Mughal Masterpieces

Floral-inspired treasures showcased at the East-West Center

The 330-year reign of the Mughal dynasty has been recognized for its wealth, religious

tolerance and intellectual and artistic pursuits. Its impact on our language and popular imagination remains to this day – the word “mogul” is still synonymous with a lifestyle of power, influence and luxury.

“Field of Flowers: Mughal Carpets and Treasures” captures the richness of the Mughal legacy, reflected in the display of carpets, embroideries, paintings and small ornamental wares on view at the East-West Center Gallery through Dec. 31, 2008. The exhibition is being presented by the East-West Center Arts Program and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art as part of the Biennial Symposium of the Textile Association of America.

The Mughal dynasty was established in 1526 by Prince Babur of Central Asia, in the region comprising modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Northern India. The arid setting meant that water was a precious resource, and the abundance conveyed through water and gardens were inspirations to Mughal artists and poets.

Over time, the influence of merchants and missionaries from the East and West could be seen in the depictions of flowers. With the introduction of Western botanical books and their detailed scientific illustrations, the stylized intricacy of Persian design gave way to a more naturalistic approach to design. Mughal carpet makers adapted the naturalness of European design to suit local tastes, resulting in a new artistic tradition that endures to this day.

“When you look at Mughal art, you can’t help but see this inclusion of great artistic ideas. That is the genius of the Mughal empire, the different synthesis of art forms,” says Michael Schuster, who, with Sharon Littlefield, curated the exhibition.

This sense of inclusion extended to religious belief. The Mughal emperors were Muslim, and their subjects were Hindu, Jain and Sikh. In one painting in the exhibition, the Hindu deity Krishna and his consort Radha are pictured against a backdrop of Islamic architecture.

Central to the exhibition are a pair of 17th century matched Mughal carpets from the Doris Duke Collection, that would have surrounded a throne. They may have once graced the tomb of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan at the Taj Mahal. “It’s a very rare opportunity to see them. They hadn’t been shown together since the 1960s,” says Schuster. “As far as I know, they may be the only matched pair of Mughal carpets from the 17th century in existence.”

Unlike tapestries, the carpets were subject to the wear and tear of being under foot. The carpets also were subject to travel over all terrain due to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Mughal rulers, who set up mobile palaces as they traversed their empire. A sense of home was achieved with the help of carpets and tapestries that became floors and walls, and, in effect, also serving as portable gardens.

“You realize how important it was for the elite to have these flowers and to surround themselves with great beauty in their daily lives,” Schuster says.

In addition to the objets d’art displayed, a video and photos show the process of weaving and knotting carpets. Standing at one end of the room is a loom featuring the start of a work in progress by Kalra Cottage Industries of Agra, India, where 30,000 artisans continue the work to this day, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. On the loom, the dense pile of threads is left long to show what the carpet might look like prior to being washed and clipped with scissors to finished depth. The loomed work contains 144 knots per square inch. Works displayed contain as many as 690 knots per square inch.

If there is any doubt as to the legacy of the Mughal artists, one of the pieces displayed belongs not to ancient times, but to contemporary Paris and the United States – that is, a piece of Mughal-inspired china created by Christian Dior in the 1950s and purchased by Doris Duke, at Macy’s.

Editor’s Note: HILuxury incorrectly reported the death of artist Tom Okimoto in the magazine’s previous art story. We sincerely regret the error.

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