The exquisite arts of the Deccan have unjustly been overshadowed by Mughal art of the period. Also forgotten is the character of these Sultanates: tolerant, encompassing, and syncretic. Persons of all races and religions were able to rise to great heights here. Dakhni Urdu – a language that merged courtly Persian with Indian vernaculars – developed in the Deccan, fostering communication across classes and ethnic groups. Sufi and yogic mysticism merged to form composite faiths.
Although the many creatures show elements of Persian and Turkoman styles, the elephant in the centre is noticeably Indic in appearance, with a colourful spread on its back. The elephant, calm and powerful, is sheltering a frightened deer with its trunk. Perhaps the artist intended to show that this land, the home of elephants, was a place of refuge for the world.
'Kalamkari,' which literally means 'drawn by pen,' is the result of a complex technique of drawing and dyeing. Patterns are first painted with mordants, chemical catalysts that make the dye colours fast. The cloth is then painted or dipped in the appropriate dye. But a resist is first applied to the parts that are not to be dyed. As a result, each section of this kalamkari is the result of several painstaking processes.
Deccani workshops knew the secrets of producing brilliant and fast colours before the rest of the world. Brightly patterned textiles were in high demand all over the world. A kalamkari like this stands at the centre of 17th century global trade. It shows traders and luxury goods from China, Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and the Americas, all of which were brought to the Deccan by traders who came to purchase the Deccan's own fabulous trade goods, including textiles such as this one.
The most famous Abyssinian of the Deccan was Malik Ambar. Born in Ethiopia, he was sold as a slave in the markets of Baghdad and was eventually bought by the Prime Minister of Ahmadnagar. Here Malik learned about governance. After his master's death, Malik was released from slavery. He became recognised for his military acumen and rose to become the Prime Minister and Regent of the kingdom, and had his daughter married to the Sultan. Malik Ambar is remembered for successfully defending Ahmadnagar against the Mughals although eventually he had to cede the fort of Ahmadnagar to them. Malik Ambar organized the Sultanate’s military system, and trained the soldiers in tactics of guerilla warfare. He introduced the revenue reforms known as Malik Ambar Dhara, which became the basis of all future revenue system in Deccan.
Rustam Captures the Horse Rakhsh
This painting depicts Rustam, one of the heroes of the Shahnama, pursuing a herd of wild horses. He throws his lasso to capture Rakhsh, a magical horse that will be his faithful companion through many adventures. The Shahnama was not just the national epic of Persia but was celebrated wherever Persian culture held sway.
This extraordinary painting is made through the art of marbling, colours swirling on water are picked up by a sheet of paper that is quickly laid on the water's surface.
The art of marbling originated either in Turkey or in Persia and then reached the Deccani courts.Usually, entire sheets of paper were marbled and were used as background or borders for calligraphy. Marbled paintings such as this were the result of an especially complex process and were a speciality of Bijapur in the Deccan. The artist applied a resistant gum or stencil to the areas that were not to be marbled; afterwards, this was removed and details were added by brush.
In this manuscript from the Deccan, the Nahj al-Balagha has been calligraphed by Muhammad Ali Mazandarani. Under each line of Arabic text in the Naskh script, there are Persian translations in Nasta’liq characters.The entire manuscript is illuminated, with gold and floral patterns. The cover page bears the name of the library of Rai Raja Ram Mustafwi-i-Sirkar-i-Asifia which indicates that this manuscript must have at one time been part of the Asifia Royal collection at Hyderabad.
However, this manuscript only has an incomplete text of the Nahj al-Balagha and is bound along with portions of an unnamed illustrated Persian manuscript on astronomy.
Ajaib al Makhluqat wa Gharaib al Maujudat
An encyclopedic text from the Golden Age which takes stock of 13th-century scientific knowledge is the Ajaib al Makhluqat wa Gharaib al Maujudat or Wonders of Creation, and Miraculous Things in Existence. Composed by the Iranian scholar Zakaria bin Muhammad Al Qazwini, the Ajai'b is an account of all things known or believed to exist in the heavens, on earth and in the waters.
The Ajai'b was very popular throughout the Islamic world and was translated into several languages. The National Museum's manuscript is a Persian translation that was probably made in Bijapur. It is written in a neat hand in the Naskh script and there are 257 illustrated folios among its 307 folios.
