The aesthetics of the Mughal-era continue to fascinate people across the world, especially since South Asian culture is known to capture all the five senses. Art critic and perfumer, Bharti Lalwani in collaboration with literary scholar and historian, Nicolas Roth have produced a unique multidisciplinary and sensory exhibition titled, Bagh-e-Hind. Nicolas, a specialist in Mughal-era horticultural writings, selected five paintings depicting garden scenes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for Bharti to translate into fragrance and Edible Perfume. The exhibition is available to view and online, for people to explore and experience across the globe.
We talk to Bharti Lalwani and Nicolas Roth about their co-curation process, the intention and concept behind the exhibition and thoughts on the representation and visibility of South Asian and Islamic art in mainstream museums.
Prince Murad Bakhsh celebrates the spring festival, Delhi or Agra, mid-17th Century;
Austrian National Library
Bharti Lalwani - replies in red
Nicolas Roth - replies in green
How did you develop a partnership as co curators for the Bagh-e Hind exhibition and project?
Bharti: In the summer of 2020, I came across Nicolas’s work via his twitter thread on garden typology in Persianate and South Asian history. A mutual friend had shared it — I thought it curious that someone should challenge assumptions on what the term "chahār bāgh'' actually meant but via erudite tweets with images of garden-paintings, a landscape schematic and a photograph of an historic garden-site.
Bagh-e Hind existed as an idea in my mind since 2018, so I had been discreetly searching for an historian to work with, and it delighted me that Nicolas had a lifetime of gardening experience that enriched his scholarship in a manner completely different from other academics. I then interviewed him for my perfumery journal, and read most of his published papers thoroughly. I contacted him a year later, in the summer of 2021 to ask if he was keen to collaborate over a “small” project. I invited him to select five garden paintings that I would translate to perfume. From there I gradually unfurled my original idea for a grand multisensory exhibition that he found exciting.
In retrospect, I realise why I took years to materialise Bagh-e Hind as a concept. I wasn’t just searching for an historian with specialised plant knowledge but also someone who would be the right type of person. Through his writing, I could grasp his worldview. Nicolas writes in a way that is confident yet his language embodies his gentleness and sense of wonder for the sensual world of 17th-18th century India. I particularly love the lyrical bent in his turns of phrase and his diligence in tracing and growing some of the plant-varieties painted centuries ago.
Since June 2021, we have been in the process of building our partnership virtually which has presented its own sets of challenges. In the course of discussing smells and tastes, our own expressions of anxieties have naturally surfaced, which we overcome by communicating with honesty and placing our trust in one another. We also express awe for each other’s work. His knowledge of plants (and their historical context) and my expertise on plant aromatics are akin to two pieces from opposite ends of the world that come together to form one harmonious unit.
I also think of Bagh-e Hind somewhat selfishly, as our space, where we can exist as we are, choosing on our terms, how we expand our internal worlds outward in ways that are visible and invisible.
Bagh-e Hind is a first of its kind as a multidisciplinary exhibition. Can you tell us more about the process of creating the exhibition from ideation to execution?
Nicolas: After Bharti first approached me with the initial idea of creating scent translations based on a set of paintings, and selecting those initial five paintings, the process became fundamentally about how to communicate scent experiences verbally. With me based in the US and Bharti in India - and the pandemic restricting travel - we had to rely on written notes, video calls, and texting to develop our ideas about how the scenes in the paintings ought to smell and taste and ultimately feel, and for Bharti to then capture these in material creations. For me, as a life-long gardener and someone who is specifically interested in the history of horticulture and the botanical realities reflected in the artwork, the smells of the fresh, living plants are the most real and familiar. In fact, one of my pet peeves are the myriad scented candles, diffusers, and other fragrance products that are sold with names like “jasmine and fig” or “frangipani” or “gardenia” but smell nothing like those plants, just generic and soapy, because so many people have little to no experience of the actual plants. These names just become meaningless marketing terms, with vague associations of lushness and luxury. So for me it was really important that the things we created were a real, authentic reflection of the botanicals depicted in the paintings. Meanwhile, as we discussed the details of the scenes depicted - the seasons during which they are set, the presence of animals, ascetics covered in ash, and so on - Bharti was particularly attuned to all the other subtle olfactory elements these would have evoked: mud, sweat, burnt wood, and so on. We spent a lot of time calibrating the exact qualities of these smells and their associations to each other verbally as Bharti began constructing these scents and flavors and the various elements of the synesthesia boxes through which they can be experienced. Eventually she sent me a first round of samples to smell and taste, and based on that we continued to fine-tune even further - making sure, for instance, that a smell did not just have a citrus note, but exactly the right kind, the warmth of citron and orange blossom as opposed to the acidity of lemon.
