This post is the third in a series about the Stuart Cary Welch Islamic and South Asian Photograph Collection written by the project’s staff and student catalogers in the Digital Images and Slides Collections of the Fine Arts Library.
Written by Logan Heiman
The Stuart Cary Welch South Asian Photograph Collection is a collection of over 60,000 35mm slide images of Islamic and Indian art, which documents artworks from the most prominent civilizations in the Islamicate world spanning the deserts of Uzbekistan all the way through to the Himalayas and onward to the Indian subcontinent. The credit for this collection belongs to its namesake. Stuart Cary Welch made use of his far-flung connections and influence as a renowned curator and art historian to document previously difficult-to-access artworks produced over the course of a millennium. While the Welch collection encompasses artworks of various forms and media in addition to architectural works, painted manuscripts constitute the heart of its contents.
Under the Mughal emperors such as Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), Jahangir (reigned 1605–1627), and Shah Jahan (reigned 1605–1627), royal patronage of the arts produced a great number of paintings, poetry, and exquisite manuscripts chronicling the sumptuous wealth and splendor of the court with its attendant rituals and ceremonies. Such manuscripts displayed the cosmopolitanism and erudition of the emperors for whom they were commissioned. This was also a golden age for Mughal architecture, particularly under Shah Jahan, who commissioned several large monuments including Taj Mahal.[i]
This detached folio from the Jahangirnameh (Memoirs of Jahangir) in the Aga Khan Museum depicts Jahangir appearing before his subjects from a jharoka, or balcony during the darshan ceremony, evoking the royal style of Hindu kings. The darshan ceremony, initiated by Akbar during his reign, emphasized the illuminating power of the emperor through ritual performance.[ii]
Other images convey not only the trappings of imperial wealth in the Mughal court, but also the social arrangements and hierarchy by which the emperor distinguished himself from the nobles and the nobles from the largely Hindu subjects of the empire. Take the example of this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, depicting the Emperor Jahangir in the midst of a darbar. A darbar served an array of purposes including formal discussions of affairs of state and royal ceremonies. Here, Jahangir is seen in an audience hall surrounded by his son Prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) and grandson Prince Shah Shuja, along with courtiers. The position of the courtiers flanking the emperor denotes their privileged status following the strict protocol governing such ceremonies.
Yet another defining feature of Mughal paintings is their striking realism. A painting from the Johnson Album housed in the British Library exemplifies the commitment of commissioned artists to extraordinary detail and naturalism. Jahangir championed this particular style, as reflected in this painting that depicts a hunter scaling a tree. The hunter, whose eyes are set on squirrels high up in the branches, is at the bottom of the tall tree with no shoes. His expression is determined and his right foot is already in climbing action. But, the squirrels above already know that he has no chance. They are going on with their usual business, ignoring the man below. The depictions of squirrels show that the artist spent quite a long time studying them, such that he could accurately capture their busy activities and movements during the autumn season.
The aforementioned images provide just a small glimpse of the artwork documented by Stuart Cary Welch during his long, path-breaking career. Works from the Mughal Empire have been showcased here, and future blog posts will cover the many other empires and societies in which these artworks were generated.
[ii] Jahangir at the jharoka window of the Agra Fort, folio from Jahangirnameh (Memoirs of Jahangir) from Aga Khan Museum’s website: https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection/artifact/jahangir-jharoka-window-agra-fort-folio-jahangirnameh-memoirs-jahangir (retrieved on 11/27/17)
There will be an exhibit of the Welch Collection images at the Fine Arts Library at Littauer Center from January 22, 2018.