The colophon of this manuscript is difficult to decipher. The scribe was Noor Muhammad, and he completed the book in 977 AH which is equivalent to 1569-70 AD. The style of illustrations suggests this manuscript was made in Bijapur but a seal on the flyleaf tells us this was part of the library of Pari Sahib, a Golconda princess who was the daughter of Muhammad Qutb Shah.
Unidentified Astrological Text
The golden orbs that dot this drawing of a ship are stars; the ship itself traces the constellation described by them. This illustration is taken from the pages of the unknown astrological manuscript that were bound along with the pages of the Nahj ul Balagha seen in the previous section.
In the medieval period, no distinction was made between the study of astronomy and astrology. Since the stars were believed to govern lives and events on earth, studying them closely was of the utmost importance.
In the Deccan, Arabic science was augmented with learning derived from local sources, and this fragmentary manuscript may have been similar to the Nujum al-Ulum or Science of the Stars, an encyclopedic text written in the early 17th century in Bijapur in the Deccan, possibly by Sultan Ali Adil Shah. The Nujum combines the astrological knowledge of the Ajai’b al Makhluqat with elements from the Brihad Samhita and the Markandeya Purana, blending Arabic and local traditions of knowledge. It is one among many testaments to the cosmopolitan character of the Deccani Sultanates, which were open to cultures and learning from all traditions.
The central panel portrays the coronation of Rama. A bejeweled Rama sits on a double-lotus throne with Sita. At the base of the throne, Hanuman sits adoringly at Rama’s feet. Attendants stand with chauris (fly whisks) and umbrellas. The monkey-king Sugriva, as well as other courtiers and warriors, stand nearby.
Brahma and Indra flank the central scene, standing under cusped arches that remind us of the Sultanate-inspired palaces of Hampi. A great variety of stitches are used throughout, including running stitch, stem stitch, satin stitch, herringbone stitch, filling, couching, cross stitch, sindhi stitch, long- short, chain stitch, French knot and feather stitch.
Above and below the large panels run narrow borders that intricately narrate episodes from the Kishkinda and Sundarakandas of the Ramayana, Ramacharitamanasa and Kamba Ramayana. The style of the smaller figures is less like temple sculpture, and more like the leather puppets from the Karnataka region.
The narrative scenes focus on event involving Hanuman, who is shown here with a kudumi or lock of hair worn by Brahmins. In this detail, Hanuman has just seen Rama and Lakshmana walking through the forest and is struck by their radiance. He is embarrassed to speak to them as he is just a monkey, so he transforms himself into a priest who can address them in Sanskrit. Later, he reveals his true form. Tall plants act as separators fro the individual scenes.
It is said that a hakim from Bijapur, Abdul Fatah, invented the huqqa, to reduce the harmful effects of tobacco smoke by passing it through water . The smoking of a huqqa became the hallmark of leisurely activity amongst those who could afford it. For painters, depictions of nobility smoking huqqas gave the opportunity to show the beautifully crafted objects used by them. This portrait shows Himmat Yar Khan, was a nobleman in the service of Nizam Ali Khan (1761-1803) of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty. He is seated on a carpet, leaning against a bolster and smoking a bidriware huqqa.
The Padmavat was a popular text and there are illustrated manuscripts of this epic. However, this huqqa base is a unique instance of the Padmavat depicted in bidri work. Eleven episodes from the early part of the Padmavat have been depicted here, showing the courtship of Padmavati and Ratan Sen. Figurative bases such as this one are extremely rare.
Ratan Sen travels to Simhaladesa, but there he learns that his only opportunity to see Padmavati is on Vasant Panchami, when she comes to pray at a shrine. Ratan Sen disguises himself as a yogi and sits in meditation at the shrine. He is so immersed in his devotions that Padmavati comes and goes without his realising it.
Here is the shrine which is guarded by Hanuman; Padmavati stands in prayer while Ratan Sen sits and meditates. Padmavati's parrot is exasperated as his plans come to naught.
But Shiva is pleased because Ratan Sen was immersed in devotion to him. At top, we see him with his mount Nandi; he blesses Ratan and helps him find a way to Padmavati's chamber. At bottom right, we see Ratan Sen and Padmavati fall in love. At bottom left, Padmavati's father learns of this interloper and fights him.
