Princes and Painters in Mughal Dehli – Now at Asia Society

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of immersing oneself into the art and culture of a long-forgotten empire, while residing in New York City in 2012, is the thought that one day, people will look back on our society much the same way. I tend to forget how relatively recent our industrial, technology-driven culture truly is. This comes to mind as I watch William Dalrymple and Vydia Shah recount tales of the Mughals in the early 19th century, as they gradually lost control of their vast empire to the British East India Company. Despite their reputation as warriors fond of excess and ruling with might, this was also an incredibly sophisticated culture, immersed in visual arts and music, which seemed to have just as much confidence as we do that their way of life would never change.

Near the end of the evening, Dalrymple recounts a haunting tale of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, who spent the final hours of his life hidden in a cave and painting on its walls with burnt pieces of wood. This is a culture so steeped in the arts that the leader’s last attempt at preserving his legacy was to create a painting in an attempt to explain the fateful course of events he had experienced.

Interspersed with Dalrymple’s fascinating readings from his new book entitled The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 were hypnotic classical songs sung by Vidya Shah and fleshed out by her accompanying musicians playing harmonium and tabla. These songs, as well, told tales of important events in Mughal history. They glorified leaders honored bravery and revered those who had passed, as well as entertained. As I sat listening to the intricate melodies and precise vocalizations of this exotic musical tradition, I wondered what will be considered “classical” American music 160 years on. Will it be the ragtime flavored stylings of Tin Pan Alley and the early days of Broadway? The rock and roll era? Folk or country music? And would it be performed in museum auditoriums such as this one for a highbrow group of reverent listeners, halfway around the world from the place of its origin? I suppose one can only hope our culture will enjoy such benefits.

A recent entry by audience development expert Clayton Lord in the online performing arts journal HowlRound.com made an interesting argument that seems to relate directly to the Mughals’ tendency for creating, especially in times of turmoil. Lord argues that one of the primary intrinsic values of the arts is in making memories: “Memory is what is held onto: people choose or don’t choose to repeat an activity based on the abstract feelings and impressions that are packaged together in a memory. We, as artists, make powerful, complete memories for people and, in so doing, we traffic in the making of meaning…”.

As I immersed myself in the stories of these final Mughal leaders and listened to their music, I realized that this intrinsic value is something about which the Mughals, and indeed many past civilizations, had a gut feeling – a primal, fundamental understanding. Why else would Zafar, in what he knew to be the final hours of his life, continue furtively drawing on a stone wall? When I had first read Lord’s statement on the value of the arts in society, it had seemed a bit grandiose. But in the context of the Mughals, and many respected civilizations of the past, it fits right in. Hopefully the American empire won’t lose sight of this as we forge ahead into the 21st century.

The exhibit Princes and Painters in Mughal Dehli, 1707 – 1857, is on view at Asia Society through May 6th. Admission is FREE for students with a valid student CUID.

– Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA, 2013 

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