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by Stephen Markel
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

text and photos © and the author except as where otherwise noted

February 24, 2003

(click on small images for large images with captions and descriptions)

Fig. 1

Bahadur Shah II
Scholars of South Asian sculpture are well aware of the complications involved in attempting to correlate various iconographic textual descriptions with surviving images.[1] Due to the wide range of regional, temporal, sectarian, and artistic variations, it is often unusual to find a close one-to-one match in terms of form and attributes. The situation in correlating decorative objects represented in Mughal and Rajput paintings with extant examples is, unfortunately, much the same as the text-versus-image dilemma. Nevertheless, the effort is well spent, as paintings can help differentiate regional forms of decorative objects removed from their place of origin, determine the range of objects current in a given court, and clarify the date and function of ambiguous objects. Working in the reverse direction is also beneficial, as a knowledge of decorative objects can help ascertain the date or origin of a painting, or in the case of a controversial painting, help refute its authenticity if anachronistic representations of decorative objects are depicted. Given that many Mughal and Rajput painters may have also been designers of decorative objects, [2] such inter-media comparisons are especially apropos and, moreover, are crucial insofar as Indian decorative objects are rarely inscribed or dated and their art-historical study is, accordingly, still in its infancy. Moreover, due to both the willful and inadvertent destruction of decorative objects as well as their being reworked or cannibalized in later periods, the corpus of surviving decorative objects is a relatively small percentage of the astoundingly large numbers of objects described in historical literary records. Thus, the evidence regarding Indian decorative objects that is preserved in paintings of the period is even more essential to their analysis.

Fig. 2

Bahadur Shah II
Before examining relevant painting and decorative art comparisons, it is necessary to examine briefly the nature of realism in Mughal and, to a lesser extent, Rajput paintings. Although disparate in artistic style and origin, the same hierarchical principle of what I term "selective realism" is followed in both pictorial traditions. Distinguishing physical features and personality traits are emphasized, but the royal garb, accouterments, and often the palatial environs seem more stereotypical than individual. In order to understand this aspect of Indian painting in depth, it is crucial to make detailed analyses of the relationship of the image to its model, the actual object. A particularly useful example for understanding the nature of selective realism in Mughal painting is a well-known portrait dated 1838 of the emperor Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837-57) seated beneath the "Scales-of-Justice" panel in the Khwabgah (Palace of Sleep) in the Red Fort, Delhi (dedicated in 1648), [3] which exists in the original and at least two other versions (fig. 1, above) [4]. By closely comparing the painted portrait to a photograph of the emperor taken twenty years later in 1858 [5] (fig. 2, above), and the representation of the architectural details in the painting to a modern photograph of the same (fig. 3, below), it is readily apparent that while certain key features are portrayed very accurately in the painting, less significant elements are rendered in a manner that conveys the general forms but does not always precisely depict the minute details. For instance, the artist's brush closely captures the distinctive facial features of the emperor: high cheekbones, hook nose, intense staring eyes, prominent bags under the eyes, and a pointed beard. Thus, for the all-important imperial portrait, the original artist and later copyists were extraordinarily careful to depict the visage of the emperor as exactly as possible. On a broader level, this high degree of verisimilitude has important implications for our understanding of the accuracy of all portraits of the Mughal emperors that were executed by imperial artists.

Fig. 3

Scales of Justice

Conversely, by comparing the painting of the "Scales-of-Justice" architectural panel to its photograph, it is clear that the less critical sculptural elements are often inexactly represented in a generalized manner. The most notable differences are the varying form, proportions, and placement of the floral motifs and encompassing cartouches, as well as variations in the specific design and ornamentation of the balance and solar orbs. While such minor variances in the treatment of the sculpted forms are inconsequential to most viewers, and certainly do not impair the clarity, meaning, or referential ability of the paintings, the actual physical details they reveal or conceal could be crucially significant to historians of the decorative arts, and, as in this and many other cases, to scholars of architecture.

