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The Life of the Free Library's 25 paintings from the 1598–99 Razmnama

By tracing the history of the 1598–99 Razmnama we can gain a better understanding of changing attitudes towards Mughal painting over the last several centuries.

The Eighteenth Century

At some point in the middle of the eighteenth century, two detached illustrated leaves from the manuscript entered the collection of Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh of Jaipur (reign 1779–1803), a Hindu kingdom in the state of Rajasthan. These paintings were pasted onto large album pages, a practice that was not uncommon at this time. Indian collectors avidly amassed paintings and calligraphic specimens from a variety of sources, which were then arranged into an album format. A greatly illustrated manuscript like the 1598–99 Razmnama was particularly susceptible to such selective fragmentation as it held a veritable storehouse of images in the then much prized Mughal mode.

The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

At some point over the next several centuries, the bulk of the manuscript made its way to London, where it was sold at auction in 1921. The Razmnama's last five chapters—bound and containing 24 paintings—were auctioned off in a single lot, while the remaining 125 paintings were dispersed as single, detached leaves. It is difficult to say when precisely the manuscript was cut up. It is certain that paintings had been removed prior to this point, but when precisely the 1598–99 Razmnama underwent such thorough dismemberment is hard to pinpoint. There remains the possibility that the manuscript's paintings were excised in order to maximize profit at auction. Simply put, it was easier to sell individual paintings, the accompanying text discarded, than to sell a single, intact manuscript. This piecemeal approach to the Mughal manuscript fit well with predominant tastes at this time, as paintings were appraised as single works of art, rather than as part of a larger, bound ensemble.

The sale of the Razmnama paintings at a London auction reflects the growing interest in Mughal painting among European and North American collectors. Several factors contributed to the growth in popularity of Mughal paintings in particular. First, the looting of the royal collections in Delhi, in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857, resulted in the transport of many Mughal treasures to British soil. Second, the opening up of the Suez Canal in 1869, as well as advances in rail technology, facilitated the movement of manuscripts and other goods from India to points westward. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the end of the nineteenth century saw a change in attitude towards Mughal painting. With the backdrop of the growing Art Nouveau movement, collectors came to re-evaluate these detailed miniatures from India in light of their craftsmanship and dynamic designs. The turn of the century also saw a shift in specifically British attitudes towards Indian crafts and fine arts. Once perceived as sub-standard, Mughal painting was re-imagined as a treasured tradition inherited by the British Empire. These forces combined served to fuel collectors' interests in the painting traditions of the once great Mughal court. By the 1910s and 1920s, the scholarly community had followed suit, with the publishing of seminal studies of Mughal painting by Percy Brown, Hermann Goetz, and Ivan Stchoukine, to name only a few.

Very soon after the auction, the 25 illustrated folios today housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia came into the possession of John Frederick Lewis, a noted philanthropist and collector of European and Oriental manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, and early American portraits. In 1923–24, selections of Persian and Indian works of art, including the group of Razmnama paintings, were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the landmark Philadelphia institution for which Lewis also happened to serve as President from 1907–1928. Remarkably, this was one of the earliest exhibitions of Persian and Indian paintings in the United States. As such it perhaps reflects more so Lewis's enthusiasm for book arts and paleography, rather than a particular national trend.

1932–Present

After Lewis's death in 1932, his widow donated the Razmnama paintings, along with many other treasures, to the Free Library of Philadelphia. Five of the paintings were next exhibited only in 1986, in the exhibition Painted Delight: Indian Paintings from Philadelphia Collections, which was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dr. Stella Kramrisch, the curator of the exhibition, placed special emphasis upon Indian rulers, including the Mughal emperors, as patrons and connoisseurs of art. This Philadelphia exhibition was one of many such showcases of Indian art mounted across the United States during the same year on the occasion of the Festival of India, a year-long collaboration between the U.S. and Indian governments to foster awareness of India's cultural riches.

The generous gift of Dr. Dorothy del Bueno, which has enabled these twenty-five Razmanama paintings to be conserved and exhibited here, ensures that future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy these remarkable Mughal treasures.

 

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