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Having just returned from a three-week trip to northern India, the British Library‘s latest exhibition makes me all nostalgic.
It is the first comprehensive look at the art of the Mughals, a dynasty whose empire spanned much of the Indian subcontinent during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Muslims from Persia who ruled over a Hindu majority, the Mughals did not crush their Indian subjects, but fused their artistic skills and resources together, producing iconic creations like the Taj Mahal.
On my visit to India, it was impossible to visit any place in the romantic desert state of Rajasthan, or even in hectic and maddening Delhi, without stumbling across art and architecture that tells the story of the Mughals and their power struggles, romance and deep regard for the arts, as well as their eventual decline when the British came along in the 1800s.
Building an Empire
You’re bound to recognise the subject of this drawing in the exhibition, created in 1812-15. The Taj Mahal is one of the most well-known monuments in the world, and I’m happy to say it deserves its reputation as the most beautiful. The Mughals were prolific builders of forts, palaces and monuments and this legacy marks local people today – the Taj Mahal is maintained by descendants of the original 20,000 craftspeople who worked on its site in Agra for 22 years to create the breathtakingly symetrical building, a monument for Mumtaz Mahal, the late queen of the emperor Shah Jahan.
Fathers and Sons
Emperor Shah Jahan, famous for building the Taj Mahal, is pictured in this painting greeting his son Aurangzeb at the court or durbar in 1650-1655. Court rituals such as this demonstrate the complex hierarchy of life at court, but just a few years later Aurangzeb overthrew his father and imprisoned him for the rest of his life in Agra Fort, where he could only gaze at the Taj Mahal from a distance.
One of the first successful British missions to India was that of the ambassador Sir Thomas Roe. His journal entries from 1616 make a rare appearance in the British Library exhibition. Roe was presented to the fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir on 10 January 1616 and described him as “very merrie and joyfull” in the journal.
Monuments like Delhi’s Red Fort, pictured in this painting, are legacies of Mughal creativity but also tell the story of Britain and India. This artwork was created in the dying days of the dynasty 1846. In 1857, the last Mughal emperor was dethroned here by the British.
Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is at the British Library until 2 April. Tickets are £9 with reductions for concessions, seniors and students.