Fig. 4

These variances not only raise the issue of how precisely objects are portrayed in paintings, but their implications may also affect our understanding of the individuality of the decorative objects depicted in the paintings. For example, is the prominent huqqa (hookah) at the left edge of the painting (fig. 1, above) the emperor’s actual water-pipe or is it simply a representation of an ornate type of huqqa known to be used in India at this time? Although it is impossible to answer this question with certainty, the painting of the huqqa’s water reservoir base is specific enough to determine that it represents a cut-glass vessel. Numerous such huqqa bases were exported from England to India during this period as trade and presentation items. Comparing closely to the painted example is an exceptional huqqa dating from around 1820, which is now in a private collection. [6] (fig. 4, right) It features an English lead-glass base with a flat flared bottom. The base is decorated in the “cut glass” or “diamond-cut” manner of glass finishing that consists of beveled facets and grooves being cut into the surface with stone or iron grinding wheels. Its principal ornamentation consists of fluting on the shoulders of the vessel and a band of groove-cut roundels surmounting a band of cross-hatched diamonds. The body of the vessel beneath the band and its neck are unadorned. The cut decoration of the painted huqqa is analogous in that it also has the roundels on its shoulders. Its neck and bottom are additionally graced by a diamond pattern inset with floral crosses. Similarly, the extant huqqa’s combustion bowl (chilam) and fittings, which were probably made in Kolkata (Calcutta) or Delhi, are slightly different in form and decoration that those represented in the painting. The analysis of the huqqa in this portrait of Bahadur Shah II is indeed even more complex in that additional variances of decorative detail occur within both the different versions of the painting as well as among the contemporaneous surviving examples of this type of huqqa.

Fig. 5

Shah Jahan
In terms of the types of correspondence between paintings of decorative objects and the extant objects themselves, I have found that there seem to be three general categories: Specific, Typological, and Limited. Specific correspondence is, of course, ideal, but the high degree of realistic representation necessary is extremely rare and is found primarily in imperial Mughal portraits. Perhaps the best example of such a close correlation of image to object is found in a portrait of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when he was Prince Khurram (1592-1666; r. 1628-58), now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (I.M.14-1925), which was presumably created around 1616-17 to celebrate the bestowing of his honorific title "Shah Jahan" (King of the World) (fig. 5, left). The painting is particularly relevant in the present context in that one aspect of its exactness is commented upon in an inscription by Shah Jahan himself, who states that it is "A good likeness of me aged twenty-five." [7] The commemorative nature of the painting certainly explains the accuracy of the portrayal of Shah Jahan's features. It is probably also the reason for the exactitude of the depictions of the decorative objects, which is most apparent in a comparison of the distinctive dagger Shah Jahan wears with a contemporaneous dagger now in the Wallace Collection, London (OA1409) [8] (fig. 6, right).

Fig. 6
While at first glance the dagger appears to be merely another representation of an ornate type common during the early seventeenth century, closer examination of the hilt at the juncture of the knuckleguard and the pommel reveals a distinguishing feature that may be found only on the Wallace dagger. Rather than the knuckleguard adjoining the pommel as is the norm with daggers of this general type, [9] here it extends through the pommel, perhaps as a technical feature done in order to anchor it more securely. Although the lack of inscriptions on the Wallace dagger renders it impossible to corroborate the attribution of Shah Jahan's ownership and whether it is the dagger depicted in the V & A painting, the precise correspondence of this distinctive hilt form suggests that, if it is not the actual dagger portrayed, it is at least a very similar one. This more cautious conclusion is supported by the difference in the type of inlaid gemstones present on the Wallace dagger and those shown in the V & A painting. As the analysis of the differences between the actual "Scales of Justice" panel and its painted representation demonstrated, however, the less important components of a painting could be generalized, so it is impossible to determine precisely how much significance to accord to the difference in the gemstones. Therefore, given the correspondence of the distinctive hilt form, it is indeed possible that the Wallace dagger may be the dagger depicted in the V & A painting.

Fig. 7


Before leaving this painting, it is significant to note also that the large octagonal flat-cut diamond shown in the turban ornament held by Shah Jahan has been suggested to be the representation of an extraordinary diamond now in The Al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait National Museum [10] (fig. 7, left). Certainly it is at least comparable in size, shape, cut, and presumed quality, but once again, we cannot be certain.

