'art and soul

A great collection in a small place

Though the founders of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh were Rohilla Pathans, who lived mostly by the sword, this little place emerged as a major centre of the arts, writes B. N. Goswamy

Leo, from a series of the signs of the zodiac. From a ms. of the Suwar al-Kawakib (“Pattern of the Stars”); Mughal, ca. 1590. Raza Library, Rampur
Leo, from a series of the signs of the zodiac. From a ms. of the Suwar al-Kawakib (“Pattern of the Stars”); Mughal, ca. 1590. Raza Library, Rampur

THE story of how a great library or a great collection of art is formed can be riveting. Especially when the collection grows in an unlikely place, a place with virtually no antecedents. The small erstwhile state of Rampur, not far from Delhi in Uttar Pradesh, sprang up only late in the 18th century, and the founders of it were Rohilla Pathans who, originating from Afghanistan, landed in India and lived mostly by the sword. And yet this little place emerged in the course of a few generations as a major centre of the arts.

Everyone knows that it is the home of the Rampur gharana of music which ranks truly high, associated as it is with highly revered names like Bahadur Husssain Khan, Wazir Khan (Ustad Allauddin Khan’s Guru) and Muhammad Ali Khan of the line of the great Tansen. The names of Mushtaq Hussain Khan and Hafiz Ali Khan from there also remain firmly rooted in memory. Then there is Chhamman Sahib who wrote several texts incuding the Risala-i Tanseni which are all preserved at Rampur. The place continues to be a powerhouse of Indian music.

One also knows the connection of the greatest of Urdu poets, Mirza Ghalib, with Rampur, for it is to the Nawabs of this state that he turned for support and patronage after the fall of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Delhi. The Nawab ruling at the time towards the end of the poet’s life, Kalb-i Ali Khan, was forthcoming with his generosity and offered a monthly stipend to the poet who was almost always in want: two hundred rupees per month if he were to come and stay at Rampur, and one hundred rupees if he chose to stay elsewhere.

Ghalib did spend some time at Rampur, although he settled eventually for going back to his beloved Delhi. One recalls one of his verses in which he lauds the Nawab, filled as it inimitably is with humility on the one hand and soaring self-respect on the other:

Dar par Amir-i Kalb-i Ali Khan ke hoon muqeem/

Shaista-i gadaayi-e har dar nahin hoon main.

[It is at the door of Amir Kalb-i Ali Khan (no less!) that I have appeared and now reside; I might be indigent, but know enough not to knock at every door.]

This sustained patronage of arts and letters appears to have begun with Nawab Faizullah Khan who assumed charge of the Rampur state in 1774: was in fact virtually its founder even though a chequered history of power had preceded him. Where did this interest come from is difficult to determine, for there was nothing in the history of the family to warrant this. But within a very short time, Rampur became a destination for men of learning, poets and scholars.

Yusuf Ali Khan, a successor in the line, was a poet himself, writing under the pen-name ‘Nazim’, and it is at his court that the great Momin and, later, Dagh, received honour. The association of Ghalib with Rampur also began under him, for the Nawab sought to receive instruction from the great poet in whose hand some corrected sheets of the Nawab’s poetry still exist.

Nawab Kalb-i Ali Khan (1865-1887), a scholar himself, is best remembered through the great collection of paintings and manuscripts that he began to amass. His was a good time to collect, for the libraries of the Mughal emperors and nobles, and those of the kings of Oudh, were dispersing after the major upheavals of 1857. On the market started appearing rare treasures that the Nawab ordered his agents to look out for. The agents did well, for some remarkable works were picked up. It is these that a most useful new publication, Mughal and Persian Paintings and Illustrated Manuscripts in the Raza Library, Rampur, by Barbara Schmitz and Ziyaud-Din Desai, documents and draws our attention to.

One has known some of the more prominent of the treasures of the Library – named after one of the former Nawabs of Rampur – but now they are all here, laid out and discussed in detail: dispersed folios of the great illustrated copy of the Jahangirnama; the celebrated Akbari manuscript dealing with tilism and the signs of the zodiac, the Tarjama-i Sirr al-maktum; Deccani and Mughal portraits of men of rank and power, including a stunning portrait of a Nizam Shahi ruler; a study of a black buck by the painter, Manohar; some leaves from the Akbarnama of 1590 and the Padshahnama, the official history of Shah Jahan’s time.

These apart, there are wonderful manuscripts that Nawab Kalb-i Ali Khan obviously collected during his travels abroad: works that once belonged to the libraries of Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas of Iran. Among these, leaves of that incomparble Herati manuscript, the Jami-al Tawarikh of Rashid al-Din, painted in about 1470, leaves of a 15th century Shahnama, a manuscript of the Kalila wa Dimna painted in about 1500. In the nature of things it is a mixed collection, but full of nuggets that shine and glow.

But all that I have listed sounds like a dry inventory, for it captures nothing of the glittering quality of some of these works. One has to see them in the flesh and pore over them before they start opening themselves up to you, leading you into a world of incomparable colour and crisp drawing: the alert look in the eye of an animal, the cares of the world reflected in a noble face, the quiet and the tumult, the quickening of the heart beat followed by a sudden calm.

But to go back to Rampur, and to think that all this collecting, and this patronage of the arts and letters, came from men whose lineage showed few traces of culture but who set about on their own, entering the world of fine feelings with zeal, sensitising and acculturating themselves. I find it a remarkable story.