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Understanding a Culture

Mahmood Farooqui

Edited by William Dalrymple  and Yuthika Sharma
Asia Society Museum  in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012, pp. 212, price not stated


This book grew out of an exhibition by the same name that was organized by the Asia Society, New York with the help and support of several institutions, museums and private collections, including the Government of India. It contains brief but highly lucid essays on the art and culture of the period by noted experts as well as some of the most dazzling collections of paintings, portraits and art objects that were being produced in India in this period. In particular it sheds wholly new light on our understanding of Delhi and of the wider North India, post Aurangzeb. Historians of Mughal India sometimes regard the period after Aurangzeb, that is the 18th and 19th centuries as a superfluous addendum to the history of the Mughals proper, with which they would like to have as little truck as possible. Historians of modern India, on the other hand, find this period (of colonial takeover) a kind of superfluous precursor to the high noon of Empire and colonization proper. That this dark hole remains dark becomes even more curious when we remember the astonishing strides taken by the revisionist historiography of 18th century India in the last thirty years. This scholarly attitude is also one of the reasons why the uprising of 1857 appears so sudden and abrupt and mystifying in its genealogy. The book under review presents a startling picture of the vibrancy, cultural growth and visual transactions of the period. It is impossible to understand the role music or painting played in pre 1857 Indian society or the modes of its production and consumption without understanding the role of patronage. Princes, nobles and kings actively competed with each other in hiring and retaining musical stalwarts and painters. Musicians accompanied nobles even when they went on campaigns. Aurangzeb, who is erroneously thought to have banned music, oversaw the greatest production of musical treatises and music during his reign with his son Azam Khan taking over the royal function of patronizing good music and good music writing. In a similar vein painters too were a highly prized section of artists who were producing not just appetizing pictures but documenting their times with one eye to posterity (and they often depicted the music and dance sessions). When Shah Alam, the blind Emperor, was wandering about India searching for a way to regain Delhi, he constantly had painters in his entourage, even when he went to ...

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