‘Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy’
By Karen Wilkin
Lush. Gorgeous. Sumptuous. Opulent. Fabulous. Fantastic. These words come to mind as we study the extraordinary paintings, textiles, metalwork, weapons and jewelry, among other treasures, all made in central India from the 16th through the 18th centuries, that are the subject of a fascinating survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Similar words appear frequently in the exhibition’s labels and wall texts, and even in the title, “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy.”
Organized by Navina Najat Haidar, the Met’s curator of Islamic art, and Marika Sardar, associate curator of Southern Asian and Islamic Art at the San Diego Museum of Art, the show introduces us to the Golden Age of the Deccan, the great plateau that stretches across the middle of the subcontinent, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. During the period under review, the Deccan was remarkably rich. (Nearly all of the world’s diamonds came from the Deccan sultanate of Golconda, until the 18th and 19th centuries, when sources were discovered in Brazil and South Africa.)
From the late 15th century until 1680, when the Mughal rulers of the north finally conquered the region, the Deccan was divided into five independent states—Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda—each with a cultivated sultan enthusiastic about music, painting, luxury textiles, and devotional calligraphy, among other arts. But most remarkable, the Deccan was what we would today call a multicultural society, with strong connections to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Africans often rose to high positions in the Deccan courts; former slaves became commanders of troops and wealthy nobles who could pass on their titles and property. Golden Age Deccan was also home to Persian immigrants (including painters), Sufi mystics, Shiite Muslims, and traders from Portugal, France, Britain and the Netherlands. All of this cross-fertilization is visible in the objects included in the exhibition, along with the distinctive character of the art of the Deccan courts, which, we are told—and shown—were notably receptive to outside influences but retained a strong sense of tradition.
The installation begins with some of the enormous pink diamonds that made Golconda famous, cut in ways that 17th-century Deccani sultans valued highly: as large, minimally faceted amulets that preserved as much of the precious material as possible and emphasized its transparency. There are also stones later recut, to satisfy the European preference for bling, and a dazzling assortment of gold-mounted 17th-century floral pendants, set with unfaceted, magnificently colored emeralds, rubies, more of those magically transparent diamonds, and the occasional pearl. And in a coda documenting the effect of Mughal domination in the 18th century, there’s more gorgeous jewelry.
As we move through the exhibition, which is organized roughly by sultanate, we encounter elaborate weapons, many of them decorated with fabulous beasts, along with elegant brass incense burners, spittoons and ewers. We find, too, fanciful carpet weights, and spectacular dark, burnished metal objects inlaid with complex floral patterns in silver and brass—a specialty of Bidar. There are gilded palanquin finials, sprouting enormous sunflowers; a nifty helmet; vast painted cloths, some used as tent hangings, packed with floral motifs, figures, and animals; pages of calligraphy in many languages; and much more.
This wealth of extraordinary objects could be bewildering, but everything is wonderfully contextualized. Large photographs of Deccani architecture— mosques, madrassas, palaces and the like—by Antonio Martinelli punctuate the galleries, offering glimpses of the places the sultans once frequented and where they used the diverse things on view. Despite the ruined condition of many of these monuments, we realize that their most recognizable architectural forms are often echoed in the utilitarian, albeit luxurious objects before us; carpet weights and incense burners, it turns out, can reprise the suave geometry of domed buildings.
But the strength of the exhibition and the source of the most dramatic and revelatory information is the magnificent selection of paintings. Focus our attention on the details of the portraits of sultans and their heirs, the scenes of hunting, or of gatherings at the palace, and we begin to recognize depictions of jewels, objects and weapons identical to the ones we’ve just been examining, as well as decorative motifs common to both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art. We see, too, representations of Africans, Europeans and Sufis, testimony to a cosmopolitan society.
Even more impressive is the sheer inventiveness of the paintings. We find connections with Persian and Mughal art, but also differences. Color is unusually intense—purple and green landscapes appear frequently—and there’s often a sense of the otherworldly. In a late-16th-century ragamala manuscript—a collection of musical compositions appropriate for specific times—three richly dressed maidens float beneath flowering trees, above crimson rocks patrolled by a peacock. Elsewhere, multicolor rocks and roiling monsoon clouds become interchangeable.
The poses and subtle modeling of some portraits suggest European influences—an image of a sultan-musician even includes two small European religious prints. Animals seem to have wandered in from Middle Eastern sources. A stippled drawing of a “Royal Elephant and Rider” (Ahmadnagar, 1590-1600) uses a Chinese technique to present a bell- and plume-bedecked beast in full gallop, folded into the gold-trimmed page without losing speed; the trunk is neatly coiled. There are also Deccan specialties, such as the complicated marbling that serves as background to often macabre subjects.
“Sultans of the Deccan” is an enthralling show. There’s a lot to look at and think about. Repeat visits and study of the handsome, informative catalog are recommended.
(Ms Wilkin is an independent curator and critic. The Wall Street Journal )