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256 posts categorized "Art"

30 October 2023

Joseph Gaye (1852-1926) photographic views of the Kathmandu Valley and India donated to the British Library

This blog post is written by Susan Harris, our Cataloguer of Photographs, working on the British Library’s Unlocking Hidden Collections project. This initiative aims to process, research and catalogue the Library’s hidden collections, making them more accessible to researchers and the public.

In May 2023, the descendants of amateur photographer Joseph Gaye (1852-1926) donated a collection of photographic material of his views of the Kathmandu Valley and India taken between 1888 and 1899 to the British Library. Joseph's descendant Mary-Margaret Gaye and her husband Doug Halverson spent many years researching Joseph's career in South Asia and identification of his views. We are most grateful to Mary-Margaret and Doug for making this collection available for researchers documenting the transformation of Kathmandu before the earthquake of 1934. Their publication is listed in the bibliography below.

Joseph Gaye was born in Northfleet, Kent, in 1852. At 18, he enlisted with the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade and went to India as a rifleman in 1873. Gaye left the army after completing his 12-year enlistment term in 1882 to lead several Indian military bands. In 1888, he, with his wife, Mary Elizabeth Short, moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he served as bandmaster to the Royal Nepalese Army under Maharaja Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. In 1892, he became a bandmaster in turn to three viceroys of India (Marquess of Lansdowne, Earl of Elgin, and Lord Curzon of Kedleston) before returning to England in 1899. In 1905, Gaye and his four sons moved to Canada, where he died in 1926 in Lemberg, Canada. From 1888 to 1899, he produced photographs of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, Burma and India; these were among his possessions, along with a large studio camera, at the time of his death.

The Joseph Gaye collection is an exciting addition to the British Library, containing 91 glass negatives, five cellulose negatives and 32 albumen prints, primarily of the Kathmandu Valley, with a few from India. The subjects vary from architecture and landscapes to street scenes and people, including portraits of his family. Gaye’s photographs provided a unique insight at a time when few foreigners were allowed into Nepal.

Here are a few highlights from the collection of Nepal’s architectural monuments, some that remain today and others that have disappeared due to natural disasters or urban development:

A crowd of curious onlookers gathered before a building on the southwest corner of the Hanuman Dhoka Darbar complex in Kathmandu Durbar Square (fig.1). The building, from 1847, was the original Gaddhi Baithak, a palace used for coronations and for meeting foreign heads of state. It was in the Newar style with influences from the Mughal architecture of northern India. A western façade, as seen in the photograph, was probably added later. Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana (1863-1929) of Nepal,  replaced it in 1908 with the neo-classical building that exists today.

A crowd in front of the western facade of the original Gaddhi Baithak
Fig.1. A crowd in front of the western facade of the original Gaddhi Baithak, Basantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Taken by Joseph Gaye, 1888-1892. Albumen Print, 155 x 105 mm. British Library, Photo 1424/3(17).

Patan Durbar Square, in the city of Lalitpur, is one of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley; it has been through two significant earthquakes in 1934 and 2015. Gaye capture the square before these earthquakes, looking south, towards a crowd of observers and a line of temples and statues (fig.2). John Alexander Dunn, an Officer of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), also took a photograph (fig.3) of the square, looking north, after the 1934 earthquake. The only recognizable landmarks still standing are the statue of Garuda, the Krishna Mandir and the Vishwanath Temple with the elephants in front.

View of the Patan Durbar Square, Lalitpur, looking south
Fig.2. View of the Patan Durbar Square, Lalitpur, looking south. From the left: Krisnhna Mandir Temple (Chayasim Deval), the Taleju Bell, the Harishankar Temple, King Yoga Narendra Malla’s Column, Narasimha Temple, Vishnu Temple, Char Narayan Temple, Garuda statue, the Krishna Mandir and the Vishvanath Temple. Taken by Joseph Gaye, 1888-1892. Albumen Print, 155 x 105 mm. British Library, Photo 1424/3(8).

Darbar Square, Patan, Nepal [after the 1934 earthquake].
Fig.3. Darbar Square, Patan, Nepal [after the 1934 earthquake]. Taken by J.A. Dunn, January 1934. Albumen Print, 83 x 111 mm. British Library, Photo 899/2(4).

Gaye captured a winding pathway on the eastern flank, leading up to Swayambhu, an ancient religious site of temples and shrines at the top of a hill in the Kathmandu Valley (fig.4). The photograph shows a pair of Buddha statues marking the beginning of the path, with small chaityas, or shrines, dotted along the route. A photograph (EAP838/1/1/5/154) taken approximately 30 years later from the Chitrakar collection by Dirgha Man and Ganesh Man Chitraker shows a stairway with refurbished Buddhas and chaityas at the entrance that has replaced the pathway. 

Steps up to Temples [Swayambhu Stupa, Kathmandu Valley]
Fig.4. Steps up to Temples [Swayambhu Stupa, Kathmandu Valley]. Taken by Joseph Gaye, 1888-1892. Dry Plate Negative. British Library, Photo 1424/1(67).

 

Further reading:

British Library’s The Endangered Archives Programme

Gaye, Mary Margaret and Halverson, Doug, The Photography of Joseph Gaye: Nepal, India and Burma 1888-1899, (privately printed) Canada: Mary Margaret Gaye and Doug Halverson, 2023

Onta, Pratyoush. ‘A Suggestive History of the First Century of Photographic Consumption in Kathmandu’, Studies in Nepali History and Society, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1998), pp.181-212

Slusser, Mary Shepherd, Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley, Volume 1 Text, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982

Weise, Kai, ‘An outlook of Gaddhi Baithak’, The Himalayan Times, 2 April 2016 

 

By Susan M. Harris CCBY Image

15 May 2023

Animals in William Marsden’s The History of Sumatra

When first published in 1783, The History of Sumatra by William Marsden represented the first systematic account of the island of Sumatra published in English or any other European language. The History (henceforth) was highly praised by contemporary scholars and writers and secured Marsden’s reputation as an author, linguist and collector, a reputation that continues to the present day.

Born in 1754 in County Wicklow, Ireland, Marsden was raised in a moderately wealthy family and at the age of 16 joined his elder brother in the service of the English East India Company (EIC henceforth) at Fort Marlborough, now Benkulu, in western Sumatra, Indonesia, as a writer. Marsden remained in Sumatra for 8 years, rising to the rank of Principle Secretary to the EIC Government but resigned from his post aged 24 and returned to London in December 1780, where he pursued a career as an author scholar and later as the First Secretary to the Admiralty (1804-1807).

During his time in Sumatra however, Marsden not only fulfilled his role for the EIC but became an avid collector and documented of the island’s languages, fauna and flora – all of which came to underpin the contents of the History with its chapters of ‘beasts’, ‘vegetables’, ‘medicinal shrubs’, ‘gold, tin and other metals’ and ‘languages’ to name just a few.  