Fig. 8

Raja Kirpal Pal

Another example of a specific correspondence between a painted image and an extant decorative object illustrates the complexity and additional difficulties inherently possible in this type of analysis. Now in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (58.2), a late seventeenth-century Basohli portrait of Kirpal Pal (r. 1678-93) shows the ruler smoking a huqqa (fig. 8, right). The glass huqqa base depicted in the painting is remarkably similar to a contemporaneous one made in England as export ware for the Indian market, which is now in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (B86 M14) (fig. 9, below). The San Francisco huqqa base is made of lead glass with ribbed walls and compares well in design and medium to several vessels made in London at exactly the same time during the last decade of the seventeenth century. The San Francisco huqqa base is virtually identical to the contemporary painted one and, initially, there seems to be no obvious problem in accepting this distinctive object as a potential model for the painted image. However, according to Linda Leach, the author of the recent excellent catalogue of the Beatty Library's Indian painting collection, close scrutiny of the Kirpal Pal painting has revealed that it has undergone extensive modern repainting. [11] While its comparative analytical usefulness has therefore been substantially lessened, the remarkably close similarity of the painted huqqa base to the contemporary extant one may suggest that enough of the original illustration survived for the repainted version to at least approximate the genuine form of the late seventeenth-century vessel. Thus, though this example may well be an instance of specific correspondence between image and object, the altered condition of the painting precludes a definitive conclusion and demonstrates the high degree of caution necessary in analyzing such correspondences.

Fig. 9

Water-pipe Base

The second and most common form of correlation between painted and surviving decorative objects is Typological correspondence, in which the portrayals represent types of objects rather than actual individual ones. This form of correspondence is analogous to the numerous descriptions of decorative works found in such Mughal historical accounts as the Jahangirnama or the Shahjahannama, which typically describe objects presented to or by the emperor in the briefest general terms exclusive of specific features, such as stating merely that the emperor was given or bestowed a jeweled dagger or turban ornament. Despite the vague and seemingly noninformative nature of these pictorial and literary typological correspondences, extensive research can produce tangible results by classifying and quantifying regional object forms and the history of their usage.

Fig. 10

Turban Ornament

Fig. 11

Reverse of Turban Ornament

Among the most potentially fruitful analyses of typological correspondences between image and object are those involved in the study of Indian jewelry. Regional distinctions of later Indian jewelry forms have only recently begun to be defined, and the deeper understanding of stylistic painting idioms of the period can greatly facilitate the analysis of ambiguous jewelry forms through detailed comparisons to paintings with well-established attributions. For example, Susan Stronge has shown that an early eighteenth-century turban ornament (jigha) distinctively fashioned in the form of a graceful gem-encrusted floral spray (figs. 10-11, above), now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (I.M. 240-1923), [12] can possibly be assigned a Rajasthani origin on the basis of the closely related curvilinear turban ornament shown in a portrait of Bhim Singh of Mewar (r. 1778-1828) dating from around 1815-20, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (EA1985.31) [13] (fig. 12, right). Certainly the basic forms of the turban ornaments are similar and, when viewed from the back (fig. 11), the V & A turban ornament is even closer in gemstone pattern to the Ashmolean's painted representation, as there it too features ruby blossoms in place of the
Fig. 12
Maharana Bhim Singh
diamond ones found on the front. Nevertheless, as much as the overall similarity of the distinctive designs of the turban ornaments does suggest a common place of origin, there are a number of important considerations that hinder a definitive conclusion. Besides the slight differences of composition, form, and choice of gemstones, a century of artistic development separates the turban ornament and painting. Moreover, by their very nature, turban ornaments are portable objects that, along with bejeweled daggers, were among the most favored types of royal presentation items during the Mughal and Rajput eras. Therefore, while the V & A turban ornament and the Ashmolean's painted representation may well represent a shared geographic tradition, that supposition must remain tentative until further research can confirm its validity.

Fig. 13


In addition to regional attributions, typological paintings of turban ornaments can also aid potentially in temporally classifying extant works. This can be seen most readily in contemporaneous and posthumous portraits of the Mughal emperors. Not only are turban ornaments worn by the emperors in these paintings, but they are also typically represented as being held or handed down to their ruling progeny as a manifest symbol of their descendants’ hereditary right to rule. For example, in a posthumous portrait dating from around 1650 (fig. 13, left), now in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington (S1986.400), the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Humayun (r. 1530-40/55-56) is depicted as wearing and holding jeweled turban ornaments with differently shaped feather plumes.[14] While the plume of the turban ornament he wears is contemporary to his reign, the one he holds is a later form relating more to styles current primarily in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, such as the one shown in the turban of Shah Jahan in a painting dating from around 1635, which is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.78.9.15) [15] (fig. 14, below). The turban ornament Shah Jahan holds is again stylistically different and features bejeweled metal forms replicating the feather plume. This form of turban ornament may have been inspired by European aigrettes current during the reign of James I of England (r. 1603-25), which had apparently entered the imperial Mughal lapidary repertoire coinciding with the beginning of Shah Jahan's reign. [16] The different types of turban ornaments represented in these and other Mughal portraits are significant in demonstrating not only that the Mughal painters and patrons were aware of the historical and symbolic variances, but also that the paintings are an important source for the study of the development of the jewelry forms and their use.

