Finding a Broader Self in the Mughals, Ursula Weekes

Dr Ursula Weekes is an independent art historian based in London, specializing in the art and material culture of the Mughal Empire. She is a writer, speaker, and teacher, and is currently finishing a book titled Mughal Court Painting in India for Reaktion Books.


Abu’l Hasan, Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas, c. 1615-16, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 23.8 x 15.4 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.,

 

We talk to Ursula about her journey to discovering a love for Mughal heritage, the importance of the Mughal period to Islamic art history and how discovering Mughal heritage from the past can help us develop the future of Islamic art and culture.



You are an independent art historian, teaching in various university, museum and school settings. When did you develop an interest in Mughal arts, culture and heritage?


I developed a love for all Indian art and culture, not just the Mughals, when I lived in Delhi from 2004 to 2010. It is a wonderful and humbling experience to live in a completely different culture, and I loved the opportunity to visit archaeological sites and to study collections in India.


When we moved from London to India in 2004, I had recently finished my PhD on fifteenth-century print culture in Northern Europe at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and had published my first book, Early Engravers and their Public (Turnhout, 2004). It was a big decision to change the focus of my research to the Mughals, but I was honoured to be awarded a Commonwealth Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. My research project focused on the reception of European prints in the Imperial Mughal painting workshop. European engravings and woodcuts, as well as paintings, were brought in large numbers to India by Jesuit missionaries, merchant adventurers and diplomatic envoys in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Mughal artists were incredibly inventive in the way they appropriated symbols, techniques and concepts from European art, while retaining their own inner artistic vision. Sometimes the engravings were actually pasted into Mughal albums.


Kesu Das, Pensive Woman, dated 1588, with a border of European engravings, Gulshan Album, Gulistan Palace Library, Tehran, Ms 1663, p. 98. Photo: Gulistan Palace Library.

 

For the first two years of my postdoc, I was based at the National Museum Institute in Delhi and thereafter at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Most academics spend their career developing themes from their PhD, so it was a big challenge to get up to speed in Mughal studies and to learn Hindi and Persian. I used to go for Persian lessons in Old Delhi with the inimitable Dr SM Yunus Jaffery. To get there I took a cycle rickshaw through narrow lanes, past at least one beautiful old haveli that housed about twenty buffalo. I loved teaching MA courses on Mughal and Renaissance painting at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Teaching is always an incredibly dynamic experience, which fosters my love for Mughal art and culture as I learn so much from engaging with students.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming book Mughal Court Painting in India?

I was commissioned by Reaktion Books in 2018 to write a general book on Mughal painting, titled Mughal Court Painting in India. It is aimed at educated general readers and students and also has fresh material and analysis for specialists.


The book focuses on the classic period of Mughal art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from Babur to Aurangzeb. It begins with two chapters on historical contexts, the first on Mughal networks and the second on artists, patrons and viewers. The second section of the book takes themes in Mughal art and traces their development. These include the emperor’s image, history & mythology, portraiture, landscape & nature, pleasure, ascetics & angels, madonnas & messiahs.


I still have some writing to do and quite a bit of editing, but I hope it may be published by the end of 2022.


As an art historian, what first sparked your passion for art history?

I always loved visiting the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where I grew up. My father is an eminent medieval historian, and my mother was a classics teacher, so as a child our conversations at mealtimes were always interesting and often about art. My father had to escape Prague in 1939 at the age of three, and by chance our next-door neighbours were also emigrés from Berlin. As they had left Germany earlier in the 1930s, they had been able to bring out their art collection which included works by Cézanne, Toulouse Lautrec and Max Liebermann and these hung on the walls of their modest Oxford home. So, art was all around me. When I was young, we would visit my grandfather in Vienna, and I remember the huge paintings by Pieter Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. They were mesmerising to a seven-year-old. I also loved Velázquez’s portrait of the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa and envied her magnificent blue dress.


Diego Velazquez, The Spanish Infanta in a Blue Dress, 1659, 1.27 x 1.07 m, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Wikimedia

 

What is your favourite archaeological site related to the Mughal Empire?

It seems impossible to answer that question without mentioning the Taj Mahal. To see it emerge from the pre-dawn mist and gradually turn pink and then golden with the rising sun against a blue sky is an experience one can never forget. I love how the four minarets are like giant pegs, pinning down a cloud-like building which otherwise would float ethereally to heaven!


Taj Mahal seen through Gulmohar flowers, photographed in 2007. Photo: Ursula Weekes.

 

I also love the whole complex of archaeological sites at Humayun’s Tomb. It is close to where we lived in Delhi and we would go there often. My favourite lesser-known part is the fascinating Arab serai to the south west of Humayun’s tomb. The main quadrangle has small rooms built into the perimeter walls for merchants and travellers. According to an architectural inscription recorded in the nineteenth century but now destroyed, it was founded by the ‘Heavenly magnifying Nawab Begum’ in 1578-9. Traditionally the serai has been associated with Bega Begum (Hajji Begum), the first wife of Humayun.


