The art we almost forgot


One of the most comprehensive collections of art on Delhi from Mughal era is on display in New York. If only the Capital could relish it too, says Sunaina Kumar

 (left) Village elders sitting with tax collectors; Ghulam Ali Khan’s image of the Nawab of Jhajjar riding a tiger (right)
Lost in transition? (left) Village elders sitting with tax collectors; Ghulam Ali Khan’s image of the Nawab of Jhajjar riding a tiger (right)

FOUR YEARS after the revolt of 1857, Mirza Ghalib wrote a letter to a friend. “Yes, there used to be a city of this name in the land of Hindustan.” He was lamenting the loss of his beloved Delhi, the daily crowd at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge and the flower sellers’ fair. That Delhi exists in our collective imagination through evocative poetry and extensively researched text. But in a coup pulled off by author William Dalrymple, the Delhi, which was home and muse to Ghalib, comes to life in an exhibition, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi: 1707-1857 displayed at the Asia Society Museum in New York.

William Dalyrymple
William Dalrymple Photo: Shailendra Pandey

It is a pity, though, that the Capital will not witness what is one of the most comprehensive collections of art from the late Mughal period. The city does not have the institutional support to bring a show of this scale home, rues Dalrymple, who has curated the exhibition with art historian Yuthika Sharma.

There are three distinct periods covered in the 100 works on display — the art that survived the reign of austere Aurangzeb and his successors, one that flourished under Emperor Muhammad Shah, a great patron of art and culture and the art from the transitory period under Bahadur Shah Zafar and British officials like David Ochterlony, James Skinner and William Fraser.

Even for someone as immersed in that period as Dalrymple, the exhibition was revelatory. He speaks of discovering a uniquely syncretic form of art that blended Mughal techniques with European conventions. The European idea of perspective was adapted to the Mughal aesthetic of detailing, European watercolours were used as much as mineral-based pigments of the Mughals.

A lady visiting a Saivite shrine
Lost in transition? A lady visiting a Saivite shrine

“The major artists took the best of their heritage and the best of the new ideas,” says Dalrymple. Artists like Nidha Mal, Chitaram, Bhupal Singh and Ghulam Murtaza Khan haven’t received their due. One superstar to emerge is Ghulam Ali Khan and his nephew Mazhar. Khan was a towering figure in Mughal art, as masterful at depicting the coronation of Bahadur Shah Zafar as working on the Fraser album. Commissioned by William Fraser, it captured soldiers, nautch girls, villagers and everyday life from that period. Later, Mazhar was commissioned by Thomas Metcalfe to recreate images of monuments, ruins and shrines of Delhi for what came to be known The Dehlie Book.

On till 6 May, the exhibition is a result of four years of planning and exhaustive sourcing from private collectors and major public institutions across the globe.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.


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