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It’s a moving image of a desolate old man lying on his bed; his hookah, placed some distance away, looks untouched. The iconic photograph features Bahadur Shah Zafar at Delhi’s Red Fort. It was taken as the last Mughal emperor awaited trial by the British for supporting the 1857 uprising in India. Thought to be the only photograph ever taken of Bahadur Shah, it’s in the collection of The British Library, UK.
“I believe people used to come to see him, quite like you would go to see something in a cage,” says John Falconer, lead curator of visual arts and curator of photographs at The British Library. Falconer is in New Delhi to set up The Mughals: Life, Art And Culture exhibition, which opens to the public today at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).
“The picture was taken by an amateur photographer called Robert Tytler,” adds Falconer, who will give a talk, “India in Focus: Photographs of South Asia”, today on the importance of India in the early years of the development of photography.The British Library, which showed this exhibition in London till 2 April and then soon after took an edited version of it (120 items)to Kabul, Afghanistan, is bringing the show to India for the first time. “The Library’s intention is to open up the collection to audiences who can’t visit us in person (in London)...we clearly have an obligation to make it accessible to the audience in the country of origin,” says Falconer.
The exhibition, which spans Mughal rule in India from the 16th century to the mid-19th century, is divided into thematic sections. Starting with an introduction to the emperors, from Babur to Bahadur Shah, it moves on to showcase elements such as court life and how the empire was administered under the Mughals, and the achievements in painting, poetry, religion and science during this time. The last section looks at the resurgence of painting in India in the late 19th century and the advent of the era of photography.
Organized in India in collaboration with Roli Books and IGNCA, the exhibition will feature talks by speakers such as author William Dalrymple, food historian and Prof. Pushpesh Pant and journalist M.J. Akbar.
On Saturday, Dalrymple will give an illustrated talk on the developments in painting and poetry in the late 19th century. In a phone interview, Dalrymple explained that though the period coincides with what has generally been regarded as the decline of the Mughal period, there was a resurgence in the arts at this time.
Prof. Pant, who will present his talk “Food, Culture And the Mughals” on Wednesday, says he will dwell on how what we know today as Mughal cuisine “was not even contemporaneous with the Mughals”, but was developed later.
Visitors to the exhibition can expect to see a different side of the Mughal period, not just one that highlights an era of “grand luxury and conspicuous consumption”, says Falconer.
The Mughals: Life, Art And Culture is on from 10.30am-6.30pm till 31 December at the Twin Art Gallery, IGNCA, CV Mess, Janpath, Delhi. The talks are scheduled for 5.30pm on 22, 23, 27 and 29 November.