THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

13 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

Add comment

I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
© CCBY

26 February 2020

William Jones, al-Mutanabbī and Emotional Encounters

Add comment

In 1774, William Jones (1746 – 1794), then 27, a graduate from Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a barrister with the Middle Temple, received a copy of al-Mutanabbī's Dīwān (poetry collection) as a gift from a certain ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

1. William Jones by Arthur William Devis Foster 840
Portrait of Sir William Jones aged 47 by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Oil on canvas, ca. 1793 (Foster 840). Public Domain

ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Beg, it would appear (although it is not certain), lived in the town of Hama (Ḥamā) in modern-day Syria and then an important administrative and trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg sent this gift (now known as MS RSPA 107), having never met Jones, along with the following inscription:

يصل الكتاب إلى بندر أقفرد ويتشرف بلثم أنامل الألحن الممجد حضرة وليام جونس
يَا رِياحَ العَاشِقينَ أَوْصِلْ مُحِبّينا السَلَامَ *** شابَهو الرَيحان وَالأزْهارَ شَماً فيِ الجِناَنْ
إِنْ وَصَلْتُمْ يَا نسِيم الحُبّ مِنَا قُلْ لَهُم *** يَا عَمِيدَ العِلْمِ كْن عَن كُلّ كَرْيِب في الأمانْ
فِي الفَصَاحَة كَالحَرِير في السَّخاوة حاتمٌ *** كَان هَذَا وِلِيام جُونس انَكليزان في العيان
من عند العبد الفقير عبد الرحمن بيك

This book is to arrive at the port of Oxford and is honoured to kiss the fingertips of the most intelligent and glorious Sir William Jones:

O winds of the lovers, send greetings to our beloveds
They are akin to the sweet smell of flowers in a garden
If you arrive, o fragrant breeze of love, say to them,
“You pillar of learning, be free of all worries!”
Judicious in his generosity, he is like silk in his elegance,
This man is William Jones, the Englishman

From your humble servant, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

2. RSPA 107 marbled and note JPG
ʻAbd al-Raḥmān's dedication and Jones note underneath. Jones' translation is just visible, attached to the marbled endpaper (RSPA 107). Public Domain

Below this inscription, Jones has written:

I received this valuable manuscript by the hands of Mr. Howard to whose care it was entrusted in June 1774 at Venice, by Mr. W Montague. It was a present from Abderrahman Beg, who wrote the Arabick verses in this page, which are so flattering to me, that I can hardly translate them without blushing, 3 Oct. 1774, W. Jones.

Jones comment on receiving this book
Jones' note (RSPA 107, flyleaf). Public Domain

Yet, translate them he did – or at least, it would appear, given that the opposite side has been ripped out, but you can still make out the beginning of the word Oxford at the start of the page. Jones was clearly troubled by the verse. In two letters, also dated to 1774, Jones tells of his receipt of the gift and his consequent embarrassment. In a letter to the Mr. Howard who presented him with the manuscript, he wrote (Jones, pp. 229-30):

I have just received your most obliging letter, with a fine Arabic manuscript, containing the works of a celebrated poet with whom I have been long acquainted: this testimony of Mr Montague’s regard is extremely pleasing to me and I have a most grateful sense of his kindness. I am conscious how little I have deserved the many honours I have lately received from the learned in Europe and Asia: I can ascribe their politeness to nothing but their candour and benevolence. I fear they will think me still less deserving when they know that I have deserted, or rather suspended, all literary pursuits whatever and am wholly engaged in the study of a profession for which I was always intended. As the law is a jealous science, and will not have any partnership with the Eastern Muses, I must absolutely renounce their acquaintance for ten or twelve years to come. This manuscript, however, is highly acceptable to me, and shall be preserved among my choicest treasures, till I have leisure to give it an attentive perusal. There is a compliment to me written in Arabic verse, in the first leaf of the book, and signed Abdurrahman Beg: the verses are very fine, but so full of Oriental panegyric, that I could not read them without blushing. The present seems to come from the learned Arabian: but as he has not inserted my name in his verses, and speaks of Oxford, he must have heard me mentioned by Mr. Montague, to whom therefore I am equally indebted for the present.

At the same time in October 1774, Jones wrote a very long letter to Hendrik Albert Schultens, the Dutch linguist, in which he said (Jones, pp. 227-8):

Whilst I am writing this letter, a person called upon me with a manuscript, which he had received at Venice from Mr. Montague, a man of family. I immediately perceived it to be a most beautiful and correct copy of Motanabbi with a letter addressed to myself in Arabic verse, from some person named Abdurrahman, whom Mr. Montague had probably seen in Asia. I owe great obligations to the politeness of the learned Arab but I by no means think myself worthy of his exaggerated encomiums – but you know the pompous style of the Orientals.

