Magic carpets
B.N. Goswamy

The Ames Carpet: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Mughal, ca. 1600
The Ames Carpet: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Mughal, ca. 1600

I had occasion recently to visit that ‘grand old lady’ of museums in Jaipur: the Albert Hall, also referred to as the Central Museum, now under the control of the state government. Beautifully located in the middle of a garden, the museum goes back a long, long way to late Victorian times, and houses a miscellany of objects under its roof, many of them of truly high quality. But what had drawn me to it especially was the reputation of its collection of carpets, some of them said to be among the finest that were woven in Mughal workshops. The museum is not the best run of institutions but, after some effort, I did manage to enter the hall of carpets. The scene that my eyes landed upon inside the hall was eerie, to say the least. There was barely a light bulb that could be switched on; on the sprawling floor lay, in perfect gloom, some large carpets completely covered with dark blue sheets; some shutter had to be opened to let a little bit of light in; nothing relieved the cavernous sight, not even a label or caption on the walls.

Gathering up courage, and displaying some persistence, however, I was able to get the attendants to slowly remove, at least partially, the dark blue shroud that was draped over the largest piece on ‘display’, for that I guessed would be the famed ‘garden carpet’ – believed to be among the most ambitious works of its kind that have survived – attributed to the period of Shah Jahan. I was right, it was. It is a truly gigantic work, and the sight it yielded was enough to lift anyone’s spirits: a magnificent spread that looked like a garden in glorious bloom, with scrolling vines and swaying cypresses, flowers and palmettes, blossom lancets and serrated leaves, occupying in rich, resonant colours every inch of the woven space, interrupted only by the design of an occasional water cistern with a fountain playing at its centre.

I wished to know a bit more about the great carpet, not being knowledgeable in the field myself, but the staff found it difficult to refer me to any records that the museum had kept. Inevitably, my mind went back to other museums and other great Mughal carpets.

To the famous Girdlers’ carpet in England, for instance: manufactured in Lahore in the 1630’s, woven to specifications given by Robert Bell who was one of the Directors of the East India Company and was also Master of The Worshipful Order of Girdlers. Everything about that carpet, every single detail, is known and meticulously recorded: how and when it was ordered; how the design, including coats of arms and the figure of Lawrence, the patron saint of the Girdlers, was chosen; when it was transported to England; when and by whom the repairs it needed from time to time were carried out. I recalled also the celebrated Widener carpet, woven again in Lahore in the late Akbar period, and now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. But especially the great shikargah or ‘hunting carpet’, now in the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston and regarded justly as one of its glories. It is not a very large piece, but the fineness of its execution, and the brilliance of its design – like an exquisite Mughal miniature greatly expanded in scale, and realised in a totally different medium – are capable of holding the viewer in thrall.

Whether Frederick Ames, the New England collector after whom it is now named and in whose memory it was given to the Museum in 1893, necessarily needed any endorsement of the quality of this carpet from Richardson, his architect, or the celebrated William Morris, is not known. But the brilliance of it remains: an imaginatively worked out design that contrasts the quiet life inside a palace with the dangers and the excitement of the hunting field where lions roar, cheetahs sprint in pursuit of nervous herds of deer, and a creature of fantasy – part lion, part elephant – who holds a septet of elephants in its claws, is pecked at and clawed in turn by a gorgeous, long-tailed simurgh bird that swoops down upon it from on high.

Works such as these were truly ‘Flowers Underfoot’ – this was the title under which a number of celebrated Mughal carpets were shown at the Metropolitan some years back – but one asks oneself the question again and again: do we in India, as we run our museums and go through the motions of preserving our heritage, really care? In a feeling manner? Viscerally?