, when Gilbert was Military Member of the Supreme Council in Kolkata in 1852-53 (BL Add.Or.4305-06). On leaving Hazaribagh in 1828, he took a long leave until 1844.  When he returned to duty he was stationed in the north-west at Agra and Ferozepur and took part in both Sikh wars.  Since both these portraits of horses were done by a Kolkata artist but set against a slightly hilly landscape, he must have taken this artist up-country with him after his return to India.  He does not seem to have been based in Kolkata again until 1852.

Add.Or.3951
A pink lotus (Nelumbo nucifera/family Nelumbanaceae).  By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3951 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Our artist could also turn his hand to botanical drawings as in his pink lotus. He shows the full plant including stem and root, with close-ups of leaf, flower, fruit and seed of a particularly fine specimen, but like Sita Ram before him he was more interested in endowing the flower and leaf with shade than with the niceties of botanical requirements. His drawing of a maize plant somewhat similarly arranged, showing the full plant with details of leaf, flower and cob, is in the V&A (I.S. 16-1963).

As so often with Indian artists, whether working under Indian or British patronage, we have no documentation to help with the identification of Gilbert’s artist, and his name never appears on any of his works. It seems likely that he was a junior colleague of Sita Ram venturing down the same ‘picturesque’ path, but Sita Ram was a special case whose extraordinary talent accorded him special treatment and recognition; but we still do not know where he was trained before he appears with the Hastings in 1814 and what happened to him after they had both left India by 1823.  The ‘Gilbert artist’ is even more anonymous and we only know of his existence for a tantalisingly brief glimpse from 1822 to 1828.

 

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

 

References

Archer, M., British Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1969

Archer, M., Company Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1972

Archer, M., Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1992

Losty, J.P., ‘A Career in Art: Sir Charles D’Oyly’, in Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, ed. P. Rohatgi and P. Godrej, Bombay, 1995, pp. 81-106

Losty, J.P., Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India – Lord Hastings’s Journey from Kolkata to the Punjab, 1814-15, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2015

O’Malley, L.S.S., District Gazetteers of British India – Sambalpur, Calcutta, 1909

 

11 February 2019

Javanese poetics and canto indicators: Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24)

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Today’s guest blog, highlighting one of the most important Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta which has just been digitised, is by Dr Dick van der Meij from Hamburg University's DREAMSEA project which digitises endangered manuscripts in Southeast Asia.

Javanese texts are generally written in a non-rhyming poetic form called tembang macapat. Within each metre, verses consist of stanzas with a fixed number of lines, a fixed number of syllables per line, and a fixed vowel in the last syllable of each line. There are about 30 different metres, some of which are short and have only four lines per stanza, while others are substantially longer and have as many as ten lines per stanza. Each metre has its own name, with some used more often than others, while some are rarely encountered. [For further information on tembang macapat see Arps 1992 and Van der Meij 2017, Chapter 4 and Appendix 3.]

Most Javanese texts consist of more than one canto in any number of different metres. Canto changes are usually indicated by small intricate indicators called pepadan, which are often very beautifully illuminated in colours and gold, and thus stand out on the page, as in the illustration below from Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24).

Mss_jav_24_f046v-47r
An illuminated canto indicator, pepadan, standing out on the left-hand page, in Jaya Lengkara Wulang, Yogyakarta, 1803. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff. 46v-47r   noc

Other manuscripts do not have clear canto change indications, and the places where new cantos start are virtually invisible on the written page, and only become apparent when the canto change has been reached while reading or singing the text. Experienced singers are able to identify immediately the metre of the next canto from the use of certain key words in the final lines of the current canto, or in the first lines of the next. For instance, the name of the metre dhangdhanggula contains the word dhandhang which is a bird, and gula which means sugar. Dhandhanggula is thus indicated by words that also mean 'bird' or 'sugar', or by extension ‘sweet’, or contain the syllable dhang. A small bird or wings may even be depicted pictorially in the pepadan. However, readers should be aware that this is not a golden rule, and some scribes play tricks to confuse the singer.

