- The Laud Rāgamālā Album, Bikaner, and the Sociability of Subimperial Painting
The Mughal emperor Akbar’s manṣabdārs (rankholders or officials) came from Hindu and Muslim society and from around and beyond the Indian Subcontinent. They met at the imperial court, and fought, traveled, and socialized with one another, partaking in an elite culture strongly inflected by the Emperor Akbar’s policy of ṣulḥ-i kul or “peace with all.”1 In the spirit of this policy, Akbar (r. 1556–1605) spoke Hindi as well as Persian, flirted with indigenous practices like vegetarianism, sponsored the construction of Hindu temples, and patronized Indian rīti (a tradition of court) poetry and indigenous musical traditions like dhrupad. Among Akbar’s courtiers were Rajput aristocrats, some of them rulers of regional kingdoms who brought their own traditions into the mix while also embracing the broader culture of the court. Several built ambitiously in the imperial style, sponsored mosques as well as temples, and patronized paintings infused with Persian patterns and conventions yet often rooted in Indic literature and pictorial conventions that predated the Mughals.2
Though the Mughal embrace of disparate cultural forms, practices, and beliefs is especially compelling in today’s communally tense, intermingled world, scholars are only beginning to understand it. This essay enters the subject through the well-known early-seventeenth-century tome called the Laud Rāgamālā Album, now at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It is motivated by the discovery of preparatory materials that were in the possession of artists from the Rajput court of Bikaner until the mid-twentieth century, and that bear compositions matching three pages of the Laud Album. The match opens a new perspective on art of the period. It offers insight into early Mughal responses to “pre-Mughal” painting conventions, and it promises a new perspective on what is called “subimperial” patronage, meaning patronage by non-imperial patrons.3 The essay does two kinds of work. Employing connoisseurship and historical contextualization, the first and longest portion lays the groundwork for understanding the discovery: it revisits the scholarship on the Laud Album, expands existing scholarship on early Bikaner painting, and explores the relationships that link the Laud Album to Bikaner. Part two builds on this evidence to reorient current thinking about early-seventeenth-century “subimperial” painting. Taking an interpretive approach, this section analyzes the place of the Rāgamālā pages in a Mughal album to view the Laud Album as an early and richly suggestive example of Mughal responsiveness to Rajput culture. This final section turns to the growing literature in South Asian art history on cultural translation, and considers translation in the context of sociability.4
I. The Discovery
The preparatory materials in question come from about six hundred Bikaner court artists’ workshop drawings, sketches, pounces, and paintings, which are now in a private collection in the United States. These works were purchased from a late member of the Lalani Usta clan of artists who were in service to the Bikaner court in India from the late sixteenth until the twentieth century.5 Extensive research has given credence to the collection. As a whole it is stylistically consistent with Bikaner painting, numerous drawings bear inscriptions to known Bikaner masters, and many correspond to published Bikaner paintings. Among the early works, for example, one fragment traces a portion of a Deccan painting that a Bikaner ruler purchased from Bhagnagar (Hyderabad). A drawing of a horse and rider corresponds to equestrian portraits of the Bikaner ruler Maharaja Anup Singh (r. 1669–1698), one of them ascribed to the master Ruknuddin, while a woman worshipping a Shiva liṅga (a form of Shiva) below a tree was a model for an eighteenth-century Bikaner painting identified as Saindhavī Rāginī. A nīm qalam (tinted drawing) matches a picture of the prophet Sulaiman amid angels that bears a Bikaner palace stamp, and a drawing of a herd of buffalo seems to have been the basis for a hunt scene the Bikaner artist Rashid painted for Maharaja Anup Singh.6 A number of late-nineteenth-century preparatory [End Page 27] sketches relate to portraits of the Bikaner ruler Sardar...