Monthly Archives: August 2012

Seat of Power: Politics Mughal Style

“Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings” from the St. Petersburg Album,1615-18, Bichitr;
opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper; Purchase F1942.15a

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013.

While walking through the exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran, giving occasional unofficial tours to friends, I have been caught unaware by wandering visitors who ask me, “What’s the highlight of this show?” or “What’s your favorite painting?”

Time and again, I point to the series of allegorical paintings commissioned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir as one of the highlights. Only four such allegorical portraits were commissioned by Jahangir; the Freer|Sackler is in possession of three. They are all showcased side by side in this exhibition. That in itself makes the trio truly special.

One of my favorite paintings from the series is Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. What I find so striking is that key individuals, the international powerbrokers of the 17th century, so to speak, are brought together in a single moment. There is something audacious about the way Jahangir had his court artist Bichitr depict these eminent leaders as mere courtiers at Jahangir’s darbar (court). He manages not only to bring together an Ottoman Sultan and King James I of England (neither of whom ever visited India), but also makes the painting clearly favor the Sufi Shaikh Hussain (a religious scholar) over the foreign rulers. The white bearded figure is first in line, receiving a book from the emperor. Here the custodian of religion extends part of his garment to receive the book; it is an act of submission in front of the Mughal emperor, clearly placing Jahangir at the helm of authority.

Make no mistake: The painting is a bold statement by Jahangir. Some of the most powerful political figures of the early 17th century appear lined up below the emperor. The massive scale of Jahangir’s figure compared to the rest, coupled with his larger-than-life halo, further solidifies how this Mughal emperor saw himself as a world ruler.

Worlds within Worlds is on view at the Sackler Gallery through September 16. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to view all three allegorical portraits side by side!

Explore the paintings in greater depth on our website.

Traveling the “Roads of Arabia”

Nabataean Capital, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia, 1st century CE, sandstone, Al-Ula Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography

Sarah Johnson, research assistant, works in the curatorial department on Islamic and ancient Near Eastern art.

Looking at this object, it may be hard to imagine the extraordinary landscape in which it was created. Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the upcoming exhibition Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I visited the site this object came from.

For many people, Saudi Arabia brings to mind images of undulating sand dunes and occasional camels. Instead, we discovered a much richer and more diverse landscape. After traveling to the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, my colleagues and I arrived in a lush date-palm oasis called Al-Ula, surrounded by tall cliffs. A long cut in the cliffs, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, provided a passageway for caravan traders in the ancient world and its palm forest provided food and shelter. This column capital was created a few miles from the Al-Ula oasis, in the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh. In an arid landscape of large rock formations and cliffs, hundreds of tombs are carved into the rock faces, creating beautiful architectural vistas as far as the eye can see.

Tombs at Mada’in Saleh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stogner.

It is hard to describe through photographs the experience of visiting Mada’in Saleh. Walking around the lavish tombs gives you a sense of the enormous wealth of their patrons, the Nabataeans, who controlled trade routes to Rome and also built Petra. This beautiful place changes the way we see objects like this column capital, and reminds us that each work of art is part of a much larger story and landscape.

The Audience Hall at Mada’in Saleh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stogner.

Stay tuned for more updates on the archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia. Learn the full story in the exhibition Roads of Arabia, opening November 17.

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Everyday Life in the Iron Age

Wild apricots, Tuzusai, Kazakhstan

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

Tuzusai, the little village in Kazakhstan where our team is researching Iron Age burial sites, flourished this summer. The fruit trees were full with ripening cherries, both sour early cherries and sweet late cherries. Wild and domesticated apricots, raspberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries were all ready to be picked; a high school student told us he planned to lay the apricots out to dry on the tin roof of his dacha. Our young neighbor Lyuba stopped by one day after work with two freshwater fish she had just caught in Lake Kapchigai. The wheat turned yellow and the soy plants reached almost a foot tall.

The bounty of today’s Kazakhstan is a reminder of how rich and fertile the Talgar region must have been more than two thousand years ago. Rob Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist, has taken soil samples from trash pits, pit house fill (remains after the pit house dwelling collapsed), and ancient hearths at the site of Tuzusai. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he washed these soil samples using a method called flotation, where the light particles of ancient carbonized seeds are separated from the soil matrix. He has found millet, barley, wheat, and even grape pips. The idea that the Saka and Wusun people of the first millennia BCE grew cereal crops, as well as kept sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, has changed our perspective on early nomadic cultures. There is subtle evidence that the diets of ancient people of Kazakhstan were highly variable, including plants, fish, birds, and other wild animals, as well as the meat and milk of their livestock. In our area, the Ili River runs for hundreds of miles from western China and empties into Lake Balkhash. Fish and other river and marsh resources must have been important in ancient times.

During one of our digs, we found some broken pieces of spindle whorls, small ceramic disks with perforated centers. (When I couldn’t think of the word in Russian for “spindle whorl,” I made the motion of using a drop spindle for spinning wool into thread. Lyuba immediately understood.) Finds of such domestic objects remind us that nomads were members of household groups. How important were women to the basic economy? Did they spin the hair and wool fibers for the clothing worn by an entire household, as the ancient Mayan women apparently did? Who made the large storage vessels, sometimes dripping them with red slip and glaze?

Sometimes the elite burial sites, with their magnificent inventories of gold and silver ornamentation, can cloud our visions of the everyday lives of the commoners. But during the bountiful months of the summer, planting gardens, tending to livestock, fishing, gathering berries and wild fruit, putting up stores for the winter, and repairing their mud-brick houses must have been the average Iron Age person’s main concerns. Our work at Tuzusai, often hot, tiring, and dusty, reminds us again of a simple life.