When Padmavati is decked as a bride, she is incomparably beautiful. The goose sees that Padmavati's gait is more elegant than her own and she hangs her head in shame. The snake sees that her plait is longer, blacker and thicker than its body, and it slithers away into the bush. The lioness sees that Padmavati's waist is slimmer than her own. The doe is amazed that the bride's eyes are larger and more luminous than the doe's. The poet tells us Padmavati was more beautiful than all the metaphors used to describe a woman's beauty. The huqqa designer has arranged all the animals of the metaphor as though gazing at the shy figure of the bride who is seated at top, holding a garland in her hands.
At right, within the arched structure, the happy couple celebrate their wedding.
Deccani pichhawais are known for their extensive use of gold leaf. In this pichhawai made to celebrate the monsoon, almost everything is made of gold which glows against the deep indigo ground. Gopis flank a kadamba tree, in front of which the Krishna statue would have been kept. Tree, leaves, gopis' dresses and even the showering jasmine flowers that fill the background are all made of gold.
Above the trees, the artist shows dark thunderclouds and lightning flashes. Brilliant red parrots shelter in the golden foliage of these magical trees.
The lavish use of gold indicates that the pichhawai was gifted to a temple by a wealthy devotee. The extent to which the gold has been rubbed off suggests that this pichhawai was used in the temple for a long while.
In the lower part of the painting, Vasudeva has reached the river after the prison gates have miraculously opened for him.
In this Persian retelling of the tale, as Vasudeva gathers courage to take the child out of prison, the text says "he put his faith in Allah, and carried Piri Maharaj on his head." Here, the writer uses Persian equivalents for 'God' and 'avatara,' translating the Bhagavata to the context of his Persian-reading patron.
This is a late Golconda style painting, made after Golconda was conquered by the Mughals. The patron may have been connected with the Mughal administration, many members of whom were extremely artistic and gave patronage to miniature painting by employing local artists. Deccani paintings retained creativity, and local concepts and techniques continued in terms of paper, pigments and colouring.
Late in the sixteenth century, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur composed the fifty-nine songs and seventeen couplets that are gathered in the Kitab-i-Nauras, the Book of Nine Rasas. The verses are written in Dakhni Urdu and indicate the ragas in which they were to be sung.
The Kitab throws light on Ibrahim’s personality and the deeply multicultural ethos of his court. The first verse of the Kitab is an invocation to Saraswati, and the second verse invokes Prophet Muhammad and the Sufi saint Gesu Daraz. There are several verses in praise of Shiva and Ibrahim calls Ganesha and Saraswati his spiritual father and mother. He declares the quest for knowledge as the most important pursuit in life.
The National Museum has six pages from the Kitab-i-Nauras manuscript that was written by the royal calligrapher Khalilullah. So pleased was Ibrahim with Khalilullah’s version of the Kitab, that he dubbed him badshah-i-qalam (“king of the pen”) and made him sit on the throne as a reward.
The manuscript is written in a neat Nasta’liq that is enclosed in cloud-bands. The spaces between the lines are filled with a virtual forest of minuscule plants, birds and animals executed in delicate drawing in ink and gold.
The couple sway together on a swing tied to the branches of the mango tree, while attendants spray them with coloured water, scented with saffron, which the nayika tries to dodge. There is music in the air - from the ektara played by a third attendant, and presumably, from birds that chirp and sing against a golden sky. In the foreground is a water-course with a fountain.
Qanat or tent wall with five panels
The extensive military campaigns meant considerable time spent living in camp. Encampments were like portable cities with elaborate tents for palaces, audience halls, workshops, kitchens and so on.
An important part of any tent or tent enclosure was its qanat or tent wall. The qanats of royal tents were elaborately decorated. They could be painted, printed or embroidered and they usually had some form of floral pattern.
This qanat is a tour-de-force of painting in the kalamkari style. Its five panels are populated with animals, birds, mythical creatures as well as trees, flowers and fruit in a dazzlingly complex composition.
The central panel depicts a mythical two-headed bird, the gandabherunda. The gandabherunda had been a heraldic bird for several South Indian dynasties including the Hoysalas and Kakatiyas. Perhaps this is an ironic version made for the succeeding dynasties which shows the bird swooping down instead of soaring upwards to the sky.
The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb dedicated most of his reign to the conquest of the Deccan. He eventually prevailed, but the victories were too costly and depleted the Mughal treasury, leading to the fragmentation of the empire after Aurangzeb's death.