Once the actual scent creations were on track, we turned to the website. The actual technical work of setting it up was pretty much all Bharti, but the structure and design we continued to develop in the same sort of exchange. I wanted to make sure to present the painting in an art historical context that is often missing, so we paired each core painting with a whole cluster of stylistically and thematically related works. Similarly, it was important to me to include in each section photographs of the particular plants featured in the artwork and in the scent and flavor creations, so as to truly bring them to life for the audience and highlight their beauty. Bharti meanwhile selected the plethora of gorgeous historic material objects in each section, reflect and expand on the material culture depicted in the paintings themselves, and had the brilliant intuition to make our copious notes from the development of each scent part of the gallery, so as to let our audience partake in the process. We have really kept going in this mode ever since, bouncing ideas off each other and making additions more or less continuously.
Nicolas, as a specialist in garden culture and botanical, horticultural, and agricultural knowledge in South Asia, how did you come up with the five sections of the exhibition, Rose, Narcissus, Smoke, Iris and Kewra?
Nicolas: I was guided by a series of intersecting questions which I wanted to address: Which plants were commonly depicted and had cultural significance? Which commonly depicted plants were important primarily or at least in part because of their scent? What paintings were there that featured these plants in a detailed, clearly botanically identifiable manner? Were the plants, and the idea of scent, central to the intended effect of a particular painting? Does the painting represent a particular genre convention - that is, are there multiple versions of it, or at least a number of paintings of very similar composition and theme?
Prince Having Audience, Mughal, reign of Jahangir, 17th Century;
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
These criteria led me to our core plants and paintings. Rose and narcissus I knew I wanted to include more or less instantly, as soon as Bharti broached the idea to me, and most of the paintings for those sections were already at the back of my mind. Iris and kewra took a bit longer to settle on; kewra I think is a particularly valuable plant to highlight because neither the plant nor the scent are familiar to most audiences today. Even where they are, it is often in very niche applications, as an ingredient in biryani or flavoring for tobacco products. However, in early modern South Asia kewra was constantly celebrated in text and image as an exquisite, precious thing - a plant any fancy garden should have, and perfume whose enjoyment was one of luxuries wealth could buy. It was also often a marker of Indianness, especially in the context of Persian literature - one of the special pleasures of life in the subcontinent, and at times even a marker of its perceived superiority vis-à-vis Iran and Central Asia.
Narcissus (Narcissus tazetta ‘Avalanche’)
The one section whose genesis was a bit different was ‘Smoke,’ because it was actually Bharti who asked specifically for that to be one of the themes. Given how many paintings of garden scenes with fireworks, illuminations, and incense there are, it was an excellent idea, and I think it has yielded some of the most surprising and evocative scent creations - the edible perfume Bharti developed for this section, in particular, perfectly captures the sparkle of fireworks and a hint of the metallic acridity of their smoke in a flavor experience that is startling yet deeply enjoyable.
The perfume translation of “Prince having audience” that holds a prominent narcissus and musk note.
Bharti can you tell us about Litrahb Perfumery and what prompted you to explore aspects of fragrance in Mughal history?
Bharti: I consider LP as an extension of my art criticism, but unlike my writing practice, it actually pays the bills and funds this exhibition. While I have written widely on contemporary art of Southeast Asia and occasionally on art practises of South Asian diaspora and of the Middle East since 2009, by the end of 2017 I felt a need to expand beyond the art world, to escape a binary mode of being and thinking. The dual modes of fragrance and flavour not only enabled me to apply my intelligence in a peculiarly challenging manner, but this format also gave me pleasure - and I thought that to be a radical aspect of expressing critique.
While researching aromatic raw materials, I looked at historically significant South and Southeast Asian paintings and objects in the digitised collections of Euramerican museums simultaneously. So on the one hand, while looking into the history and olfactive characteristics of just one spice, the nutmeg for example, I could unravel the far reaching impact of colonisation between the two regions. On the other hand, I felt an odd frustration about accessing objects of our culture only through pixelated form. It was not so much Mughal history that drew me in but rather, a 17th century Mughal painting in the collection of the Met. The subject of the folio did not move me, instead it was the ornate frame around it that caught my eye, nose and tongue. Embedded in the margins were delicately painted flowers in full bloom - narcissus, saffron crocus, iris, marigolds, roses along with birds flying past dispersed cloud motifs, and winged insects gathering honey as peacocks strut about the lush landscape. I translated the painting into a perfume titled “Bagh-e Hind”. I intended it not as a commodity but as a lens through which to experience and understand the atmosphere of such art. In that temporal space where I could smell and taste the painting, I had an epiphany - These paintings were stuck in museum storage vaults, so what! I could invent artistic, poetic and indeed democratic ways through which to draw their experience out! The fragrance and flavour inventions would let us literally imbibe the sumptuous aspects of our heritage.
"The Emperor Shah Jahan with his Son Dara Shikoh", Folio from the Shah Jahan Albumverso: ca. 1620; recto: ca. 1530–50, Metropolitan Museum
This was a time well before weighty words like "decolonisation" had taken hold in our discourse, and that subsequently appears to have been co-opted by institutions to the point that it rings hollow. To my mind, this is how synesthetic experiences of our history could function with subversion: Bagh-e Hind is at once an invitation to an opulent garden that seduces the audience with all the pleasures it offers via its heady perfume drenched in poetry, all the while camouflaging its thorns, i.e. the nuanced questions around the provenance of these resplendent objects, the circumstances of their removal from their original context, and the sterility with which they are presented in institutions till today - or not presented at all! Most of these paintings and objects we have selected have never been on display in the first place!
