Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Sample Of Calligraphy From An Album Made For Shah Jahan
India and Iran
Mughal and Safavid, circa 1520-1640 CE
Mughal and Safavid
Materials and technique
Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper
39.2 x 25.4 cm
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a growing interest in art and the art of collecting in the three “gunpowder” empires, beginning with the Safavids in Iran and followed by the Ottomans and Mughals. Not only did more artists exhibit a hitherto rare sense of self-awareness by increasingly signing their works, but the royal and wealthy patrons who compiled or commissioned the albums had the chance to express their own taste and connoisseurship through their collecting. These extraordinary codices were filled with specimens of calligraphy, painting and drawing, including single-page, finished compositions as well as elements of illustrated manuscripts and calligraphy exercises. Artists’ and calligraphers’ works were recognized within the albums for their individual talents and styles - sometimes by glosses added by the patron himself. This folio contains writing samples signed by one of the greatest masters of the nasta'liq script, Mir 'Ali (d. circa 1544 CE), who served in Herat and Bukhara at the Timurid, Uzbek, and Safavid courts and was extolled by Qadi Ahmad in his sixteenth-century treatise on calligraphers and painters (Qadi Ahmad in Minorsky 1959, p. 131). In this sample, the calligrapher has signed two couplets of poetry in the lower left corner of the innermost rectangle on the page, using the Arabic formula, “katabahu Mir Ali” (Mir Ali wrote it). The verses, calligraphed in black but outlined in red, are written in Persian: “My god, if the entire universe should be blown by wind Let not the light of fortune be extinguished And if the entire universe should become flooded with water Let not the mark of the unfortunate be washed away!” More verses in Persian border the main text, set within ten rectangular cartouches alternating with small panels containing colourful floral and vegetal scrolls; they also frame two strips of green, marbled paper on the right and left, drawing attention to the fact that the entire composition of text, image, and border has been created from various cut pieces of paper. A green and gold border of vegetal ornament provides the largest frame around the calligraphy and sets it off from the margins of the folio on which it is mounted. These margins have been treated as a painting surface, on which several different species of flora and fauna appear. The subject matter, painting style and signature - “'Amal-i Dawlat Khan” (the work of Dawlat Khan) - on the outer margins of this page have led to its identification as part of an album made for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58 CE). The careful rendering of the plants, in particular, is typical of the Mughal style, influenced by European plant manuals that reached India via Jesuit missionaries. While the text might be attributed to the early sixteenth century, the album was probably assembled around 1640 CE, at which point the same artist responsible for the margins might have also painted the flowers and cows in the interstices of Mir 'Ali’s text. It is possible the Mughals admired Mir 'Ali not only for his talent but also because of the praise he gave to Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, in one of his poems (Welch and Welch 1982, p. 220). By the time Shah Jahan’s album was compiled, however, Persian poets had been emigrating to the Mughal courts in Agra and Lahore, and the influence once coming from Iran to India now began to move from east to west, initiating the sabk-i hindi, or Indian style, in Iran (Welch 1976, p. 9).
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