The success of the 1783 first edition was such that a second edition quickly followed in 1784, at the same time in which Marsden was firmly establishing himself in London’s networks of science and learning, following his appointment as a fellow of the Royal Society (1783) and the Society of Antiquaries (1785). Marsden continued to write and publish following the second edition of the History, including a Dictionary and Grammar of the Malayan Language (both 1812), a translation of The Travels of Marco Polo (1818) and Numismata Orientalia Illustrata (1823-5) one of the most influential early publications on Asian coinage produced in Britain and Europe. These works illustrated the broad range of subjects - from linguistics to coins to travel accounts that interested Marsden following his return from Sumatra. The History was also translated into German (1785) and French (1788) however Marsden was keen to prepare a new edition of the History, updated with new information and illustrations acquired from his friends and connections still in Sumatra. It would be this updated version, the third edition of 1811 with an additional 100 pages of text and 19 plates containing 27 engraved illustrations of the plants, animals, people, tools and landscapes of Sumatra. Of the 27 illustrations, twelve record different animals found in Sumatra that are described in the main text of the History. What is interesting is that all but one of the illustrations of animals in the History were based on watercolour paintings and pen and ink studies now held in the Visual Art collections of the British Library.

These original works include a study of a Sunda or Malayan pangolin, shown standing in profile on an outcrop of rock, with its coat of scales clearly delineated. This watercolour with pen and ink sketch was used as the basis for plate 10 of the History, and although the original painting is not signed, according to the engraving, the work was made by ‘W. Bell’ believed to have been Dr William Bell, a Company surgeon based in Sumatra in 1792.

Pangolin combined 1
Plate 10 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a Sunda pangolin and the original watercolour with pen and ink sketch, NHD1/16, 1784-1808

The original paintings for other works labelled as being the work of ‘W. Bell’ in the History are also found in the Library’s collection of natural history drawings, including pen and ink studies of the skull of a serow, a mammal similar to a goat or antelope and a muntjac skull, also known as barking deer.

Skulls combined 1
Plate 13 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skull of a ‘Kambin-utan and a Kijang’ alongside the original ink drawings; above NHD1/11; Below NHD1/10, 1784-1808

The details of bone, horns, fractures and teeth of both of these sketches has been carefully copied onto a single plate by the Flemish engraver Anthony Cardon (1772-1813) who engraved all of the animal illustrations in the History.

Whilst the work of ‘W. Bell’ is used for 6 of the animal illustrations in the History, a second artist’s work is also included. This artist is unnamed by Marsden in the History, their work simply signed ‘Sinensis del.’ indicating that the work was the creation of an artist from China. This includes a rather stunning double page engraving of a flying lemur hanging from the branch of a langsat tree, holding an infant on its body whilst two giant squirrels sit and climb on the other end of the branch eating the fruit of the tree.

The original painting for these engraving has at some point become divided into two pages – with the squirrels on one page and the lemur and young on another. However the tip of one of the squirrel’s tails continuing across onto the second page indicates that at one point these two separate pages were once joined or at least were meant to be viewed together as shown in the engraved illustration. The original painting is faithfully reproduced in reverse in the engraving, including the botanical details of the interior of the langsat fruit shown in the lower right of the page.

Lemur and Squirrels image 1
Plate 9 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a flying lemur hanging from a branch with two giant squirrels other the other end, alongside the original watercolour paintings; left NHD2/285; right NHD1/18, 1784-1808

Other works by a Chinese artist include a detailed study of a long tailed porcupine and a pair of greater mousedeer (also known as greater chevrotain) that are both painted without any background or surrounding details. Nonspecific landscapes have however been added to the engraved plates in a style similar to those included in the original works by ‘W. Bell’.

Porcupine combined 1
Plate 13 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a long tailed porcupine, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/17, 1784-1808

Tiny deer combined 1
Plate 12 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a greater mouse deer, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/18, 1784-1808

 A hand written pencil note on the painting of the greater mouse-deer indicates the small scale of these animals and states that they should not be shown too large on the resulting plate to ensure this diminutive nature is accurately reflected in the published work.

The majority of the animal illustrated in the History show mammals, however there is one image of a reptile – a study of a common flying dragon which is also stated to be the work of a Chinese artist in the History although no signature is found on the delicate watercolour on which this engraving was based. The original watercolour shows a dorsal and ventral view of the reptile, highlighting the different colouration on the top and bottom of the common flying dragon as well as the outspread skin that allows the lizard to glide through the air.

Flying Dragon combined 1
Plate 10 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a ventral and dorsal view of a common flying dragon alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/26, 1784-1808

A third artist, Eudelin de Jonville, is also referenced in the History’s illustrative animal plates. Although little is known about de Jonville, EIC records show that he worked as a cinnamon surveyor in Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, between 1798 and 1800 when he travelled with Major-General MacDowall to the Court of Kandy, where he remained until around 1805. The one work by de Jonville in the History is a set of four studies of the beaks of different species of hornbill – two illustrating the great pied hornbill, one of a Malabar pied hornbill and finally one image of a rhinoceros hornbill. As with the previously mentioned engravings, the original pencil sketches of these studies is in the Visual Arts natural history collections,  each with a scale in inches added to illustration to provide the accurate measurement of each species.  Although also unsigned the original pencil sketches is accompanied by a letter written in French by de Jonville to Marsden describing the hornbill of Sri Lanka, strengthening the attribution of this work to the artistry of de Jonville.

Hornbills combined 1
Plate 15 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skulls of three species of hornbill alongside the pencil sketches, NHD1/5, 1784-1808

The original paintings described above are all part of a larger collection of natural history studies collected by Marsden following his return from Sumatra in 1780. These include watercolour and pen and ink studies of fish, shells, a buffalo and several birds alongside the animals discussed above. In total 35 paintings acquired by Marsden are now in the Visual Art collections following their donation by Marsden’s widow to the EIC library after his death in 1836. The collections of the EIC library and that of the India Office Library have subsequently been transferred to the British Library, where they are now available to view in the Library’s reading rooms.

By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts CuratorCcownwork

 

Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, 1962.

John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra (1685-1825): a selection of documents, mainly from the East India Company records preserved in the India Office Library, Commonwealth Relations Office, London., Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965

Diana J. Carroll, "William Marsden, The Scholar Behind The History of Sumatra." Indonesia and the Malay World 47 (2019): 66-89.

William Marsden, The History of Sumatra: Containing an Account of the Government, Laws, Customs, and Manners of the Native Inhabitants, with a Description of the Natural Productions, and a Relation of the Ancient Political State of That Island. By William Marsden,... The Third Edition, with Corrections, Additions, and Plates. ed. 1811.

William Marsden, with introduction by John Bastin, The history of Sumatra, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986

Annabel Teh Gallop, Early Views of Indonesia: Drawings from the British Library, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

24 April 2023

Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Animals amaze, fascinate and delight us!

In the British Library's new exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound (21 April - 29 August 2023)  you can see how documenting the animals world has resulted in some of humankind's most awe-inspiring art, science and sound recordings. It can take years of research to unlock the secrets of a single species. Did you know that the first photograph of a live giant squid was published in 2005? That bats were first described as birds, and sharks referred to as dogs.