In both letters, as well as the note he appended to the verse inscription in the manuscript itself, Jones emphasises his embarrassment at receiving these “exaggerated encomiums”; his response encapsulates a particular form of the colonial encounter, this being the interaction of two emotional regimes, expressed in two very different literary styles. Why did Jones feel so awkward about this poem?

Diwan al-Mutanabbi RSPA107
The opening pages of the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (RSPA 107, ff. 1v-2r). Public Domain

The poetry is a fairly standard example of Arabic panegyric (madīḥ ), a genre in which al-Mutannabī was one of the most exemplary poets of the entire tradition; his panegyrics for the tenth century Amir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah established his reputation and was, according to Margaret Larkin, the pinnacle of his career. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg’s poetic homage to Jones is, in many ways, a pastiche of the conventional symbols of poetic panegyric which al-Mutanabbī used – to much greater poetic effect and success – in his panegyrics of Sayf al-Dawlah. The winds of lovers (riyāḥa 'l-ʿāshiqīna), the south-winds of love ( nasīma 'l-ḥubbi) and the sweet floral smell of the odoriferous plants and flowers in the garden which the object of poetry is akin to ( shābahū 'l-rayḥāna wa-l-azhāra shamman fī-l-jināni): these are all very conventional tropes of Arabic love lyric (nasīb), cliché almost. The clichés used by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg may be conventional, but they also reveal an emotional regime which is expressed through the intermingling of the language of love and the language of admiration and an emotional regime in which this literary expression is completely normal, conventional and expected. Our concern here is: how did Jones read such poetry?

Jones was certainly well versed in Arabic poetry and would have been very familiar with the linguistic register of the nasīb and the panegyric which are both on show here. Having already read al-Mutanabbī, he would surely have known the idiomatic nature of the verse in front of him and the hackneyed terms of praise chosen by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg. Why the embarrassment, then?

William Reddy has proposed the ‘emotional regime’ as a useful framework for studying emotion history, this being what he terms the normative set of emotions in any one culture and the linguistic, ritualistic and practical structures of that culture which produce and embed them. Here, we see the interaction and conflict of two such emotional regimes: the “exaggerated encomiums” and “pompous panegyric” of the poetry mixed with Jones’s blushing, embarrassment and ‘English reserve’. Jones’s reading sees the poetry as awkward, over-the-top flattery. This he ascribes to the “pompous style of the Orientals”, rather brushing it aside as a local custom, a linguistic cliché that is, to his mind, in the context of the men never having met, a faintly ridiculous example of such poetry, of which Jones feels “wholly unworthy”. Yet, in the colonial politics of the moment, it would be easy to forget that Jones was subject to his own emotional regime, one which does not valorise such overt intermingling of personal feeling with professional compliment, hence Jones’s feeling ‘unworthy’ of such compliments and emphasising in each of the letters his detachment from the subject of praise (his knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literature) and instead his professional attachment to a new field: the law.

However, Jones did not just read the poem. Rather, he struggles to accept the compliments and to see the poetry as anything other than “pompous” because he translates them into his own idiom and sees them from within his own emotional regime, and it is at the English expression of emotions, which has become decontextualised from its linguistic formality, that he blushes. Translation can be a tricky business, displacing a constellation of poetic tropes and images from its historical and literary context and embedding them within a new language’s and a new emotional regime’s constraints of style. Whilst in Arabic the poem is a fairly conventional intermingling of nasīb and madīḥ linguistic registers and images, the English translation stands out as unusual within the broader English poetic tradition and imaginary, exemplifying the discord felt by the inter-linguistic politics of emotional translation, the difficulty of expressing oneself comfortably across languages and emotional regimes which have their own register of emotional expression. In his translation, Jones has transformed the poem: out of a standardised and conventional set of images spread over three short lines of poetry, Jones has created this awkward feeling for himself in his attempt to read the Arabic into English, in his use of Arabic emotional expressions outside of their context.

This single interaction speaks to the difficulty we face in traversing emotional regimes, in translating styles and ways of speaking which are so at home in their own context into a new and unfamiliar emotional background.

