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At the entrance to Mughal India: Art, Culture And Empire at The British Library in London, an animated video showed the spread of the Mughal empire from beginning to end: expanding from the Fergana Valley in modern-day Uzbekistan to the plains of northern India under Babur, the first Mughal emperor; expanding to the Deccan under Aurangzeb; slowly shrinking to nothing more than effectively the area of Delhi’s Red Fort under the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The exhibit that followed narrated, through objects and paintings, the story of this great dynasty that ruled much of the Indian subcontinent from 1526-1858 and traced the many influences that influenced the empire and left an indelible mark on the culture and fabric of modern South Asia.

The core of the exhibits focused on the Mughal dynasty itself, starting with the emperors we are most familiar with—Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb—but continuing through a chain of largely unremembered and short-lived rulers who nonetheless left behind objects for us to marvel at.

The remainder of the exhibition looked at aspects such as administration, painting, literature, the sciences, and the years of decline. The awe-inspiring variety of objects on display included armour, illuminated texts, record books, textiles, jewel-encrusted objects, a massive turtle made of jade, and even Bahadur Shah Zafar’s intricate, beautiful and saddening crown. Despite these riches, perhaps the most spectacular element was the illustrations on display, each vividly bringing alive the story of the Mughals.

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Bahadur Shah Zafar’s crown.

The British Library’s exhibit surpasses in sheer wealth of material the previous exhibitions. Mughal India draws largely on the Library’s own extensive collection (only 20 of the 215 objects in the exhibition were externally sourced) and an important number of manuscripts and illustration on display have never been shown before. Among others, the exhibition included illustrations of some wonderfully quirky books such as a Persian translation of the Salihotra, a Sanskrit manual on horses; the Kabutarnama, a book on pigeons; and the Bayaz-i Khushbu’i, the notebook of fragrance.

These apart, perhaps the richest section of the exhibit was the one focused on the Mughal’s artistic ateliers. The art of miniatures truly reached its peak under the patronage of Akbar (though the seeds were sown by Humayun when he brought Persian miniaturists back with him after his exile in Iran). It was under Akbar’s direction that even the earlier history of the Mughal dynasty was given artistic form.

Illustrations from the Baburnama, commissioned by Akbar, show us in vivid detail the beginning of Mughal rule in India. A miniature detailing the First Battle of Panipat is rich in colour and detail. Despite its overall beauty, a close look at the minute detail reveals that the violence of the battlefield has not been glossed over. There is awful bloodshed, horrible death and disfigurement.

Aside from battles, there are also more pastoral scenes from Babur’s reign—of him hunting, visiting yogis, of his love for gardens—bringing to life the Turk’s initiation into the life of the subcontinent his lineage would rule over.

The volume and range of illustrations produced by Akbar’s tasvirkhana, or painters’ atelier (of which only a fraction are on show) is somewhat mind-boggling, with images from Akbar’s commission of the Darabnama (which recounts the adventures of the Iranian king Darab), the Razmnama (the Persian translation of the Mahabharat commissioned by Akbar), the Khamsah of Nizami, and the Akbarnama showcasing the variety of influences that came to bear on the imagination of the great ruler who could not read but was nonetheless in love with books.

The tradition of the tasvirkhana continued down to the luckless Dara Shikoh (of whom there are some wonderfully poignant images), whose death brought the doctrinal Aurangzeb to power and removed the celebration of artistic forms as one of the priorities of the Mughal emperor.

Though Aurangzeb’s rule might have ended the most exuberant period of courtly patronage, miniature artists continued to find some work at the court, with local noblemen and later even the British. The Mughals may have slowly weakened and disappeared, but their artistic traditions endured and are a crucial reminder of their legacy today.

Mughal India: Art, Culture And Empire is on till 2 April. For details, visit www.bl.uk/mughalindia.co.uk

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