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A Blend of Spices

The royal courts of the Deccan region of southern India combined Muslim and Hindu elements in a unique artistic mix.

Portrait of a Ruler or Musician, Bijapur or Golconda, circa 1630

Portrait of a Ruler or Musician, Bijapur or Golconda, circa 1630, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper 8 x 12 inches.

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The place name “Deccan” may not exactly be one to conjure with as far as American ears are concerned—British ones, still ringing with the echoes of Indian imperialism, may be another story—but it soon will be if the Metropolitan Museum’s amazing exhibition “Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy” (on view through July 26) has its way. And it already is having its way—not only because of being a large-scale show at a famous institution like the Met, but because it happens to be one of the best-designed, most comprehensive, and deeply sourced exhibitions devoted to the art, crafts, and design of one culture to be mounted in recent years.

Derived from the Sanskrit dakshina, meaning “south,” the Urdu word Dakan (rendered as “Deccan” by the English when they colonized India) refers to the huge south-central Indian plateau that stretches from the Arabian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east. This geographically distinct region developed a distinctive artistic style under the patronage of the Muslim princes or sultans that ruled it starting in the mid-14th century. That style flourished and reached its height during the 16th and 17th centuries, before the Mughal Empire to the north invaded and put an end to the five sultanates—Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bijapur, Bidar, and Golconda, named for their capital cities—that had divided the Deccan between them.

The Deccan style was courtly, not an art of the people but a refined art for the delectation of a leisure class that wanted every detail of life imbued with aesthetic intent and the highest quality of craftsmanship. It depicted princely activities such as hunting, warfare and diplomacy, falconry, riding elephants, reciting poetry, drinking wine, smoking hookahs, playing musical instruments, and being waited on by retinues of retainers. The best-known Deccan art form is undoubtedly miniature painting, but the Met exhibition does not neglect the others—textiles, sculpture, metalwork, the book arts including calligraphy, and jewelry. All are richly represented, shedding light on each other, in a beautiful, un-confusing installation that groups the artworks into five color-coded zones, one for each sultanate, without any need for wall dividers.

Like all Muslim court cultures of India, Deccani culture was a hybrid that developed out of a long process of Muslim emigration from the north and west. As martially inclined Central Asiatic Turks and Iranians drifted down through the mountain passes into the Gangetic Plain, conquering Hindu kingdoms and setting up their own states, they brought with them not only the Islamic religion but also an elite secular culture whose language was Persian and whose aesthetic was formed not only by Islamic tradition but by Mongol, Chinese, and pre-Islamic Iranian, influences. Once established in India, this cultural mélange absorbed other elements—the colors of the lush Indian landscape, the complex raga system of Indian music (which had iconographic counterparts), and of course the local languages—and made them its own.

The Muslim courts and armies actually created a new language, Urdu (literally meaning “camp language”), based on a North Indian vernacular but with a strong admixture of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words and written in the Perso-Arabic script. The Deccan evolved its own version of Urdu, with more South Indian vocabulary salted in, known as Dakani. Before long, court poets were using Dakani to write the kind of elaborately metaphorical, formal verse that had previously been written only in Persian. Almost anywhere one looks in “Sultans of Deccan India,” looping lines of Persian or Urdu script, as graceful as the lines of poetry they spell out, can be seen—in reed pen on paper, inlaid in gemstones, or hammered into metalwork.

One of the reasons the Met exhibition is so important is that Deccani art has been much less well known and understood than North Indian Muslim courtly art, especially Mughal art. The breadth of work assembled here from museums and private collections in India, the Middle East, and the West by the Met’s team of curators, led by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar, allows the viewer to appreciate the diversity of styles of the five sultanates and yet distill a sense of what makes it all distinctively Deccani. In the sumptuously illustrated, scholarly catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Haidar speaks of the “poetic character and sense of fantasy” in Deccani art: “In painting these qualities are conveyed in part by a lyrical movement of line; a dark, mysterious palette or one with distinctive combinations of glowing color; enigmatic shifts of scale; and an emphasis on mood rather than reality, as the more widely known Mughal school is often thought to educe.”

Many of these traits can be seen in a painting from Bijapur, circa 1660–70, titled Princely Deer Hunters. The two hunters bestride carousel-like horses, one white and the other an unreal-looking pale blue, against a bright green field, with a dark-blue stream running below and a mysterious sky spanning the upper portion of the composition. The sky, which seems alive with activity, is rendered in a technique that resembles marbling. In another Bijapur painting, a portrait of Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah, the sky behind the subject is vivid violet, the trees have an almost pointillist finish, and the Sultan’s robe—identifiable as a Gujarati mashru design, a kind of ikat—is rendered with near-microscopic detail, heightened with gold. The otherworldly Deccani approach to the landscape and sky comes through particularly strongly in a fragmentary late 16th-century ragamala painting—a visual rendering of a musical mode—from Berar titled Peacock in a Rainstorm at Night. The trees, full of tiny birds, look as bright as day, but the sky is black. The long-tailed peacock—a symbol of thwarted love—appears to be flying upside-down through the rain, which is indicated by short white lines. Above it all is a slice of marbled sky, bluish-gray in color, representing monsoon clouds. (The Deccani art of marbling paper, known as abri, reached a level of development where it went beyond being simply a decorative element and was used in figurative compositions. For example, a circa-1625 portrait of a very plump, dignified Chaghatai Turkish lady uses marbling to make up the intricate fabric of her robe and headdress.)

