THIS ECLECTIC but relatively neglected art of mediaeval southern India, which existed during a period of roughly 400 years (up to the 19th century,) is currently found in an exhibition at the National Museum (NM) in New Delhi. It was a period when the peninsular belt was particularly cosmopolitan and open to foreign influences. Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan is curated by art historians Dr Preeti Bahadur and Dr Kavita Singh, who have mainly used objects that belong to the museum’s holdings, apart from an important collection of ragamala paintings that is on loan from the National Gallery of Modern Art. It is the first exhibition of the art of the Deccan from the 16th to the 19th centuries to be held in India and allows the visitor to explore the rich and cosmopolitan culture fostered at the time in the sultanates.
Dr Bahadur, along with Dr Singh of Jawaharlal Nehru University have explored the Deccani artworks from the NM reserves since September last year. ‘The long coastline of the peninsula fostered trade contacts with regions as far as Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe and goods from the Deccan were in high demand in many parts of the world. Intercultural contacts also resulted in the adaptation of aesthetic tastes and diverse traditions at the local level,’ says Dr Singh, adding, ‘Deccani advances in music and the arts had a profound influence on Indian art in the north as well.’ Pointing out that the art of the Mughals from this period is widely known and celebrated, but the arts of the contemporaneous kingdoms of Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda, Berar and Bidar in the Deccan have been comparatively ignored.
With its long coastline, abundant crops and rich mines of diamonds and iron, the Deccan has attracted merchants, adventurers and artists from far and near since ancient times. It has fostered a confluence of cultures and of great artistic achievements. In the region, the kingdoms of the Hoysalas gave way in the 14th century to the Bahmani Sultanate, which itself was succeeded by the Deccani Sultantates of Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda during the 16th-18th centuries. The rival kingdom of Vijayanagara also flourished at the same time. Over the 17th and 18th centuries, the Deccani Sultanates fell to the Mughals, and in turn they were supplanted by the Asaf Jahs of Hyderabad. From ancient to modern times, however, and through all these political changes, the Deccan remained a place of wealth, refinement, and cosmopolitanism with skilled workers producing textiles, gemstones, and metalware that were in demand across the world.
The Deccan had always been a place for cross-cultural encounters and it was at the centre of trade between the east and the west since ancient times. In the Sultanate period, its Muslim rulers looked past north India to establish links with the larger Islamic world. Their courts attracted talent from Iran and Turkey. Africans, initially sold as slaves, found their way into the administration and military services. Abyssynians, or Ethiopians, were brought to the Deccan as slaves, but many were also highly skilled as warriors. It was in the Deccan that their talent was rewarded and many rose to become generals, ministers and de facto rulers of the Deccani Sultanates. Out of all the places in the world where Africans were sent as slaves, only in the Deccan did they rise to become rulers.
Trade brought in the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, the English, and Armenians to their kingdoms. Courtiers, warriors, poets and traders flowed into and out of these regions, acting as transcultural agents. To reflect this cosmopoitan nature, the exhibition is split into six sections that opens with the Nauras. Here, Deccani cosmopolitanism is highlighted with its singing and musical sultans, the Mughal presence, trade, foreign and imported goods and royal lineages. Important objects in this section include a painting of al-Buraaq, which is a composite creature believed to be the steed of Prophet Mohammed used for his flight to paradise. The stylistic features of this painting hint at an influence from Persia, also incorporating visual traditions of Central Asia, Turkey and Iran.
Textiles are well represented in the exhibition, including several kalamkari pieces, including a Kalamkari coverlet from Golconda region, circa 1640-50, on loan from the National Museum of Decorative Arts that exemplifies Deccani Cosmopolitanism at its best. The textile was used to cover an item to be traded, and is possibly an import from overseas. The episode depicted is of a Deccani king relaxing in his grand palace that is built in the South Asian architectural tradition. The figures surrounding this palace can be identified as belonging to different regions of the world based on their attire. There are figures from Armenia, the Mughal Kingdom, China, and also Turkey. If you look closely, you can see a yogi inspecting a pineapple a ‘new’ delectable fruit introduced by the Portuguese.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries patterned cotton textiles from the Coromandel coast became prized commodities in the export trade. Workshops in Masulipatnam, Petaboli, and Pulicat produced hand-painted and later, printed textiles, that glowed with brilliant reds, blues, greens and lilacs. The technology of dyes and mordant that produced these intense and unfading colours was not known elsewhere int eh world. The cotton painters and printers invented dazzling designs adapted to the tastes of the markets in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Persian world. By the 18th century, the goods had become so popular in Europe that they upset the balance of trade, and Britain and France banned their import. These textiles were know by many names, kalamaris (drawn by pen), calicos (exported from Calicut), palampores (from palangposh or bedcover), or chintz (from chhint, or patterned).