Even a deeper consideration of the contemporary fragrance ingredients that I list for each chapter in the show, upturns the dirt around the farming, harvesting, sourcing, labour and trade practises of the multi-billion dollar fragrance/flavour industry, not to mention the strain of climate change on small farming communities. The clues are embedded all across our exhibition, one only need take a close look. In an odd way, given my unusual diaspora background, education and experiences, perhaps only I could hold, construct, and reveal an Outsider perspective that for the first time recontextualises art history by drawing connections to contemporary botany and perfumery practises. But in order to attempt something entirely novel, beyond the high walls of academia, I had to patiently search for an historian who could anchor such fantastical concepts to the context of that period while possessing a set of ethics and sensibilities that aligned with my own.
What are the Synesthesia Boxes and how do they contribute as part of the exhibition experience?
Bharti: In other words, why synesthesia— why not stop with perfume translations as I originally proposed. The historian and I have different smell-references. Through June’21, Nicolas selected paintings and read them for me, while I constructed the corresponding fragrances. By early July, he received from me a parcel that included perfume drafts for paintings 1,2,3 and a proposed scent for the 4th. This is the point where we realised that as we scrutinised the same painting, we took away different olfactive meanings. Painting 1 depicts a rose garden in full bloom, so while Nicolas expected light delicate top notes of fresh rose blossoms, he received from me a perfume translation that while luscious, took into account the well manured soil and dirt that the rose bushes thrived in, the animalic smells of the elephants and horses shown in the painting, the ascetic painted in bluish hue to signify ash on his body and musky body odour, and the odours of the maharana and his courtiers sitting under the hot Rajasthani sun wearing rose garlands that would have been crushed and wilted by noon!
However, as a perfumer I understood what the gardener-scholar meant when he described his expectation of a fresh rosewater-like top note that I could simulate through other elements. So, while the perfume confidently went the way of a hot sweaty musky rose, I produced the sensation of drinking a rose garden through a blend of fragrant rose petals, mint and bergamot tea that met Nicolas’s scent-expectations.
Apart from the perfume and tea, the Synesthesia Box representing the experience of painting 1 includes rose incense that possessed the powdery note Nicolas described, a perfume-soap simulacra of a key garden architectural feature (an octagonal pool of water that appears in many Indo-Persian, Mughal and Rajput paintings); a salty-earthy chocolate spread that simulates a very real umami sensation of eating gritty soil; an edible perfume™ composed of dates, roses and poppy seeds that mirrors the perfume’s musk notes; and a unique edition flacon and incense holder created by my glassblower, and one vintage brass object. So audiences can buy these limited edition artworks in order to experience each painting offline. In fact the sale of these artworks funds the honorariums for my collaborators and essay contributors as I do not accept free labour.
How do audiences experience synesthesia since this is an online exhibition about smell and taste?
Bharti: I thought about this question of online exhibition viewing as I built the site myself and tested the visceral and emotional impact of the galleries on experts from the field of art, perfume, academia, and science, before our launch on 10th September 2021.
Even though the world has moved swiftly online, I have yet to come across a virtual exhibition that lays out navigation modes that genuinely engage me. I recently visited a 3-D exhibition presented by a museum for which the software alone must have cost a small fortune. However, navigating between the displays and their corresponding text/labels was so frustrating that I eventually gave up! Even exhibitions centering scents and smells that I have seen have, in general, lack visual brilliance, neglecting the value of aesthetics required to draw the eye and other senses in. Then there are contemporary art exhibitions that use fragrance in relation to the artwork but once one delves into their concepts, most reveal themselves as gimmicks.
But back to our Bagh — a low budget history-fragrance show with high aesthetic-intellectual impact. I had limited resources and great ambitions to build a “museum show” that should take the viewer’s breath away. I laid out our research in a simple yet effectively luxurious manner, right from the landing page to each of our five chapters split further into four galleries that showcase the paintings, gardens, objects and synesthesia. The first three galleries are straightforward to view, understand and enjoy, the labels mention the source link so audiences can go to the institution-sites to explore further. Photographs of Nicolas’s lush gardens and my selection of magnificent pleasure-paraphernalia from museum and private collections make the appreciation of sensual details in paintings all the richer. The synesthesia gallery meanwhile invites audiences into the process of crafting the perfumes and edible perfumes via photographs and detailed descriptions. I have also presented documentation of my concept sketches for perfume flacons that were then crafted by my local glassblower for this exhibition.
The supplemental elements of combined pleasure-viewing consist of classical Hindustani music matched to each painting, 18th century Urdu poetry, and our own working notes/ dialogue at the end of each chapter that detail our thought process. I have also made transparent the ingredients in the perfumes, a counter-intuitive move for transparency in a trade that singularly values secrecy. All our efforts to leave audiences gasping, through sound, visuals and spoken word aside, I offer curatorial tours to the public which can be booked via our gift shop.
