Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan
National Museum New Delhi
Curators Kavita Singh and Preeti Bahadur Ramaswami
April 14 2015
As you walk into the grey toned rooms of Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan exhibition at the National Museum you are greeted by a timeline and a manuscript in a glass case, the mystical and magical characters of which have leapt from the pages onto the wall in the form of reproduced wall decals. You are also greeted by Indian classical music, which floats out of the hushed darkened space, in which pools of light illuminate the paintings and artifacts. The atmosphere is one of delightful discovery, where toys - a buraq (winged steed of Prophet Muhammad) and a gaja-vyala (winged tiger with an elephant head) from the late 19th century - placed at the start of the exhibition establish a mood of imaginative interplay.
The multidisciplinary exhibition Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan, on view from January 27 to April 20, brings together secular and religious paintings, manuscripts, textiles, household objects, arms and armory from the Deccan. With a special focus on the Deccan Sultanates, a series of five Islamic kingdoms - Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda - that ruled the Deccan plateau between the 15th and 16th centuries, the exhibition includes art made as recently as the 19th century. Jointly curated by Dr. Kavita Singh and Dr. Preeti Bahadur Ramaswami under the auspices of The Aesthetics Project, the exhibition shines light on the Deccani arts, which have long been overshadowed by their contemporary Mughal art and architecture.
Nauras has been interpreted variously through the ages, as Dr. Singh highlights in her essay published in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition - even at the time of Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1579-1627), in whom she embodies the syncretism and experimentation that makes the Deccan important and interesting. Ibrahim Adil Shah II was of the Islamic Adil Shahi dynasty (1489-1686), which ruled much of Maharashtra, northern Karnataka, Bijapur and Golconda.
Dr. Singh describes Ibrahim Adil Shah II as ‘erudite, expert in calligraphy and painting, superlative singer of dhrupads and player of the tambur, author of books on chess and music’ who wrote the book of poems Kitab-i-Nauras (on display in the exhibition). The poems, which themselves are not particularly accomplished pieces of literature; deserve attention for they shine a favorable light on this extraordinary artist, patron and ruler. Beginning with an invocation to Saraswati, it extols the Prophet Muhammad and the Deccani Sufi saint Gesu Daraz. The Kitab also praises Shiva, states several times that Ibrahim’s spiritual parents are Ganapati and Saraswati and asserts that the only thing he desires is knowledge. H was a Shia ruler who accepted the Sunni faith, who created a composite identity, which included Hindu and Sufi icons and governed on the principles of inclusiveness. He also founded the city Nauraspur, which he established on the principles of religious syncreticism and political cosmopolitanism, similar to Akbar’s building of Fatehpur Sikri. But Nauraspur added an additional layer, “of an unprecedented faith in the power of aesthetics-in-action. The core conviction…was the power of art and the shared experience of rasa to unite diverse hearts. Through the collective experience of aesthetic emotion, all the different denizens of Bijapur would be brought to a recognition of their common humanity, Ibrahim seems to articulate… [through his writing, lifestyle and patronage].”
Nauras thus was a aesthetic, political and social philosophy but it was also a lifestyle. Dr. Singh tells us that according to a contemporary chronicler, Ibrahim was served a delicious mix of nine wines and it was on this spot, outside Bijapur, that Ibrahim built Nauraspur in honour of the cocktail of nine juices or rasas. But Zuhiri, Ibrahim’s poet-laureate, says that nauras refers to the nine rasas of Indian aesthetics but in Urdu ‘nau’ could be heard as the Persian ‘now’ or ‘new’. Thus Nowras is the new, the ‘fresh fruit’ of the tree of learning.
What makes the Deccan so interesting is its hybrid nature. With borders that extend to the Arabian Sea in the west and bay of Bengal in the east, the Sultanates formed international trade and cultural links. They invited to their courts persons from Africa, Persia, Central Asia and South and South East Asia.
From the 5th century many Abyssinians (called Habshis in India) were brought to the Deccan as slaves. As many of them were skilled warriors they gained freedom and attained high ranks. Habshi Kot, a fort in Bidar, where many high-ranking Habshis are buried, attests their prominence. The most prominent at the time of the Sultanates was Malik Ambar, who controlled the political and administrative affairs of the Ahmadnagar sultanate, defended it against the Mughals and married his children into the royal family. A miniature Portrait of Malik Ambar (1605-10) in the exhibition shows him standing in profile against a violet backdrop, his simple yet expensive clothing with the golden kamarband (belt) and his many weapons mark his status as an important man while his dark complexion, hooked nose, large stature identify his foreign origins.
There are several works in the exhibition that succinctly emphasize the syncretism of the arts of the Deccan. Thus along with the Kitab-i-Nauras is a large rectangular horizontal temple textile hanging with scenes from the Ramayana (Nayaka Period, late 18th c). It includes seven figurative panels, which alternate with panels with floral, geometric and fish motifs. There is also an unidentified encyclopedic astrological text (1669 A.D.), which combines the astrological knowledge of Ajai’b al Makhluqat (Persian book of cosmography compiled by Zakariya al-Qazwini 1203-83) with elements of the Brihad Samhita (encyclopedia including astrology, agriculture, environment, domestic relations, gems and rituals compiled by Indian astrologer and mathemetician Varahamihira 505-587) and Markandeya Purana (Hindu religious text written as a dialogue between the sage Markandeya and disciple Jaimini) blending Arabic and local traditions of knowledge.
A large section of the exhibition is devoted to objects. The curators have highlighted the “speaking object”, as they call it, objects that speak to us through engravings, images and form. A huqqa base extols the pleasures of smoking; a dagger handle turns into a horse’s head, swift in battle; and a jade mortar and pestle from the Qutb Shahi dynasty (17th c.) is inscribed with the inscriptions ‘Ya Shafi’ (O Almighty God) and ‘Banda-i-khaksar Muhammad Qutb Shah’ (the humblest man, Muhammad Qutb Shah). The jade material and the use of gold in the engraving suggests this was a daily use object of the ruler of Golconda.
The exhibition extends its time frame as late as the 19th century to show the longevity to the art and craft traditions of the region. There are Bidriware furniture from the 18th century, Bidriware utensils from the 19th century, a kalamkari prayer mat from the 19th century, a miniature portrait of a Seated Prince sniffing a rose from the late 18th/ early 19th century.
The epitome of the exhibition is two sets of ragamala paintings in an enclosed space (though these are not the only ragamala paintings in the show). Ragamala paintings are a particular genre of mi niature painting that visualizes the Indic music system of ragas and are arranged/ strung sequentially as families in an album. The two sets in the show are quite different - one is a set of 22 folios from an 18th century manuscript from Northern Deccan and the other 44 folios from a manuscript, probably from Bijapur made in the late 18th century. The latter is a flamboyant style with bold colours, great detail, patterning and liberal use of gold, the former is a gem with delicate line, evocative landscapes and sparse but pleasing compositions.
The section is accompanied by music but the lack of information on the music and why it is selected to accompany the paintings and in what way it relates to them is felt by the visitor. There are also some multimedia extensions of the show but they add little to the exhibits, especially the large projection of folios of a manuscript onto a corresponding wall that suffer from being unclear and thus pointless.
Overall the exhibition is beautifully designed. Near a lovely watercolour miniature portrait of a Prince Sniffing a Rose (Golconda, c.1700) is placed a 19th century Angrakha (flowing coat) from Golconda. The floral pattern and colour scheme of Prince’s jama and the angrakha are almost identical, thus bringing the painting and its subject to vivid life.