Featuring several objects of exemplary quality, the latest Mohatta Palace Museum exhibition in Karachi, titled “Paradise on Earth: Manuscripts, Miniatures and Mendicants from Kashmir”, is a superb piece of museum craft. By showcasing masterpieces of Kashmiri artistry, Museum Director Nasreen Askari and co-curator Fatima Quraishi provide visitors to the show glimpses of the extraordinary work produced by master-craftsmen in this famously lush and beautiful, but tragically troubled, conflict-ravaged land.
Displayed in this bijou exhibition are what have been poetically called ‘Pages of Perfection’: splendidly illuminated Qurans and lavishly-illustrated manuscripts. Also to be seen is intricately handcrafted silverware, woodcarving, metalwork, and the unique lacquer and papier-mache products for which Kashmir is renowned.
Cashmere, the 19th century spelling of Kashmir, is today a term for fine sheep’s wool. Kashmir’s own Cashmere is pashm, from the soft, downy undercoat of the Himalayan mountain goat, Capra hircus. Persian for wool, pashm becomes pashmina in its woven form. For most people, finely woven embroidered shawls are synonymous with Kashmir. Surprisingly, in this show the focus is not on Kashmir’s ‘woven legends’ such as shawls of shahtoosh and pashmina, and its hand-knotted quality carpets, but on its decorative arts.
A new show celebrates Kashmir’s staggeringly rich artistic tradition and the amazing creativity of its craftspeople
Most of this show’s stunningly executed manuscripts —sacred, devotional and non-religious — are from the antique book collection of the National Museum of Pakistan. For the Kashmiri silvercraft, copperware, woodwork and papier-mache items in this “loan exhibition,” the curators had to delve into private collections.
The most enlightened of Kashmir’s pre-Mughal Muslim rulers was Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470). A lover of literature and learning, he was instrumental in promoting and nourishing not only his country’s crafts but also the finest of fine Islamic calligraphy. Under this celebrated king’s artistic patronage, the production of fine paper burnished and sprinkled with gold and a distinctive style of illustrating manuscripts developed in Kashmir.
After the Mughal conquest of Kashmir in 1589, emperor Akbar (1556-1695) relocated the finest Kashmiri calligraphers, artists and craftsmen to the imperial Mughal atelier in Agra. Several noted calligraphers such as Muhammad Husayn al-Kashmiri, acclaimed as Zareen Qalam (“Golden Pen”), became celebrities in the royal entourage.
The “arts of the book” were the pre-eminent art form in the early Mughal period. Akbar loved illustrated books and ordered some 1,400 spectacular illustrations for his favourite epic, the Hamzanama, which took his artists more than 15 years to complete. Jahangir was a keen naturalist and a connoisseur of portraiture. Unlike his father he had little interest in the production of large historical or poetical manuscripts but insisted his artists embellish the manuscripts in the royal library with exquisite miniature paintings. Shah Jahan, obsessed with gemstones and monumental architecture, wrote no memoirs but did commission the Padshahnama, an extensively illustrated history of the early years of his reign. Forty-four paintings of this sumptuous manuscript are now in Windsor castle.
The impressive highlight of this Mohatta Palace Museum exhibit is the display of illuminated and illustrated manuscripts produced in Kashmir.
Calligraphy is the highest art form of the Islamic civilisation and in these antique masterpieces Kashmiri artists and craftsmen have brought calligraphy and illustration to a wonderful level of perfection.
Artistically, the most important form of Quranic illumination was the double frontispiece. Blue, gold and white are the basis of the international Islamic colour repertoire and several of the sumptuously decorated Qurans on display have elaborate frontispieces in these colours. One such work of astonishing beauty is a beautiful 19th century illuminated Quran in the neat Naskh script, generously lent to the exhibition by a wealthy collector. Outstanding too is an exquisite copy of the Dalail al-Khayrat (A Guide to Good Deeds) by the Moroccan mystic al-Juzuli.
Kashmiri artists and calligraphers also excelled in the production of secular poetic works. Nasta’liq, the predominant style of calligraphy in Iran was rarely used to write Arabic; normally it was reserved in Kashmir for Persian literary manuscripts. With their rich miniature paintings, beautiful calligraphy and exquisite bindings, the Persian literary classics displayed in this show — especially Firdousi’s Shahnama (The Book of Kings), the Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami, Yusuf and Zuleykha by Abd al-Rahman Jami, and the Diwan (Anthology) by Muhammad Shamsuddin Hafez — are stunning “treats for the eyes.”
Most of this show’s stunningly executed manuscripts — sacred, devotional and non-religious — are from the antique book collection of the National Museum of Pakistan. For the Kashmiri silvercraft, copperware, woodwork and papier-mache items in this “loan exhibition,” the curators had to delve into private collections
Kashmiri craftsmen have worked with metals from times immemorial and have been renowned for centuries for the fine quality of their workmanship. During the Mughal era, Kashmir was famous for the making of swords and gun barrels, which were then damascened and enameled.
By the end of the 19th century, gunmaking and the forging of swords ceased. Consequently, the hereditary skill of the Kashmiri silver workers was directed towards ornamental vessels such as the aftaba, the samovar, the gulab-pash and the surahi. Other items of domestic use for which Kashmir has become famous are tumblers, goblets, salvers, dishes and tea pots. Copper and brass, a copper-zinc alloy, extremely resistant to corrosion, is fashioned into bowls, dishes, kitchen utensils and cauldrons.
Kashmir, with its dense forests and wide variety of trees, also has a rich tradition of woodcraft. Walnut woodcarving in particular reveals the dexterity of the Kashmiri wood carver and some very fine examples of walnut wood objets d’arts are on display.
Papier-mache, introduced by Persian settlers, is one of the most beautiful handicrafts of Kashmir. As the first papier-mache objects produced in Kashmir were kalamdans — long horizontal cases for holding pens, brushes and ink-pots — the traditional local name of the craft is kar-i-kalamdani, or pen-case work. High quality papier mache pieces reflect in their finely drawn and gilded decoration the Persian heritage of Kashmir.
Decorative design patterns engraved on the Kashmiri silver, copper, wood and papier-mache objects on display are predominantly floral. Paisley, called bouteh in Iran and keri (“unripe mango”) pattern in the subcontinent, is ubiquitous in Kashmiri art. Another very popular motif is the typically traditional Chinar-leaf pattern.
Incidentally, Chinar, called boonye in local lingo, came to Kashmir when the Mughal conquerors planted several hundred trees near the Hazratbal shrine in the 16th century. Like the Maple trees of North America in autumn, Chinars turn golden yellow then a flaming red, signifying the coming of the snows. It is said that when Emperor Akbar first saw their blazing red colour, he exclaimed “Chin-Naar!”, Persian for “What a fire!” The name stuck and today the Chinar is the national tree of Kashmir.
The show “Paradise on Earth: Manuscripts, Miniatures and Mendicants from Kashmir” is being held at the Mohatta Palace Museum from February 15 to August 15, 2017
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 19th, 2017