Mss_jav_24_f046v-det
Detail of a pepadan with wings, and with the word manis, ‘sweet’, in the preceding line, both indicating dhandhanggula as the new metre.  British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 46v  noc

Mss_jav_27-f.50v
Jatikusuma, copied in Yogyakarta, 1766. A little bird is put in the pepadan to indicate that the metre that follows is dhandhanggula, while the words gula drawa before the pepadan mean ‘melted sugar’ and thus also point to the same metre. British Library, MSS Jav 27, f. 50v  noc

In Javanese poetic theory, each metre evokes a certain emotion, and are thus used for parts of text that suggest that particular state of mind. Below, we will have a look at how some of these canto changes have been indicated in MSS Jav 24 in the British Library. The text is a story called Jaya Lengkara Wulang, and the book was written in 1803 at the palace of Yogyakarta in central Java.  The text has 434 pages and consists of no fewer than 92 cantos. It has beautifully ornamented opening pages and also other illuminations that enhance the beauty of the manuscript. Interestingly, in this manuscript, with one exception, these ornaments all coincide with canto changes in the text.

Mss_jav_24_ff002v-003r
Opening pages of Jaya Lengkara Wulang; at the start of the text on the left-hand page the metre is clearly stated to be Dhandhanggula. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff. 2v-3r  noc

The manuscript has 25 illuminated pages, of which four have been left unfinished. On two other pages, space was left empty to allow for illuminations to be added, but these were evidently never made for one reason or another. Thus although the text seems to be complete, the manuscript itself is unfinished. All punctuation marks in the text have red signs above them up to folio 168r (except for f. 57v) after which the addition of these marks is discontinued, and the pepadan are coloured only in yellow or not at all. Also, no gold leaf was applied after this page.

The scribe of the manuscript and the illuminator were probably not the same person but worked closely together. Remarkably, elaborate illumination at the top of a page always coincides with the start of a new canto. This means that the scribe knew exactly how many cantos a page could contain, and worked to ensure that the final canto always ended precisely at the end of the last line of the page. Folios 30v and 31r have full-page illuminations reminiscent of those at the start of the manuscript, but in this case the new canto starts at the end of the text within the illuminated frames, rather than at the beginning.

Mss_jav_24_ff030v-031r
The second set of full page illuminations. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff. 30v-31r  noc

The relation between the illuminations that start cantos is not easy to establish. Often the illuminated elements actually illustrate the start of a new episode in the text, but for outsiders and people not truly versed in Javanese texts and illuminative iconography this is often very hard to understand. In some cases the symbolism is quite clear, for instance, the lion and the crocodile in the illuminated panel shown below may suggest the names of the kings of Pringgabaya and Singasari, as baya points to a crocodile and singa a lion.

Mss_jav_24_f129r  Mss_jav_24_f129v
 On f. 129r, shown on the left, the text in metre durma ends at the end of the page. On the next page, f. 129v, the new metre kinanthi is the first word in the illuminated panel. Note the red marks above the punctuation signs. British Library, MSS Jav 34, f. 129r and f. 129v  noc

Because of the characters of the various metres we can sometimes decide what the relationship between the illuminated pepadan and the text is, although I believe that these characters are not fixed. For instance, the metre durma is used, among others, for scenes of war but in my view pangkur can also be used for this. Thus the word ‘dur’ indicative of durma in manuscripts is sometimes used for pangkur too. In this manuscript of Jaya Lengkara Wulang, the fiery character of both durma and pangkur is indicated by the same elaborate illustrations of war equipment like cannon and flags, as in folio 139v below where a canto in durma starts.

Mss_jav_24_f139r
Battle standards and guns indicating the metre durma. British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 139r  noc

However, in the next illustration the canto starts with the metre pangkur but the illustration is very similar to the one above.

