Rekindling the magnificent memory of the Mughal Empire is The British Library’s latest project, but it fails to quite hit the mark
The British Library has taken on the immense task of presenting the entire historical period of one of the biggest and most splendid dynasties of world: the Mughal Empire. Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire provides a rare opportunity to witness over 200 Mughal treasures spanning four centuries in one place.
Beginning with Babur in 1562, the exhibition moves through the five Mughal rulers who followed, until the eventual dissolution of the Empire in 1858. Visitors are invited to look into the emperors’ private worlds through neglected stories from the Empire, including their roles as patrons of art, science, literature and architecture. Yet it also provides an insight into dramatic personal stories of love, danger and competition.
This exhibition is curated by Dr. Malini Roy, who is also the Curator of Visual Arts at the British Library. As a result, many of the objects have been drawn from the British Library’s own extensive heritage collection and archives, most of which have not been seen before. Dr Roy herself comments on the “stunning manuscripts, paintings, and jewelled objects from Mughal India, some never before exhibited, opening a window into a long-diminished world… It is with great pleasure that we are able to share our collection’s beauty with a wider audience”.
A specific highlight of this exhibition, around which there are always many visitors huddled, is the painting of ‘Squirrels in Plane Tree’. This iconic piece captures through naturalistic movement, a dynamic scene in which squirrels are fleeing from a huntsman. This piece was painted circa 1605-08 by Abu’l Hasan, a pre-eminent artist of the imperial court who was recognised by both Emperors Akbar and Jahangir for his skills as an artist.
Another piece of particular historical importance is the painting of ‘Prince Aurangzeb as he reports to Emperor Shah Jahan in Durbar’. Dated between 1650 and 1655, this depicts the Emperor Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal, with his official assembly at court receiving his son Prince Aurangzeb. Significantly, this picture precedes the moment ten years later when Prince Aurangzeb would imprison Shah Jahan in Agra Fort and launch the war of succession against his brothers to finally declare himself emperor in 1659.
Aside from paintings, the exhibition does feature a few Mughal treasures such as the gilt crown of the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, a jade terrapin and the wine cup of Shah Jahan. However most of the Mughal Dynasty’s journey is presented through manuscripts or folios, which is to be expected from a collection at the British Library, but means that visitors have to thoroughly engage with each piece to bring them to life with their own imagination.
In addition the deep blue walls and strange wooden scaffolding in the centre of the exhibition room do not necessarily lend to the theme. In this way there seems to be something lacking with this exhibition; despite the quality of the objects on show, the exhibition seems strangely distant and ephemeral, emphasising the fact that the Mughals have now diminished rather than recreating the might that they once were. An interesting Indian historian I met at the exhibition suggested it may have had more of an impact had the rare and significant objects been returned to the sub-continent and placed on show within more apt surroundings.
Thus the British Library has taken on the mighty task of celebrating in one exhibition the strength and splendour of what was an incredible dynasty, from which thousands of stories, legends and most importantly history has stemmed. To an extent it has achieved this, especially through the manner in which it follows each emperor’s rise, fall and achievements. But the exhibition has also proved that attempting to resurrect such a dynamic dynasty in all its glory is too big a task, especially when it’s attempted so far away from home. Yet, as this is the first time many of the pieces in the exhibition have been placed on show, it is worth visiting to catch a glimpse of them before they are returned to a dusty archive.
Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is running at The British Library until Tuesday 2 April 2013.
Image from: http://www.bl.uk
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