Emory Report
March 5, 2007
Volume 59, Number 22

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March 5, 2007
Rushdie’s Sheth Lecture explores crowning achievement of Indian art

BY kim urquhart

In his Feb. 25 Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies, Salman Rushdie related tales of demons, dragons and “daring do” as depicted in 16th-century Mughal art. Taking his audience on a journey through the “highly fantasized space of the 16th-century imagination,” “The Composite Artist” was part art lecture, part history lesson and wholly entertaining storytelling.

The late 1500s, a “hinge moment in history” and the historical context for Rushdie’s next novel, marked the “half-century-long reign of one of the most remarkable rulers the world has ever known,” the “Grand Mughal” Akbar.

At age 15, only two years after ascending the Mughal throne, Akbar commissioned his imperial workshop to create an extraordinary series of paintings known as the Hamzanama.

More than 100 Indian artists worked for several years to complete 14 large volumes containing 100 folios each. This “extraordinary collective act” resulted in a stylistic fusion that made an aesthetic statement of unity in plurality that exemplified the emperor’s desire to create a kingdom that transcended differences of religion and history.

“The many-brushed composite artists of the Hamzanama stand before us as a sign of what human beings can achieve when their creativity is brought together in a common cause,” Rushdie said.

Steeped in mystical lore, the “astonishing sequence of paintings” depict the adventures of Hamza, a Persian legend based partly on the historical figure of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle who led armies of Islam in battle against infidels.

“Interestingly, despite the association with the prophet, the fictional Hamza’s adventures are almost entirely secular in nature,” Rushdie noted. The stability, prosperity, religious tolerance, cultural openness and artistic Renaissance that characterized Akbar’s reign was reflected in the Hamzanama.

“History is a contested space,” Rushdie said, noting that the history of the Muslim conquest of India has become in recent times the subject of much bitter dispute. “India without this Muslim past would be much less Indian today,” he said. While “militant Hindu revisionists” have attempted to rewrite the past, Rushdie said the images of the Hamzanama are “important evidence” in the battle of the present.

Following the decline of the Mughal empire, many of the paintings were lost or destroyed. In subsequent years, many of the images were defaced — the character’s faces erased — due to Islamic prohibitions on figurative art.

Today, less than 200 of the Hamzanama survive. Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum is currently home to some of them as part of the “Domains of Wonder: Selected Masterworks of Indian Painting,” on display until March 11.

“The Composite Artist” was Rushdie’s first public lecture as Emory’s Distinguished Writer in Residence and the first of a series of events that will celebrate the arts and humanities at Emory and the greater community.
The 7th annual Sheth Lecture, sponsored by the South Asian Studies Program, MARBL and the Hightower Fund, was made possible by the support of Emory marketing professor Jagdish Sheth and the Sheth Family Foundation.

See First Person for more from the Rushdie lecture.