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April 27th, 2005
India's Tradition of Literary Arts Surveyed in Exhibition of Rare Manuscripts, Pages and Objects

The exquisite "miniature paintings" of the Indian subcontinent are often seen framed on museum walls, yet most were originally created as individual pages of much larger illustrated manuscripts and series. Book Arts of India, an exhibition on view in the William P. Wood Gallery (227) of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May 7-October 2005, presents 29 painted folios, bound books and book covers, as well as objects such as pen boxes and inkwells to provide a detailed view of the region's rich tradition of book production and illustration.

"Not only do these books differ in their choices of texts and in their painting styles, but they also exploit a host of options for the proportions and orientation of pages and for the materials and techniques used to bind or hold those pages together," said Darielle Mason, The Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art. "Even more fascinating are the many ways artists devised to integrate words with images on the same page, making them into visual complements and powerful story-telling partners."

Before papermaking technology reached India, texts were written on other materials and several recent acquisitions give fascinating clues to the nature of early book formats in India. Among these unique works is a nearly 1,400-year old multi-page "book" made of three small, inscribed copper plates held together with a ring. From ancient times in India, writing was inscribed on such copper plates to create a permanent record of royal gifts and property transactions.

Early religious texts were often written on long, dried palm leaves. A superb page of an illustrated religious manuscript written on palm leaf is dated by stylistic evidence to about 1300-1350, making it one of the oldest known book illustrations from western India. The colorful image, with its gold ornament, is in extraordinary condition. The page comes from a manuscript of the Kalpasutra, a key text of the ancient Jain religion, that tells of the life of the historical savior-saint Mahavira. The illustration shows many features found generally in indigenous Indian styles of painting such the bright red background, the faces drawn in profile, and the flat, clear composition.

By the late 14th century, paper had almost entirely replaced palm leaf and other materials. Over the next five hundred years, illustrated paper manuscripts and series became one of the subcontinent's major art forms. Humayun Receives the Head of Qaracha Khan is a page of the first illustrated copy of the court memoirs of the great Mughal emperor, Akbar, done in the imperial workshop in about 1590. Bloody but magical, this minutely detailed image demonstrates the sophisticated blending of Persian (Iranian), Indian, and even European ideas of painting and bookmaking that occurred under this powerful dynasty.

Another rare masterpiece is a complete manuscript of the Sufi text, Rose Garden of Love (Gulshan-i-Ishq). Made in 1743 for a Muslim ruler in south-central India, this book includes 97 exquisite illustrations and text written in flowing Persian script. One page on view shows a portrait of the court poet Nusrati, who composed Rose Garden of Love nearly a hundred years earlier. The artist imagined him sitting in a garden in the very act of writing his mystical and romantic story.

Two unfinished works, probably from the Hindu court of Kangra in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, show how artists created paintings, from initial sketch through final brushstroke. In Woman Having her Feet Washed, it is possible to see the unknown master artist's first drawing, done in red pigment, just visible beneath a layer of white paint on which he has a more refined drawing in black. The partially colored painting Women Playing Music on a Terrace shows the next steps in the process. In this page, the background is covered in flat colors. The artist has begun to add distinct layers of detail over these, beginning with the shadows in the trees, then drawing the individual leaves, and finally painting the colorful flowers. The most important portions of the composition, the human figures, have been carefully left uncolored awaiting the master painter's hand.

Among the exceptional objects on view is a steel amulet with gold overlay, shaped like a leather-bound book. This tiny case (1 3/4 x 1 1/2 x 1/2 inches) was made to hold a miniature, handwritten edition of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. The technique of gold-on-steel was used in both Iran and India, especially for weaponry, and became popular for all types of decorative metal items by the 17th century. A similar technique is seen in a pen box from Pakistan, aptly inscribed with the Qur'anic verse called "The Pen."

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