From an Ancient Greek papyrus detailing the mating habits of dogs to the earliest photographs of Antarctic animals and the mournful song of the last living Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, recorded in 1983 and declared extinct in 2000, this is the first major exhibition to explore the different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded.

The exhibition is arranged into four distinctive environments and visitors will journey through darkness, water, land and air - to encounter striking artworks, handwritten manuscripts, sound recording and printed publications that speak to contemporary debates around discovery, knowledge, conservation, climate change and extinction. Each zone also includes a bespoke, atmospheric soundscape created using recordings from the Library's sound archive.

Some of the highlights includes: 
Painting of a bat
An illustration of a fruit bat, painted at Barrackpore, India. 1804-7, British Library, NHD3/517.

Pierre Belon De aquatilibus Of aquatic species Paris 1553 446a6
An image of a 'monkfish' from Pierre Belon's De aquatilibus (Of aquatic species), Paris, 1553. British Library, 446.a.6. 

Ab Muammad Amad ibn Atq alAzd Kitb albayarah Book on veterinary medicine 1223 Or 1523 ff 62v63r
Illustration of the defects of a horse from Kitab al-baytarah (Book on Veterinary Medicine) by Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atiq al-Azdi, 13th century. British Library, Or 1523, ff. 62v-63r.

105cm record of The Hippopotamus by Talking Book Corporation
An education record for children: The Hip-po-pot-a-mus. Talking Book Corporation, 1918-29. British Library, 9CS0029512.

Animals  Art Science and Sound at the British Library 7
A section of the Chuju zui (Illustrations of Animals and Insects) showing dragonflies and moths, Japan, 1851. British Library, Or 1312. 

There is a season of in-person and online events inspired by the exhibition, such asa Late at the Library with musician, composer and producer Cosmo Sheldrake hosted by musician, author and broadcaster Cerys Matthews and Animal Magic: A Night of Wild Enchantment where five speakers, including wildlife cameraman, ornithologist and Strictly Come Dancing winner Hamza Yassin and birder, environmentalist and diversity activist, Mya-Rose Craig, each have 15 minutes to tell a story. A selection of these works are included in an outdoor exhibitionaround Kings Cross.

A richly illustrated publication written by exhibition curators Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones and Cheryl Tipp can be purchased through the British Library's shop. The publication is supplemented with interactive QR technology allows readers to listen to sound recordings.

The exhibition is made possible with support from Getty through The Paper Project initiative and PONANT. With thanks to The American Trust for the British Library and The B.H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library. Audio soundscapes created by Greg Green with support from the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Scientific advice provided by ZSL (the Zoological Society of London). 

28 February 2023

A Panegyric from the Deccan’s Golden Age

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 and 1700 CE.

One of the gems to emerge from the early modern Deccan manuscript corpus is a sumptuously illuminated Dakhni language qasida or panegyric poem (Or. 13533). Composed by Bijapur’s poet laureate Mullah Nusrati who was associated with the court of ‘Ali Adil Shah II’s (r. 1656-1672 CE), this work is dedicated to the Golconda Qutb Shahi, Sultan ‘Abdullah Qutb Shah (r. 1626-1672).

Qasidah opening f4r Qasidah opening f3v
The opening lines of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 ff. 3v. and 4r).
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Although the text does not provide the reason for this poem’s creation, scholars surmise that it was a royal gift bestowed to the Golconda Sultan on the occasion of his sister Sultana Khadija’s wedding to Bijapur’s Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) in 1633 (Ahmad, pp. 133-142). Continuing this Dakhni cultural legacy, the Sultana is one of the first known female patrons to commission the monumental illustrated Dakhni Khavarnamah (IO Islamic 834) completed in 1649.

Jamshid Shah with his consort and followers  IO Islamic 834  f. 70v
Jamshid Shah with his consort and followers, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 70v)
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One of the premier genres of the Persianate literary cosmos (to which Bijapur and Golconda belonged), a qasida is, in essence, an encomium. Originating in Arabic literature, it was first cultivated in Persian by patrons under the Samanids (819-999) who were keen promoters of this new literary language. The genre soon became de rigeur in courts and flourished under the Ghaznavids (977-1186) during the eleventh century. One reason for its popularity in these two courts was that the poem was a paean to its patrons, predominantly newly minted rulers or nobles, who were eager to display their power and status. Additionally, this genre gained acclaim because it was beneficial for both the poet and the patron. A successful qasida sealed the poet’s relationship with a ruler and was important for social and financial success at the royal court. Furthermore, by extolling the virtues of an idealized ruler, the poem possessed a dual function. It sought to bestow immortality upon the patron and served a didactic role by guiding and encouraging the ruler to match the qualities expressed by the poet.

Apart from adulating patrons, poets composed these poems to memorialise marriages, victories, hunts, or annual feasts. The celebratory nature of the qasida meant that it was designed for performance and therefore recited in formal courtly gatherings. Not limited to Persian, this genre soon emerged in new languages across the Persianate sphere, which ultimately resulted in Nusrati’s composition of the Dakhni qasida.

In general, a single metre runs through a qasida and each hemistich terminates with the same rhyme. Yet rules for this genre, as opposed to the masnavi or the highly codified ghazal, were often not followed. In the Dakhni qasida,  Nusrati changes the rhyme scheme after a sequence of four to five couplets. 

A closer look at the manuscript reveals that no expense was spared in its creation. The gifted wordsmith Nusrati, who was a budding poet in the Bijapur court in the 1630s, was commissioned to compose the qasida. Similarly, the manuscript’s calligrapher ‘Ali ibn Naqi al-Husayni Damghani penned the encomium in elegant naskh. A Bijapuri native, ‘Ali Damghani emerged from a lineage of renowned calligraphers. His father Naqi al-Husayni was chief scribe of the calligraphic programme at Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s tomb, the Ibrahim Rauza, in Bijapur (Haider and Sarkar, p. 143).

Qasida f29r Qasida f.28v
The conclusion of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s?  (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
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This beautifully crafted manuscript commences with two dazzling shamsas or sun-shaped designs radiating from the centre of the folio. A large number of Persianate manuscripts produced for royalty opened with a shamsa, which symbolized divine light. Resembling a circular garden brimming with multi-hued floral patterns against a cream-coloured background, the identically shaped Bijapur shamsas, with slightly different colour compositions, emanate golden rays to mimic brilliant noon-day suns. The second shamsa folio also possesses some discreet writing on the top left corner signaling that this manuscript is composed of 24 folios. A blotted stain above the shamsa on folio 3r is perhaps evidence of a royal seal.

Qasidah r 3r Qasidah f 2v
Shamsas
at the beginning of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s?  (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
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Each subsequent folio (so delicate that they are currently preserved individually in glass-frames), painted in gold paint, possesses a border of vivid floral prints. Hemmed within is a rectangular box for the poetry. Although floral borders adorned deluxe Persian manuscripts, this is the first known Dakhni work where the borders of each open folio and its partner folio contain individual designs that resemble a series of golden flower strewn gardens punctuated with neat lines of exquisite calligraphy in a midnight black ink.