Does the exhibition explore aspects of Islamic art and Muslim cultures?
Nicolas: Yes, though not always explicitly. Much of the artwork we include in Bagh-e Hind was produced at the courts of Muslim dynasties, especially the Mughals, and for the last century or so would have been most commonly studied and displayed under the rubric of “Islamic Art.” Moreover, the research behind the exhibition - and my academic work more broadly - draws heavily on primary texts in Persian and Urdu, languages whose literary traditions generally reflect an Islamic cultural context, even if many writers and significant sections of their audience in early modern South Asia were not themselves Muslim. At the same time, we incorporated several paintings in the exhibition which were produced at Hindu courts and in some cases contain explicitly Hindu references yet share a pictorial idiom and genre conventions with other pieces that would be seen as Islamic. It is in order to let these works speak to each other without being boxed in by the usual identitary categories that we largely avoided explicitly talking about “Islamic art” within the exhibition, and also emphasize that it features Mughal and Rajput paintings. We hope that this brings to the fore some truly remarkable connections. For instance, in the ‘Smoke’ section of the exhibition we feature multiple nearly identical genre compositions of women lighting sparklers and watching fireworks on a garden terrace. In one Mughal version, they are attending to a Muslim Mughal noble; in a slightly later one from the Hindu Rajput court of Kishangarh he has been replaced by the Hindu god Krishna and his consort Radha. Seeing the works together really highlights how a shared regional visual language often transcended distinctions like religion.
The paintings featured are often referred to as Mughal Miniature paintings, why did you intentionally choose not to refer to the paintings as such?
Nicolas: I try to avoid the term “miniature” for a number of reasons. By positing the comparatively small size of many early modern South Asian (and Iranian, Ottoman, and Central Asian) paintings as their salient feature, it implies that there is a “normal” size range for paintings that does not merit such specific terminology. Not surprisingly, that implicit “neutral” painting format appears to be the Euro-American work on canvas meant to be hung on a wall. The term thus indirectly accords an arbitrary primacy to a particular mode of painting that happened to be dominant in Europe and the Americas after European conquest. Moreover, by highlighting the smallness of the works, the term at times leads to them being appreciated primarily for the technical skill involved in producing minuscule details, at the expense of full consideration of the artistic vision and thematic content of the paintings. They are reduced to wondrous, precious pieces of craftsmanship, rather than expressive works of creativity. More concretely, however, the term is sometimes simply misleading. There are many paintings from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century that use the same stylistic idiom, and are produced in the same workshops and by the same artists, as works of “miniature” size but which are actually not that small at all. Our exhibition features several panoramic works from the royal court of Mewar in Udaipur, for instance, which measure 50 cm or more to a side - not huge, perhaps, but definitely not “miniatures”.
There is also a curatorial catalogue on the site which showcases several lead essays from writers across South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. How did you select contributors, compile and curate these essays?
Bharti: My essay “Bagh-e Hind: Resurrected Scentscapes of 17th & 18th Century India” lays the groundwork for the concept and the process for audiences who want a deeper appreciation of art history and exhibition-building made possible through the exploration of contemporary fragrance and flavour. Our curatorial catalogue is still taking shape, and may perhaps morph into a publication in the coming year.
I thought of the catalogue-essays as flowers threaded into a fragrant garland that ties in discourses relevant to South Asia. I have been playing with different ideas, perhaps the catalogue can be a place for discourse on the political implications of tuberose-cultivation in Bangladesh in the 80s and 90s, the history, memory and context of narcissus in Pakistan since Partition, the intricacies of agarwood and sandalwood trade in Assam and Sri Lanka, and so on. I also have a network of excellent fragrance critics and classically trained perfumers who are actively challenging outdated and indeed orientalist norms of categorising and disseminating fragrance knowledge. So many such aspects remain to be explored, I will let Nicolas say more about how he sees the art historical side of the catalogue shaping up.
Nicolas: I have compiled a reading list with mostly academic work on gardens in South Asia, as well their intersections with the history of scent, and Bharti has produced one on perfumery and flavor, including numerous current blogs and podcasts presenting various innovative and engaging approaches to scent and taste and the role they play in art, culture, and everyday life. These reading lists are intended as dynamic, ongoing works in progress - we keep adding new resources to them. We also hope to eventually add resources for the study of other aspects of early modern Indian material and intellectual culture that our project touches on, such as music, textiles, or medical and pharmacological writings. My forthcoming curatorial essay will focus on contextualizing the paintings at the heart of the exhibition and the gardens they depict, including the Indo-Persian literary association they reflect. Along similar lines, a detailed plant list will eventually highlight some of the most historically relevant plant species and varieties from a horticultural perspective.
Was the experience combining the traditional format of exhibition making with technology and digitization challenging? Do you think digital platforms are democratizing culture?
