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September 2012

Indo-Muslim art

India's stonework: a fusion of form and flowers

Shyam Bhatia takes a look at the intricate, previously unseen stone carvings from India's Mughal and Sultanate eras that are soon to be displayed in London and considers their unique blend of Indian and Muslim features.

By Shyam Bhatia

FINELY FORMED: An early example of a jalli, delicately carved with a design of flowers within interlocking hexagons
Unique examples of stone screen carving from Sultanate and Mughal India are to be exhibited this coming October in London by Sam Fogg, one of the world's leading dealers in Indian art.

Some of the never-before-seen pieces due to be displayed include late 12th and early 13th century fragments of Sultanate friezes, as well as Mughal jallis — stone screens from the 16th  to the 18th centuries — all carved in the distinctive red sandstone of Northern India.

A jalli is the description of a perforated stone or latticed screen, often with an ornamental pattern, constructed with the use of calligraphy and geometry. Such jallis were built into the walls of palace complexes, mosques, tombs and, in the case of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, an entire city.

The aim was to filter natural light and encourage ventilation, while simultaneously reflecting imperial power and taste. During the high period of Mughal art the imaginative designs of sandstone and marble jallis achieved a degree of sophistication and refinement not seen elsewhere.

Jallis on exhibit will range from the late Akbar period in the last quarter of the 16th century through to the Muhammad Shah period in the first half of the 18th century.

Among the earliest and most delicate examples is a jalli carved with a design of flowers within interlocking hexagons (no 2 in the exhibit) that combines the Mughal passion for flora with the Islamic preoccupation with geometry. This has been related to architectural ornament in Fatehpur Sikri, the city built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar between 1571 and 1585, and other monuments built by Akbar in Delhi and Agra in the late part of his reign.

Another example of the hexagonal design illustrates the symmetrical nature of jallis, and this can be seen in some jallis at the Taj Mahal (1632-43). Jallis in the form of pointed arches within frames were also popular in the Akbar period, as well as in the reign of his son, Jahangir. The decoration, including the small star-shaped perforation around the frame of the arch and the style of arabesques on one such jalli (no3) are similar to those found on monuments from Jahangir's reign, such as the tomb of Amir Khusrau in Delhi and the Suraj Bhan ka Bagh in Sikandra, outside Agra.

Along with geometry, Islamic notions of Paradise held an extremely important place in Mughal design. Botanical elements in jallis were increasingly conspicuous over the course of the 17th century.

One of the later pieces in the exhibition, a panel carved with a deep cusped arch (no 4), dated to the late Aurangzeb-Muhammad Shah period, 1680-1730, cannot strictly be considered a jalli; yet the wonderful leafy scrollwork and imaginative floral decoration is so exemplary of Mughal carving in general in this period, it warrants a special place in the exhibition.

Where jallis featured in all aspects of Mughal life — secular, religious, private or ceremonial — the calligraphic stones have a predominantly artistic role in the design and decoration of Ghurid and early Sultanate architecture in North India. The Qur'anic friezes on exhibit can be attributed to Northern India between the end of the 12th century and first quarter of the 13th century.

They represent the most artistically innovative and sophisticated period in the history of architectural epigraphy in the Delhi Sultanates. In this period, the Khurasani traditions of calligraphy, architecture and decoration had their most fruitful encounter with the Indian tradition of stone carving.

The start of this tradition can be seen from inscriptions on monuments constructed during the governorship and subsequent rule (120610) of Qutb al-Din Aybak. These include some of the most celebrated examples of Indo-Islamic architecture, such as the Quwwat al-Islam Mosque and the neighbouring Qutb Minar in Delhi, and the Arhai-din-ka Jhompra Mosque in Ajmer.

The Sam Fogg exhibition will include a single Qur'anic frieze of a type found framing the doors, domes and arches and mihrabs of these celebrated monuments of the early-Sultanate period.

The letter forms shown in exhibit no. 5 are related to other early-Sultanate inscriptions such as the fragmentary foundation text from a non-extant mosque in Hansi, built c. 11901200, and to those running around the monumental façade added by Iltutmish to the prayer hall in the Arhai-din-ka Jhompra Mosque.

Exhibit no. 6 is roughly contemporary with no. 5; however it represents generally thick and bold calligraphy, with a largely rectilinear, spacious character. In this regard it is close to some of the inscriptions on the Qutb Minar, where the letter forms are thicker and only slightly tapering.

In the past 30 years growing international interest and understanding of Mughal decorative arts has resulted in many museums and private collectors acquiring jallis and Qu'ran stone friezes for Iranpublic display. Some recent collectors include the Beit al-Quran, Bahrain, the Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sharjah, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Australia.