Fig. 14

Shah Jahan

Fig. 15

Dara Shikuh

Fig. 16


The third category of correlation between image and object is that of Limited correspondence, in which the decorative objects depicted in paintings survive in either insignificant numbers or not at all. While the dearth of existing objects obviously restricts the comparative value of this form of correspondence, the paintings are nonetheless extremely useful in understanding and documenting the range of decorative works current at a given court in a particular period. This is especially true in the case of glassware, which due to its fragile nature has suffered the greatest from the ravages of time and invading armies. One of the most interesting examples in this realm is that of European glass made as export ware for the Indian market. Numerous Mughal and Rajput paintings depict glass drinking and serving vessels either being used at court or gracing palace wall niches. One such work is a well-known Mughal garden scene dating from around 1630, now in the Chester Beatty Library (Ms. 7A, no. 7) [17] (fig. 15, above). Much of the glassware shown in early Mughal paintings can be attributed on stylistic grounds to Venice, which was the leader in the international glass trade through the middle of the seventeenth century. Although very few imported Venetian glass vessels survive in Indian collections today, and are thus not a common subject of scholarly investigation, many glassworks do exist in European collections that can be firmly equated with the types of glass vessels represented in the paintings. One of the closest examples is a tall drinking goblet with a knobbed stem dating from 1575-1600, now in the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague (9.800) [18] (fig. 16, above). It is identical to the two glasses shown on the table in the Beatty painting. What appears to be ribbing in the body of the glass on the front of the table may actually be the artist's rendition of the diamond-cut designs that adorned the Venetian glassware of the period, such as on the bottom of the Prague goblet.

Fig. 17
Shah Shuja

Conversely, limited correspondences in the reverse direction from model-to-image can provide painting scholars with explanations of the function of representations of decorative objects with which they are unfamiliar. For instance, in a Mughal hunting scene dating from around 1650-55 and now in the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (58.068) [19], a peculiar shaped black object with a gold fitting is shown tucked into the belt of Shah Shuja (fig. 17, right). Although this may be, to the best of my knowledge, the only known illustration of this particular type of object and thus could be potentially confusing to painting historians, scholars of Mughal decorative art would immediately recognize this distinctive shape as representing a contemporaneous ivory powder primer flask, identical in form to a representative example now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.83.218.6) [20] (fig. 18, below). The difference in color, however, is harder to explain, as no black powder primer flasks of this idiosyncratic form have yet been discovered and its characteristic shape does not accord with that of any of the known Mughal powder primer flasks made variously of jade, metal, animal horn, seashell, etc. [21] Most likely, it is intended to represent a dark leather protective carrying case made the same shape as the delicate ivory powder primer flask.

Fig. 18

Powder Primer Flask

In summary, the portrayal of decorative objects in Mughal and sometimes Rajput painting generally follows the same principle of selective realism as do the royal portraits produced by the various ateliers. Just as the rulers are typically depicted as lavishly wealthy and recognizable personages, but are shown in generic palatial settings instead of in realistic depictions of their actual palaces, representations of the decorative arts in South Asian painting most often emphasize the overall grandeur and opulence of the type and range of decorative objects rather than presenting precise renditions of individual works of art.

© 2003 Stephen Markel

1. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Association for Asian Studies 45th Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, 26 March 1993. [back]

2.Jagdish Mittal, “Indian Painters as Designers of Decorative Art Objects in the Mughal Period,” in Facets of Indian Art: A Symposium held at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 26, 27, 28 April and 1 May 1982, ed. R. Skelton, et al. (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986), pp. 243-52. [back]

3. The Khwabgah is today popularly known as the Khass Mahal (Private Palace). Catherine B. Asher, Architecture of Mughal India, The New Cambridge History of India 1:4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 198-99, pl. 122. [back]

4. For the most recent discussion of and references for the three versions of this painting, see Linda York Leach, Paintings from India, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, v. 8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 161-63, no. 45. Leach’s dating is herein followed. [back]