Nicolas: I think it was mainly challenging in a good way, forcing us to think about the structure and logic of our exhibition in new ways, so that visitors would be led, and enticed to explore and discover, through the various layers of the exhibition. On the other hand, it was what made the project possible in this way in the first place: it was the ability to draw from numerous online collections and resources that enabled us to bring back together paintings and material objects that in the real world have been carried quite literally to opposite corners of the planet, and on top of that juxtapose them with the corresponding flower varieties from my garden, the materials of Bharti’s perfumery practice, and creations like the unique perfume bottles she commissions that bring the aesthetic spirit of these works alive in the present.
In that sense, I do think that digital platforms offer the potential of democratizing culture, and Bagh-e Hind is certainly meant as an attempt in that direction. On the other hand, I think there are still some challenges. Well designed, comprehensive digitized collections, for example, are extremely valuable, and one can only hope that more and more museum and library collections are able to develop them. However, often they appear more geared to academic researchers than the general public, and their very existence is not always as widely known or publicized as it should be. When it comes to art historical content, there is also the issue of accurate information. As things are shared and copied freely online, artworks are often taken out of context, misidentified, or attributed to the wrong culture or time period,. There are quite a few Ottoman flower paintings incorrectly identified as Mughal and vice versa floating around online, for instance. To that end, it was very important to us to include thorough, accurate information throughout our exhibit, including links to the sources of images wherever possible.
What are your thoughts on the representation and inclusion of South Asian art and heritage in western Museums and galleries? Do you hope to challenge and change current modes of representation of South Asian art and heritage? Should museums be more transparent with regards to the provenance of artefacts and objects?
Bharti: Museums are public institutions and they are beholden to the public. However, museums have traditionally functioned as direct extensions of the empire, and the empire requires dismantling not reformation. Until that happens, institutions and their curators can stop pretending to be neutral and make transparent those artefacts that have been dubiously acquired — this is why labelling objects appropriately is so important. But it appears that museums are not incentivised to commit to even this straightforward action as it would force an acknowledgement of how these objects have come to be acquired in the first place. Concerning this issue, Sumaya Kassim penned an excellent response titled “The Museum is the Master’s House” (2019) to the newly installed Director of the V & A who published his perverse views against restitution of obviously looted artefacts.
I also respect the work of Dr. Erin Thompson, just to cite a tangential example; Dr. Thompson works together with a network of scholars and activists in Nepal and beyond to track down sacred objects lying in museum collections. We are not talking about colonial loot here, but a series of thefts in the 1980s, 90s, and early 00s, incentivised by the American dollar. Thanks to the ongoing pressure folks like Dr. Thompson steadily apply to institutions that a number of these idols, deities infact, have been returned to Nepal restored to their rightful place of worship, as recently as December 2021! For interested readers, I will add here a recent piece by Dan Hicks that exposes the shocking extent to which museums shirk responsibility by continuing to retain heritage-objects of formerly colonised nations in boxes that haven’t even been opened for over a century! This belies another undeniable fact that museums will not commit to diverse and inclusive hires who can competently decode these items because that will upset the balance of systems built on the foundation of white supremacy.
How do you hope to challenge and change current modes of representation of South Asian art and heritage?
Bharti: While I think about how to address your excellent question here, I am reminded of a deeply unsettling piece written just a few months back by Deepak Naorem, a scholar for whom it took three years to trace a rare Manipuri manuscript at the British Library, even after the curator had denied its existence. He made the mistake of asking for permission to photograph it, at which point the curator rushed to the venue to confiscate and consequently block access to the manuscript claiming it was too fragile and unsafe in his hands. Thus ensuring this manuscript - which is now produced as an illustration from Naorem’s memory - is disappeared all over again!
I think about what it means when a museum claims that objects cannot be brought out on display because they are “too fragile”. Almost 100% of the paintings and objects digitally taken for our exhibition are not on view. So who are they being preserved for? Who has access to them — select few academics? How many of those academics happen to be white and/or from inter-generational wealth? And frankly why does the burden of answering such questions mainly rest on non-white cultural producers? It is this infuriation that triggered the conception of Bagh-e Hind in the first place — how to access our heritage without the privilege of paying for exorbitant visas and getting on flights, without paying the museum their unreasonable licence fees, how to hack their loopholes in order to take what is ours even if just as a gesture in pixel form? The racial hierarchies reproduced by Euramerican museums wherever they go and build is also no secret, where Asian immigrants are visible as their security, clean up and service crew, not to mention the labour that actually builds these monuments for “starchitects'', while treasures from their history are lavishly put on display, their knowledge held under lock and key by curators who can’t even be bothered to point out the nuance between, say, Buddhist art from Sri Lanka, Tibet or Cambodia.
