Experts studied rare Indian miniatures

15.01.2016 | The National Museum in cooperation with the National Library of the Czech Republic realized the restoration and technological survey of two unique Indian miniatures dated to around 1600 – 1611. Richly illuminated and gold-plated miniatures are attributed to The Jahangir Album. The album was compiled for Prince Salim (1569-1627), the future Mughal Emperor who adopted the name Jahangir and ruled between 1604 and 1627.

The album depicted various people and events connected with the life of the Emperor and everyday life at his court. It is prized primarily for its delicacy and the precision of the painting, done in south Indian Dakshin style with perfectly detailed depictions of human figures, birds and plants. Several painters that the Emperor invited to his court cooperated on the album. The greatest portion of the album is preserved in the Golestan Palace Library in Tehran; a set of folia has survived in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin; and several other folia are scattered among various private and state collections around the world. These two unique folia are preserved in the Indian collection of the Náprstek Museum.

The research into these Indian miniatures was conducted in April and May 2015, before one of the miniatures was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the exhibition, “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700. Opulence and Fantasy”. The aim of the research was to obtain new information concerning the creation of these miniatures, the technique used to paint the decorations and the extent of their damage.  The research itself was conducted on several levels, using non-invasive analytical methods. The folia were documented in visible and infra-red light, and the painting was studied using the methods of optical microscopy in incident light, false-colour infrared reflectography, X-ray fluorescence analysis and fibre optic reflectance spectroscopy.

Both miniatures are made on folia of layered paper 42.3 cm long and 26.3 cm (26.5 cm) wide. Each folio has a central painting in watercolours on one side.

The first miniature (A12182) shows a portrait of the Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II sitting on a yellow cushion and playing a tanpura. The sultan ruled the Bijapur sultanate during its heyday and was famous for his enthusiasm for art. He was also considered an excellent musician, and in poems his instrument is referred to as the “Moti Khan” or Royal Pearl. The whole scene takes place in front of three male listeners of various ages who are applauding the sultan. In the background is a servant carrying food, the architecture of the sultan’s court and the sultan’s elephants, Atish Khan and Chanchala. This painting represents the highest quality work of the important painter Farrukh Beg, to whom authorship is attributed on the basis of the inscription on the border of this central motif.

The second miniature (A12183) depicts a young nobleman sitting on the branch of a low tree with a greyhound by his feet.  In both Indian miniatures, above the central scene are two European copperplate engravings, creating a remarkable collage. The Emperor Jahangir collected these European prints. These probably came to India with the Jesuit missionaries.

The reverse side of both miniatures bears an ink-written calligraphic passage of Persian poetry.  On folio A12182, the second frame of the portrait of the Bijapur sultan gives the name of the imperial calligrapher, Mohammad Husain alias Zarrin Qalam, which dates the calligraphy to 1610-1611. On both sides, the remaining area is covered with rich gold painting with floral and animal motifs, and the side with calligraphy reveals five figures in gold ink combined with watercolours. The asymmetry of the central motifs suggests that the folia were placed in the album so that, after opening it, the double pages with poetry alternated with the ones with illustrations.

The illumination technique is modelled, built on a perfect under-layer of carbon ink. The folia are richly decorated in gold powder and gold leaf. The luxurious clothes of the depicted figures are rendered in fine painting and stamped gold. The research confirmed that in both miniatures, with the addition of rare plant-based pigments, the colour palette that was used for painting the decorations was the same as that which was also commonly used in European paintings of this period. In the case of the folio with the portrait of the Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the basic colour scheme was extended with silver dust and yellow, red, blue and green organic pigments that could not be more precisely identified, as collection of samples would be needed. Evidence has been found of changes in the shape of the turbans of the servant and one of the listeners, which are probably related to the original repainting of their fashion style. 

The greatest discovery made during the research was the finding of the signature of the painter Agha Reza in the borders of the A12183 miniature. The sign was hidden in the detailed painting, among the stones of the fireplace, and was discovered by the microscopic examination of this miniature. The signed painter created the gilded border around the central motifs in this folio, and it is likely that he also took part in compiling and arranging the whole album. He was an important Persian painter at the Mughal court.

After the research, the miniature painting with the portrait of the Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II was preserved, before travelling as a rare loan to the exhibition in New York Its first exposure outside Europe aroused the great interest of experts and the general public. The results of the restoration and technological research were presented to the public at the international symposium “Past and Future: Art and Preservation in the Deccan”, held on 11- 12 May 2015 within the exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Written by Martina Ohlídalová and Dagmar Pospíšilová from the National Museum and Jana Dřevíkovská from the National Library of the Czech Republic.

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