Mss_jav_24_f057v
The text starts in the metre pangkur, suggested by the war-like assemblage. Note the absence of red marks above the punctuation signs. British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 57v   noc

Some idea of the production process of the manuscript can perhaps be deduced from the fact that the text is finished but the illuminations are not. Occasionally the change in canto between one page and the next is not accompanied by any illumination, and the pepadan is divided in two, with one half on the first page and the other on the next. In the half of the pepadan at the bottom of folio 167v colour was added but the second part on the next folio not, and also not in pepadan after this page. Apparently, the scribe wrote the text and probably also made the black and white pepadan, while someone else applied the colours and the gold leaf to the pepadan and was responsible for the illuminated panels. One might even wonder if a third person was involved for the illuminations, but at present we have no way of knowing. Perhaps the artist who made the illuminations and the scribe worked closely together to decide what the illuminations should look like and where they should be put but this too is conjecture. We need to study many more illuminated and illustrated Javanese manuscripts in order to work out how they were actually produced.

Mss_jav_24_f167v-det    Mss_jav_24_f168r-det
The first half of the pepadan at the bottom of f. 167v marking the new canto is illuminated with gold and colours, while at the top of the next page, the only colour added to the second half of the pepadan is yellow (indicating elements to be gilded with gold leaf). British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 167v and f. 168r  noc

References
Arps, Ben (1992). Tembang in two traditions: performance and interpretation of Javanese literature. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
Ricklefs, M.C., P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop (2014). Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain. A catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: École Française d’Extrême Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia.
Van der Meij, Dick (2017). Indonesian manuscripts from the islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill.

Dick van der Meij, Hamburg  ccownwork

23 December 2018

Christmas at Lahore, 1597

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Based at the Portuguese settlement at Goa, the Jesuits would be the earliest Europeans to visit the Mughal court at Fatehpur Sikri in the late sixteenth century. Receiving an invitation from the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1608), they made three visits to the court from 1580-95. The agenda of the three missions was to indoctrinate the Mughals to Christianity. During the third mission to the court at Lahore, Father Jerome Xavier (1549–1617) collaborated with the Mughal court writer Abd al- Sattar ibn Qasim Lahori (fl. 1590–1615) to prepare a Persian text based on the Old and New Testaments known as the Mirʼāt al-Quds (‘Mirror of Holiness’). This text was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602. Father Xavier presented a copy of the text to both Emperor Akbar and his son Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir). Although the proselytization was not very successful, there was a clear impact on local artists. With both Akbar and Salim establishing rivaling artistic studios at Agra and Allahabad respectively, they would commission their artists to produce illustrations to accompany their individual copies of the Mirʼāt al-Quds.

In terms of the illustrated version of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, Jéronimo Nadal’s Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1593) has been identified as the primary source of Biblical imagery that was either directly copied or adapted for their scenes on the life of Christ (Carvalho 2012, pp. 49-62). What remains of Akbar’s copy, as confirmed by the presence of his seal that signifies imperial ownership and patronage, is in the Lahore Museum (Stronge 2002, p. 105). (Carvalho debates and does not corroborate this information.) The remnants includes only ten rather damaged folios with illustrations. According to the art historian Susan Stronge, Prince Salim desired a far superior illustrated version and ordered his artists to execute double the number of pictures for his volume (Stronge 2002, p. 105). The surviving part of Salim’s commission consists of 160 pages of text and 24 illustrations; this manuscript is held in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Cleveland Mirat al quds
The Adoration of the Magi from Mirʼāt al-Quds, Allahabad, India, c. 1602-04. Cleveland Museum of Art, CCO.

The British Library’s collection includes an un-illustrated manuscript of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, that was copied and dated 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 August 1618) which falls into Jahangir’s reign (r. 1605-27).

Mirat
Jerome Xavier’s Mirʼāt al-Quds, copied on 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 Aug 1618). Xavier’s translation was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602 with assistance from Mawlavi ʻAbd al-Sattār ibn Qāsim of Lahore, British Library, Harley 5455  noc

As Father Jerome Xavier arrived in Lahore in 1595 and remained at court until 1615, his letters document his perceptions of life at the Mughal court and in particular, how the Mughals celebrated Christmas at Lahore in 1597. Father Xavier, reporting from Lahore to the Provincial in Goa in 1598, Xavier wrote (Maclagan, pp. 72-3):

At Christmas [1597] our brother Bendict de Goes prepared a manger and cradle as exquisite as those of Goa itself, which heathens and Muhammadans, as well as Christians, thronged to see. In the evening masses were said with great ceremony, and a pastoral dialogue on the subject of the Nativity was enacted by some youths in the Persian tongue, with some Hindūstānī proverbs interspersed (adjunctis aliquot Industani sententiis).… At the conclusion of the sacred office, the gates were opened to all…. Such was the crowd of spectators in those days that the cradle was kept open till the 8th day after Epiphany the fame of the spectacle spread through the town and brought even outsiders to see the sight.