So, among the things my “small” self-funded virtual exhibition can do is to educate my audience, because knowledge is power. Nicolas and I draw attention to rarely seen paintings so sensitively selected and curated by him; I have brought out never-before displayed objects, ornaments, garments and textiles from various collections curated with vintage utensils still used and cared for in South Asia. In the process of bringing out perfumery related paraphernalia, I came across labels with incomplete information, date and specific location of make and dimensions of attar-daani for example, missing, or a paan-daan is mislabelled as perfume holder, or paan-daan boxes only photographed from the outside, so viewers cannot gain a full appreciation of how beautifully they are sectioned on the inside with silver spoons for each condiment. In the case of one early 19th century exquisitely crafted (presumably in silver) rose water holder and a set of syringes for holi (Iris chapter), there is no proper catalogue entry at all! So I had to locate 18th century ornate silver gilt pumps from an auction site.
I searched for objects mainly in museums in the United Kingdom on purpose. The bulk of which were unsurprisingly in the V & A. I tried looking at the collection in the British Museum but the labels - with incomplete information - mentioned that artefacts were “Found/ Acquired”. There is only one painting in our exhibition that comes from here. I have intentionally pointed out in the captions for viewers that a) it is not on display and b) that The British Museum catalogues this painting as "Found/ Acquired: India". It was so nauseating for me to go through their collection and read their catalogue entries, that I decided to exclude the British Museum from my consideration altogether as yet another (futile) gesture to assert power and agency in my capacity as critic-curator. In another instance, I laid out the entire catalogue entry for an ornate flask that the V & A claims was made in the time of Shah Jahan, fell into the hands of Nadir Shah in the course of history ultimately becoming one of the few remaining possessions of (possibly) Duleep Singh who sold it to a dealer who then sold it to an unnamed British institution for GBP 44 in 1906 where it was mislabelled as a rosewater sprinkler! Similarly, the 19th century ornaments (anklets, bangles, women’s garments, head ornaments, toe rings, etc. with unclear provenance) in our Kewra chapter are singing in pain, of their carelessly tossed histories.
Bagh-e Hind is in some form a redressal of injustice but through our gentle expressions of love, care and reparation. We most certainly can disrupt the power of these institutions by moving our audiences with pathos.
At a glance, 30 paintings in our show come from approximately 12 institutions, 99% from institutions in the West (and Australia) and all are not currently on display. Objects come from a more diverse lot: Aga Khan Museum, three institutions in Austria, National Museum New Delhi, two carpets from the Al Sabbah Collection, two items from the Al Thani collection, one from the RISD, and musical instruments come from the V & A. The oldest object in our exhibition, and pre-colonial luxury goods made in South Asia and acquired not via loot, come from Kunsthistorisches museum and the MAK in Vienna. I also located one wildly fragrant 17th century garden painting that most historians are not aware of, from the National Library of Austria.
Austria would not be on anyone's list to locate South Asian/ Indo Persian artefacts of historical value.
Bharti: The connections to lesser known archives in Austria are not random. It is the result of my residency in Vienna some years ago where I forged excellent networks and indeed friendships on my subsequent visit, with academics and museum curators in the cultural sector. Incidentally, one of those museum curators jumped at the sight of a fish shaped perfume flacon, as I tested the exhibition site with him. I included this piece only because it was the one 18th century scent-related object that comes from Pune, where I currently live. I thought it insignificant as the gems in place of eyes are clearly missing, as is the stopper that conjoins at the mouth. However Johannes Wieninger was so excited to see that piece from the V & A because the MAK has a similar fish shaped “rose oil flacon” that is intact, gems and all! During my art critic residency, Wieninger, one of the many professionals who truly indulged me, opened up the museum storage room to let me handle a few artefacts in the MAK collection that are mainly from Japan and China. They do have a small collection of Mughal era carpets, prayer rugs and carpet fragments made in Hyderabad and Lahore which they display so splendidly, however the most significant item in their care is the largest collection of Hamzanama folios which were last shown in an exhibition he curated in 2009, GLOBAL:LAB Art as a message. Asia and Europe 1500-1700. This precious exhibition catalogue has in fact played a quietly consequential role in shaping my vision for Bagh-e Hind.
You also include curated music experiences as part of the exhibition, what was the intention behind this?
Bharti: The music is the ethereal thread that weaves through our exhibition intangibly tying all its various elements in place. I initially invited Berkeley-based architect Uzair Siddiqui to explore some flavour translations that he could produce for audiences in the United States, but our conversation took a turn into his exploration on Classical Hindustani music and the specific emotions they are associated with. We connected our ideas on experiencing scent and music by the season or time of day. For instance, Mitti or “wet soil” is a perfume I produce only during the summer and monsoon seasons. This mirrors his practice of creating playlists of ragas that speak to the joys of the monsoons. Around the time I had this conversation with Uzair, I was also familiarising myself with scholar Dipti Khera’s recently published monumental book that dives into the brilliance with which 18th century Udaipur court painters composed evocative monsoon imagery that is nothing short of spectacular! I also found “Histories Of The Ephemeral”, a podcast by scholar Katherine Schofield on the socio-political power of music in Mughal India to be helpful.
