Among the treasures of the John Frederick Lewis Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Rare Book Department are twenty-five elaborately illustrated folios from a centuries-old Mughal manuscript known as the Razmnama (literally, 'Book of War'). The manuscript dates to around 1598–99, and was produced under the Muslim Mughal Dynasty, which founded a kingdom in India in or during the early 16th century. Written in Persian at the behest of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, (reigned 1556 to 1605), the Razmnama is an abridged translation of the Mahabharata, one of the great epics of Hinduism. Although the pages from the 1598–99 Razmnama have been dispersed to collections around the world, they were once bound as a single book whose folios numbered in the hundreds. For the first time since 1923, an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will bring together all 25 of the Free Library's pages in a special installation in the William P. Wood Gallery (Gallery 227).
The Book of War: The Free Library of Philadelphia's Mughal Razmnama Folios is co-curated by Darielle Mason, the Museum's Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, together with Yael Rice of the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. It affords a rare opportunity to explore an exciting moment of artistic experimentation and cultural exchange. The extensive conservation treatment necessary to exhibit these pages has been made possible through a generous gift from Dr. Dorothy del Bueno.
"The Mughal emperor Akbar's reign was a moment of extraordinary openness and curiosity among the diverse cultures and religions of the subcontinent," Ms. Mason said. "The richness of these paintings resulted from a collaboration across what are now, all too often, viewed as unbridgeable divides."
When the founders of the Muslim Mughal Dynasty came into India from central Asia at the end of the 16th century, they carried with them many traditions of Persian imperial culture, particularly the arts of the book. Emperor Akbar himself was a powerful leader who brought a vast portion of the subcontinent under Mughal rule by combining military skill and political-religious inclusiveness. He was also a liberal patron of the arts.
Most of the books produced at Akbar's imperial workshop were written in Persian, the official court language. These texts are royal histories, epics, and poetic narratives drawn from the literature of the Persian world. The Razmnama is also written in Persian, but its subject does not emerge from the Persian literary tradition. Akbar himself commissioned scholars to abridge and translate this essential text of Hinduism so that it would be more widely accessible.
One of the foundational texts of Hinduism, the Mahabharata is told as a complex epic narrative whose main story is that of a huge intrafamilial war. In addition to the text, this Razmnama also includes many exquisite and elaborate illustrations. In Akbar's imperial atelier, artists recruited directly from the Persian court worked side by side with Persian, central Asian, and Indian artists, often collaborating on the same manuscripts. In addition, many imported European prints and paintings entered the Mughal collection during the late 16th century and artists adapted selected European characteristics, such as the illusion of depth through shading, into their own work. Thus in both text and illustrations the Razmnama speaks to the diverse cultural, religious, and linguistic character of the Mughal court. The text represents the effort of a Muslim ruler to understand the foundations of Hinduism, so deeply rooted in his kingdom; the images herald the creation of a new artistic language.
"This exhibition is the happy result of the ongoing collaboration between two great Philadelphia institutions—the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art," Museum Director Anne d'Harnoncourt said. "The Museum is delighted to play a part in bringing these important folios to the public for the first time in nearly a century."
About the Collection of Indian and Himalayan Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art contains one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the spectacular Pillared Temple Hall (16th century) from Southern India, paintings and sculptures from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet; an important group of textiles; and a variety of decorative arts. Works from the Indian and Himalayan Art Collections are displayed in a series of galleries (224, 227, 229–232) on the second floor. The William P. Wood Gallery houses changing collection exhibitions primarily showcasing 16th- through 20th-century Indian art. Gallery 232 is devoted to works from the Himalayan region, including Buddhist paintings, metal images, and ritual implements.