Also on display is an 18th-century embroidered temple hanging depicting scenes from the Ramayana from Karnataka, or Tamil Nadu. Embroideries are rare in this region that is known for its kalamkari work. It illustrates the coronation of Rama and in the broad central panel, Rama and Sita are seated on a throne attended by sages and followers including Sugriva, Hanuman and others from the monkey army. There is a confluence of cultures in the hanging, as the iconography of Rama, Sita, Brahma and Indra follow pan-Indian models, but the Narasimha evokes a local tradition. Brahma, Indra and the guardians stand under cusped arches that are derived from Sultanate buildings.
Another textile, the centrepiece of the exhibition, is a qanat, or tent panel, dating to the mid-17th century. The five joined panels on show would have lined a tent, or been used as a screen with a palace. Its powerful design and energetic forms typify the arts of the Deccan. In the central panel a two-headed winged creature swoops upon a pair of elephants. This winged creature resembles the mythical ganda berunda popular in South India as much as fantastical dragons are found in Central Asian and Iranian art.
Another section is devoted to a collection of poems dealing with the nine rasas (sentiments) of Indian aesthetics. The Kitab-I-Nauras was written by Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur in 1617, who was not only a great patron, but also an artist, expert in calligraphy, chess, music, painting and poetry. Many portraits show him playing music. He also wrote some remarkable books apart from the Kitab-i-Nauras, which include a manual on chess-playing, as well as a collection of songs. By the 16th century, musical culture in India had undergone a shift, partly in response to the influx of Persian and Arabic musical traditions. Some of these changes were registered in musical texts written from the 13th century onwards that discussed the way music could affect the emotions and the body. From the sound of animals and natural phenomena, to the medicinal effect of music on bodily humours, the domains of raga music expanded into widening cultural arenas. The ragamala tradition captured these ideas and codified them in poetry and painting. It assembled a growing body of ragas into families of parent ragas, with ragas represented as wives, sons, and daughters. It also captured the mood of each raga in verse, or the time associated with its performance. Painters used these to visualise ragamala series.
The Kitab-i-Nauras, was illustrated by Khalillullah, an Iranian calligrapher who worked at the Safavid court before being employed at the court of this ruler. Scholars have ascertained that the ragamala painting traditions of Mughal and Rajput cultures may have originated in Deccan and travelled northwards. These nauras in the book – the nine (rau) rasas of Sanskrit aesthetic and/or the new (now) rasa of the time became the leitmotif of Ibrahim’s rule. He also built a new capital called Nauraspur, centred on a palace called Nauras Mahal where he instituted a festival called Id-i-Nauras at which songs from the Kitab-i-Nauras were sung. The opening verses of the book praise the Hindu goddess of learning Saraswati; the Prophet of Islam; Muhammad; and the Sufi saint of the Deccan, Gesu Daraz. Ibrahim calls himself a seeker of knowledge, who lives not it Bijapur, but in Vidyapur, and whose parents are Saraswati and Ganesh. He says: ‘Our tongues differ but our feelings are the same, Whether we are Turk or Brahim, The most fortunate person is the one, On whom Saraswati smiles, Ibrahim says, the world seeks knowledge, Be focused on the Word, on the guru, on meditation’.
The Deccani Sultanates made extraordinary contributions to the development of music and musicology. One of the Deccani sultans known as a musician and composer was Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah of Golconda (1580-1612), an aesthete, scholar and a poet of high calibre composed a diwan in Dakhini Urdu, which drew upon Persian, Telugu and Sanskrit. Marsiyas, or dirges, composed by him to mourn the martyrdom of Hussain that are still sung in the Deccan to this day.
Other religions were also allowed to practise and Vaishnavism was allowed to flourish in many forms in Southern India. Gujarati merchants, who migrated to the Deccan, also brought their own religious traditions to the region. Several of these were dedicated to the Vallabha Sampradaya, founded in the 16th century by the saint Vallabhacharya. Its adherents worship Krishna through the Pushti Marg, or the path of grace, by which devotees please their god by surrounding him with beautiful sights, scents, sounds and tastes. There is a great emphasis on aesthetics. A special object of the Pushti Marg is the pichhawai, or painted backdrop, that is placed behind the icon. The pichhawai turn the temple in to a tableau as the deity stands in front of a panorama of changing seasons, a current festival, or the bucolic environs of Braj.
In the past, the arts of the Deccan have been overshadowed by the Mughals, so the characteristics of these Sultanates has been overlooked: tolerant, encompassing, and syncretic, however, this exhibition helps to redress this. In the Deccan, all races and religions were able to rise to great heights within these Persian-style courts with Indian vernacular influences, fostering communication across classes and ethnic groups. Sufi and yogic mysticism also merged to form composite faiths. Appealing to the universal power of aesthetic experience, Nauras was a royal cult that explicitly melded Indic and Islamic traditions of cosmology, mysticism, and devotion, that aimed to bind all sections of the populace together in harmony.
Until 20 March, at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi, www.nationalmuseumindia.gov.in. Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700, opens at The Met, in New York, on 20 April.