Over the last several years, working at the intersection of art history, history, museum studies, interpretation and education, I have become increasingly interested in the history that falls outside the main stream, ‘national’ narrative and especially outside any history curriculum in India. The stories, experiences and crossovers at the edge of established historical time periods, in regions long relegated to the shadow of the overarching powers of the day, and those simply ignored in early independent India as irrelevant for study and examination.
Luckily, exposure to growing academic, critical and curatorial focus on these histories has enabled me to develop this interest, my understanding and ways of seeing. The most recent example of this is an exhibition that I had the absolute pleasure to visit on a recent, rushed trip to New Delhi. Nauras – The Many Arts of the Deccan, currently on view at the National Museum.
The exhibition, drawn primarily from the National Museum’s reserve collections, celebrates the rich cosmopolitanism and cultural confluence of the medieval Deccan, through its great artistic achievements. The ‘Deccan’ here includes the sultanates of Berar, Bidar, Golconda, Ahmednagar and Bijapur in south-central India, from the 16th – 19th centuries. National Museum director-general Dr Venu Vasudevan has said that this is the first-ever showcase of Deccan’s art from a time when the region witnessed a lot of give-and-take in its culture.
As the exhibition’s introductory text states, the exquisite arts of the Deccan have been unjustly overshadowed by those of the contemporary Mughal Empire to the north. These neglected arts, and the wider material culture of the region, reflect the syncretism, tolerance and creativity that defined the character of the Deccan sultanates. Wealthy and refined, with a long, open coastline, the Deccan attracted artists, traders, soldiers, entrepreneurs and adventurers from everywhere, and nurtured the new art, language and spiritual forms that emerged from such cultural contact. That this exhibition celebrating the Deccan’s history and art is on view at the National Museum, which for so long and in no small way served to establish those restrictive ‘national’ boundaries for Indian art and history through its permanent displays, makes it even more significant!
I’ve selected, with some difficulty, a few of my personal highlights from the exhibition. (My photography does no justice to the pieces on display!)
In this gorgeous, painted Kalamkari cover, a fanciful palace and gardens is peopled with Persians, Turks, Armenians, Chinese, men and women in varied dress and headgear. In the centre, a woman with a European hat offers the seated ruler a glass of wine. To the left, don’t miss the yogi inspecting a new ‘delectable’ introduced to the region by the Portuguese – a pineapple, seen and tasted for the very first time!
The Portuguese would also introduce tobacco to the Deccan, bringing the plant with them from the Americas. Tobacco became extremely popular in the sultanates and the Deccan would become a major tobacco producing region. Tobacco grown in the Deccan would find its way to parts of South East Asia and the Far East; it was also from the Deccan that the practice of smoking tobacco would be introduced to the Mughal court of Akbar and other regions of the sub-continent.
Naturally, then, the huqqa used to smoke tobacco would also come to be widely manufactured in the Deccan. Which brings us to the Bidri – a form of metalwork for which the Deccan was famous – on display. Huqqa bases are some of the most beautiful Bidri pieces of that time that survive in museum and private collections.
And this particular coconut shaped huqqa base just might be the most stunning and unique huqqa base that you could see anywhere. Originally, hookah bases were globular in shape but unsteady as a result. The more common, bell-shaped hookah base was the solution to this very serious problem!
In this painting of a huqqa stall, titled ‘Commotion in the Bazaar’ we get a sense both of the everyday diversity on the Deccan streets as well as the popularity of the huqqa! As the accompanying label notes, you are reminded of the crowds at any popular bar today!
Paintings of noblemen smoking the huqqa were more common and would travel to influence the painting traditions of the courts to the north. In this painting, a formal garden setting demonstrates the wealth and refinement of the gentleman portrayed. The image crafted by the servant with a fly-whisk, richly detailed carpet, sword in the foreground and the hookah is, however, offset by the little child playing on the carpet! Note the globular base on the huqqa.
In this early experiment in Ragamala painting from the Deccan, Ragini Patahansika is seated blissfully playing the vina after making love, her hair and clothes undone. This particular ragini would lose its popularity and disappear in later years, making this painting all the more significant as one of very few known examples.
Next, a painting of al-Buraq – in popular Islamic tradition, the mythical creature on which the Prophet Mohammed rode into the heavens. The composite creature reflects the visual traditions of Central Asia, Turkey and Iran with the Indian elephant squarely at its centre.
The exhibition gets its name from a collection of songs, the Kitab-i-Nauras, attributed to Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the gifted, ‘singing sultan’ of Bijapur (1556 – 1627). ‘Nauras’, from the 9 rasas of Sanskrit aesthetics or the new rasa of his time, became the symbol of Ibrahim Adil Shah’s rule, with the sultan building a new capital of Nauraspur, around a palace called the Nauras Mahal and instituting a new festival the Id-i-Nauras at which the songs from the book were sung. Nauras was a royal cult that deliberately melded Indic and Islamic forms to bring the sultan’s diverse people closer.
Ibrahim opens the book with praise for Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, the Prophet Mohammed and a local Sufi saint. The sultan refers to himself as a seeker of knowledge, who lived in vidyapur, and whose parents were Saraswati and Ganesh. I will end by quoting from the wall text taken from the book:
Our tongues differ but our feelings are the same Whether we are Turk or Brahmin The most fortunate person is the one On whom Saraswati smiles…
If you are anywhere near New Delhi, I would strongly recommend a visit to the National Museum before the exhibition closes on March 20. It’s been a while since an exhibition gave me goosebumps.
Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan is curated by Dr. Preeti Bahadur and Dr. Kavita Singh. The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Aesthetics Project and has objects on loan from the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.