Qasidah f 6r Qasidah f 5v
Nusrati’s qasidah, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 f. 5v. and 6r)
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In many ways, this exquisitely illuminated manuscript signals the apogee of book arts and Dakhni literature in seventeenth-century Bijapur. Any reputed poet could have composed the qasida in Persian but the use of this local vernacular and the commissioning of Nusrati, a poet known for his mastery over Dakhni poetry, demonstrates the popularity of and pride in the indigenous language. Although slim in volume, the manuscript exudes grandeur in every bejeweled folio replete with beautiful poetry and refined penmanship. If indeed this manuscript was a wedding gift from the house of Bijapur to Golconda, it gestures towards the significance of these marital alliances. Weddings were not simply the union of couples or occasions to display a kingdom’s wealth and status. In the Deccan, such partnerships were crucial for political survival, especially in the face of looming Mughal annexation.

 

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
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Further Reading

Ahmad, Nizamuddin. Hadiqat al-Salatin. Edited by Syed Ali Asgar Bilgrami. Hyderabad: Idarah-e Adabiyat-e Urdu, 1961.
Haidar, Navina Najat and Marika Sardar. Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.
Husain, Ali Akbar. Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Deccani Urdu Literary Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Shackle, Christopher. “Settings of Panegyric: The Secular Qasida in Mughal and British India,” in Christopher Shackle and Stefan Sperl ed., Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa, vol. 1 Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.

31 October 2022

An Early Modern Khavarnamah from Bijapur

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 CE and 1700 CE.

One of the most ambitious illustrated manuscript projects of the seventeenth-century ʻAdil Shahi court of Bijapur is the British Library manuscript IO Islamic 834, the Khavarnamah (Book of the East) written in the local vernacular of Dakhni in the nastaʻliq script. Originally composed in Persian by the poet Ibn Husam and completed in 1426 CE, this epic masnavi (narrative poetry), details the heroic exploits of the Shi‘a Imam ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Firdausi’s epic Shahnamah (ca. 970-1010), various copies of the Persian Khavarnamah (usually called the Khavarannamah) were richly illustrated. In general, it was Shi‘a patrons who commissioned copies of this work across the Persianate world.

1. ‘Ali with Jamshed Shah
‘Ali with Jamshed Shah, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 75r).
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In Bijapur, Sultana Khadija (d. 1688), the wife of Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) and the daughter of Golconda’s Qutb Shahi king Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-1626) commissioned the illustrated manuscript in the Deccan in the early half of the seventeenth century. She diverged, however, from the previous manuscript tradition by commissioning the poet Kamal Khan “Rustami” to compose the work in the regional vernacular language Dakhni, a regional form of Hindavi, instead of Persian.

The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi  the Khavarnamah  Bijapur  1649 CE
The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi, the Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 1v).
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Rustami emerges as an important poet with deep connections to the Bijapur court. In the Khavarnamah’s epilogue, the poet provides a brief biography in prose where he states that he had descended from a long line of  ʻAdil Shahi courtiers and his father, Ismaʻil Khattat Khan had also served the Bijapur rulers. After assuming the pen-name of Rustami, the poet composed several ghazals (odes) and qasidahs (panegyric) in Dakhni and Persian.

One reason for the choice of vernacular in this manuscript is that by the early seventeenth century, Dakhni had become a popular literary language especially in the narrative genre of the masnavi. Moreover, previous Dakhni poets, often multilingual ones like Rustami, attempted to elevate the status of this vernacular by translating or refashioning works from the translocal Indic and Persian literary spheres. The Dakhni Khavarnamah forms part of this effort. Thus, the translation of an illustrated Shi‘a epic, evinces an endeavour to showcase Dakhni as a serious literary language and Bijapur as a major Shi‘a domain.

‘Ali with Mir Siyaf
‘Ali with Mir Siyaf, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 379v).
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Apart from the choice of language, this original source manuscript is unique for several reasons. Sultana Khadija, also known as Bari Sahib (grande dame), is the first known female patron of a Dakhni work. Apart from the commission of the Khavarnamah, two seals connected with her appear on a Kalila va Dimnah manuscript (Acc. no. 71.187), housed currently at the National Museum, New Delhi (Akhtar, p. 44 and following plate). While one is unquestionably Sultana Khadija’s seal and carries her name, the second, reading Allah Muhammad ʻAli is identical to that in the British Library Khavarnamah and is possibly another of her seals, an expression of her religious belief.

4. Khadija's seal
Possibly Khadija’s seal in the British Library Khavarnamah, reconstructed from a damaged impression on folio 2r and the reversed mirror image preserved on the facing page. Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams
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A vital player in Adil Shahi politics, Sultana Khadija was economically independent and one source of her income was the revenue she received from a coastal province, which also included a Dutch-operated factory in Vengurla (Kruijtzer, p. 231). In 1656, she assumed the position of regent for her son when her husband died. As regent, she controlled court politics and had dealings with the Dutch on India’s east coast as well as the Portuguese on the west coast. Once her regency ended in 1661, she wrote to the Dutch to undertake a trip to Mecca for Hajj and found place aboard a ship travelling west. She also embarked on a trip to visit holy Shi‘a pilgrimage sites and allegedly died in Yemen in 1688 (Kruijtzer, pp. 231-2).

A distinctive feature of this monumental manuscript (543 folios measuring 14 x 11 inches) is that it is richly illustrated with images on practically every page with some illustrations occupying the whole page. Depicted in rich and vibrant hues that are characteristic of the Deccan, these images illustrate the various adventures and heroic deeds of Hazrat ‘Ali and his companions Malik and Abu al-Mihjan.

4. ʻAli with Malik and others
 ‘Ali with Malik, Abu al-Mihjan (spelt as Maʻjan in the manuscript), Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 8r).
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An interesting observation is that ‘Ali’s face is veiled consistently throughout this manuscript although most other copies of the Khavarnamah chose not to conceal his face (f. 75 r.). This is evident from a near contemporary copy of the manuscript in Persian at the British Library (BL Add. 19766).

Furthermore, just as the text emerges in the local Dakhni form, some of the images also carry a local flavour that depict encounters with yogis and Hindu kings.

7. Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi
Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 123r).
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The Bijapur Khavarnamah’s scale and illustration programme thus attest to the popularity of Dakhni literature in the seventeenth-century Deccan sultanate courts. Furthermore, the patronage of this manuscript perhaps could also be interpreted as an act of Shi‘a piety. It would be interesting to compare this manuscript to other copies of the Persian Ḳhavarnamah to see either similarities or points of divergence in the narrative structure and illustrative programme.

I would like to thank Ursula Sims-Williams for providing important insight into Khadija Sultana’s seals and for identifying the seal in the Khavarnamah with the one in the National Museum.

