Two decades before the 1857 uprising,Delhi was decked up for the coronation of its last ruler. Dressed in finery,pearls around his neck,Bahadur Shah II was enthroned the king of India,with his young son Mirza Fakhruddin standing by his side. The royal court was in full attendance and among others observing Shah from a distance,was Ghulam Ali Khan. The last great imperial portraitist of the Mughal tradition,Khan was to paint the ceremony in opaque watercolour,with ink and gold. Placing Shah Jahans imperial Mughal scales of justice in the frame,Khan painted Shah with the disposition of a Sufi ascetic,representing the man who was both a king and a saint. The Coronation Portrait is now on display at the Asia Society Museum in New York. It is one of the 96 works that comprise an exhibition titled Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi: 1707-1857.
Curated by writer-historian William Dalrymple and art historian Yuthika Sharma,the collection examines Mughal artistic culture in the 18th and 19th centuries,and the interwoven nature of Mughal,European and regional patronage. The art of this period defies easy categorisation. The same painters painted for the Mughal court,the local nobility and British colonial officials so the easy distinctions made by earlier art historians between the late Mughal era and Company School have little meaning in Delhi. The two worlds are seamlessly integrated, points out Dalrymple,who has been working on the exhibition for five years.
With no significant public collection of the late Mughal art in India,the duo relied on sourcing works from private collections and international institutions such as Metropolitan Museum,New York,and British Library,Victoria & Albert Museum and National Army Museum in the UK .
The detailed plaques accompanying the artwork are meant to give a larger picture of the Mughal life and times,beginning with the year 1707,when,after Aurangzebs death,his kingdom was in a state of chaos. The exhibition trails the phase that marked the decline of the Mughal rule and the rise of the British empire.
The works are divided into seven distinct chronological sections: Seat of the Kingdom; Decline of Power,Pursuit of Pleasure,Muhammad Shah,1719-1748; Emperors and White Mughals; The Last Atelier: Ghulam Ali Khan; Zafar and the Uprising of 1857; Design of Delhi: Edwin Lutyens; and Tashrih al-aqvam album. In all these,we see the tales from the past coming alive. So the haloed Mughal emperor,Muhammad Shah,has been painted in various moods: from playing Holi with his favourite courtesan Gulab Bai to hunting and smoking a hukkah. Emperors and White Mughals tells the tale of the arrival of the British East India Company in Delhi,and also includes the much-acclaimed Fraser Album,comprising artwork commissioned by William Fraser.
The Last Atelier has a room dedicated to Ghulam Ali Khan,who signed himself as the hereditary slave of the dynasty,Ghulam Ali Khan the portraitist,resident at Shahjahanabad. Elsewhere,he signs himself simply as His Majestys Painter. Although Ghulam Ali Khans family was very proud of their status as hereditary painters to the Mughal throne,the truth was slightly more complex. The court no longer had sufficient funds to employ Khans family exclusively,and in order to survive,he had to moonlight as a painter to other members of the Delhi society, points out Dalrymple,explaining the two distinctive signatures.
The brief dialogues of the civilisations,however,came to a close in 1857,when after the revolt,the British took charge. The making of Lutyens Delhi concludes the exhibition.
Mutual interest was replaced by mutual suspicion, notes Dalrymple,turning from the Mughal rule to the First Afghan War the subject of his forthcoming book,scheduled to release this fall.