You Should Be Dancing

Dancing at the Freer|Sackler during the Inspired by India family celebration. (All photos by Neil Greentree.)

On Saturday, more than 7,000 people were inspired by India at our family celebration in honor of the exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran. Bollywood dancers shared the afternoon with classical Kathak dancers to create a synergy of color, light, and movement. Were you there?

What’s your favorite type of dance: traditional or contemporary?

Check out other Inspired by India events on Bento.

Learning to dance Bollywood style.

Traditional kathak dance on stage at the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Introducing Tuzusai

Sod removed from new excavation, Tuzusai, 2012

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view through November 12, Claudia will share her ongoing field work with us on Bento.

Yesterday, our 17-year-old neighbor Nazerke came to our dig site to practice her English. In school Kazakh students have learned about the crude stone tools found in Kazakhstan dating back to the period of Homo erectus (1.8 million to 400,000 years ago). “Wouldn’t it be great to find actual fossil evidence of early humans in Kazakhstan?” Nazerke exclaimed.

Through our archaeological work, our research team expects to learn more about the history of human culture in Kazakhstan. This is important to understanding the context of the objects on display in Nomads and Networks, now on view in Washington, DC.

We are working in Tuzusai. Meaning “salty place” in Kazakh, Tuzusai is an Iron Age site that dates from 400 BCE to 100 CE. In 1991, the year Kazakhstan became independent from the USSR, local archaeologist Feydor P. Grigoriev began excavating the settlement. Our team began excavations here three years later. In 1995, when Feydor worked with us on the Kazakh-American Archaeological Expedition, we spent hours discussing our childhood memories of the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. Now American and Kazakhstani citizens can work on an archaeological dig together. How times have changed!

Over the years, more crew members have joined our dig, often through word of mouth, and taken on a variety of roles. Alec, one of the workmen on the site, also drives the 1994 four-wheel-drive Uhas. Lyuba is responsible for keeping track of the finds, especially the diagnostic pottery fragments: rims, bottoms, handles, and spouts. She writes down the coordinates for each special find and its depth. Perry, my husband, is the transit man, taking all the elevation readings of the excavation units. He uses a thirty-year-old Leitz mountain transit, a surveying instrument for measuring, and reads the elevations from a stadia mark. I take the notes and direct the dig.

To communicate, our team has gained a solid command of “dig Russian.” Last year the Tuzusai dig was multilingual: Kazakh, Russian, and English. This, of course, reflects the nature of language use in Kazakhstan. Kazakh, a Turkic language, has been the national language since Kazakhstan declared independence. Russian is the language of international communications, and English is taught in schools. At our excavations, there is no telling when different languages, cultures, or conceptual ideas may lead to confusion. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Digging an archaeological site is always challenging. This week began slowly. We started by removing the weeds and backfill on last year’s pit houses, storage pits, and a tandoor. We also laid out a grid of 2 m x 2 m square units in an area north of our old excavations. We take down each of our grid units layer by layer, recording the depths for each level. We have now almost finished opening our old excavation units and removing the upper sod levels from our new excavation units.

Our team hopes to learn the history of everyday men and women living on the edge of the Tian Shan Mountains, as well as of the elite, horse-riding warriors who controlled vast regions of the Eurasian steppe. We would like to know what connections exist between the nomadic elite buried in the kurgans and the herders and farmers who lived in the Talgar area during the first millennia BCE. Nomads and Networks is thus not only an appropriate title for the exhibition in the Freer|Sackler, but also could be a motto for our summers in the field.

Next up: Everyday life in the Iron Age.

Inspired by…Art

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album, F1942.15a

Art historian Anna Seastrand led us on a tour entitled Dressed to Impress: Fashioning Allegiance in the Mughal Court. These paintings clearly call for careful looking, so make sure you use the magnifying glasses when you visit. Seastrand helped us look deeply into these amazing works of art and decode the elaborate luxury items worn by the Mughal emperors. Is that just a robe or is it a not-so-subtle symbol of power?

In the above painting, Jahangir wears a pearl earring. We learned from Seastrand that in 1614 the emperor was gravely ill, and wrote that if he recovered he would pledge his allegiance to the Sufi Shaikh: “I would pierce my ear and become his ear-pierced devotee.”

You can see the white pearl in Jahangir’s ear. What’s also interesting is that once the emperor pierced his ear, so did his attendants and members of the court.

Clearly, this emperor knew how to dress to impress.

Inspired by….Kathak Dance

Kathak dancer Prachi Dalal.

Prachi Dalal performs in a program of traditional kathak dance. These include stories from the temple traditions of storytelling, courtly customs, and royal challenges as well as songs of mysticism, devotion, passion, and play. The next (and final) performance begins at 3pm in the Meyer Auditorium.

Inspired by…Cupcakes

Cupcakes with the flavors of India.

The Indian palette is filled with vibrant colors, but the Indian palate…ah, that’s a different story. Thanks to Fraiche Cupcakery, we can not only admire India, but we can get a literal taste as well. Find these yummy cupcakes made with rosewater, pistachio, and cardamom, in the Freer courtyard (and don’t miss the red velvet). According to Fraiche owner, Nina Deva, “We take flavors from different cultures and combine them. It takes a lot of experimenting.” Come and try the delicious results yourself!

Inspired by … Light

In honor of Inspired by India and Worlds within Worlds, Nirupama Rao, the Ambassador of India to the United States, leads a traditional lamplighting ceremony as an auspicious start to this family festival.”India is not easy to embrace in a moment,” she told the overflowing crowds, “You need a lifetime.” Today, I’m sure, is a good place to start…