While all these aspects of South Asian history are entirely new to me, on an instinct, I commissioned Uzair to compile a playlist for our Bagh. Uzair made such a stunning shortlist that I decided we did not need to match just one sound to one painting, we could have it all. Off late, I have been getting rather greedy like this — it’s my project, I am beholden to no one except my co-curator who must occasionally rein in my extravagant impulses.
Has the music in any way influenced your curatorial choices?
Bharti: To a great extent, the sound has expanded my understanding of these paintings. Take for instance painting 5 that depicts the Ragini figure seated on a bed of flowers awaiting her lover amid a lush bower. I did not connect with this painting at all when Nicolas selected it, nor did I find his explanation of the painting - beyond the identification of all the trees and flowers - satisfying. Further, I resisted its central note, the musky kewra plant, to such a point that I asked him to select another painting, which went against our general terms of partnership. However, it was Uzair’s selection of “Raag Nayaki Kanada” that clicked into place for me the weight of her expectations and emotions so richly textured in this painting.
I cannot express to the reader how difficult and at times painful it has been for me to build this project, where I have felt such isolation enmeshed with the pressures of my own expectations, longing, pining - all of which I could suddenly see and feel in Kamod Ragini. It is as if the music, with its slow rhythm that swiftly escalates up the scale, brought to life the painting’s atmosphere so dramatically redolent with perfume and tension: the nāyika/rāginī has very carefully selected a bower at twilight, she has patiently collected jasmine flowers and plumeria that diffuse their indolic fragrance so strongly at night, and magnolias that possess a delicate-sweet scent; arranged them in a pleasing manner in the alcove so apparently discreet, she does not want to be found out; that intermingling of desire, anticipation, nervousness, apprehension, belief and faith, all pinned on a lover who has yet to show.
“Raag Nayaki Kanada” not only shaped my responses to the painting but also directed the interpretation of taut nuances in the perfume and edible perfume. Nicolas already spoke a bit of his experience going from painting to perfume-translation, but I will expand on how I thought I could simulate “love, longing and tears” in flavour form, which I created under much strain and oddly, inspiration.
I happened to come across a packet of dried gooseberries/amla at a grocery store - I did a double take as I mistook them for frankincense resin-clumps which are commonly referred to as “tears”. This sparked the idea for some optical trickery! I fixed extracts of tuberose, curry leaf, jasmine, palmarosa and kewra into a sugar-lemongrass-pineapple “dust” that I blended with the candied sour fruit. A piece of this can be enjoyed on its own, or added to white tea included in the synesthesia box for painting 5. The floral extracts and the fruit itself bloom so magnificently intertwining the jasmine notes of the tea leaves. Flowery, tart, salty — now, one can drink the tears of Kamod Ragini.
While I left this batch of perfumed fruit to mature, Nicolas brought his own selection of Rajput paintings for this chapter forward, the last of which — Apparition of a Tree Spirit during Worship (c. 1725) — depicts amla fruit growing abundantly on a tree in the background.
What role does the pleasure aspect play in this virtual exhibition?
Bharti: I have come to recognise pleasure as a potent, radical, political form of self-expression. I will speak only for myself here — we are only two generations distanced from Partition and its entailing material and spiritual loss, and one generation removed from abject poverty. My parents’ generation has lived so modestly that pleasure (the study of art for e.g.) is perceived as unnecessary luxury. In a very real sense this frugality is my inheritance. My generation of diaspora South Asian women are so burdened by our deficits that we focus entirely on over-accomplishing, all the while relegated to invisibility.
Bagh-e Hind then functions as a crucial space where I can learn to shed those burdens. The intellectual and awesome romantic dimensions of this exhibition truly take my breath away, many of these paintings and entailing passionate floral-poetry putting me into a stupor. The musical facet of our show is one that is new to me, so once I finished building the exhibition, I decided to carve out time to do nothing other than to listen to our playlist back to back, which took over three hours. How indulgent that was! I also want to apply henna, however imperfectly, on my hands for no particular reason.
That the pleasures our history and heritage have to offer are not only for the access and enjoyment of the elite, is the political gesture underscored by Bagh-e Hind. This is the reason to highlight objects such as attar-daani crafted in silver with intricate filigree work, its designs beaten and etched by hand, so indulgent to touch, hold, use in real life, that the museums deem too insignificant to even display. I encourage my own feelings of manmarziyan (or entitlement) towards all these fabulous objects so hoarded by such museums — I challenge them to throw open their gates for us.
Bagh-e Hind is my gift to those like me, who have to fight so hard for marginal visibility, so this is our place to revel in.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you and what role can projects like Bagh-e Hind play in its development?
Nicolas: I hope that as an academic category, Islamic art will continue to become more diverse and accommodating, to fully engage with the many zones of cultural and religious encounter and multiplicity where “Islamic” forms were taken up by non-Muslim communities and Muslims, conversely, contributed to artistic traditions that have not been included in the conventional narratives of Islamic art. I think Bagh-e Hind contributes to this development by highlighting painting genres and artistic styles that connected Islamic and Hindu contexts and patrons as well as the shared material culture and literary references that underpin these. As regards future artistic practice, we hope that our project can be a source of inspiration and a resource that artists can draw on across the many disciplines we touch on, from painting to perfumery to garden design.
