Palaces on the move

The tents and furnishings in Mughal courts reveal the presence of a flourishing, and highly specialised, industry dealing exclusively with creating and maintaining those remarkable structures

B.N.GoswamyI never cease to be amazed at the range and the density of detail in the records that were kept at some of the courts and other establishments in Rajasthan. In these royal orders jostle with diplomatic correspondence, the accounts of receipts and payments compete with daily diaries: many of them going back to hundreds of years. One can even get into seemingly minor areas like what a ruler wore on a particular day, who was on duty at the gate at what hour, or what gifts were received on the occasion of a wedding in the royal family, and so on. But of some of these another time.

This piece is occasioned by something that I came across during a recent visit to the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad. The museum has some spectacular encampment furnishings and fixtures and there is great interest in research on tents, etc. While going over this, my attention went to a work, Deran rau Khatau, an old text in Marwari that deals with accounts concerning tents and related furnishings that belonged to the great court of Jodhpur once. There were details here of things and terms one hardly knows anything about now: chhatbandi, vitaan, rawati, khaima, dera, chhauldari, tambu and the like. How much area did one cover, how many people were needed to make it and then to install it; awnings and windows, textiles and pillars and poles and ropes and pegs, and so on.

World of textiles

A segment of the Shahi Lal Dera, 17th century Mughal tent. From the Royal collection of Jodhpur
A segment of the Shahi Lal Dera, 17th century Mughal tent. From the Royal collection of Jodhpur

Details of embroidered panel the Shahi Lal Dera from Jodhpur

Details of embroidered panel the Shahi Lal Dera from Jodhpur
Details of embroidered panel the Shahi Lal Dera from Jodhpur

Evidently, there was a whole world out there, and one could sense behind all this, the presence of a flourishing, and highly specialised, industry dealing exclusively with creating and maintaining those remarkable structures.

Evident also to me was the fact that great Mughal models hovered in the background. If one goes back to that ever-dependable chronicler at the Akbari court, Abu’l Fazl, one finds extraordinary detail that he provides in his Ain-i-Akbari dealing with the Farrash Khanah.

"His Majesty", he begins characteristically, "considers this department as an excellent dwelling-place, a shelter from heat and cold, a protector against the rain, as the ornament of royalty. He looks upon its efficiency as one of the insignia of a ruler, and therefore, considers the care bestowed upon it, as a part of divine worship". Then, he proceeds in rich detail to describe the different types of tents needed and erected as the vast imperial armies moved or the emperor went out with the ladies of the harem on pleasure hunts, etc.

As one reads, one can see that he is speaking of virtual palaces on the move. He begins with the astounding Bargah which, "when large, is able to contain more than 10,000 people. It takes a thousand farrashes a week to erect it with the help of machines. There are generally two-door poles, fastened with hinges. If plain, (i.e. without brocade, velvet, or gold ornaments,) a bargah costs Rs 10,000 rupees and upwards, whilst the price of one full of ornaments is unlimited."

Then he goes on, in equal detail, to speak of the Chobi Rewati, which is raised on 10 pillars; the Do Ashiyana, which is a house with two stories raised on 18 pillars; the zamindoz, which is more or less underground; the ajaibi, the mandal, the athkhamba, the khargah, the sarapardah, the gulalbar. Each of these kinds had associated functions and the use of each was strictly prescribed. The sections on royal encampments and the Farrash Khanah run into several pages.

All this — scale, descriptions, functions — consists naturally of words alone. In Mughal paintings, one catches glimpses of some tents — in the Akbarnama, the Hamzanama series and the like — but even then, these are only glimpses. To see one of these tents in real life is, however, to experience something entirely different, something truly transporting so to speak. When one of the most famous of the Mughal tents, possibly the only one of its kind in the world that has survived, was put on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985, it completely dazzled New York. Of the entire Festival of India of that year, it was possibly the most-talked about single object from our land. For months, it remained on view, and for months droves of wide-eyed people kept being drawn to the glorious sight it presented.

Clearly, what was put up on display was only one part of a vast encampment, its climax so to speak, and the rest of the encampment had to be imagined. And yet, it led one into a dream-like state where splendour reigned and elegance seduced. One took in the gracefully lobed archways, the magnificently embroidered cloth panels with ornamental golden yellow flowers in gold over a yellow silk core, as one moved towards the colonnaded inner chamber where, in the words of Cary Welch, the curator of the exhibition, "the emperor or prince — the jewel within the setting — sat upon the richly covered bolsters composing the gaddi, or throne, and greeted honoured visitors".

Interestingly, this tent — Mughal in every way — came to the exhibition from the royal collection of Jodhpur where it has always been referred to as the Shahi Lal Dera: the Royal Red Pavilion. There is a complex history to how the tent came to land in Jodhpur: a history in which valour, treachery, loyalty, plunder, all figure as do the Rathore ruler of Jodhpur, Jaswant Singh (1638-1678), the emperor Shah Jahan and his sons, Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh, and the battle of Khajwa near Allahabad. It was at the last mentioned that Maharaja Jaswant Singh got hold of the imperial camp and carried it to Jodhpur. There this glorious tent has remained for upwards of three centuries and a half.

Everyone in Jodhpur knows what this tent means: a symbol of Rajput resistance to Mughal overlordship. Its red colour and its crenellated top — traditionally signs only of imperial privilege — are not lost upon anyone. The Shahi Lal Dera is not simply great textiles and exquisite craftsmanship: it is a reminder, and a source of pride.

Broad brush

India shining

A Sotheby’s employee catalogs “Cheap Rice” by Subodh Gupta from 2006.

The installation was sold at £241,250 (hammer price with buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s London auction.

The artwork went on auction as part of an contemporary art evening. 
Photo: Reuters

Talking tree

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Photo: AFP

Picasso at work

Pablo Picasso’s “Nature morte aux tulipes”, oil on canvas painted in March 1932, is seen in this handout photo. Two works, Picasso’s “Nature morte aux tulipes,” and Andy Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty”, will be the highlights of New York autumn sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The Picasso masterpiece is one of several renderings of his muse Marie-Therese Walter and considered by art experts to be one of his most important works. It carries a pre-sale estimate from $35 million to up to $50 million ahead of the November 5, 2012 sale at Sotheby’s. 
photo: Reuters

Blood in art

Artist Vincent Castiglia poses for a portrait prior to the opening of his gallery show “Resurrection”, at Sacred Gallery in New York. Many artists claim to put their blood, sweat and tears into their work, but Castiglia means it: he paints with his own blood. “Resurrection” features a number of Castiglia’s paintings from the last 10 years. His process includes making a preliminary pen or graphite sketch and extracting just enough “paint” in the privacy of his studio.
Photo: Reuters