Aurangzeb was represented in the exhibition through his armour and several weapons.This waist-coat armour of Aurangzeb is made of fine Damascus steel. Its two moulded plates are shaped to follow the contours of the emperor’s body.
Three lines of text are engraved on the front of the armour and inlaid in gold. The first two lines are in Arabic, in Naskh script and are a talismanic formula. They say: There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is His Prophet.
The third line is in Persian, in the nastaliq script. It says: King of kings, Aurangzeb Aalamgir
Sword of Aurangzeb
This sword is a single-edged shamshir and is made of fine watered steel. From the forte to the middle, the blade is profusely inscribed in golden letters with Arabic verses written in the Naskh script. However, the name of Aurangzeb is written in Nasta’liq script. Calligraphically, this inscription is one of the best examples of its kind.
The inscribed verses read “Bismillah-i-rehman-al-rahim. Nasrun Min-al-allah-i-wa Fathun Qarib. La Fataha illa Ali, La Saifa-illa Zulfiqar. La yasmaoon Fiha Laghwan wa la kizzaban. Jazaun Min Rabbika Qabiyan”.
In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful, (With) help from Allah, a speedy victory is near // There is no warrior but Ali // There is no sword but Zulfiqar. No vanity shall they hear therein (in Heaven), nor untruth (One will receive) recompense from the Lord, a gift...
These lines echo the inscription that is said to have been written on the famed Zulfiqar sword that the Prophet Muhammad gifted to his nephew and son-in- law, Hazrat Ali.
In the centre of the blade is a tughra with the name of Aurangzeb below which is written Ya Allah, Ya Mohammad, Ya Ali.
The blade is beautifully decorated with figures of fish, a tiger and a deer and floral and creeper designs, all in gold. The hilt is unique. It consists of straight quillons and a rectangular grip of steel fitted with ivory pieces on both sides. These ivory pieces are decorated with floral and fish-scale patters. The sides of the grip and the quillons are damascened with floral and creeper designs.
This is the personal Jambia of Aurangzeb (r. 1658 -1707) bearing his name and an inscription in gold saying “With this dagger (key) I (Aurangzeb) have opened the lock of India’s destiny.”
The Jambia is originally an Arab form of dagger but is found in all those countries where Arabs have lived. The blade of this jambia is made of Damascus steel of the finest quality and has wavy edges. Its hilt is of walrus ivory.
Through the decades, the Deccan became 'Mughalised.' Burhanpur in the northern Deccan was for many years the major Mughal base for Deccani campaigns; later Aurangzeb shifted the Mughal capital to Aurangabad. These cities became the centres for the production of Mughal arts and luxury goods.
This painting may have been made in Aurangabad. In a midnight landscape two women stand with hands entwined, playing a game. The gold of their garments is like the flash of lightning in the distant sky. They are playing a game of phugari, in which participants hold hands and spin each other around, perhaps while singing songs. As the spinning speeds up, one or the other will grow dizzy and have to give up.
The artist has taken the opportunity to display his skills in picturing the women’s bodies from different angles.
Thalposh or Tray Cover
This small rectangular cotton covering is a beautiful example of hand-painted kalamkari from the eighteenth century. With its beautiful vegetal and animal motifs that include several exotic species, it appears to be made for export.The four corner motifs and six elongated buta motifs along the edges all seem to point towards the large central medallion which dominates the entire composition. Each of these motifs intermingles flowers and creepers with birds that have been skillfully incorporated into the overall pattern.
The birds of the central medallion are particularly interesting as the bird at the heart of this medallion seems to be a turkey that is showing off its plumes.
Hand-painted kalamkaris such as this one are rarer than block-printed kalamkaris.
The Deccani dyers held secret recipes for brilliant reds, blues and greens that remained colour-fast. As ships carried these colourful textiles to new markets in the 17th century, demand grew at a tremendous pace. Soon, kalamkari producers were unable to meet demand through the laborious process of hand-drawing, and shifted instead to block-printing.
