Taj Mahal, Agra © British Library Board. The Taj Mahal was the innovation of the emperor Shah Jahan. It was a funerary monument that was constructed in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child. According to Qazwini, a historian of Shah Jahan’s time commented that the Taj Mahal was a ‘masterpiece for ages to come’. By an Agra draughtsman.


LONDON - Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire at the British Library is an undisputed homage to the role of patronage in inspiring to the most exquisite art one can ever hope to see. But the exhibition title can almost be construed as a misnomer, as almost half of the 200 works on show are actually Persian manuscripts or, in some cases, paintings removed from Persian manuscripts. This is not surprising since the Mughals, hailing from Central Asia, were introduced to Islam through the Persian language. The rulers were keen patrons of literature, learning and art, and some were even fine writers themselves. The ateliers at the courts of Akbar, Jahangir, Bahadur and Shah Jahan were breeding grounds for exceptional artists, some of which had travelled all the way from Iran for the sole purpose of benefitting from this flourishing of the arts. Persian was the main language of culture and administration and used by key figures at the Mughal court. At one time, more literary works and treatises in Persian were produced there than in Iran itself.


Elephant trampling a tiger (c) British Library Board.

The exhibition unveils the BL’s stunning collection, which covers the 16th to 19th centuries – the early part of which more or less coincided with the time when Leonardo was producing his finest work! It amazed me to see a similar finesse of brushwork and lack of outline in portraiture, and I could just visualize the hum of activity in the studios established by Akbar where Iranian painters, calligraphers, book binders and other craftsmen brought over by his father Humayun, collaborated – as if in a factory – to produce the finest illustrated manuscripts and portraits. What would Damien Hirst think of this, I wonder?


The Battle of Panipat, 13 January 1761 (c) British Library Board.

My favourite works included a lavish copy of Sa’di’s Bustan, and a group of three small works that showcased the extraordinary detail of floral and animal studies commissioned by the emperors. I’m sorry I missed the Iran Heritage Foundation’s invitation to their well-attended private view but glad that an early morning visit granted unobstructed views of the miniatures and dimly lit manuscripts. Go with a loupe in your hand and reverence in your heart.