The authors look at various kinds of artefacts from the museum, including manuscripts, jewellery, weapons, carpets, maps, portraits, cenotaphs, decorative figurines and photographs.
My parents took me to Rajasthan for almost every summer vacation of my childhood. It was probably the worst season to be there but that was the only time in the year when I got so many days off school to go and visit my maternal grandparents in Sirohi. On every such trip, they also tried to schedule visits to temples, forts, palaces and museums in different villages, towns and cities of Rajasthan so that their Mumbai-bred son could learn about his heritage.
These memories were rekindled by a beautiful new volume titled Masterpieces at the Jaipur Court (2022), which is a collaboration between Niyogi Books and the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum at the City Palace in Jaipur. It has been edited by Mrinalini Venkateswaran, a consultant with the museum trust, and Giles Tillotson who is a consultant director overseeing three aspects of the museum trust – research, publications, and exhibitions. The book is made up of short chapters written mostly by visiting scholars from India and other countries who have used the museum’s collections for their research. The rest of the chapters were written by current and former members of the museum’s curatorial team.
The authors look at various kinds of artefacts from the museum, including manuscripts, jewellery, weapons, carpets, maps, portraits, cenotaphs, decorative figurines and photographs. The intriguing chapter by Nadia Cattoni, co-editor of the book Early Modern India: Literatures and Images, Texts and Languages (2018), is about a manuscript of the Kridavinoda (1675), which describes as “a courtesan’s handbook” by Mohan Rai Patur. Cattoni, whose research areas include Sanskrit and Hindi literature with a focus on courtly poetry and women’s writing, had visited the pothi khana of Jaipur City Place in 2012.
Kridavinoda was composed in Brajbhasha by a woman trained in music, dance and other arts. She was at the court of Maharaja Ram Singh I. Cattoni writes, “The content of the book is an exposition of how to behave at court in order to be considered a charming and pleasant courtesan, and to succeed among other courtiers.” In contemporary terms, we could say that it is about etiquette, communication skills, and relationship management. It would be incorrect to think of courtesans merely as sex objects. They enjoyed political and economic power.
I also enjoyed Supriya Gandhi’s chapter on the manuscript of an extract from Risala-i-Sahibiya, “a spiritual autobiography authored by the Mughal princess Jahanara (1614-1680).” The princess, who was Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, is full of praise for her Sufi preceptor Mulla Shah Badakhshi of the Qadiri order. Gandhi, who wrote the book The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India (2020), discovered this text when she visited the City Palace in 2019 to examine a portrait of Dara Shukoh, who was Jahanara’s brother.
Gandhi, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, writes, “Jahanara relates her feelings of awe and wonder when she first glimpsed Mulla Shah from afar. She then narrates an anecdote describing how she used a portrait of Mulla Shah in a spiritual practice, before she had actually seen him.” Dara Shukoh commissioned this portrait for Jahanara as meeting her teacher in person would have “crossed the bounds of propriety for a woman.”
Doesn’t this story remind you of Eklavya and Dronacharya? There are significant differences in terms of finer details but what strikes me as similar is the denial of access to learning to certain individuals because of the place that they occupy in the social hierarchy of their time.
Imre Bangha, Associate Professor of Hindi at the University of Oxford, has been working with manuscripts preserved in the City Palace since 1996. His chapter focuses on a manuscript of unpublished works by Bajid of Amber, who was “an ascetic who lived in the hills at a walking distance from the Amber Palace.” Bangha writes, “According to a hagiography, he was a Pathan nobleman from Sanganer who, after killing a deer, and being moved by its pain, renounced the world and became a disciple of Dadu Dayal (1544-1603).”
This story reminded me of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka who is believed to have sworn off military conquests after he confronted the suffering he had caused on the battlefield in Kalinga. He committed to following the path of the Buddha whereas Bajid began to worship the nirgun (formless). Bangha writes, “His (Bajid’s) memorial near a Dadupanthi hermitage site in the hills reflects his legend as it is a former hunting or watch tower on which a samadhi was built in the 17th century.” The book is filled with such fascinating stories.
Yael Rice, Ebba Koch, Vivek Gupta, Audrey Truschke, Patrick J. Finn, Vandana Bhandari, Gayatri Sinha, Rahaab Allana, Katherine Butler Schofield, Robert Elgood, Aparna Andhare, Laura Weinstein, Shivani Sud, Jean Michel Delire, Sheldon Pollock, Allison Busch, Indira Vats and Rima Hooja are among the many other scholars who have contributed to this fine book. The editors mention that were “asked to pick their favourite object from among those they had worked on recently, so that readers perceive a diversity of voices and views.”
The emphasis on diversity is worth examining a bit critically. There is diversity in terms of the objects that contributors have picked up and written about, and there is diversity in terms of the disciplines and geographical locations in which the contributors have got their primary training. What is easily noticeable, however, is the fact that a large number of them are now affiliated to academic institutions in North America and Europe – parts of the world that continue to dictate how art history is conceived of, written and taught everywhere else.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist, commentator, and book reviewer.
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