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
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Further Reading

Primary Source
Rustamī Bījāpūrī, K̲h̲āvar nāmah / muṣannafah-yi Kamāl K̲h̲ān̲ Rustamī Bījāpūrī; murattabah-yi Shaik̲h̲ Cānd ibn Ḥusain Aḥmadnagrī. Karācī: Taraqqīyi Urdū Borḍ, 1968. Online edition at Rekhta Books

Secondary Sources
Akhtar, Nasim, and others “Kalila wa Dimna,” in Islamic art of India. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2002, p. 44 and following plate.
Kruijtzer, Gijs. “Baṛī Ṣāḥib bint Muḥammad Quṭb Shāh,” in Christian Muslim Relations: A Bibliographic History, eds. David Thomas and John Chesworth. Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 231-7.
Overton, Keelan (ed.). Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400-1700. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.
Overton, Keelan. “Book Culture, Royal Libraries, and Persianate Painting in Bijapur, Circa 1580­‒1630.” Muqarnas 33.1 (2016): pp. 91–154.

03 October 2022

Five Centuries of Copying, Illustrating and Reading Amir Khusraw’s Poetry

Today's post is by guest contributor and regular visitor to Asian and African Collections, Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University.

The British Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts of the Persian works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325). There are around fifty manuscripts, listed in the Ethé, Rieu, and Ross and Brown catalogues, as well as a few in the Delhi Persian Collection, dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, including some early compilations of his collected poetry (kulliyat), selections of ghazals, and long narrative poems (masnavis). An eclectic range of codices from sumptuous royal copies to pedestrian books can be found here, many with seals and inscriptions by owners, and colophons by various calligraphers, and illustrations from different schools of painting. This rich collection highlights, on the one hand, the enormous corpus of the poet’s works in many different forms and literary genres, and on the other hand, the daunting problem of compiling standard and complete editions of his poems.

Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun
Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun. From the masnavi Layla Majnun, 16th century but heavily overpainted in the 18th or 19th century (BL Add. 7751, f. 71v)
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Amir Khusraw, a medieval Persian poet who was much admired and read in Persianate societies, is sometimes written out of the classical canon in our times. A master of every existing poetic form, the poet particularly distinguished himself in his mastery of courtly and devotional panegyric and love lyrics. His output was prolific in these forms, and according to Dawlatshah writing in the late fifteenth-century in his biographical dictionary, Tazkirat al-shu‘ara, bibliophiles at the Timurid court gave up attempting to collect all his verses. This continues to be the fate of modern-day scholars who work on the Amir Khusraw’s poetry.

There are a number of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s works dating from the second half of the fifteenth century to the very beginning of the seventeenth in the form of Kulliyat, i.e. his entire corpus of poems that was available at specific places and moments of time. Some of the manuscripts in this group, along with others described below, share several codicological features and many of the copies were produced in Herat. The writing in them is small, metres of individual poems are identified in some cases, and the margins contain poems in order to maximize every bit of space. One of these (IO Islamic 338), which was copied in Delhi ca. 1603, was once part of the library of Tipu Sultan — who incidentally had at least six other copies of works by Amir Khusraw in his collection.

The opening to Baqiya-i naqiya  Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan
The opening to Baqiyah-i naqiyah, Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan in this copy of his collected works (BL IO Islamic 338, f. 337v)
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The earliest Kulliyat manuscripts also included his narrative poems, since Amir Khusraw was also celebrated for his quintet (Khamsah) modelled on Nizami’s own set of verse romances of the same title. No slavish imitator of his predecessor, Amir Khusraw modified the plots of well-known romances such as Layla and Majnun, Khusraw and Shirin, and Hasht Bihisht. The aforementioned Dawlatshah also mentions that the Timurd prince Baysunghur (1397 – 1433) used to prefer the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw to Nizami’s. In comparing Khusraw’s Khamsah comprising 18,000 verses to Nizami’s comprising 28,000, Dawlatshah writes, “It is amazing how in some expressions [Khusraw] is long-winded and in some concise; the conciseness, rhetoric, and eloquence are charming.” While Baysunghur's brother, the amir Ulugh Beg, preferred Nizami's Khamsah, the two would argue and compare individual verses in the two works. Dawlatshah adds, “The special meanings and subtleties of Amir Khusraw’s exciting poetry kindles a fire in people’s minds and shakes the foundation of the fortitude of lovers.” In this Timurid milieu, an unillustrated Khamsah (Add. 24983) was copied in Herat by the master calligrapher Muhammad ‘Ali Samarqandi for the library of Sultan Husayn Bahadur Khan Bayqara (d. 1506), which subsequently belonged to the Mughal Imperial Library.

Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge.
Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge. By the time the manuscript was completed in 1511, the Sultan had been dead for six years (BL Add. 24983, f. 2r)
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One of the Kulliyat manuscripts, dated 923/1517 (Add. 21104) is furnished with seventeen illustrations, some of which were added or touched up later. B.W. Robinson tentatively suggested that due to the not so “easily recognizable style” of the paintings, it was one of a group of illustrated quintets probably originating in Transoxiana or Khurasan.[1]

Lovers in a garden  from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal copy
Lovers in a garden, from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal (BL Add.21104, f.251r)
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The earliest manuscript of Amir Khusraw’s Khamsah dated 1421 (Or.13802)[2] was actually copied in the margins of Nizami’s quintet, indicating that the texts were often read together. It bears the Gujarati inscription of a later Parsi owner and is only partially preserved.

Khusraw and Shirin enthroned copy
Khusraw and Shirin enthroned. (BL Or. 13802, f. 119v)
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Another such illustrated manuscript (IO Islamic 387) where both quintets appear together is thought to date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and is in much better condition. In Amir Khusraw’s version of the Alexander romance, A’inah-ʼi Iskandari, Nizami’s philosopher-king is transformed into an intrepid explorer and scientist.

6. Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type  from Aʼina-yi Iskandari copy
Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type, from Aʼinah-ʼi Iskandari (BL IO Islamic 387, f.466r)
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This work also exists in a stand-alone copy (Add. 24,054) apparently dated 885/1479. Other poems from the quintet were also copied on their own without any paintings, such as two copies of Matla‘ al-anvar and four copies of Hasht Bihisht. Three of Amir Khusraw’s versified romances on contemporary themes, which are not part of his quintet, also had a readership. Along with an eighteenth-century copy of the Nuh Sipihr there are seven copies of the Qiran al-Sa‘dayn, one of which, dated 921/1515 at Herat (Add. 7753), was copied by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan, while several others are eighteenth or nineteenth-century humbler manuscripts that were clearly read by non-elite readers.

The opening of Qiran al-saʻdayn copied by Muhammad Khandan at Herat in 1515
The opening of Amir Khusraw's Qiran al-saʻdayn, copied at Herat in 1515 by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan (BL Add. 7753, f. 1v)
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Qiran al-saʻdayn. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century
Qiran al-saʻdayn
. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century (BL Egerton 1033)
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There are also three copies of the popular Indo-Persian romance, Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, also known as  ‘Ashiqah, one of which (Or.335) has some unusual illustrations, such as the rare depiction of the beheading of the prince at the end of the story.

Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak
Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak. From Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, dated 982/1574  (BL Or.335, f.142v)
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Attempts to collect and produce large copies of Amir Khusraw’s poetry ceased for the most part in the Safavid and Mughal periods when more copies of selections of his non-narrative poems were made, specifically of the five Divans that marked the different stages of his development as a poet. At this time the ghazal had become the privileged poetic form which only increased the popularity of Amir Khusraw’s love lyrics. Among the most popular of a dozen or so copies of poems from his Divans is the Ghurrat al-Kamal that includes a long partly autobiographical preface followed by copies of his Vasat-i Hayat. A particularly fine Timurid copy of his Divan (IO Islamic 512) also includes the poems of Hasan Sijzi and Jami in the margins.


10. The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre  and poems of Jami in the margins
The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre, and poems of Jami in the margins (BL IO Islamic 512, ff. 618v-619r)
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The wide range in this group of manuscripts is due to the fact that some were prepared for Mughal patrons such as Bayram Khan, others circulated among Ottoman Turkish readers. Another belonged to the library of a Qadiriya Sufi order in Bijapur, and at least one (IO Islamic 2470) was prepared for Robert Watherston, a British officer in India.

The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790
The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790 (BL IO Islamic 2470, f.91r)
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In addition to his poetry, an example of Amir Khusraw’s prose exists in a single voluminous collection of epistolographic writings, I’jaz-i Khusravi. The manuscript dated 1697-8 (IO Islamic 4714) was calligraphed by Anup Rai and has the seal of one Qutbuddin Bahadur Jang.

In lieu of a complete bibliography or database of the manuscripts of Amir Khusraw, the British Library collection is an excellent sampling that provides a rich history of the copying and readership of the poet’s collected and individual works across five centuries. The manuscripts were produced and circulated in the Persianate world, the inscriptions and seals showing their sojourn in important centres of artistic production such as Herat, Shiraz, Istanbul, and Delhi, as well as provincial Indian towns such as Ramnagar in UP and Rohinkhed in Maharashtra. At times, the archives also reveal an exciting history of use of some of these manuscripts in the early twentieth century by renowned scholars such as M. Wahid Mirza, whose pioneering scholarship on Amir Khusraw which was originally his PhD thesis at the University of London is still the authoritative book on the subject. Based on the borrowing slip pasted into the back of IO Islamic 51, which dates from 866-7/1462, the manuscript was even checked out and sent to Aligarh in 1935!

Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw
Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw recording a distinguished list of external loans (BL IO Islamic 51)
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Several other libraries in the UK have smaller collections of Amir Khusraw manuscripts that are listed in FIHRIST.[3] Some of the poet’s verses are also found in numerous anthologies of poetry by multiple poets that were compiled during the same centuries. It is also noteworthy that there is no evidence of his Hindavi poems in this collection, which belies the situation in contemporary South Asia where he is celebrated for those verses that were probably transmitted in an oral tradition or are apocryphal. With respect to his Persian body of work, the philological problem is not of lines or entire poems being added by later poets, as in the case with Firdawsi’s Shahnamah or Hafiz’s Divan, but it is that Amir Khusraw just composed a great deal of poetry.

 

With thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams and Shiva Mihan for their insights and help with making sense of the treasure trove described in this blog

Sunil Sharma, Boston University
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Further reading

Mohammad Wahid Mirza, The Life and Times of Amir Khusrau (Calcutta, 1935). The thesis was submitted in 1929 (SOAS Library, Thesis 47; online at Proquest).
Barbara Brend,  Perspectives of Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau’s Khamsah. London, 2003.

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[1] B.W. Robinson, “An Amir Khusraw Khamsa of 1581”, Iran 35 (1997), 36.
[2] Norah Titley, “A Khamsah of Nizami Dated Herat 1421”, British Library Journal 4/2 (1978): 161-86.
[3] Other lists of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s poetic works are described in: Amir Hasan ‘Abidi, “Amir Khusraw ki nadir tasnifat Turki men”, Ajkal 33/4 (1974): 39-44; Chander Shekhar, “Maghribi mamalik ke kitabkhanon men Amir Khusraw ke nadir qalami nuskhe.” In 1947 ke ba‘d Farsi zaban o adab o Professor Nazir Ahmad, ed. Sayyid Raza Haidar (New Delhi, 2016), pp, 53-78; John Seyller, Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amīr Khusraw of Delhi (Baltimore, 2001), pp. 143-58.

28 September 2022

The Story of Inabe no Suminawa: Master Craftsman of Hida

Classic literature often brings us the most surprising storylines. We are fascinated by the things which people in the past imagined, and which gave rise to highly entertaining stories as a result. We have previously looked at a story which could be said to be the earliest example of Science Fiction - The Tale of Bamboo Cutter, in a 2014 blog post.

Today, we are going to talk about another story with a Science Fiction flavour, about an inventor who was a master craftsman and who produced some ingenious and astonishing devices.

Two-page spread of black and white drawing showing a bridge over a body of water, with a covered boat, and a building on the right in traditional Japanese architectural style, with wisp-like landscape in the top left background
An illustration showing some examples of the craftsman’s devices. The movable house, the portable bridge, and the automated boat.
(Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望) and Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎), Shinpan Hida no takumi monogatari (新板飛弾匠物語). Woodblock print, 衆星閣蔵版c. 1840s. 16055.a.7)
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The first edition of the Story of a Hida Craftsman (飛騨匠物語, Hida no Takumi monogatari) was published in 1808, written by Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望 1754-1830) and illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎 1760-1849). The very well-known names of these two creators most probably gave readers of the time considerable expectation of an enjoyable read.

There is no doubt that Hokusai was a master artist of Ukiyoe (浮世絵), who could capture anything from humorous moments to the wonders of nature. Ishikawa Masamochi was well-known under the name Yadoya no Meshimori (宿屋飯盛), literally ‘a person serving meals at inns’, as a professional composer of kyōka (狂歌), a form of short poem which contains a twisted sense of humour. His most famous kyōka was a pun on a line in the preface of the Kokin wakashū (古今和歌集), an early classic imperial anthology of waka (i.e. poetry written in Japanese rather than Chinese).

Two-page spread of Japanese text in black ink running vertically with a hint of gold at the right edge
Preface of Kokin wakashū (古今和歌集) by Ki no Tomonori (紀友則) et al. (Manuscript, c. 1600-1650. Or 892)
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The preface was written by Ki no Turayuki (紀貫之, fl. 866-872), one of the most respected literary figures in Japanese history. He defined the quintessence of poems composed and written in the Japanese language. It opens with the line やまとうたは、人の心を種として、万の言の葉とぞなれりける ‘Japanese poetry has the human heart as seed and myriads of words as leaves’. The lines continue, 力をも入れずして天地を動かし ‘the sprits of Japanese poems could stir even Heaven and Earth’.

Ishikawa’s pun on this line is:

歌よみは下手こそよけれ天地の動き出してはたまるものかは

Poets here, Poets there,
When worst I love them most,
The least stirs Heaven and Earth I swear
The versifying host.

