The authors examine various types of museum artifacts, including manuscripts, jewelry, weapons, carpets, maps, portraits, cenotaphs, decorative figurines, and photographs.
My parents took me to Rajasthan for almost all my childhood summer vacations. It was probably the worst season to be there, but it was the only time of the year when I had so many days off to visit my maternal grandparents in Sirohi. On each of these trips, they also tried to schedule visits to temples, forts, palaces and museums in different villages, towns and cities in Rajasthan so that their Mumbai-born son could learn about his heritage.
These memories have been rekindled by a magnificent 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, Jaipur. It was edited by Mrinalini Venkateswaran, consultant to the museum trust, and Giles Tillotson, consultant director overseeing three aspects of the museum trust – research, publications and exhibitions. The book is made up of short chapters written mainly by visiting scholars from India and other countries who have used the museum’s collections for their research. The remaining chapters were written by current and former members of the museum’s curatorial team.
The authors examine various types of museum artifacts, including manuscripts, jewelry, 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), focuses on a manuscript of the Kridavinoda (1675), which Mohan describes as “a courtesan’s manual” Rai Patur. Cattoni, whose research areas include Sanskrit and Hindi literature with a focus on courtly poetry and women’s writing, had visited Jaipur City Place’s pothi khana 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 contents of the book are an exposition of how to behave at court in order to be considered a charming and agreeable courtesan, and to succeed among other courtiers. . In contemporary terms, you could say it’s about etiquette, communication skills and relationship management. It would be incorrect to consider courtesans as mere sexual 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 written by Mughal Princess Jahanara (1614-1680)”. The princess, who was Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, raved about 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), came across this text while visiting 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 recounts her feelings of awe and wonder when she first saw Mulla Shah from afar. She then tells an anecdote describing how she used a portrait of Mulla Shah in spiritual practice, before she had actually seen it. Dara Shukoh commissioned this portrait for Jahanara because meeting her teacher in person would have “crossed the boundaries of propriety for a woman”.
Doesn’t this story remind you of Eklavya and Dronacharya? There are important differences on finer details but what seems similar to me is the denial of access to learning to certain individuals because of the place they occupy in the social hierarchy of their time.
Imre Bangha, an associate professor of Hindi at the University of Oxford, has been working since 1996 on manuscripts held at City Palace. Its chapter is about a manuscript of unpublished works by Bajid of Amber, who was “an ascetic who lived in the hills”. walking distance to Amber Palace.” Bangha writes: “According to a hagiography, he was a pathan nobleman from Sanganer who, after killing a deer and moved by its pain, renounced the world and became a disciple of Dadu Dayal (1544-1603).”
This story reminded me of Emperor Maurya Ashoka who is said to have renounced military conquests after facing the suffering he caused on the battlefield of Kalinga. He committed himself to following the path of the Buddha while Bajid began to worship the nirgun (formless). Bangha writes: “His memorial (of Bajid) near a Dadupanthi hermitage site in the hills reflects his legend as it is an ancient hunting or watchtower on which a samadhi was built in the 17th century.” The book is filled with 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 beautiful book. The editors mention that they were “asked to choose their favorite subject from those they had worked on recently, so that readers perceive a diversity of voices and points of view”.
The emphasis on diversity deserves to be looked at with a bit of a critical eye. 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 geographic locations in which contributors obtained their primary training. What is easily noticeable, however, is the fact that many of them are now affiliated with academic institutions in North America and Europe – regions of the world that continue to dictate how the art history is conceived, written and taught everywhere else.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist, commentator and book reviewer.