I’ve just returned from the British Library’s exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire which has many beautiful miniatures and manuscripts on display (although in some corners of the exhibition the lighting makes is next to impossible to view them). I kept on getting tangled up with a young man and older lady, perhaps his mother, who pored over the pages of calligraphy whilst I stood next to them leaning as close to the illuminations as I possibly could in order to examine them. I overheard some of their conversations and it seemed he was attending Persian calligraphy classes so was particularly enthusiastic about some of the scripts and hands of master calligraphers on display. It made for a nice atmosphere as I was very happy to be among fellow enthusiasts of this kind of art. However, in spite of the fact that there was a section entitled ‘The Art of Painting’ and many references to how Akbar established a formal art studio, there was virtually nothing about the materials or techniques used. Even the captions for the paintings failed to mention details of media and substrate – annoying as some of them appeared to be on textile rather than paper but no mention of this was made. I think some explanation of how pigments were traded and prepared would definitely assist the viewer in understanding the unique colours and appearance of Mughal art. Anyway, it reminded me of something else in the British Library’s collection which gives a tantalising view of how a Mughal studio may have looked and what tools master artists were using.
This colophon portrait from the Khamsa of Nizami (BL Or. MS 12208, f.325v) was added at the request of the Emperor Jahangir and dates from 1611-1620. It shows the scribe of the text Abd al-Rahim at work, whilst the painter of this miniature Dawlat sits opposite, drawing his portrait. It’s interesting to see the tools of their trades around them, including the shells used to store paints in, and reed pens. There is also a box full of instruments that at a glance are hard to identify – it would be great to be able to magnify this image further and try and work out what they all are. Miniatures like this can be really helpful for us to see what they were using, and how they might have worked. This one is clearly fairly idealised; it’s hard to imagine that a master calligrapher could produce beautiful work without having some kind of solid support beneath his paper, but nevertheless it does give some indication as to how the artists involved with book production were working.