In another letter, Xavier describes some of the decorations they used at the Christmas crib (Bailey, p. 32, quoting from British Library Add. 9854, f. 164b):

…a [mechanical] ape which squirted water from its eyes and mouth, and above it a bird which sang mysteriously...and a globe of the world supported on the backs of two elephants...and above this a large portrait of the King [Jahangir] which he sent us when he was a prince. . .and next to this figure was placed a large mirror at the front of the crib. . .[At the gates] were the Angel, i.e. Gabriel, with many angels, who were accompanied by placards proclaiming ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ or ‘Nolite Timere’ in Persian. Around the Holy Infant in the crib were some sayings of the Prophets who pretold the coming of God into the World.

Although there are no paintings of the Christmas celebrations at the Mughal court that have been documented, nor are there any individual illustrations or detached folios to the Mirʼāt al-Quds in the British Library's collection, there are a number of drawings that document the experimentation with Christian iconography by Mughal artists. This genre of painting would become popular by the early seventeenth century during Jahangir’s reign. Artists were appropriating imagery from European engravings as well as received information from the Jesuit priests on how to convert the cross-hatching of engravings into wash in preparing their nim-qalam drawings (Losty and Roy 2012, 119). Below is an example of an engraving of the Virgin and Child that was pasted into a Mughal album page and compiled into an album for Prince Dara Shikoh and another showing a nim-qalam drawing of the Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess.

Add Or 3129
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century in a Mughal album page, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v  noc

J.14 4_Cropped
Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess, Mughal school, c. 1605-10. British Library, Johnson Album 14,4.  noc

Further reading:

Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “The Lahore Mirʼāt al-Quds and the Impact of Jesuit Theater on Mughal Painting,” South Asian Studies 13 (1997), pp. 95-108

Pedro de Moura Carvalho and Wheeler M. Thackston, Mirʼāt al-quds (Mirror of Holiness): a Life of Christ for Emperor Akbar: a Commentary on Father Jerome Xavier's Text and the Miniatures of Cleveland Museum of Art, Acc. no. 2005.145; edited and translated by W. M. Thackston. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012

J.P. Losty., 'Further Deccani and Mughal drawings of Christian subjects', Asian and African Studies Blog, 16 November 2015.

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012

E. D. Maclagan,  “The Jesuit Missions to the Emperor Akbar”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 65, part 1 (1896), pp. 38-113

S. Stronge, Paintings for the Mughal Emperor, Victoria and Albert Museum Publications, London, 2002.

 

By Malini Roy and Ursula Sims-Williams

12 December 2018

Bombay satire: Rudolf von Leyden's political cartoons in India in the 1930s and 40s

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This guest blog post is by Mollie Arbuthnot, the Visual Arts section's doctoral placement. Her project focuses on political cartoons during the early 20th century.

 

It's not easy being a satirist. Rudolf von Leyden (1908-1983), a German-born cartoonist who lived most of his life in Bombay, is the main figure in this cartoon self-portrait.

IMG_1909
'Denley in search of happiness' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1946. British Library, P2349(146). Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 24 March 1946. 

Surrounded by discarded drafts and piles of newspapers with depressing and terrifying headlines, he desperately searches for inspiration. Meanwhile his editor pokes his head round the door demanding "something really funny this week."

This is just one of a collection of von Leyden's satirical cartoons at the British Library. They were made in the 1930s and 40s, and the library has both original drawings (WD4491) and a set of the cartoons (P2349) as they were published in Bombay newspapers at the time.

The cartoon series in The Illustrated Weekly of India ran from the mid-30s to the late 40s, a tumultuous time in Indian and world history. Both von Leyden's personal life and the cartoons themselves give a fascinating insight into this period.

