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Things That Have Interested Me

Eastern Premise

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
27 January 2007

It is well known that the mutual influences of eastern and western art go back a long way, so that Rembrandt, for instance, knew and copied Mughal paintings. What I always forget is that Mughal artists knew and copied European prints. I shouldn't forget this, because one of the most famous results of this influence is in Oxford, where I live. The Ashmolean owns a copy of Dürer's figure of St John the Evangelist, made in 1600 after an engraving that dates from 1510, by a 12-year-old artist at the Mughal court, Abu'l Hasan.

This young man worked under the patronage of Prince Salim, who went on to become the emperor Jahangir and ruled from 1605-27, the fourth of the great Mughal emperors. Abu'l Hasan became a leading portraitist. His copy from Dürer takes the figure of the saint from an engraving of the crucifixion and manages to be at once faithful to its conception and, in the execution of the face, rather strange and non-European.

I can't say with confidence that, if I had been shown this drawing without any advance knowledge, I would have been able to guess what sort of thing it was. It is often illustrated, but Mughal drawings are not as familiar to us as Mughal paintings, where the wealth of decorative detail (the flatly executed patterns of the garments, the floral designs, the geometrical borders) gives you an immediate sense of where you are.

There is a Mughal brush drawing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (this, and the previous drawing, can be seen in Andrew Topsfield's little book Indian Paintings from Oxford Collections, 1994) depicting a gaunt unshaven figure lying on a bed, with a disordered and collapsing arrangement of pillows and bolsters, his jacket open to reveal an emaciated ribcage, his arms thin and his hands like long claws. The subject (the artist is unknown) is identified as the dying courtier Inayat Khan.

Inayat Khan features in Jahangir's memoirs. The emperor records: "He was one of my intimate attendants. As he was addicted to opium, and, when he had the chance, to drinking as well, by degrees he became maddened with wine. As he was weakly built, he took more than he could digest, and was attacked by the disease of diarrhoea, and in this weak state he two or three times fainted." Inayat Khan was put on a palanquin and brought before the emperor. Jahangir was fascinated. "He appeared so low and weak that I was astonished. He was skin drawn over bones. Or rather his bones, too, had dissolved. Though painters have striven much in drawing an emaciated face, yet I have never seen anything like this, nor even approaching it. Good God, can a son of man come to such a shape and fashion? As it was a very extraordinary case, I directed painters to take his portrait."

So the Boston drawing is the work of one of these unnamed court painters. And the Bodleian Library in Oxford owns the painted version of exactly the same scene: the identical figure, the identical lopsided arrangement of pillows and bolsters, but with a simple background, showing a wall with two niches, each containing two vases. Nothing of the drawing's naturalism has been abandoned. This is one of the masterpieces of Mughal portraiture, and indeed one of the touchstones of world art.

This, by the way, is a generally held opinion among those who have studied Mughal art. John Fleming and Hugh Honour, in The Visual Arts: A History, write that "No more coolly objective image of a man confronting death has ever been painted. The beauty of its austerely geometrical structure, its predominantly pallid tone lit only by the carefully placed patches of bright colour and the tiny strip of blue and red ornament in the right-hand corner, glows like a fading ember. Every link with the Iranian style of decorative miniature painting has been severed in this extraordinary work."

This painting is one of around 50 Indian works on display in the Bodleian's tiny exhibition space. It is a free show, and continues until April 28. The paintings have been chosen from the holdings of both the Bodleian and the Ashmolean. Oxford received its first gift of Indian paintings, amazingly enough, from Archbishop Laud, who was vice-chancellor of the university, in 1640. Nobody knows how the Laud album came into the archbishop's collection, but he donated it just before his final imprisonment.

A painting of a girl snake-charmer comes from the "Laud Ragamala" - that is a garland of ragas or musical modes, each illustrated. The Laud album contains 18 pages from what would originally have been 36 or more. The Asavari mode, the snake-charmer's mode, is - as Topsfield informs us - usually performed in the early hours, and derives from the snake-charmer's plaintive melody. The girl, the ragini, is shown sitting on a rock, with one snake in hand, and another two around her neck and her leg. She is bluish-skinned and wears a skirt made of leaves. The thought of Laud having owned this painting, let alone having perused or valued it, is to me very surprising.

It is a curious fact that Oxford owns the earliest Indian paintings and the earliest Indian sculpture to enter a western museum or library. In addition to the Laud paintings, it owns the "Hedges Vishnu", a stone carving donated in 1686 by Sir William Hedges, who was governor of the East India Company in Bengal. And once, when I was being shown the Indian coins at the Ashmolean, a curator pointed out a gold coin that had been donated by the first governor-general, Warren Hastings.

But it is not the case that the library or the museum has been continuously collecting Indian art since the 17th century. Much of the present holdings derives from the imperial period, when colonial administrators were able to buy and collect items from the old princely libraries. All in all, it represents a remarkable collection, but it cannot always be put on display. So these occasional opportunities to see bits of it are worth taking. There is a selection, for instance, of pages from the emperor Akbar's copy of the Baharistan, or "Garden of Spring", a royal manuscript dating from 1595. This gives the exhibition its title - The Flower Garden of Spring: Paintings from Mughal India.

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