Despite the durability and timelessness of Mughal architecture, the era’s rulers were usually peripatetic. Constant travel was a necessary requirement for sovereigns whose physical presence was necessary in maintaining political suzerainty over large swathes of territory. The mobility of potentates required encampments that would match their aspirations as worthy rulers and the splendour of their tents became significant in this regard. The particular use of opulent reds was associated with royal stature and linked to the Mughal Emperor himself (Welch 1985, p.252).
The sixteenth century Mughal chronicler Abu Fazl, in his seminal Ain-i-Akbari, remarked that such tents with peaked roofs were considered by the Emperor Akbar “as the ornament of royalty…the insignia of a ruler and the care bestowed upon it as a part of divine worship” (Abu’l Fazl 1977, vol.1, p.55). A prominent surviving example is the seventeenth century Lal Dera or Red Tent commonly attributed to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and currently housed at the fort of Mehrangarh in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
The eighteenth century saw an increased flowering of such luxury encampments, especially due to the increasing power of regional rulers in North India and the Deccan who in turn sought to emulate the established Mughal artistic tradition (Chowdhury 2015, p.669). The tent form which this panel comes from was no doubt made for one these mobile princely courts especially through its scale and the use of deep reds with established Mughal era motifs and is typical of products made in Burhanpur in the Deccan province. The region, according to the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, was known for the extensive production and export of textiles from the seventeenth century onwards (Tavernier 1889, vol.1, p.51). The motifs of flower filled baluster vases with vegetal handles and arabesques was a common Deccan motif derived from designs for Mughal bidriware, carpets and other decorative ornaments. The earliest presence of this style can be seen on a 1630 album page, presently in a private collection, attributed to the artist Muhammad Hasan Bijapur of Golconda, a region in the historic Deccan Sultanate (1490-1687) (Haidar and Sardar 2015, p.132, no.54).
The design was produced through the resist and mordant dyeing technique which was well known in the court of the Deccan Sultanate. Mordant dyeing combines dyes with metallic oxides (alum and iron) allowing them to bond onto the fibre. Resist dyeing works in the opposite manner, through the use of adhesive substances (mud or wax) that block the adherence of the dye to the fibre (Sardar 2003).
A similar eighteenth century tent canopy can be seen in J. Irwin and K.B. Brett, Origins of Chintz, 1970, p.33, fig.22. A more recent example is that of the Deccan manufactured tent of Tipu Sultan, a magnificent marquee that was recently reconstructed and displayed at the 2015 Fabric of India exhibition in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Like this fragment, the ceiling of the ‘Tipu’ tent depicts a triangular segmented peaked roof with three facets of floral sprays rising from vases (Crill 2015, pp.124-6, cat. no.131). The reconstructed ‘Tipu’ tent provides the closest approximation of the scale and grandeur of the tent from which this fragment stemmed. Like traditional tents this piece would have been arranged as part of an octagonal or square canopy and its later rearrangement as a long rectangular panel could have occurred in the twentieth century.