What has the public response been to Bagh-e Hind?
Bharti: The curatorial tours I have led over the last few months have given me a clear indication of how audiences connect with the various aspects of our exhibition. Actually, guiding viewers through each gallery requires deft storytelling; like a raconteur-magician, I cannot lose them along the way. Through many of these “strolls” as I call them, I draw visitors’ attention to details within each painting that are easily missed, while also explaining how the Objects gallery relates to the Paintings. For example, I love pointing out carpet weights depicted in one painting in the Narcissus chapter and their rather fanciful title in Urdu, “Mir-i farsh” which still tickles me. I was able to locate a complete set of four in the collection of Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore). There is also a gorgeous carpet in the Iris chapter that was made during the time of Akbar around 1600 in Lahore, from the collection of the MAK (Vienna). I draw their attention to 18th-century Urdu poetry that Nicolas curated. I show them what to look for and demonstrate how to read cues and prompts across our exhibition. I consider this intellectual and emotional labour as a means of restitution: I take from academia and redistribute that knowledge to not just South Asians but anyone who shows an interest.
The most important aspect of my tour is the Synesthesia gallery, where I explain how I created each scent and flavour translation, what tastes and smells they invoke. My task really is to spark their imagination, delight and inspire them to look carefully at the world we inhabit. These curatorial tours allow me to take in my guests’ expressions of awe and wonder! Apart from that, folks reach out to Nicolas and myself privately with messages of praise.
Some tell me they do small but pleasurable things to set up a fragrant atmosphere, light incense, or wear sandalwood perfume, in order to enhance their enjoyment of the exhibition. Recently, curator Anuradha Vikram conducted a Smell-o-vision session with undergrad students at University of Southern California. In her Critical Studies class, she guided her students through Bagh-e Hind with the corresponding incense from our show. In her feedback to me, she expressed how enthusiastically her students responded to the Synesthesia part of our exhibition, and that the smell and flavour descriptions and images helped them see the paintings better. Other scholars and educators have voiced a similar sense of inspiration, incorporating discussions on scent and the sensual aspects of material culture more generally in their courses on South Asian history.
What are your plans, hopes and aspirations for Bagh-e Hind?
Our aspiration is to eventually be able to sweep the public off their feet with real-life installations building on our research and virtual exhibition by creating breathtaking floral pavilions, rose water fountains, incense chandeliers incense chandeliers and a Bagh-e Hind kulfi edition that tangibly recreate our core themes: wonder, abundance, love, pleasure, splendour…
Bagh-e Hind intentionally foregrounds a pleasurable approach to history. We take a playful route towards delineating material histories of Mughal-era South Asia by creating experiences of drinking a rose garden, inhaling Urdu poetry, eating the architecture or listening to the painting.
Our work of course did not arise in a vacuum; from an academic perspective, it draws inspiration from a range of work that focuses on the sensory aspects of South Asian history and heritage, including but not limited to smell. There is James McHugh’s wonderful study of smell in ancient and medieval India, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, the work of Daud Ali on gardens and courtly culture in ancient India. For some reason, publications on the Deccan in particular has tended to foreground fragrance and other sensory aspects, including the work of Ali Akbar Husain and a volume of Marg edited by Kavita Singh with the evocative title Scent upon a Southern Breeze. We would also be amiss not to mention Dipti Khera’s magisterial The Place of Many Moods, which argues powerfully and beautifully for the importance of the sensory and emotional experience of particular moments in space and time as the key to understanding the distinctive paintings produced at the court of Udaipur in the eighteenth century. A number of these works appear in our exhibition, including the main painting in the ‘Rose’ section.
Similarly, as curator-gardeners we eagerly await the arrival of pollinators to our Bagh. We invite curators of museums, library collections, botanical gardens, and any institution open to engaging in knowledge production through formats that centre the public while heightening their experience of the more sensory and material, subtle yet awe-inspiring aspects of history and heritage. We want to continue to plant more gardens, both metaphorically and literally, and we are also excited to see what seeds and cuttings people carry away to plant in their own plots. So if you have an idea for a collaboration, or a space or program that would suit an element of Bagh-e Hind, be in touch! This project is meant to be a fertile site for ongoing growth and learning, for us as much as for our audience.
Bharti Lalwani is an art critic and perfumer. Find her on instagram: @ Litrahbperfumery
Nicolas Roth holds a PhD in South Asian Studies from Harvard University. His
research explores the history of gardens and horticulture in early modern India, as well as the material and intellectual culture of the region more broadly. He draws on materials in Persian, Sanskrit, and various forms of Urdu and Hindi as well as painting and other art forms. When not reading 17th- and 18th-century South Asians' accounts of their gardens, he is usually gardening himself. Find him on Instagram @nic_in_the_garden
For more information check out https://www.baghehind.com/
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