Further Reading
Bray, Julia, “Yaʿqūb b. al-Rabīʿ Read by al-Mutanabbī and al-Mubarrad: A Contribution to an Abbasid History of Emotions”, Journal of Abbasid Studies 4:1 (2017).
Jacobi, Renate “Qaṣīda (pl. Qaṣāʾid)” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2:630-33.
Jones, Sir William (ed. John Shore and S.C. Wilks), Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. With the Life of Lord Teignmouth, and Notes, by S.C. Wilks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1835).
Larkin, Margaret Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ʿAbbasid Poetic Ideal (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Lyric Poetry: Orient Pearls (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
al-Mutanabbī, Abū al-Ṭayyib (tr. A. J. Arberry), Poems of al-Mutanabbī: a Selection with Introduction, Translation and Notes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Plamper, Jan et al, “The History of Emotions: an Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns" in History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010): 237-65.
Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
–––––, The Navigation of Feeling: a Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Sadan, Joseph, “Maiden’s Hair and Starry Skies – Image Systems and Maʿānī Guides” in Sasson Somekh (ed.), Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics (Leiden: Brill, 1991).


Jonathan Lawrence, D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library
© CCBY

30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

Add comment

As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

Periodicals
You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
CC Public Domain Image

On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
CC Public Domain Image

Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
CC Public Domain Image

There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
CCBY Image

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

Add comment

Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14)
Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636
Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).

Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)
Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699
Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar
Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement
 ccownwork


Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.

24 June 2019

Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script

Add comment

Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art who is completing his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology. Vivek is currently based at the British Library for a research placement on illumination in Persian Manuscripts.

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r)
Fig. 1. Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r). Public domain

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. In the Indian Qur’an manuscript (ca. 1450-1500) shown in Fig. 1, bihārī is in black. Bihārī evidently associates the script with the northeastern Indian region of Bihar[1], but the name remains a mystery, especially as it appears far beyond Bihar in places such as Bengal and the Deccan; by early-modern times it also reached Ethiopia. The British Museum’s catalogue, published in 1879, describes the script in the example here as “large and angular Naskhi” and dates it to the fourteenth century[2]. The name for this script is also unresolved in the catalogue of Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna. The first volume of 1918 describes the script of a bihārī Qur’an as thuluth-i kūfī. The third volume of 1965 calls the script baḥr, which means ‘sea,’ while the fourth volume of 1995 designates it as khaṭṭ-i bihār (bihārī calligraphy)[3].

Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents. In her pioneering research coining naskhī-dīvānī as a calligraphic style, Éloïse Brac de la Perrière describes it as such:

The bar of the kāf often terminates with a small hook, as with the alif that features a lower tail curving left of its vertical line. Some letters like the kāf are almost angular, however the ḥā’ and khā’ in the initial position and the final ligature of the yā’ with letters preceding it have a rounded appearance with a loop; the dāl is large and open[4]

As seen here in red, naskhī-dīvānī is often used in interlinear Persian translations of Qur’ans in bihārī script. It often appears in marginal glosses of such Qur’ans as well. Since it is frequently diminutive or paratextual to the bihārī script, it has a special affinity with bihārī. In many cases, the scribes responsible for both the bihārī text and naskhī-dīvānī paratext would have been the same individual.

One manuscript copied in a naskh script closely resembling a naskhī-dīvānī is an anthology of Persian poetry (Or.4110) assembled during the reign of the Sharqi Sultan Mubarak Shah of Jaunpur (r. 1399-1402). The manuscript is datable to the beginning of the fifteenth century. In these diagrams for reading poetry the script possesses the angularity of the naskhī-dīvānī and distinctive terminating letters (fig. 2). In the spiraling diagrams shown on the right we see a thick black stroke akin to the bihārī script. The orange and red floral decoration and blue roundels also are typical of bihārī Qur’āns. The craftsmen responsible for this manuscript thus were certainly familiar with the calligraphy and decorative programme of a bihārī manuscript.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century
Fig. 2. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or. 4110, ff. 153v-154r). Public domain

Beyond Arabic and Persian manuscripts, naskhī-dīvānī was also the leading script for the earliest Hindavi vernacular premākhyān, or story of love, the Chāndāyan (1379) of Mullāh Dā’ūd. This was a story told in a highly Sanskritized idiom that borrowed from Persian poetics. Although there has been no critical analysis of the paleography of the Chāndāyan manuscripts to date, it is clear that the script of the majority of these manuscripts is a naskhī-dīvānī adapted for the vernacular (fig. 3). Further, the layout of these texts borrows directly from Persian poetry collections (dīvāns). That these manuscripts were produced in a number of regions (Gujarat, Malwa, Delhi-Agra) over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attests to the spread of this script. Here, it is worth questioning whether or not the scribes of these vernacular manuscripts were the scribes of bihārī Qur’ans. If this were the case, this offers evidence of a multilingual literate culture in which trained scribes could produce manuscripts in varying scripts.