The typical Deccani subversion of scale comes through particularly clearly in Portrait of a Ruler or Musician, a circa-1630 painting from either Bijapur or Golconda, on loan from the collection of Terence McInerney of New York. Considered by the curators to be “probably one of the most important Deccani paintings to have emerged in recent years,” it shows a dark-skinned white-and-gold-bedecked nobleman, his facial expression rendered with unusually naturalistic detail, sitting against a green cushion on a striped carpet with a stringed instrument called a rudra vina in front of him. His son, naked except for a cloth around his neck and shown as minuscule in size, seems to be massaging his knee. The nobleman is also being ministered to by three servants, shown progressively smaller, as if nested one inside the other like Russian dolls. The non-naturalistic scale of the figures is likely symbolic of their relative social importance.

Deccani art was not intended for the common people, but it was by no means impervious to influences from the local populace, which was largely Hindu. The aforementioned ragamala painting, which is inscribed at the top in Sanskrit, not Persian, characters, is an example. Another is an early 17th-century Bijapur painting, Yogini With a Mynah Bird, a wonderful crystallization of the syncretism of the Deccan. Doubled-bordered with Persian inscriptions on a gold and olive-green background, the image is of a dark-skinned female Hindu ascetic, a practitioner of yoga who has evidently left behind a life of luxury, represented by the typically Deccani-style white palace in the far distance, to live in the wilderness and pursue the attainment of occult powers and enlightenment. Her red tunic is in a masculine style, which was emblematic of female ascetics. A bird perches on her right hand, perhaps symbolic of her dominion over the forces of nature. Another painting from Bijapur, by the so-called Bodleian painter, shows a Muslim sufi saint, accompanied by a Hindu yogi, receiving a visitor who may be a prince, indicating that the mystics of the Deccan could wield just as much power as the secular authorities, and that sectarian differences could be transcended in transcendental states of consciousness.

Other local non-Muslim influences came from East Africans, who were originally brought to the Deccan as military slaves and rose to positions of power, and from Europeans, particularly the Dutch, who were making their presence known, not yet as colonizers but as businessmen. They are depicted on dyed textiles known as kalamkaris, engaging in trade negotiations with the sultans’ emissaries. Africans are usually depicted realistically and respectfully—with one notable exception. Malik Anbar, an African, was prime minister of Ahmadnagar in the early 17th century; he is shown, in a mode of surreal revenge fantasy, in a Mughal—not Deccani—painting. We see the Mughal emperor Jahangir standing on a globe resting on a tiny cow resting on a giant fish, shooting an arrow into the severed head of Malik Anbar, which is stuck on a pike, with an owl hovering above it. Tiny Persian insults are scattered about the composition. Since Malik Anbar had put the rout to a short-lived attempt by Jahangir’s father, Emperor Akbar, to conquer Ahmadnagar and was still in power at the time this painting was made, the image must be categorized as strict wish-fulfillment.

The arts of the book were particularly well cultivated in the Deccan’s princely courts and are accordingly well represented in the Met’s exhibition. A manuscript of the Qasida (or ode) in praise of Sultan Abdullah Qutb Shah of Golconda frames rhyming couplets in Dakani with a riot of colorful floral patterns, lozenges, and cartouches. A page from a Bijapuri album features an illumination in the form of a fantastical vase, made up of symmetrical floral and serrated leaf designs, with a whimsical face, which in Europe would be called grotesque, peering out of the vase’s neck. Another book treasure in the show is a 1570 manuscript of the Nujum al-Ulum (Stars of the Sciences), a Persian treatise on astrology and magic said to have been written by the Sultan of Bijapur, Ali Adil Shah I. Presumably it contains everything a prince would need to know of the natural and occult sciences in order to effectively rule his realm, freely mixing Hindu, ancient Greek, and Muslim material. One striking illustration shows a ruhani, a Hindu goddess with the power to determine the outcome of a battle, holding the corpses of soldiers by the hair.

Beyond paintings and books, the three-dimensional objects in “Sultans of Deccan India” are not segregated off by themselves but are placed in close proximity to the flat art, to make that point that the Deccani artistic idea was unitary, and that the culture made little if any distinction between fine art and what we tend to call crafts or artisanship. The same calligraphic verve goes into dishes, cups, military standards, and sword blades that goes into the manuscripts and inscriptions on the paintings. The metal and stone carpet weights on view look like small-scale details of the Deccani royal architecture that is shown in photographs on the walls. The textiles are often figurative, like paintings; and the paintings, in turn sometimes depict textiles being unfurled and used to shield nobles from the weather. Most impressive of all are the jewels, from ruby-and-emerald pendants to a gem-encrusted Quran case to the gigantic, pale pink, amulet-shaped “Shah Jahan diamond,” weighing 56.7 carats. That is fitting, because until the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, the Deccan’s mines were virtually the only source of the precious stones for the entire world.

In the second half of the 17th century, the Mughals under Emperor Aurangzeb overran one Deccani sultanate after another, finally establishing dominion over nearly all of India. On view in the Met show is a wonderful portrait of Aurangzeb in profile, dressed in an olive green tunic embroidered with gold, on his head a turban in darker olive, with gold stripes and an aigrette or feather ornament on top. According to the curators, this more or less typically Mughal portrait has a few telltale features—“its cloth support, florid treatment of woven flowers and arabesque, and sumptuous yet astringent color combinations, all of which suggest that the artist was a native of the Deccan.” As it happened, the last holdout of Indo-Muslim court culture, long after the princely states of Northern India had fallen to the British, was the city of Hyderabad in the Deccan, which was ruled by its hereditary princes until 1948, when it merged into independent India.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: June 2015

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