Bidriware, the distinctive metalwork of the Deccan, is named for the town of Bidar where it is meant to have originated. Although bidriware was inspired by Persian forms of inlaid metalware, a coating of the soil of Bidar turned the zinc-copper alloy a deep and lustrous black. Inlaid silver and gold appeared brilliant against this black ground and bidriware became popular for all kinds of vessels.Vessels were first cast in alloy. Surfaces were then chased, and silver or gold wire or sheets cut to size and hammered into the channels created for them. This could be done through tarkashi (inlay of wire), taihnishan (inlay of sheets of metal), zarnishan (low relief), zarbuland (high relief) and aftabi (reversed patterns, where the design was cut out of silver or gold sheet overlay).
This water bowl or abkhora is is decorated with attractive floral motifs on the exterior, but the inner surface makes it a bidriware masterpiece, Here, the Throne Verse from the Quran is reproduced in the aftabi technique. Sheets of silver have had the words cut out; when overlaid on the base it looks as though the words have been written in black ink on a silver page. It is believed that drinking water from a bowl inscribed with Quranic verses give strength to the drinker’s body.
This fine sailabchi has a globular body. Its constricted neck flares out into a shallow basin whose central cavity is covered with a perforated lid that looks like a lattice.
Water flows down the sides of the basin and trickles through the perforated lid into the vessel below. The lid is detachable and can be lifted by the knob provided at the centre. The basin is elaborately decorated in silver with taihnishan, aftabi and tarkashi techniques.
This twelve-sided tray has twelve small legs and a slightly flared rim. The edges are serrated and turned downwards. It has three concentric bands of floral designs on top while the flared rim has geometrical and floral borders. The silver inlaying is done with aftabi, taihnishan and tarkashi techniques
This beautifully ornamented European-style chair is covered with stylized floral patterns in oval enclosures, creepers and geometrical designs. The four legs are curved and have fluted ends. The chair has two curved hand-rests and a back-rest. The wooden seat is covered by red brocade stuffed with cotton. The silver is inlaid with taihnishan and tarkashi techniques.
The Tuzuk-i-Asafiya recounts the lift and times of Asaf Jah II of the Nizam Shahi dynasty of Hyderabad. Descended from Mughal governors of the Deccan who seized power for themselves, the Asaf Jahs would have encouraged literary works that showed them as worthy rulers.
The Tuzuk-i-Asafiya is a unique Deccani manuscript of great historical importance. It is authored by Tajalli Ali Shah, a great polymath who was a scholar of Arabic and Persian, historian, calligrapher, poet and excellent artist of Hyderabad.Through its 78 paintings, the manuscript presents a pictorial biography of Asaf Jah II of Nizam Shahi dynasty of the Deccan. It throws light on the socio- economic, cultural and political aspects of his reign.
The eye-catching manuscript gives an insightful account of the Nizam’s relations with the Marathas, the French, the British besides Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore. It is an important and authentic source for the history of the Nizam by an eyewitness who participated in several campaigns against the Marathas, the French, the British, and Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, who were atloggerheads with the Nizams.
Another noteworthy feature of this manuscript is its unique depiction of the walled city of Hyderabad as it was in c. 1768. One can see the darbar of Nizam Ali Khan in the Char Mahal Palace in the central panel in which the Nizam is giving audience to the French envoy M. Bussy. Around the palace is shown the entire walled city of Hyderabad with palaces, houses, mosques, Char Minar, Mecca Masjid, gates roads etc. Beyond the city walls one can see the bridge across the river Musli leading to the Golconda Fort.
Exhibition was organised in collaboration with The Aesthetics Project, New Delhi.
Script and Curation - Dr. Preeti Bahadur Ramaswami, Dr. Kavita Singh, Dr. Anamika Pathak, Dr. Vijay Mathur, Mr. K.K. Sharma, Dr. Kanaklata Singh, Mr. Zahid Ali Ansari, Dr. S.V. Tripathi and Mr. Khatibur Rahman
Exhibit Compilation - Vasundhra Sangwan
Exhibition Designer - Oroon Das
Exhibition Display - Mr. K.K.S Deori, Mr. Kuldeep Pokhriyal and Ms. Priya
Photography - Hariom Maurya, Rakesh Kumar, Suresh Mahto, Yogesh Pal and Ashu
Photo Editing - Bipin Nayak
Exhibition Coordination - Joyoti Roy and Shubhashree Purkayastha
References: Nauras - The Many Arts of the Deccan, Ed. Dr. Ramaswami, P.; Dr. Singh, K.; National Museum, 2015, New Delhi.