5. The photograph illustrated here is in a private collection. See also John Falconer, India: Pioneering Photographer, 1850-1900, exh. cat. (London: The British Library and The Howard and Jane Ricketts Collection, 2001), p. 118, no. 87; and Stuart Cary Welch, India: Art and Culture, 1300-1900, exh. cat. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985), p. 435, no. 287. [back]

6. Islamic Art and Indian Miniatures, Christie’s, London, 28 October 1992, lot 89. For a discussion of European glassware imported into India, see Stephen Markel, “Western Imports and the Nature of Later Indian Glassware,” Asian Art 6:4 (1993): 34-59. [back]

7. Susan Stronge, Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560-1660 (London: V&A Publications, 2002), pp. 127-28, pl. 93; and The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule, exh. cat. (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982), p. 37, no. 41. [back]

8. Ibid. (mentioned only); Guy Francis Laking, Oriental Arms and Armour, Wallace Collection Catalogues, 2nd ed. (London: Wallace Collection, 1964), pp. 9-10, no. 1409 (not illustrated; misattributed to “Vizianagram, 18th century”); Vessey Norman, “Swords & Daggers,” Discovering Antiques 65 (1971): 1554; and The Wallace Collection: Guide to the Armouries (London: Wallace Collection, 1982), p. 41. Due to the exorbitant charges and excessive restrictions of the Wallace Collection’s reproduction policy, the dagger could not be illustrated herein. [back]

9. For example, see Manual Keene with Salam Kaouki, Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals, exh. cat. (London: Thames & Hudson in association with The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait National Museum, 2001), p. 57, no. 5.2. [back]

10. Ibid., p. 129, no. 11.3. Known as “table-cut” style, this working of the diamond's surface into a flat plane was the preferred style of diamond cutting in India during the Mughal period. [back]

11. Andrew Topsfield, “Painting for the Rajput Courts,” in The Arts of India, ed. Basil Gray (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 172, fig. 185. Because of its extensive re-painting (personal communication to the author from Linda Leach, 8 December 1992), this work was not included in Linda York Leach, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, 2 vols. (London: Scorpion Cavendish, 1995). [back]

12. Susan Stronge, Nima Smith, and J. C. Harle, A Golden Treasury: Jewellery from the Indian Subcontinent. Victoria and Albert Museum, Indian Art Series (New York: Rizzoli, 1988), p. 52-53, no. 38; Susan Stronge, “Jewels for the Mughal Court,”The Victoria and Albert Album 5 (1986), pp. 317; and The Indian Heritage, p. 109, no. 308. [back]

13. J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), p. 81, no. 90, color pl. 17. [back]

14. Glenn D. Lowry with Susan Nemazee, A Jeweler's Eye: Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection (Washington: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in association with University of Washington Press, 1988), pp. 168-69, no. 52. [back]

15. Pratapaditya Pal, Indian Painting, vol. 1 (Los Angeles: LACMA, 1993), pp. 274-77, no. 77. [back]

16. For Susan Stronge’s excellent discussions of this form of turban ornament, see Stronge, A Golden Treasury, p. 35; Stronge, “Jewels for the Mughal Court,” pp. 311-13; and Susan Stronge, “Mughal Jewellery,” Jewellery Studies 1 (1983-84): 51. [back]

17. Leach, Chester Beatty Library, pp. 391-92, 402, no. 3.17. [back]

18. Karel Hetteš, Venezianisches Glas aus Tschechoslowakischen Sammlungen (Czechoslovakia: Artia Praha, 1960), pl. 37. [back]

19. Ellen S. Smart, “A Recently Discovered Mughal Hunting Picture by Payag,” Art History 2:4 (December 1979): 396-400; Rhode Island School of Design, A Handbook of the Museum of Art (Providence: RISD, 1985), p. 156, no. 69; and Joseph M. Dye, III, “Payag,” in Master Artists of the Imperial Mughal Court, ed. Pratapaditya Pal (Bombay: Marg Publications, 1991), pp. 127, 130, fig. 11. [back]

20. Pratapaditya Pal, Elephants and Ivories in South Asia, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: LACMA, 1981), pp. 87-88, no. 85. [back]

21. For an indication of the range of diverse materials used to fashion South Asian powder primer flasks, see The Indian Heritage, pp. 135-36, nos. 439-444. [back] | Articles