Real Birds in Imagined Gardens, covering Mughal painting between Persia and Europe, is about more than about birds; a handsome paperback (105 pages) by Kavita Singh, the volume analyses Mughal painting in its formal and historical contexts. Kavita Singh is a professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and “has published essays on issues of colonial history, repatriation, secularism and religiosity, fraught national identities, and the memorialization of difficult histories as they relate to museums in South Asia and beyond”.
But her book, thank God, is not infested with the jargon we read in her brief introduction on the flap of her book. In fact, Singh, deviating from a popular and passionate path of South Asian scholars, prefers language that is simple, yet meaningful to the core. It is her power of analysis, her ability to find connections, and her courage to carve a viewpoint, which is in direct contrast to mainstream approaches and exhausted beliefs.
For instance, the book begins with a discussion on Lovers and Musician in a Landscape (c.a. 1730-75) by Mir Kalan Khan, elaborating on the reasons for two sets of figures executed in two different styles, along with their respective background of landscape that reminded of Persian and Indian sources. After quoting the opinions of other academics, Kavita Singh states: “To my mind, the two zones of the painting that are separated from each other by the brook mark out two different levels of reality. The singer is made of flesh and blood and sits in front of three-dimensional trees. The lovers, rendered in a consciously Safavid manner, are aesthetic artefacts from the Persian world. The singer sings a Persian song about love – and the lovers are that song. Far from serving the lovers, then, the singer is bringing them into existence”.
Singh here seems to be in harmony with Susan Sontag, who elaborates on the interlocked link between style and meaning in a work of art. In her 1965 essay, “On Style”, Sontag writes, “To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors.”
The tone of this type continues in the text by Kavita Singh, in which the writer provides information and insights on different phases of Mughal painting, particularly its association with other pictorial practices – Persian painting (citing the origin) and European art (which was brought to the courts of Akbar and Jehangir and also influenced many generations of painters afterward). “But these were only a means to an end: copying exercises that helped artists learn the techniques of verism, including portraiture, modelling, perspective, foreshortening, and sfumato. To what end did the artists use the lessons they had learned from European art?” At this juncture of history, Akbar’s quest for knowledge about other faiths and customs was the pivotal force for developing new visual language in the art of illustration and manuscripts. Singh suggests that the Emperor’s decision to record his period was a reason for introducing a sense of reality and realism in the miniature painting. “Akbar made a pointed investment in history writing and the documentation of his own region”. Actually, the art of miniature painting, extensively discussed in her text, cannot be separated from the practice of writing, manuscripts, and books. During Akbar’s reign several literary works, previously decorated in Persia, were illustrated by his court painters. “But in illustrating these books, surely the Mughal artists faced a new challenge…Indeed, the challenge here was to reinterpret traditional themes, and to exceed them, thus placing Mughal India in the vanguard of the art of Persian book”.
The author of Real Birds in Imagined Gardens seems to have taken up that challenge, of how to reinterpret a genre that has been the subject of multiple interpretations in past. At each important phase of history, it is not the latest discovery in archives, but mainly it is the new understanding of our art, and contemporary existence that forces us to revise our opinion on miniature painting.
Thus Kavita Singh along with her incredible insight on interaction between Indian painters and other influences suffices a historical lineage to understand the development of Indian miniature painting. As she writes, “the belief that there was a deeper reality that lay behind material appearance was central to the dominant strain of philosophy current in Akbar’s and Jehangir’s courts.” In the same sense there is a narrative behind all chapters of her book, since it adds a new dimension to what is familiar, known and accessible, and makes us see the same old miniature as different, fresh and exciting.
Kavita Singh, Real Birds in Imagined Gardens: Mughal Painting between Persia and Europe. Getty Publications, 116 pages, Paperback, ISBN 978-1-60606-518-1.