(Original English translation by Frederick Victor Dickins, 1838-1915)

Two-page spread of a black and white ink drawing of a man in traditional Japanese attire seated on the right with the tools of his craft before him and a large crane with open wings opposite him on the left; between the two are eight lines of Japanese text running vertically
Suminawa has just finished work on a wooden crane. His tools are placed on his right, and his toolbox is behind him.
(Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望) and Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎), Shinpan Hida no takumi monogatari (新板飛弾匠物語). wood block prints, 衆星閣蔵版c. 1840s. 16055.a.7)
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The opening of the Story of a Hida Craftsman is a short poem dedicated to the hero Inabe no Suminawa (猪名部墨縄):

Precious scion of Inabé,
Rarest, daintiest craftsman wert thou,
Suminawa!
Long descent thou didst not vaunt thou,
But the load of craftsmen wert thou,
Suminawa!

(Translation by Frederick Victor Dickins, 1838-1915)

This is the story of a particularly skilled craftsman, Suminawa, already famous for his distinguished talent at the start of the book. His woodwork is very life-like: for example, a live rooster cannot stop challenging his carved one to a fight. He is also an inventor of fascinating devices.

Suminawa sets off on a journey to Mount Hōrai, believed to be the mystical mountain in East Asia where the immortal Daoist sages dwell. He receives tuition from them in the arcane art of crafting to further heighten his already considerable skills. After leaving Mount Hōrai, he gets to know a young man who is unable to win his love because, as a mere commoner, he cannot consort with a princess of high social rank. Suminawa successfully fosters true love between the young couple by the subtle use of his ingenious devices. Eventually the three of them become immortal sages of Mount Hōrai.

Now the question is, why does the hero need to be a craftsman from Hida and why is his name Suminawa?

Perhaps the author of the story, Ishikawa Masamochi based his homage on a poem in the Man’yōshū (万葉集 literally the ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’) the oldest anthology of Japanese waka poetry, believed to be have been compiled towards the end of the Nara Period (710-794 CE).

Man’yōshū book XI 2648

云々物者不念 斐太人乃 打墨縄之 直一道二 [in Manyōgana script]
かにかくに物は思はじ飛騨人の打つ墨縄のただ一道に [in modern Japanese script]

Unwandering, my thoughts, like the line-markers of the Hida craftsmen, run straight to you.

Hida province, nowadays, part of Gifu prefecture, is perhaps the most mountainous area in Japan with extremely limited flat spaces. Geographically, it is thickly covered with forest, not suitable for rice farming. Therefore, it was a traditional choice for people in Hida province to become woodworkers, such as carpenters, architects, etc. Hida craftsmen, and they were only men, have a long history and pride in their work, and it is likely that the author intended his hero to be one of these Hida craftsmen to convince readers he was already famous for his skills before his training on Mount Hōrai. The Hida craftsmen were exempted from taxes in the more conventional form of rice or textiles, and instead sent some of their number to the capital to build city buildings, temples, streets and the palace for the emperor.

Black and white print of large-font Japanese text running vertically, with a fish-scale patterned scroll at the bottom, and four lines of text in Latin script below that
Title page image (facsimile inserted into The Story of a Hida Craftsman), has an illustration of a sumitsubo, indicating the hero Suminawa’s name.
(Dickins, Frederick Victor, and Katsushika, Hokusai. The Story of a Hida Craftsman. Hida No Takumi Monogatari. Translated from the Original Japanese with Some Annotations by Frederick Victor Dickins. 1912. 11100.c.23)
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The name of the hero, Suminawa (墨縄) appears in this particular waka from the Man’yōshū. A suminawa is an ink dipped cord attached to an ink pot called a sumitsubo (墨壺). The sumitsubo was an essential piece of equipment for craftspeople to mark a straight line. The sumitsubo had an ink pot with a reel attached through which a cord was threaded. A straight line was drawn by paying out the ink-soaked cord across a length of wood and snapping it to leave an inked line across the desired section.

Ishikawa Masamochi did not make it clear in the preface of the book whether he had drawn his inspiration from the waka in the Man’yōshū. However, we can note that, at the opening of the story, the short poem praising Suminawa was written in Manyōgana, the script that Japanese wrote in during the Nara period and which is used in the Man’yōshū.

The spirit and highly accomplished skills of Hida craftsmen continue throughout history, from ancient times when Nara was the Japanese capital, through the Edo Period, up to the present day, and will undoubtedly continue into the future.

The talents and living traditions of the craftspeople of Hida are highlighted in the exhibition The Carpenters’ Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama being held at  Japan House London, 01-111 Kensington High Street, London, W8 5SA, 29 September 2022 – 29 January 2023.

With special thanks to Mr Stephen Cullis, Lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, for his English translation of Man’yōshū book XI 2648.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka
Curator, Japanese Collections
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References

Manyoshu [Book 11] Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library.

Ishikawa, Masamochi, and Inada, Atsunobu. Ishikawa Masamochi Shū 石川雅望集. 東京: 国書刊行会, 1993. Print. Sōsho Edo Bunko ; 28. (JPN.1994.a.26)

McCullough, Helen Craig. Kokin Wakashū : The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry : With Tosa Nikki and Shinsen Waka / Translated and Annotated by Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford U, 1985. (88/23844)

05 September 2022

Glimpses from the ‘Golden Land’: Decorative manuscript art in Thailand and beyond

One of the most enchanting items in the 'Bound in Gold' section of the British Library's GOLD exhibition (20 May - 2 October 2022) is the gold and laquer front cover on a Thai manuscript (Or 15257) depicting animals and plants in the heavenly Himavanta forest of the Buddhist cosmos, a detail of which is shown below.  This blog will discuss the techniques that were used in Thailand and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia to create this book cover and other examples of gilded manuscript art.

The beauty of illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia is often further enhanced by lavish gold embellishments. The region, rich in natural gold deposits found in rocks and as “gold sand” in and along rivers, was once called Suvarnabhumi, ‘Golden Land’, by Indian merchants in the first millennium CE. A Thai inscription dated 1292 CE, attributed to King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai, documents free trade in gold and silver. Gold was not only important in the commerce with the outside world, but also had and continues to have religious significance: gold images of the Buddha and gold-covered stupa monuments, texts written in gold ink, gold-leaf ornaments on Buddhist temple buildings and furniture can be found across the Southeast Asian mainland. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, gold decorations were applied to increase the meritorious value of a manuscript, but also to reflect on the social status of the person who commissioned a manuscript or whom such a work was dedicated to. Gold-leaf applications in illustrations helped to give prominence to representations of the Buddha as well as Buddhist and Hindu deities. This blog explores the use of gold to decorate manuscripts in Thailand (formerly Siam) and techniques of applying gold on paper, palm leaves, wood and cloth.

