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Food for Thought: Melons, Mangoes, and Mughals

In “Babur Receives a Courtier,” by Farrukh Beg, the emperor is seen with a bounty of melons before him.
(opaque watercolor and gold on paper, S1986.230)

Although our recent exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran has now closed, many of the images can be viewed in great detail online. Michael Rendelmann, curatorial intern at Freer|Sackler, takes a look at the rich Mughal paintings in terms of a different kind of palate.

Throughout the reign of the Mughals, fruit occupied a special place in court culture as well as on the court’s table. Fruit served not only as a foodstuff, but also as an omnipresent statement of who the Mughals were and how they viewed their relationship with their Indian subjects. Fruit was an edible yardstick of civilization, the cultivation and appreciation of which was a key indication of civilized culture.

Mughal elites famously spent lavishly to grow or import exquisite fruits. Gifts of fruit were a matter of protocol in the upper echelons of Mughal society, and formed an unspoken language of diplomacy. While the Mughal love of fruit remained constant, the varieties consumed and the status ascribed to them tell the story of how a dynasty that emerged in Central Asia became Indian.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was raised on a Central Asian diet that placed tremendous emphasis on the many fruits that passed through the region. In the markets of Samarkand one could purchase sweet apples, lush melons, and a bounty of other fruits from the region’s orchards. Above all other fruit, the melon was most prized by Babur’s people, for whom the fruit was synonymous with home.

While he was conquering northern India, Babur lamented the paucity of the fruit available in his new kingdom. He had melons of Central Asia rapidly transplanted in India, but during Babur’s lifetime, these had limited horticultural success. To the homesick Babur, the fruit was a means of connecting with his long-lost homeland; according to the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he wept upon tasting one.

By the time Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne, 75 years after the death of Babur, a great deal about the formerly nomadic conquerors had changed. The relatively austere fare of Babur’s day had given way to an exotic cuisine that drew from every corner of the vast Mughal Empire. Fruit still occupied a prized place at the table and in ceremonial exchanges, but the available produce had changed dramatically. While later Mughals looked to the fruits of their homeland as a nostalgic statement of their heritage, they were far removed from the nomads of Central Asia. Indeed, the melons over which Babur had wept were now forced to share the table with a variety of new produce, such as the Indian mango, for the favor of the court.

Jahangir may have been a descendant of Babur, but for him, Central Asia was only a story, a homeland to which he was a stranger. India was his home, and the mango, not the melon, his fruit of choice. While Babur had dismissed the mango, Jahangir praised it, declaring that “notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has, to my taste, the flavor of the mango.”

In this painting, “Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas,” the dish to Jahangir’s left bears traditional Central Asian fruits such as apples, grapes, and a melon. The dish to Jahangir’s right bears more exotic fruits such as oranges, lemons, pineapple, bananas, and of course, mangoes. (F1942.16a)

The bounty of fruits arrayed before Jahangir in the image above reveals a great deal about the trajectory of Mughal court culture. Babur and his melons tell the story of a conquering warrior ruling over an alien land. Babur drew comfort from seeking to replicate the flavors of home, to which he always looked back longingly. Conversely, the cosmopolitan Jahangir had truly “gone native” in his new homeland of India. His love of the exotic and the new told the story of a new Mughal, no longer at home riding across the plains of Central Asia, but dining on the riches of the empire in the lush gardens of India.

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Emperors and Interns: Behind the Scenes of Worlds within Worlds

Book cover from a volume of the Gulshan Album, painted with colors and gold and lacquered, India, F1999.2a-b

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. Mekala Krishnan is a curatorial researcher working on the yoga exhibition.

Mekala Krishnan: Tell us about your work at F|S. Maybe describe your typical day in the curatorial department.

Najiba Choudhury: I don’t think there is a typical day for a curatorial intern. There were weeks when I was doing only pure research. You know: scouring for material, poring over books, and writing reports on objects for an upcoming exhibition. Then there is the usual scanning, xeroxing, editing images, and putting together PowerPoint presentations. I was also able to assist my supervisor, curator Debra Diamond, on the Worlds within Worlds exhibition. For a while I was just reading multiple rounds of the label texts for the exhibition, proofreading, and fact-checking. The nature of the work varies wildly, depending on the needs of the department at that moment. You also get to attend talks, events, and storage visits at the Freer and Sackler.

MK: Are there aspects of curatorial work that you hadn’t expected coming in?