The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester
Fig. 3. “The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester

In addition to manuscripts of deluxe quality, naskhī-dīvānī appears in unillustrated and unilluminated books from the sultanate world. For example, a copy of the Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī, the fourteenth-century Persian translation of Varāhamihira’s sixth-century Sanskrit encyclopedia the Bṛhatsaṁhitā, is inscribed in naskhī-dīvānī (fig. 4)[5]. We know the manuscript passed through the Deccan sultanate of Golkonda because it bears a seal of Muhammad Qutb Shah (r.1612-26), so it must date from before the end of his reign.

Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v)
Fig.4. Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v). Public domain

With the substantial and intriguing evidence of naskhī-dīvānī in Qur’ans, Hindavi poetry, and secular works, this script was widespread in a number of languages and genres. This opens up possible lines of inquiry about the scribes’ level of literacy in these languages. For the moment such questions remain unanswered although while it is clear that there are very few cohesive threads in the manuscript culture of sultanate India, naskhī-dīvānī may well prove to be a primary one.

Further reading:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse. “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003, pp. 81-93.
— “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy: Preliminary Remarks on a Little-Known Corpus.” Muqarnas 33 (2016): 63-90.
—, and Burési, Monique, eds. Le Coran de Gwalior: Polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 2016.
Mirza, Sana. “The visual resonances of a Harari Qur’ān: An 18th century Ethiopian manuscript and its Indian connections.” Afriques 08 (2017): 1-25.
Siddiq, Mohammad Yusuf. “An Epigraphical Journey to an Eastern Land.” Muqarnas 7 (1990): 83-108.

With thanks to Emily Shovelton and Eleanor Sims

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology
 ccownwork


[1] Brac de la Perrière, “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy,” p. 64.
[2] Rieu, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1, p. 7.
[3] These catalogues were published from 1918-1995 and are collectively called Miftāḥ al-Kanūz al-Khafiyah.
[4] Brac de la Perrière, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî,” 89. “La barre du kâf se termine souvent par un petit crochet, de même que l’alif est doté d’une queue inférieure placée à gauche du trait vertical de la lettre. Certaines lettres, comme le kâf sont presque anguleuses; a contrario, leâet le khâà l’intiale et la ligature du yâ final avec les lettres précédentes ont l’aspect arrondi d’une boucle; les dâl sont grands et ouverts.” I thank Hugo Partouche for checking my French translation.
[5] See Orthmann, "Tarjuma-yi kitāb-i Bārāhī (occult sciences),” for a description of this text.

30 April 2019

Soviet Labour Unions in Uzbekistan in the 1920s: Views from the Magazine Mihnat

Add comment

As a Chevening British Library Fellow, I am currently working on the British Library’s Turkish and Turkic periodicals published from the 1920s to 1930s. Most of these magazines are written in the Arabic and Latin scripts. This is what unites these materials; what distinguishes them is their coverage of different themes. In particular, a magazine named Mīḥnat provides us with a view of labour unions in Soviet Turkic states. It is a periodical about work, workers, and labour unions in Uzbekistan in the early Soviet period. The magazine was a joint periodical of three organizations: the People’s Labour Commissariat, the Soviet Professional Union, and the Central Social Insurance of the Uzbek S. S. R. It was published in 1926 and 1927. Several volumes of this magazine are held at the British Library under the shelfmark 14499.tt.23. Mīḥnat was published in two languages: Old Uzbek (Chagatai) in Perso-Arabic script and Russian in Cyrillic script. In 1927, the magazine had 1500 subscribers and more than 30 permanent correspondents supplied it with materials. Today, this magazine Mīḥnat is important for us as a way to better understand Soviet labour unions and their activities.

Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Chagatai). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 7-8 (50-51). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Chagatai). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 7-8 (50-51). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)

When the Bolsheviks came to the power, they attempted to create a group of workers that would support their aims. As a consequence, labour unions began as a way to gather craftsmen and workers in one place under one purpose. To this end, Soviet authority needed a link to connect workers with labour unions. In the Uzbek S. S. R., a magazine named Mīḥnat took on this role. Soviet authorities used this magazine to share their views with local workers and to involve every individual possible in labour unions. Every profession had its labour union and these unions obeyed the Central Council of Labour Unions.

The early pages of the first issue of Mīḥnat each year begin with the publication of speeches of officials delivered at the annual congresses of the labour unions. These speeches cover the reports and future plans of the union, including how to increase the membership, the financial state of the union, the range of salaries, unemployment issues, the organisation of cultural events, and the publication of books about the labour union’s activities in the local language to attract local workers, and so on.

Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Russian). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 4 (47). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Russian). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 4 (47). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)

Early suggestions proposed by officials and employees on improving the activities of labour unions concerned administrative issues. In particular, Y. Gārbūnāv offers in his article to put pressure on members, workers and factories to induce them to follow the decisions of labour unions. Later on, a reorganisation of labour unions is proposed based on dividing them into zones to reduce expenses and improve control. Subsequent issues raised concerned the financial aspects of the union with the content mainly dominated by matters such as reducing expenses and increasing the revenue of labour unions. One author named Lāzāvskī writes that the main source of income came from membership fees and, for this reason, he suggested recruiting new members as fast as possible.

One task of the labour unions was to establish rest conditions for workers and to organize their summer holidays. Labour unions became engaged in “social insurance” which, in Soviet Uzbekistan in the 1920s, meant organizing excursions to famous places, establishing social clubs, as well as sending workers to sanatoriums and holiday-homes for recreation. An analysis of the articles in Mīḥnat, reveals the limitations and difficulties faced by the unions because of a lack of financial resources and unfinished administrative procedures. The magazine would offer solutions, for example, by suggesting that the regional branches could be responsible for the allocation of “social insurance” because they knew who most needed it.

Caricature of Lenin’s presence in workers’ dormitories, “Līnīn būrchakīda mīhmānkhāna.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 Woman running away from Soviet-style work, “Bāsh būkhgāltīrning marḥamatī bīlan.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 19 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Left: Caricature of Lenin’s presence in workers’ dormitories, “Līnīn būrchakīda mīhmānkhāna.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Right: Woman running away from Soviet-style work, “Bāsh būkhgāltīrning marḥamatī bīlan.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 19 (BL 14499.tt.23)

Special issues of the magazine dedicated to one specific topic of concern were also published. For example, volume 4 of 1927 was concerned with women members of the labour unions who in 1926 represented 15.7% of the total membership in the Uzbek S. S. R. This issue mentions that the union’s main task was to involve them in the activities of the Soviet labour unions. Soviet authorities believed that local women would only be liberated when economically independent and so, via the Mīḥnat, labour unions offered to fight for the “freedom of women” by creating special schools for them and involving them in manufacturing. Furthermore, planning cultural events for women was seen as one of the best ways to attract them to Soviet ideology. In addition, this magazine was one of the first periodicals in Soviet Uzbekistan to publish an article proposing allowances for women workers for pregnancy and child-birth.

The magazine Mīḥnat usually published letters from factory and plant workers in every volume in a section entitled Maḥallardan khātlār (“Letters from places”). These letters were not limited just to the achievements and problems of the working processes in factories, but also covered issues concerning the active or passive work of the labour unions in them. For example, while a sugar worker was boasting about social clubs and an in-factory bulletin posted on walls promoting socialism in his factory, his colleague in the food industry was complaining that the labour union was not organizing cultural events at his place of work. Some workers wrote letters asking for the opening of a canteen in a factory or the building of medical centres and schools around factories located in the countryside. There were also letters of complaint concerning workers’ economic and social conditions, describing bad working conditions in factories, low salaries, and a lack of housing for workers.

Workers playing cards while on the job, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23) Unsafe working practices, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Left: Workers playing cards while on the job, “Maḥallardan khātlār.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Right: Unsafe working practices, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)

This is just a short description of one of the Turkic periodicals I have been working on. The main goal of my Chevening British Library Fellowship project is to explore and enhance the British Library’s Turkic-language collections. As a part of this project, I am creating a spreadsheet that covers every article in the Turkic periodicals held in the Library and am adding romanized and original script titles of articles and publications, published years, issues and subjects. This has made it possible to document the magazine Mīḥnat based on the data included in the spreadsheet. More than this, my aim is to show how classifying each article in these periodicals helps us to distinguish their different features at the same time contextualising them as part of a whole.

Further reading
Deutscher, Isaac., Soviet Trade Unions: Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1950
Gordon, Manya (1938), "Organized Labor under the Soviets", Foreign Affairs, 16 (3): 537–541

 

Akmal Bazarbaev, Chevening Fellow, British Library Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

 

26 April 2019

Vijayanagara Research Project at the British Library

Add comment

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.

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

Photograph 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).
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).

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

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

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

 

Cam Sharp Jones, Sagera Kazmi and Malini Roy 

12 December 2018

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

Add comment

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.

'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.
'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…?”

'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)
'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…’

'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)

'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.