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  • Parataxis and the Practice of Reuse, from Mughal Margins to Mīr Kalān Khān
  • Molly Emma Aitken

Introduction: The problem

To the modern eye, the components of South Asian paintings do not cohere satisfactorily. In the Mughal and related Rājput and Deccani traditions of the sixteenth to nineteenth century, it can seem in some paintings as if elements from different pictures—often different kinds of picture—have been awkwardly refitted to one another. The aggregate can look like a pastiche. There are abundant reasons for this effect. In many north and central Indian paintings, naturalistic details contrast with exaggerated stylization and decorative patterning. A deeply receding landscape, for instance, is commonly joined to figures whose stylized profiles are insistently planar, resulting in what can look like two pictures forced into one; this is particularly common in eighteenth-century Awadhi portraiture. Many paintings also include parts taken from earlier pictures, resulting in a composite effect.1 When these parts are derived from different stylistic traditions—usually the Rajput, Mughal, Persian, or European traditions—they can forcefully resist assimilation to one another.2 Finally, internal frames created by the outline of a hill, the outer walls of a building, or an extremely intrusive and unnatural line of rocks can insist on division, separating disparate elements almost as if in declaration of their loose and contingent association with one another.

There has been a tendency to view this seemingly poor conjunction of parts as a problem. Ebba Koch has written about the difficult accommodation in Shāh Jahān–period (r. 1628–1658) painting of the "three-dimensional, naturalistic interests of the period" to a highly formal, two-dimensional organization of the picture plane, intended to express "the hierarchy and order of Shāh Jahān's rule."3 At one point, she describes the disjuncture between the two modes of representation as a "conflict."4 If painters and viewers ever regarded such disjunctures as conflicts, then it was, indeed, in the era of Shāh Jahāni painting, when a premium was placed on the formal unification of the picture around the idea or person of the emperor. Efforts to bring about spatial and stylistic coherence, however, were not always so vigorous in South Asian painting, and it would be a mistake to consider their relaxation a failure. To do so would be to assume systemic insufficiency in a highly sophisticated court tradition: it is unlikely that elite South Asians, at least, perceived failure in what we tend to view as a recurring lack of coherence.

Yet a sense of failure dogs the literature. J. P. Losty's study of naturalism in paintings from the Muslim court of Awadh (Mughal successor state ruled from present-day Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh) is a case in point, for it is based on the assumption that the components of any painting making use of European-style naturalism must cohere spatially for the work to be fully successful.5 "Despite the concern of some artists to depict spatial depth," writes Losty, "their difficulty was that they naturally drew figures from a horizontal viewpoint and disposed them in space without concern for the high overhead viewpoint from which the picture subject is meant to be observed."6 Thus, naturalism created a "problem" that, according to Losty, required "solutions."

Another "problem" for scholars has been the artists' tendency to combine different styles in a single page, and to cite bits and pieces from existing paintings without apparent rationale. Mīr Kalān Khān was a late Mughal master, based in the former Oudh, of exactly the kinds of troubling disunities I discuss here.7 Linda Leach writes of his "capricious reversals of naturalism for superficial effect" and describes some of his compositions as "filled with irrationally juxtaposed European motifs like strange monsters, castles, or folk figures."8 She is hardly alone in finding his virtuosic paintings "capricious."

Many naturalisms in South Asian painting are derived from European art, where pictures create unity through illusions of consistently lit, three-dimensional spaces. Thus, naturalisms trigger an expectation of spatial coherence in the westernized viewer: if a landscape recedes toward the horizon, it seems wrong, by the terms...


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