NC: The public aspect of a curator’s job surprised me. I hadn’t realized that a BIG part of being a curator is interacting with people. This includes not only communicating with multiple departments within the museums but also with the public. You have to keep in touch with scholars in your field and museum professionals from the other institutions, cultivate relationships with donors and friends of the museums, and talk to the press. Then, obviously, curators have to give exhibition tours and other talks for the general public. It’s a lot!

MK: What was your favorite part of working on Worlds within Worlds?

NC: First of all, it was an amazing learning experience to observe the whole process of putting together an exhibition; so many different departments are involved in the process. It truly is a team effort. But I have to say, the most exciting part for me was going into storage and the conservation labs and just looking at the objects really closely, and listening to the curators and various experts talk about the pieces, discussing their details. It’s almost like going to a jam session. I mean, there have been so many moments when we discovered something new just by looking at art objects together, discussing our thoughts, and hashing out ideas.

MK: Tell us more about the process of putting together an exhibition. How are the paintings chosen?

NC: Worlds within Worlds presented an unique situation in that the exhibition is in honor of the revised and expanded edition of Milo Cleveland Beach’s book The Imperial Image, which presents the Mughal collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. So in some ways, we already had the source material in hand. But the exhibition curators, Debra Diamond and Massumeh Farhad, wanted to add another layer, highlighting the historical and stylistic connections between Persian and Mughal painting traditions. While selecting paintings for the three galleries, we not only tried to pick our strongest works, but also examples that demonstrate the distinct sensibilities of the three Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan), show certain shifts in style and subject based on the emperors’ demands and desires, and demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Mughal courts between the 16th and 17th centuries. I think it’s quite clever the way each painting serves multiple purposes/narratives at the same time.

The literal answer to your question is: One day I came into Debra’s office and the whole floor was covered with printouts of images. She was pairing paintings together and trying to curve out narratives from them, in an attempt to plan a gallery wall. Later on, there were multiple rounds of editing, where Debra and Massumeh would sit together discuss the layout, often removing paintings from the object list and adding new ones.

MK: What can we learn about the Mughal empire from Worlds within Worlds? What new “worlds” did you discover?

NC: The Mughals were highly cosmopolitan. They were very much in touch with the Islamic world (both Persian and Ottoman empires) and also in contact with Europeans through official dignitaries and Jesuit missionaries who visited the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were distinctly aware of local traditions in India, and were in constant dialogue with Hindus, Jains, and Muslims. This cross-cultural interaction and diversity is directly reflected in the paintings that were commissioned by the Mughal emperors, as seen in Worlds within Worlds.

As to discovering new worlds: Even since the exhibition went up, I’m discovering new things every day. Just the other day, I was touring the exhibition with two of my coworkers from the Islamic Department and one of them pointed out the face of a woman poking out of a window in the Noah’s Ark painting. You only see a tiny face, but there is no doubt that it’s a woman. It’s totally cool! I find that it’s moments like these that make working in a Mughal exhibition truly special. The paintings are filled with intricate details; they were meant to be held closely, like a book, and carefully studied. Hence, you are constantly finding new elements.

MK: You were involved with creating the website for the exhibition. Tell us about what you did.

NC: I was involved from the initial stages of creating the online component of Worlds within Worlds. I selected the Mughal paintings on which you can zoom in and click on specific parts for more details. I also helped shape content, which included writing some of the zoomify details, among other things.

MK: What is your favorite zoomify detail and why?

NC: I love the Gulshan album cover details. They are difficult to see even with magnifying glasses, but now people can visit the website to view them with very high degrees of magnification. I love the scene showing a group of Europeans dressed in their fineries, enjoying fine food and music. It’s very much about indulging your senses. And then to its left, there’s another detail showing two ascetics (yogis) scantily dressed who have renounced all forms of pleasure. The way it juxtaposes opposites, indulging your senses and austerity, all in the same page is really interesting to me.

There is another detail from the album cover where you have an adorable cheetah sitting on a horse, next to a royal hunter. I didn’t know before working on this project that a) you can tame a cheetah and b) on hunts the Mughals would take domesticated cheetahs as part of their royal entourage. Every time I see the cheetah, just casually sitting there, it cracks me up!

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran closes on Sunday, September 16, 2012.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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Inspired by…Rangoli

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.

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Inspired by…Bollywood!

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!

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