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The Golden Age of Mogul Art Summons an Opulent World

Paintings from the 'Padshahnama' manuscript, on US tour, convey the splendor of Shah Jahan's reign

Years ago, kings were gods - or thought they were. Shah Jahan (ruler from 1628 to 1658), the Great Mogul, subject of "King of the World: a Mughal Manuscript From the Royal Library, Windsor Castle," considered himself one.

The ruler could well call himself "King of the World," the literal translation of Shah Jahan. He had matchless wealth in gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and more. He built the unsurpassed Taj Mahal in Agra and the Red Fort in New Delhi, while conquering large parts of India including the Deccan Plateau. He counted hundreds of women as wives and fathered innumerable children. He created a court workshop of the best Indian artists and craftsmen.

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Shah Jahan's enormous power is seen in the aura of splendor and authority of monumental buildings like the white marble tomb of the Taj Mahal - built for Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite wife, who died in 1631 bearing their 14th child - and the gleaming perfection of the "Padshahnama" book.

All the paintings of this book - the "Mogul Manuscript" - are having their first public presentation in an 18-month, traveling, international exhibition. The Royal Library recently disassembled the "Padshahnama" book for minor repairs to the binding and edges and felt it was an opportune time to display it.

The exhibition - which is at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through Oct. 13 - is part of the celebration of the gallery's 10th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan.

"The paintings describe a vanished, marvelous world," says Milo Beach, exhibition organizer-curator and director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries. And Ebba Koch, University of Vienna Mogul scholar and exhibit catalog co-author, puts it succinctly, "What the Taj Mahal is to Mogul architecture, the 'Padshahnama' is to Mogul painting."

It is a wonder of a book of 478 text pages, handwritten in courtly Persian script on gold-flecked paper.

The 46 paintings of the manuscript, replete with highly detailed figures, buildings, animals, and landscapes, tell the history of the first 10 years of Shah Jahan's reign with the lavish wedding processions of his four princely sons, courtiers and nobles dressed in elaborate jewelry and gold, formal court ceremonies, ritualistic deer hunts, fierce battles, and graceful dancing girls. The king's reign was considered the golden age of Mogul art and architecture.

These are glowing, intensely colored, and vibrantly alive images, exhibited to full advantage against midnight-blue, plum, slate gray, and forest-green walls, and lighted to perfection. Shah Jahan, a perfectionist himself, would have approved.

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One of the most riveting paintings in the show is "Prince Awrangzeb Facing a Maddened Elephant Named Sudharkar" (1633). Elephant fights were great sport for the Moguls of India. Here, however, the contest has backfired. Instead of charging the other elephant, the elephant Sudharkar has begun running toward the prince, Shah Jahan's third son, mounted on a horse. As in any good Mogul royal tale, the elephant is vanquished and Aurangzeb emerges triumphant and unhurt.

It's a highly charged scene. In the catalog, Dr. Koch quotes the Englishman Peter Mundy who wrote of the incident, "Now wounded, the enraged elephant came even closer and headed straight for the Prince, and even though the face of the earth had been turned into a fiery globe with fireworks and rockets, it was to no avail."

A valuable 18th-century map of Agra, which Koch recently found in a museum in Jaipur, shows how close this fight was to the Taj Mahal. She says, "This is the closest we'll come to seeing Mogul architecture like the Taj Mahal, which was then under construction, in this exhibit." In the background, she points out, is a series of garden palaces by the curve of the river.

In this work, and in another extraordinary painting, "The Capture of Port Hoogly" (circa 1634), the tension between the flat, detailed, Persian-style patterning from Babur, founder of the Mogul dynasty, and the more rounded, three-dimensional realism introduced from the West during the time of Akbar, Shah Jahan's grandfather, is electric and exciting.

It's the yin and yang, opposites playing off each other, that make it charged and unique. Their imbalance make these paintings fascinating, a first step to Surrealism. While the anonymous painter has modeled the enormous elephants with light and shade, used cast shadows, and also created an atmospheric perspective background of soldiers and garden palaces, the main figures of Prince Aurangzeb and his courtiers are still conventionalized in two-dimensional profile view. They're like charming, gold-patterned paper dolls stuck onto a convincing landscape.

It's the same in "Port Hoogly," where the Moguls are throwing the Portuguese out of an important trading port. Another unnamed artist has evoked a realistic town, complete with Gothic church and Mogul war tents on the hill behind. The boats of the fleeing Portuguese, by contrast, are flattened patterns, especially their red heraldic flags.

There is a real attempt at portraiture, however, at which Shah Jahan's court artists excelled. The ships are crowded with more than 50 figures, all individualized. The Westerners appear apprehensive, terrified. Some are outright funny, as they swim in the river, their boat having fallen apart.

The Windsor manuscript was one of the greatest Shah Jahan commissioned. It is the only one to survive and is precious to Indians and Westerners alike. Prince Aurangzeb, who succeeded Shah Jahan as king, did not continue his father's artistic traditions.

The prince murdered his two elder brothers and imprisoned Shah Jahan in a palace in Agra, within sight of the Taj Mahal, until the monarch died in 1666.

The manuscript came into the possession of the Nawab of Oudh, the ruler of an eastern Indian kingdom that had gained power during the Mogul dynasty's decline. He presented the book to Lord Teignmouth, then governor general of India, as a gift for King George III of England in 1797.

It has remained in the British royal collection for the last 200 years, only opened by scholars and royalty. After its American tour, the book will be reassembled and not shown again.

* A complementary Sackler exhibit to 'King of the World' is 'The Jewel and the Rose: Art for Shah-Jahan,' on view through next February. It includes the king's fabled 'Taj Mahal' emerald, manuscript illuminations, foliate designed textiles from Washington's Textile Museum, and a sparkling, intricately cut white marble screen or 'jali.'

After the Sackler, the exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Nov. 20, 1997-Feb. 8, 1998); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 26-May 17, 1998); Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (May 31-Aug. 23, 1998); and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Sept. 6-Nov. 29, 1998).

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