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Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 37

A late Mughal album of calligraphy and paintings.

Mughal, <i>c</i>.1730–50

Album of specimens of calligraphy and paintings set into dyed paper margins in ink and opaque watercolour including metallic pigments and gold leaf; painted and lacquered bindings | 33 fols; 42.5 × 27.3 cm | RCIN 1005068

This extraordinary album of calligraphy and paintings was compiled during the reign of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–48) (see cat. no. 39), great-grandson of Alamgir. Its calligraphy specimens, mostly verses of Persian poetry, are not contemporary to Muhammad Shah’s reign. They are ascribed to two seventeenth-century calligraphers who worked at the Mughal court: Abd al-Rashid Daylami and Sayyid Ali Khan, as well as earlier Iranian masters: Mir Emad (see cat. no. 40), Mir Ali and Sultan Ali. The majority of the paintings in the album depict women of the Mughal zanana (see cat. no. 38) or themes from popular literature (see cat. nos 38 and 43). In addition to contemporary paintings by the artists of Muhammad Shah’s atelier, the album includes earlier seventeenth-century works and later reinterpretations of them (see cat. no. 42) reflecting a revivalist trend in Mughal painting of the early eighteenth century.[144] Its borders are all dyed bold colours and decorated with stencilled gold illumination in trellis and floral patterns.

In the 12 years between the death of Alamgir in 1707 and Muhammad Shah’s accession in 1719, the Mughal Empire had five consecutive rulers. Bahadur Shah (r. 1707–12) (see cat. no. 39), already in his sixties by the time he came to the throne, died after only five years of rule, and his four successors were each murdered or deposed. Feuds between rival nobles, coupled with conflicts against the Marathas in the Deccan, Sikhs in the Punjab and other rebellions across the vast Mughal Empire, led to its rapid disintegration. During these years of disarray, rather than actively acquiring experience of statecraft or leading armies, the teenage Prince Roshan Akhtar, later Muhammad Shah, was confined to the harem of the Red Fort.[145] After his accession at the age of 17, he largely left the running of the ever-dwindling empire in the hands of his viziers, content to continue devoting his time to culture and leisure pursuits. He composed poetry in Urdu using the pen-name Sada Rangila (‘Ever-Colourful’), signifying someone who has given themselves over to worldly pleasures.

Muhammad Shah was proud of the cultural and artistic heritage of his predecessors and sought to revive it through his patronage.[146] The fact that he was able to attract painters from across northern India is reflected in a stylistic shift in the works of art produced for him. They contain considerably fewer figures than earlier Mughal paintings and those figures tend to be larger in scale and more heavily outlined, features more common to Rajasthani painting. Imperial Mughal painting also underwent a profound shift in subject matter in the early eighteenth century, mirroring the change in the role and self-perception of the Emperor. From the 1720s we see fewer large durbar scenes and more depictions of his private life, idealised beauties of the harem and interpretations of poetic themes.[147]

  • [144] In this sense, it is very similar to much of the St Petersburg Album (Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg, E14: see Akimushkin 1996). The album was enlarged in Iran but contains many folios dating to the Muhammad Shah period and earlier. It contains equestrian portraits of Muhammad Shah and his son Ahmad Shah, suggesting some of its folios may have belonged to an album arranged by Ahmad Shah when still a prince. Similarly the Nasir al-Din Shah Album (GPL ms 1639) and Ardeshir Album (now dispersed, part of which was sold at Sotheby’s on 23 March 1973, lots 1–38, from the collection of A.C. Ardeshir) all contain material dating to Muhammad Shah’s reign.

    [145] Malik 2006, p. 53.

    [146] For painting during the reign of Muhammad Shah see Roy 2012 and McInerney 2002.

    [147] See Hurel 2010, cat. nos 135–45, 148. 

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