India’s ruthless aesthetes

'Akbar Ordering the Slaughter to Cease in 1578', (c.1595)

How did that horse manage to stand up, under such a weight? It’s a question that springs to mind as soon as you are faced, at the start of the British Library’s fine exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, with a life-sized mounted cavalryman of the 17th century, both horse and rider thickly clad in chain mail and armour – even the horse’s tail and ears are metal-clad.

The metallic rider is just one of many slightly incongruous, or anyway thought-provoking, elements of this show. It’s a panorama of the Mughals – but the dynasty who came fighting down through Afghanistan from their native Uzbekistan in the 16th century to rule the whole subcontinent are no great strangers to us, at least in their visual style. Anyone who has browsed a rack of posh birthday cards knows the delightfully decorative and delicate flowered borders, the peacocks and exotic creatures in palace gardens, the regal profile portraits, the gauzy fabrics and vibrant colours. We know about the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for the young wife who died in childbirth, as well as stunning fortresses, palaces and tombs.

So when we look at this show, we want to know more. We want something new. And, to some extent, we get it. The British Library’s own remarkable collection, added to loans from the British Museum and from India, widens the range. A wonderfully intricate astrolabe is testament to the level of scientific achievement: Humayun, the second emperor, had a state-of-the-art observatory and was a keen astronomer. A rich selection of manuscripts and bound books here show everything from maps and gazetteers to wonderfully illustrated studies of flora and fauna. Pharmacology, medicine, astrology, even recipes: it’s all recorded in these exquisite volumes, and the sumptuousness of court life is evinced by such objects as a ravishing gold and jewelled fly-whisk handle, its dozens of inset rubies and emeralds melon-cut (as always in India) rather than diamond-cut, so that they glowed richly rather than sparkled. It would have been attached to peacock feathers, for batting away flies – and that such an elaborately precious thing was devised for such a homely task shows the limitless depth of the emperor’s pockets.

There were 14 Mughal emperors, fierce Muslims proud of their descent from Genghis Khan, covering a span of more than three centuries (1526-1858). Babur, the first, won glory and the Sultanate of Delhi at the battle of Panipat in 1526, vividly recorded here in a contemporary painting, and the line petered out pathetically with the sad figure of Bahadur Shah, whose 1858 photograph shows a rheumy-eyed and defeated old man, waiting patiently for death.

But of the dynasty, only six could be considered great rulers, before the modern world intruded and the inexorable decline began in the reign of Aurangzeb. Babur’s court was unusually splendid, and laid the foundations of the great flowering of the Mughal arts in the later reigns of Akbar and Shah Jahan. Painting, poetry, calligraphy, architecture and horticulture flourished alongside science, nature studies and exploration; artists of all sorts were brought to court, trained and cherished.

Philosophy was highly rated, and under Akbar, for instance, interfaith dialogues became popular. From Babur’s time onwards, the Mughals had adopted Persian as the usual language of the court and of literary and other texts, and in so doing had been able to incorporate into their own lives an older and richer tradition.

Here, we start to sense some deeper and more complex truths about Mughal rule. Not only were they Muslim incomers reigning over a largely Hindu population, but they were also separated from the world outside the palace walls even by language. For all the administrative talents of the early Mughal rulers, their courts were an enclosed space that had nothing to do with their external populations. In this show we find the flowering of artistic activity in the court but there is nothing at all about the lives of the majority of people under their rod.

Another paradox in any full account of the Mughals would have to encompass the darker side. Not just autocrats, they were usually despots who had grabbed the throne by force. Multiple marriages meant a baffling array of heirs, and ambitious young princes sometimes had to go as far as fratricide to get their way. But they were not the only powerful art lovers to have a ruthless and violent side – and we are lucky that it is only the former aspect that comes down to us to inform this fascinating exhibition.

Exhibition continues until April 2,

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