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Visual narratives

Print edition : Jan 03, 2003 T+T-

Sixty-one of the extant 200 Hamzanama Manuscript Illustrations of the Mughal period constitute a major travelling exhibition in the West.

THE 16th century Hamzanama Manuscript Illustrations, made during the Mughal period (1526-1858), are scattered in several collections throughout the world. Drawn from over 20 of these collections, 61 of the extant 200 illustrations are now put together for the first time in a major travelling exhibition in the United States. The works, shown between June and September at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Simthsonian Institution, Washington D.C., are currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art until January 2003. Prof. John Seyller, a distinguished art historian and expert on Mughal manuscripts produced during Akbar's reign, has curated the show. The exhibition is scheduled to travel to London and Zurich next year. The unusually large (over two feet high), meticulously executed and dazzlingly bright Hamzanama manuscript illustrations, commissioned by Emperor Akbar, were begun around 1557. It took, understandably, about 15 years to complete these 1,400 illustrations, which are spread over 14 enormous volumes. Originally part of an oral tradition, the stories were publicly narrated in coffeehouses from Iran to northern India. The storytellers in each recitation departed freely from the written text in such a way that the story varied in structure and detail from manuscript to manuscript. Speaking of this, Seyller observes: "This narrative elasticity does much to keep oral performances fresh and vibrant, but it greatly complicates the reconstruction of the Hamzanama manuscript."

THE Hamzanama manuscript illustrations were part of a more inclusive oral story-telling than the exclusive visual attention of a modern-day museum visitor. In Seyller's view, however, the Hamzanama allows both of the visual experiences suggested here: first, `as part of a public recitation' and secondly, `as the focus of a more intimate perusal of its illustrations'. In any case, the present review suggests a third kind of visual experience that is made possible by gallery-displays and curated exhibitions: it is the brilliant irony with which the illustrations tell their tales. Although these visuals narrate and illustrate the story of Amir Hamza, the legendary hero, they are not so much about Hamza and his adventures as about all that surround him and his exploits. These include the decorative patterns of the clouds, the stylised flora and fauna, the fictitious sorcerers, giants and demons.

The remarks in an accompanying label about `A Hero', under review, are to the point. The label is emphatic about the artist's display of "marvellous abilities to convey physical strain and anguish". It describes with graphic detail the ways in which the demoness in the illustration "pitches forward, her outstretched hands pawing the ground as she struggles to resist the superior force. The artist transforms a generic demoness into a screeching crone by elaborating a tangled mane, hairy ears and a spiky tongue".

The emphasis on the obvious visual gestures in the label appears to be relevant only to a lay visitor to the gallery, especially, to those largely unfamiliar with the content of this non-Western art. However, further information about the work in the published catalogue that accompanies the show is quite in tune with these. They foreground the physical gestures suggesting an underlying assumption that such physical, realistic expressions account for the dramatic realisation of the story in Hamzanama.

The gestures of the figures, in `A Hero' for instance, are unmoving and unabashedly stiff, more like those of leather puppets, keeping in mind what a post-Renaissance eye would behold through these descriptions. The actions are subdued in such a way that the focus shifts to flat ornate shapes rather than the kind of physical gestures about which the accompanying texts are emphatic. The logic of these texts renders the artist's `ability' or better inclination, if any, to convey strain and anguish hardly effective.

Seyller's comments on the floral patterns floating in the sky suggesting clouds, in the work under review, are further to the point. Describing them as `the most distinctive feature of this painting', he restricts attention to the historical and genealogical details about the ways in which contemporary Mughal paintings treated the sky, tracing their roots to "Islamic painting as old as the fifteenth century, and an origin as distant as China". The artist, according to Seyller, uses the clouds "in concert with an extremely streaky ground, so that the electrifying energy of the clouds reverberates in the darkest and most jagged portions of the blue sky". However, for all the vivid details of the motifs, the texts do not notice that Hamzanama is anything but a pretension to represent the physical details convincing to the post-Renaissance eyes, either in terms of perspective or in terms of gestures and actions.

Hamzanama illustrations foreground the complexity of the phenomena chiefly as a metaphor. The ways in which space and time are deployed in these paintings elaborate these points. Typically, the illustrations narrate diverse episodes or refer to several aspects of the story with equal attention to each of the episodes and aspects. Secondly, each of the illustrations encourages the viewers to notice these on the same space/frame, without the advantage of a central focus: the different parts of the compositions capture viewer, in its staccato rhythm, at several points. The architectural monuments are laid over repeatedly but not pretending to show depth or spatial distance. The roofs and edges of the buildings are but a uniform ribbon-like band embellished with endless curves and loops of patterns. This shifts attention from perspective to infinite juxtapositions of shapes (of colours, figures and forms). The overpowering patterns render any `action' or `gesture' attributed to the motifs almost incidental.

The illustrations embody the very spirit of oral narrative tradition, characterised by tales within tales. Apart from the `narrative elasticity' that Seyller rightly observes, the works also represent the multiple realms of real, unreal and surreal elements. These diverse elements inhabit a remarkable range of environments, natural and man-made, say, wild forests and elegant gardens. In the process, the visual images subordinate history, heroic deeds and personalities, first to their purported illustration of the story and secondly to their visual interpretative leaps. They exemplify a refreshing moment in which form and content collapse to render time and space incidental to telling tales.