Life and times of Rudolf von Leyden

It’s not entirely clear why von Leyden moved to India in 1933. He was born in 1908 in Berlin to a middle-class family, the younger of two sons, and lived in Germany throughout his youth. Of course, as a man of Jewish descent and with leftist political interests, it would have been dangerous for him to have stayed in the country for long after the rise of Nazism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that that was his main motivation for choosing India, or that he was fleeing persecution at the time that he left.

Rudolf’s elder brother, Albrecht, had been living and working in Bombay since 1927. Rudolf had just finished his studies (he received his PhD in geology from the University of Göttingen in 1932) and was looking to embark on his own career. Perhaps it just seemed an opportune moment to start a new adventure. Whatever the reasons, Rudolf arrived in Bombay in 1933.

He swiftly left geology behind, and began working in publicity a textiles firm, but also soon showed his interest in visual art. He set up the Leyden Commercial Art Studio, produced watercolour scenes on his travels around India, and began working on his series of political cartoons.

He was a central figure in the art scene in Bombay, working as the main art critic of The Times of India, collecting Indian artworks from various periods, organising exhibitions, and actively promoting young, contemporary artists. He was a contributing editor of the leading art review MARG from 1946 and served as an adviser for the acquisitions and art commissions of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which owned one of the most important collections of post-independence Indian art.[1]

He also became a collector of, and later an authority on, antique board games and Indian playing cards. It was, however, as an art critic that he was probably best known in his lifetime.

Von Leyden was clearly a man of great energy and full of enthusiasm for his new life in India. Krishen Khanna, one of the artists who had been supported by von Leyden as a young man, reminisced: ‘[His] wanderlust was something everybody knew about. [He] thought nothing of going to the most inaccessible of places to see an old sculpture or a disused and ruined temple. Sleeping under an open sky and eating what the local population would provide with relish. […] [He] seemed to take it all so blithely. “While Lolly and I were trekking in Kashmir, we spent a day climbing Hara Kukh” as if that was some little hillock on [their] way. So when I expressed my surprise at [his] prowess for climbing, [he] came out with a long list of places which [he] said [he] had to traverse as a part of [his] doctorate in geology. My goodness, I’d always thought [he] had a doctorate in art history.’[2]

Wartime tensions

The position of a German national in British India was somewhat precarious, even before the outbreak of the war. Many were arrested as enemy aliens from 1939. Von Leyden had managed to acquire a British passport by that time, and used his contacts to help other German-speaking emigres to navigate the British authorities.

One fellow cartoonist, Walter Langhammer, and his wife Käthe were rescued from exile and arrest when von Leyden sent Langhammer’s cartoons to several influential people in Bombay, to prove his political disposition and loyalty to the British government. It worked, and both Walter and Käthe were able to return to Bombay, where Käthe worked as a censor for the British Army for the remainder of the war.[3]

It seems that von Leyden himself may have been able to use his own cartoons and position at The Times of India to protect himself from suspicion in a similar way.

All of von Leyden’s own cartoons were signed with the pseudonym ‘Denley,’ and were vehemently anti-German during the war. The gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy, a personal friend of von Leyden’s, attributed his use of a pseudonym to modesty. [4] But, the specific choice of the very English-sounding Denley must have been partially motivated by the desire to fit in at the Times and to distance his cartoons from his German roots. (Denley is, of course, also an anagram of Leyden.)

This all goes to highlight von Leyden’s unusual position, straddling several worlds: he was a European in a colonial space, but nonetheless with an ambivalent relationship to British colonial powers due to his German roots; a political émigré, part of a small but significant community of European Jews in cosmopolitan Bombay during the war; and a man deeply interested and invested in Indian culture and especially the flowering of Indian contemporary art.

The cartoons

His cartoons are characteristic for their freshness and sense of urgency, which is especially evident in the artist proofs. You can imagine von Leyden finishing his latest effort and cycling pell-mell across Bombay (as he apparently often did to get his work to the newspaper office in time to go to press) with the ink still wet.

They all share a signature style, featuring a bold black outline, minimal colouration, and a gentle political wit that poked fun at local government as well as heads of state, military leaders, and the ‘resident foreigner’ in India, including himself.