Detail from the back cover of a Thai folding book decorated with gold on black lacquer
Detail from the back cover of a Thai folding book decorated with gold on black lacquer in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, second half of the 19th century. British Library, Or 15257  Noc

A popular method to apply gold leaf on the covers of Thai paper folding books, palm leaf manuscripts, furniture and musical instruments is called lai rot nam. This technique goes back at least to the late Ayutthaya period (17th-18th century CE).

The first step consists of applying on the chosen surface several coats of black lacquer, a resin from a tree in the sumac family. The design is traced on parchment paper, and small holes are punched along the lines with a needle. The artist then places the perforated paper on the dried lacquer and wipes it with white clay to copy the design on to the lacquered surface. With a yellow gummy paint made from gamboge and river tamarind rubber the parts which remain black are covered in all their smallest details.

Front cover of a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique
Front cover of a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16101  Noc

The next step in this process is to add a thin coat of lacquer glue over the surface, and when it is semi-dry, gold leaf is applied. After about twelve to twenty hours the work is “washed with water”: using a wet cotton ball or sponge the artist gently detaches the gummy paint to expose the lacquer while the remaining gold design, glued to the lacquered surface, appears. Hence this art is called lai rot nam, which is the Thai expression for ‘designs washed with water’. The beauty of the finished work depends first upon an exquisite design and afterwards a perfect execution which require artistic talent as well as excellent technological knowledge and skills.

Front cover of a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique
Front cover of a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16009  Noc

The finest examples of Thai folding books have black lacquer covers with lavish gold decorations made in the lai rot nam technique. Often these were funeral or commemoration books commissioned by royals or wealthy members of the society and offered to the Buddhist order of monastics, Sangha. Made from several layers of sturdy mulberry paper, their covers provide more space to apply decorative designs in gold than the much narrower palm leaf manuscripts. Motifs of these decorations include scenes from the heavenly Himavanta forest, plants, mythical and real animals, deities and repetitive floral patterns.

Wooden covers of a palm leaf manuscript containing Buddhist tales with floral decorations in gold on black lacquer
Wooden covers of a palm leaf manuscript containing Buddhist tales with floral decorations in gold on black lacquer. Central Thailand, c. 1851-68. British Library, Or 12524  Noc

Despite the narrow format of palm leaf manuscripts, which offers only limited space for embellishment, the lai rot nam technique was also used to decorate the wooden covers of palm leaf manuscripts. Occasionally, the front and back leaves of palm leaf bundles were illuminated in this way, too, incorporating the title of the text contained in the manuscript.

Palm leaf bundles with cover decorations made in this technique are also found in the manuscript traditions of North Thailand (Lanna) and Laos. Here, the floral patterns are often less repetitive and reflect the artistic traditions of this cultural area.

Detail of the wooden front cover of a Kammavaca palm leaf manuscript with gold floral ornaments made in lai rot nam technique on black lacquer
Detail of the wooden front cover of a Kammavaca palm leaf manuscript with gold floral ornaments made in lai rot nam technique on black lacquer. North Thailand, 1903. British Library, Or 11799  Noc

Gilded pieces of Thai furniture show how manuscripts were traditionally kept in temple libraries. They are also outstanding examples of gold-and-lacquer art applied to larger surfaces. Unique designs were executed in the lai rot nam technique on wooden cabinets to house an entire set of the Buddhist canon (Tipitaka), depicting scenes from the Birth Tales of the Buddha or from the heavenly forest Himavanta. With numerous such cabinets, the libraries of royal temples truly looked like enormous treasure chests, in which the actual treasure were the teachings of the Buddha.

Side view of a wooden manuscript cabinet showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka in gold and lacquer
Side view of a wooden manuscript cabinet showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka in gold and lacquer, made in the lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 19th century. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1057  Noc

Another method to apply gold on lacquer is the stencil technique, which was and continues to be popular in North Thailand and Laos, but it was also known in Cambodia and the Shan State of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Entire temple walls, pillars, ceilings, window panels, doors and furniture could be decorated with this technique. Buddhist temples well-known for their interiors adorned with exquisite gold stencil-designs are Vat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, and Wat Phra Sing in Chiang Mai, for example. Custom-made chests for single paper or palm-leaf manuscripts were frequently embellished with gold leaf on red or black lacquer, applied with the stencil technique.

Front view of a wooden chest for a single folding book with gold pattern made in stencil technique on red lacquer
Front view of a wooden chest for a single folding book with gold pattern made in stencil technique on red lacquer. Thailand, late 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or 16840  Noc

To create the stencil ornaments the artist draws or copies the desired design on a thin sheet of paper. This is affixed to a piece of sturdy mulberry paper, which the artist places on a wooden plank. The parts that shall appear in gold are cut out, using straight and curved chisels of varying sizes. Once the entire pattern has been cut out, the artist attaches the stencil to the lacquered surface of the object to be decorated, then applies gold leaf or gold paint through the stencil openings with a soft sponge or brush. When the stencil is removed from the surface carefully, the design comes to light.

Manuscript covers containing Buddhist scriptures, especially Kammavaca ordination texts, were often decorated with gold in the stencil technique. The image below shows the wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript from North Thailand. This manuscript was made in the folding book format with text in gold script and illustrations on blackened cloth. The sturdy covers were added to give stability and protection to the textile. This example is interesting as it combines red and black lacquer on which the gold pattern of lotus flowers was applied in the stencil technique.

Wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript in folding book format made from cloth
Wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript in folding book format made from cloth. The floral ornaments were executed in stencil technique on black lacquer, with a red lacquer frame. North Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14025  Noc

Whereas the lai rot nam and stencil techniques are found across mainland Southeast Asia, a third method to apply gold embellishments on manuscripts was popular in Burma (now Myanmar). Here, the lacquered surface was covered entirely with gold leaf before the design was drawn on it with a pen in bright red paint made from lacquer and cinnabar. Decorative text portions in Burmese square script, especially in Kammavaca manuscripts, were executed in this technique as well, but afterwards filled in with a thick layer of black lacquer. The tradition to fill the spaces between the lines of text with delicate floral patterns lends these unique manuscripts an air of lightness and elegance.

Kammavaca manuscript with text in Burmese square script in black lacquer on a gilded surface
Kammavaca manuscript with text in Burmese square script in black lacquer on a gilded surface. On the sides and between the lines of text are decorations drawn in red colour. Myanmar, 19th century. British Library, Or 13896, f. 2r   Noc

Further reading
Aphiwan Adunyaphichet: Lai rot nam. Thai lacquer works. Bangkok: Muang Boran, 2012
Bennett, Anna T. N.: Gold in early Southeast Asia. Archeosciences 33 (2009), pp. 99-107  (viewed on 20/08/2022)
Chaichana Phojaroen: Sinlapa lai rot nam. Lairotnamart.  (viewed on 21/08/2022)
Lammerts, Christian: Notes on Burmese Manuscripts: Text and Images. Journal of Burma Studies 14 (2010), pp. 229-253  (viewed on 23/08/2022)
No. Na. Paknam: Tu Phra Traipidok sut yot haeng sinlapa lai rot nam. Bangkok: Muang Boran, 2000

Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

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