Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5
Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.
I first encountered this exquisite chape while visiting the Freer Gallery several years before I began to work here. Created in India during the seventeenth century, it is an ornamental covering for the tip of a scabbard. To my mind, it stands on its own as a work of art.
Indian art of the Mughal period is known for its sensitivity to detail and a delight in forms from the natural world. Like so much great Mughal art, this iron and gold chape exists as a world in itself—one you can return to again and again. And so I used to return to the Freer to rediscover it when it was on display. When it wasn’t, there were plenty of other marvels to enjoy, but I never forgot it and it was one of the first works of art I looked up when I arrived.
Like the leaves and flowers it depicts, the chape appears to have been created effortlessly by nature. It is possible to forget that a skilled artisan painstakingly etched out the fractal, interlocking plant forms and filled them with inlaid gold. There appear to be four or five kinds of flowers depicted—one of them a poppy—and six little butterflies lie nestled in the leaves. The intimate power of its scale and the economy of its form make the chape a marvel to behold. Yes, it was created for wealthy tastes that reveled in fine decoration, but from the vantage point of our consumer culture awash in mass-produced things, this little wonder is a reminder that the natural world is the original source of elegance. A true work of art speaks for itself and can be astonishing at any scale.
Knife made for Jahangir, partially of meteoric iron; Mughal dynasty, 1621, India, F1955.27a-b
Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.
No, it’s true! One of the prized objects in the Freer collection, and perfect for celebrating Meteor Day, is a knife made from a meteor that fell into Emperor Jahangir’s kingdom in the early 17th century. In his memoir, The Jahangirnama, Emperor Jahangir described the scene:
“At dawn a tremendous noise arose in the east. It was so terrifying that it nearly frightened the inhabitants out of their skins. Then, in the midst of tumultuous noise, something bright fell to the earth from above….”
Jahangir’s fascination with unusual natural events—and his power to harness their aura—is revealed by this dagger’s blade, forged from the glittering meteorite. Jahangir further noted that the blade “cut beautifully, as well as the very best swords.”
Happy Meteor Day!
Learn more about South Asian and Himalayan Art in the Freer|Sackler collections.
Celebrating Diwali in Mumbai.
F|S photographer Neil Greentree is in India and captured this photo of Diwali festivities in the Juhu section of Mumbai. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a five-day celebration; its name is derived from Deepavali, meaning “row of lamps.” The festival celebrates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. During the celebration, lamps are lit and houses are cleaned in honor of the goddess Lakshmi. Marigold flowers are woven into garlands. It’s a time to wear new clothes and share sweets with friends and families. Firecrackers are also part of the celebration, helping to drive away evil spirits. As Neil has reported, given how loud it was until 3 am in Mumbai the other night, the score must remain firecrackers 1, evil spirits 0.
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.
From Bollywood to bindi, our Inspired by India family celebration had something for everyone. The day’s events are almost over, but Bollywood film Mugal-e-Azam starts at 5:30.
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 (by leoncio). The next (and final) performance begins at 3pm in the Meyer Auditorium.
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!
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…
Rangoli, the art of painted prayers.
Led by Gayatri Mohan-Iyengar, local Indian women demonstrate the rich tradition of creating complex images on the ground with rice powder. In India, women paint simpler designs on their doorstep each morning and create more complex varieties at weddings and other celebrations.
As David Nash, educator at Freer|Sackler explained to me, “It’s a meditative art, often done at dawn to welcome the new day. The birds and ants then eat the rice powder so that it gradually all but disappears, symbolizing the power of impermanence.”
Working closely on rangoli in the Freer courtyard.
The event goes on until 3pm in the Freer courtyard and is part of Inspired by India: A Family Celebration, in honor of the new exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran.
Learning how to dance Bollywood style.
Bollywood dancing literally kicked off our Inspired by India Family Festival. Ever want to dance like a Bollywood star? You’ll get another chance at 4pm when Nepalese performer Bhim Dahal teaches dance sequences seen in musical films from Mumbai, the Hollywood of India. Lights…Camera…Bollywood!