During the war years, the cartoons were jingoistically anti-German, albeit with an irreverent eye on international affairs. One example is captioned ‘Moscow Ballet’ and features Anthony Eden, Viacheslav Molotov, and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull as three ballerinas performing for their allied leaders (you can make out Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt in the front row), while a disgruntled Hitler turns to Goebbels, saying: “I thought you told me they could not keep in step…?”

Leyden 2
'Moscow ballet' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1943. Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 14 November 1943. British Library, P2349(37) 

This fragile corps de ballet didn’t last long, of course, and von Leyden’s post-war cartoons show the beginnings of Cold War tensions. One casts Stalin in the role of Zeus, depicted as a huge moustached bull, carrying Europa off eastwards on his back (to the despair of the other Grecian maidens, Truman, Atlee, and de Gaulle).

Another major theme from this period was Indian independence. Von Leyden was unsparing in his depictions of the divides in Indian society, with several images focussing on the conflicts and unwillingness to compromise between different groups.

A 1946 cartoon shows ‘The House of India’s Freedom’ precariously balanced on scaffolding as construction work grinds to a halt, the two builders, Hindu and Muslim, refusing to speak to one another, and the solid foundation stones of unity, compromise, and goodwill languishing unused. Another pokes fun at the state bureaucracy, depicting politicians feverishly drafting plans and proposals by candlelight, as a larger-than-life Clive of India muses: ‘Fancy having so much trouble giving it back…’

IMG_1912

'The freedom of India' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1946. Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 2 June 1946. British Library, P2349(166) 

 In the family

In the late 30s, von Leyden’s parents also moved to Bombay to join their two sons, fleeing the worsening situation in Nazi Germany. It turns out that this was a whole family of amateur artists.

After the war, in 1948, the four of them held a joint charity exhibition. Their father exhibited his sculptures, their mother watercolours, Albrecht, who was apparently the best painter of the lot, showed oil paintings and Rudolf sent his cartoons.

The Times carried an exhibition review, which claimed:

‘All four of the Leydens are amateurs. In Bombay one has become so accustomed to seeing professionals putting on shows of amateurish merit that it is refreshing to come across a family of amateurs presenting an exhibition of professional standard’.[5]

On Rudolf’s cartoons, and making reference to his fame as an art critic, the reviewer wrote:

‘Of the many inherent injustices of life in our civilisation some of the most galling are that pupils cannot give marks to their teachers, that motorists cannot summon the traffic constable, and that artists do not get a chance to criticise the art critic. Once in a lifetime there comes this chance but – alas – paradoxically, the victim at hand is not the sort of fellow one would relish running down.

R.V. Leyden’s cartoons are outstanding for their political wit. In the execution of the actual drawings he works so hard to overcome his lack of training that, in the end, most of his cartoons are better drawn than the average “professionals”.’[6]

 

By Mollie Arbuthnot, doctoral candidate at University of Manchester, department of Russian and East European Studies. She is currently at the British Library as a doctoral placement in autumn 2018.

 

 

[1] Devika Singh, ‘German-speaking exiles and the writing of Indian art history’ in Journal of Art Historiography no.17 (December 2017), https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/singh.pdf, accessed 5/11/2018, p.15.

[2] Krishen Khanna, ‘To Rudolf von Leyden: A Letter out of Season’ in Anil Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt eds. Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945 (New Delhi: Max Mueller Bhavan, 1999), pp.186-189 (p.188).

[3] Margit Franz, ‘Transnationale & transkulturelle Ansätze in der Exilforschung am Beispiel der Erforschung einer kunstpolitischen Biographie von Walter Langhammer,’ in Margit Franz et al. Mapping Contemporary History: Zeitgeschichten im Diskurs (Vienna, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2008), p.251.

[4] Kekoo Gandhy, ‘Some Personal Reminiscences of Rudi von Leyden,’ in Rudolf von Leyden: Cartoons (exhibition catalogue), p.3.

[5] ‘Leyden Family’s Art Works: Bombay Exhibition’ in The Times of India, 22 May 1948, p.9.

[6] Ibid.