A smaller rectangular quadrangle was a bazaar for the serai built in the early seventeenth century. The East Gate of this quadrangle has remnants of beautiful tile decoration dating from Jahangir’s reign and has recently been restored by the Aga Khan Trust. The gate has an inscription stating it was commissioned by ‘Mihr Banu’, apparently identifying Nur Jahan, wife of emperor Jahangir, as the patron. She certainly built important serais at several other locations. These serais were the trade hubs and motels of the Mughal empire. Royal women were very important in advancing the trade networks of the Mughal empire, both as architectural patrons of these safe havens for travelling caravans and as investors themselves.


Eastern Gate of the Arab Sarai, Delhi, c. 1611-27, photographed in 2019. Photo: Kevin Standage.


Interior of the Arab Sarai, Delhi, c. 1578-9. Photo: Wikipedia.


Aerial View of the Arab Sarai, c. 1611-27. Photo: Still shot from Outlook Traveller on YouTube.

 

What is particularly fascinating and relatively unknown about the arts and culture of the Mughal Empire?

I am fascinated by the identities of the painters who worked in the imperial atelier in the early Mughal period. There is so much more to discover about them! I love the detective work of piecing together information from scattered inscriptions and signatures and also using visual evidence to try to establish more about their identities, backgrounds and relationships.


Unidentified Mughal artist, A Mughal Artist drawing a Landscape, detail from a page of the Jahangir album, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Libri. Pict. A 117, f. 21r. Photo: Ursula Weekes.

 

From about 1580, clerks in the Mughal Kitabkhana (House of Books) kept careful records of who collaborated with whom on particular paintings. The pattern of collaborations between artists showed Akbar’s workshop operated as a meritocracy and one can track the careers of rising artists. The artist Mansur, for example, was first recorded as a young colourist in Akbar’s atelier of the late 1580s assisting the artist Kanha on a painting of two buffalo, but he rose to become one of Jahangir’s most favoured artists, specialising in natural history subjects.


Kanha assisted by Mansur, Two Wild Buffalo, c. 1589, opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper, 25.3 x 15.1 cm, from a Baburnama, c. 1589, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, F1954.29. Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

 

There were a lot of family relationships among the artists employed in Akbar’s atelier, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews and even one daughter – her name was Nadira Banu and she was the daughter of a minor artist who worked for Akbar called Mir Taqi.


Another intriguing artist who played a minor role in Akbar’s workshop is simply known as ‘Mandu Firangi’. His second name, firangi, means ‘foreigner,’ a term generally used by the Mughals to refer to Armenians or Europeans. It is a mystery who he was.


How important is the Mughal period to Islamic art history?

The Mughal period is really important to Islamic art history, but it is often not accepted as ‘Islamic’ art by purists. The Mughal dynasty were Sunni Muslims, but a large proportion of subjects in their empire were Hindus. The Mughal nobility included both Sunnis, Shi’as, and Hindus. The Emperor Akbar also actively encouraged other minority groups to participate in Mughal society, including Jains, Sikhs, and Armenian Jews and Christians. Mughal art is resolutely figural and is full of multivalent references to Muslim, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Christian worldviews. Artists drew on the visual idioms of these different cultures to create a unique ‘look’ and message to their art. While the Mughals are often pushed to the edges of ‘Islamic’ art history for being too syncretic, they occupy an important place in its story.


What is your favourite aspect of Mughal art?

I love Jahangir because he took such an obvious personal interest in the works of his favourite painters. A painting by Abu’l Hasan made for Jahangir while he was still a prince expresses the close relationship between them. Abu’l Hasan is standing, presenting a painting of an elephant to Prince Salim, who points knowingly at the work. Both the artist and the emperor hold the painting at the same time, which is a bold gesture of intimacy. Abu’l Hasan went on to create some of the most iconic paintings in all Mughal art, such as Jahangir embracing Shah Abbas. I have a great theory about that painting, but you will have to wait for my book to be published!

Abu’l Hasan, The Artist Abu’l Hasan Presents a Painting to Prince Salim, c. 1600, opaque watercolour on paper, 14.9 x 10.3 cm, Gentil Collection, Bibliothèque nationale de france, Paris, Inv. Od. 49 4o no. 40. Photo: Ursula Weekes.


How can discovering Mughal heritage from the past help us develop the future of Islamic art and culture?

The Mughals express the concept of Bayt al fann ‘a house for all’ in such a powerful way, especially in the period from c. 1550 to 1650. Art and architecture were central to their cultural policy of Sulh-i Kul (peace to all). Mughal artists were adept practitioners of hybridity, negotiating the complex interlacing of Persian, Sultanate, Jain and Hindu styles, as well as European influences, in their painting. The Mughals created a sublime pictorial aesthetic based on the concept of intervisuality. This largely continued even when a more orthodox practice of Islam was introduced at court, first by Shah Jahan and then by Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century. Understanding these historical perspectives with a nuanced and open-minded approach is vital for future narratives of Islamic art and culture.


For me personally, discovering Mughal art and heritage has been enriching in countless ways. Living in India was transformational, giving me the opportunity to become a specialist in Mughal art, to discover a country and people I love, and our three children were born in Delhi! Being an art historian is never just about understanding art and the past. It is about understanding ourselves. The histories we write are shaped by the questions we ask, and those questions are forged in the context of our present circumstances, arising from a desire for a broader sense of self.


Ursula Weekes at Humayun’s Tomb. Photo: Jasper Weekes

 

For more information follow Ursula Weekes on Instagram @ursulaweekes, https://www.instagram.com/ursulaweekes/?hl=en


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