“My Enishte believed the same,” Black confessed meekly, “yet it filled him with hope.”
—Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red
We had two hours to cover the ground. Even before we stepped into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India 1100-1900, we knew all was lost. In the fond hope I’d mistaken the closing date, I braved the gift shop attendant’s dour demeanor and inquired.
“It closes January 8th," she said. “It’s already been up three months.” I wanted to respond in our defense that we don’t live here, but of course there was no point. Our time was short, and we had much to do.
I made my choices ruthlessly. I steeled myself to view a small sample in each room, with blinkers on as to the rest. I sailed through, registering a color here, a line there, stopping at random before whatever caught my eye. But what was I seeing? Was I seeing anything at all?
The painting’s permanent home is the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. The painter’s name is Farrukh Beg. The painting, dated 1615, is called A Sufi sage, after the European personification of melancholia, Dolor.
The controversy raging at the time concerned the corrupting influence of “Frankish” painting—the use of perspective, elements of portraiture, and the like. As the painter Enishte Effendi explained,
After beholding the portraits of the Venetian masters, we realize with horror . . . that, in painting, eyes can no longer simply be holes in a face, always the same, but must be just like our own eyes, which reflect light like a mirror and absorb it like a well.Whether change in India provoked a such a deadly argument, I don’t know. But change there was. In India, painters had seen “themselves as part of a crafts tradition that drew from a common pool of pictorial ideas and established iconographies, and therefore considered it inappropriate to identify themselves as a picture’s creator.” The Met exhibit turns this on its head by focusing on “individual artists and their oeuvres through an analysis of style.”
In My Name Is Red, style, to the painter known as Butterfly, was “imperfection,” to be avoided at all costs. “‘[S]ignature’ and ‘style’ are but means of being brazenly and stupidly self-congratulatory about flawed work.”
Yet, in the face of commerce and interchange among societies, stasis necessarily gave way to change. So, too, in the Met exhibit, we learn of Basawan, who, as the result of exposure to European art, introduced perspective and naturalistic trees and rocks.
A Muslim pilgrim learns a lesson in piety from a Brahman (1597-98)
We learn of Aqa Riza, who “favored the Iranian refined decorative approach over Akbar’s earthy naturalism . . . . which ultimately resulted in his loss of favor . . .”. “[I]n the context of Mughal painting of the early seventeenth century, his work appeared inherently conservative, indeed archaic.”
A youth fallen from a tree (1610)
The trajectory from Pandit Seu is instructive, too: one son, Manaku, followed his father’s “stylistic approach—precisely observed figures combined with a continuing preference for a flat application of color.”
South wind cools in the Himalayas (1730)
Pandit Seu's other son, Nainsukh, moved away from his father's style, borrowing, among other techniques, from the naturalism of the Mughal painters.
A Troup of trumpeters (1735-40)
And in the nineteenth century, the artist Shivalal depicted a hunting party crossing a river in a flood, which Met commentary speculates was “inspired by innovations in panoramic photography . . . . It is a surprisingly modern work, painted in the last decade of the century, which boldly asserts the validity of painting in the age of photography.”
Maharana Fateh Singh's hunting party crossing a river in a flood (1893)
Even so, the introduction of photography signified the beginning of the end: “the appearance of the glass-plate camera . . . effectively marked the end of the art of court painting in India. A vogue for the hand-painted photograph provided an interregnum phase, but by the 1870s, the camera had replaced the palette.”
It’s the age-old story: change is Janus-faced, yielding up dazzling gains and irrevocable loss.
For music, I give you A. R. Rahman's Ghanan Ghanan, from the film Lagaan, set in the time of the British Raj.
Credits: The quotations at the head of the post and of Enishte Effendi and Butterfly are from Orhan Pamuk's novel, My Name Is Red. The quotations about the exhibit and its paintings are from Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India 1100-1900, the publication accompanying the Met exhibit. The source of the image of the Sadeler Dolor is here; that of the Dürer is here. The image of the cover of My Name is Red is here. The remaining photographs are mine, taken from postcards of the exhibit and the exhibit publication.