Kavita Singh: “Real Birds in Imagined Gardens: Mughal Painting between Persia and Europe”.
Real Birds in Imagined Gardens: Mughal Painting between Persia and Europe
By Kavita Singh
The Getty Research Institute, Getty publications, Los Angeles, 2017.
Real Birds in Imagined Gardens, arises out of Kavita Singh’s lecture titled, “Looking East, Looking West: Mughal Painting between Persia and Europe” as part of the Getty Research Institute Council’s lecture series, held at the Getty Centre in 2015. As outlined in the foreword, the book joins the rich stream of ongoing research ‘that transcends the traditional boundaries of Western art history.’ (p.vii)
At the core of the volume, lies the endeavour to underline how Mughal painters enthusiastically received and responded to the arts of Europe. In addition, Singh also considers the interests, precedents and legacies of Mughal painting occasioned through the circulation of objects, ideas and individuals from Safavid Iran to Mughal India (Hindustan).
Singh pans a rich historiography of the genesis of Mughal art by tracing its roots to Persian painting from Safavid Iran and manuscript painting tradition from pre-Islamic India. Closely examining examples from particular iconic paintings, Singh discusses the iconographic and stylistic embrace of Safavid models in early Mughal paintings, as well as analyses the absorption of European engravings and prints into the Mughal visual language. Singh argues that the Mughal artists’ ‘use of European elements was selective, informing some aspects of the painting – faces, clothes, portions of architectural settings – while compositions, symbolic devices, and allusive practices continued to look to Persian poetic and painterly conventions for directions.’ (p. 37)
Singh cites recent scholarly texts which are points of departure from earlier emphasis on “influences” from European and Persian visual traditions to draw attention to ‘aesthetic intention’ (Aitken, 2010), ‘active choices and not artistic passivity’ (Diamond, 2000), ‘demonstrating their (artists’) self-awareness to express certain rhetorical and philosophical concepts’ (Landau, 2009), ‘linking portraiture to the science of physiognomy and the science of oneirology, or dream interpretation’ (Rice, 2011), and ‘reading Mughal painting from within philosophical and mystical ideas of the period’ (Minissale, 2009) (p.9). Singh argues that in broadest terms, to understand the visual intelligence at work in Mughal paintings, it is imperative that that the artworks ‘must be placed in the context of the intellectual history of their times and must be seen in conjunction with not just dynastic history and political ideology but poetry, rhetoric, philosophy, and theology – and also astronomy, astrology, music, medicine, physiognomy, and mathematics, all sciences that deal with humans’ perception of the world.’(p.8)
The volume is divided into eight sections titled, “Two Worlds”, “The Two Faces of Mughal Painting”, “Real Birds in Imagined Gardens: The Poetic Manuscripts of Late Akbari Period”, “Jahangiri Naturalism”, “Rebel Aesthetic for a Rebel Prince”, “Jahangir’s Dream”, “Reflections on a Blue Carpet”, “Mani and Bihzad: Illusion and Allusion in Mughal Painting”.
Over the course of the volume, Singh explores distinct examples of Mughal paintings produced during the reigns of Akbar and his son and successor, Jahangir, to examine ‘self-conscious gestures of hybridity, as artists processed citations from Persian-Safavid and European-Netherlandish art.’ (p.10) Studying certain illustrated folios as examples for noting ‘inconsistencies’ that have bewildered scholars, Singh suggests that they may have been ‘intended as meaningful parallels to the literary rhetoric of the texts they illustrated’.(p.10) Thus, Singh’s scholarly interventions addresses the inclusion of literary, cultural, social and visual theories into the discipline of art history. Singh further proposes that Mughal painting’s hybridity and its frequent recursions to styles that “should” belong to earlier periods appear not as “irrational” lapse but as a conscious manoeuvre.’ (p.11) In the section titled, “Rebel Aesthetic for a Rebel Prince”, Singh makes a strong case for interpreting the revival of Safavid painting, in paintings made for Salim (regnal name: Jahangir) in the late 1590s as a political and rebellious gesture which sought to ‘consciously distance itself from the imperial centre’ (p. 49) after a fallout with his father, Akbar.
The end notes are especially illuminating, where Singh provides important information concerning various historical, artistic and political impulses that add clarity, elaborate the points outlined in the text, lending further volume to her discourse. Singh’s reference to Persian poetry in the title (the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’) is elucidated as she asserts that the various assemblage of styles found in Mughal art is a sophistication, achieved by artists for staging a ‘philosophical debate about the nature of reality and illusion’. (p.11) The trope of the real and the imagined, which is the main point of Singh’s arguments, is particularly addressed in the final two sections of the volume, where Singh concludes that Mughal artists mastered the tools of illusionistic painting, to reveal and conceal embedded poetic meanings addressed to an informed beholder’s eye.
Thus, Singh’s original and subtle analysis counters the field of studies with respect to Mughal art that emphasized a derivative relationship to European models, by bringing fresh insight, revealing her finer eye for details, and extending the current field within the discipline. Singh’s allusion to the notion of the real and imagined, masterfully layered upon the Mughal artist’s endeavour to build a new visual language, offers the contemporary reader a refreshing perspective to glean some of the many riddles concealed in Mughal art. In addition, it also reminds us that the ideas and aesthetics which were cherished in Mughal India continued to be valued until the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), poet laureate of Pakistan, addresses the notion of the “real” and “imagined” in these lines,
Kabhi aye hakikat-e muntazar nazar-a libas-e majaz mein
Ke hazaron sajde tarap rahe hain meri jabeen-e niyaz mein
You are Truth, but you come in the garb of temporality
To whom can I reveal my forehead of devotion and the tens and hundreds of prostrations
In other words, the poet laments that Truth (God) comes draped in temporality, and hence remains an imagined reality; thus, to whom can he (the poet) offer his salutations? Similarly, Mughal art reveals many aspects of history, society, culture and the lived environment in its folios; but embedded within the images are concealed intentions/meanings, that continue to beckon the art historian into stepping across an imagined world in search of reality (truth).
An astounding scholar whose repository includes several publications, Kavita Singh, who was the Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (2017-2019), was recently awarded the Infosys Prize in Humanities, 2018