Upon entering the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, you feel like you’ve been whisked away to the lavish palaces of 16th century India. Accented by highlights of gold and burgundy, the architecture reflects that of Mughal India, and is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. According to curator Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the museum wanted the exhibit to look like “you were coming into your own Mughal palace.” The architects took details from the hundred miniature paintings of court life and incorporated them into the design of the exhibit. If paintings aren’t quite your thing, perhaps the textiles, armor, or large Persian rug will catch your attention. With over 100 paintings and 40 three-dimensional artifacts, there are many opportunities to get lost in Art and Stories from Mughal India.
Beginning in the 16th century and ending in 1857 with the arrival of colonial rule, the Mughal Empire lasted for more than three hundred years and encompassed a territory that stretched from the Indian subcontinent to Afghanistan. The art and architecture of the empire reflected this cultural diversity, as it blended Indian, Persian, and Muslim influences to create highly detailed works of art. Though the empire is mostly renowned for its architecture, such as the Taj Mahal, the Mughal Empire is also famous for its colorful paintings that include intricate and miniscule detail. To create the lively colors and designs used in the paintings, Mughal artists would use ground minerals to create paint. A process, Quintanilla notes,that “made it difficult to create strong pigments.” These painting are often narrative tales that are not only captivating to look at, but also reveal fascinating insights into Mughal court life. Art flourished under Mughal emperors, and the empire became a hub of art and culture. Many of the paintings were commissioned by Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. One of the earliest collections of paintings, Tutinama, or Tales of a Parrot, was illustrated under his reign, and is available in its entirety in the exhibit.
The exhibit revolves around four stories—an epic, a fable, a mystic romance, and a sacred biography—each an intrinsic part of the Mughal identity. These stories are told through paints, textiles, garments, jewelry, and decorative arts, many of which are from acquisition of the Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Ralph Benkaim Collection.
Perhaps the most intriguing section of the exhibit are the Bible retellings. As Westerners, the Bible is ingrained in our identity, and the paintings of the Mughals show an outside perspective. As Quintanilla explained, “we are always looking to the East as exotic, and here are the Mughals doing the exact same thing to the West.” The Mughal paintings provide a fresh look at the stories we have all studied as freshmen in Humanities 9, and are definitely worth a look. Also, for students of the Superman Intensive, there are pages from the Shahnameh, which illustrate the story of Rostam, a Persian hero.
When strolling through Art and Stories from Mughal India, it isn’t difficult to imagine that you are on a veranda, viewing the same paintings that kings and emperors once enjoyed. It’s hard not to get swept up into the uncountable tiny details, whether it be the gold trim around the pommel of a sword, or the woven intricacies of a Persian rug. Whatever catches your eye, it surely will not disappoint.
Art and Stories from Mughal India is open through October 23rd, 2016, and is free through the museum’s centennial celebration.