The origins of a style : an art-historical analysis of the architectural motifs at Fatpūr Sīkrī




Major, Farida R

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The most important issue dealt with in this thesis is the question of change brought about in artistic form and meaning when a new dynamic system encounters a rich traditional one. As new challenges are faced, Islamic art is clearly influenced by, and itself influences, changes within an existing indigenous order. Its interpretive quality and distinctiveness is determined by its own principles as well as by the nature of the indigenous system. Fathpur Sikri, built ln the mid-sixteenth century as the capital of the Mughal Empire, is a particularly interesting case study of this artistic change. It was built by the Emperor Akbar, whose vision of an integrated political and cultural empire had a lasting impact at a political, social and cultural level. The artistic idiom consciously developed at his court was to become a major element in Mughal and post-Mughal Indian art. As a patron of art and letters, Akbar was unique, and yet he continued a tradition of courtly patronage which had become a characteristic of Islamic art. His court was modelled on those of his Timurid ancestors which had been some of the major centres of the post-eleventh century Khurasanian renaissance of Islamic Iran. The most dynamic challenge in Islamic art occurred during the ninth to fifteenth centuries in Iran. It was during this formative stage that major questions regarding cultural influences, assimilation, borrowing and evolutionary sequences were handled in such a way that art became a creative and enriching influence as it spread. Islamic art, which can be considered neither as a religious art in the same sense as Buddhist or Medieval Christian art can be, nor a geographical art, as Chinese or Japanese art is, aquired its own meaning during this phase. A convenient analogy is Gothic or Baroque art; this suggests a prominent artistic and cultural moment in a long history of an indigenous tradition. Such a moment occurred within the Indian artistic tradition by the middle of the sixteenth century. Muslim rule had been established here for over three hundred years and the interaction between the new and the old had brought about certain changes in both. Fathpur Sikri signifies an historical time in Indian cultural history when syncretistic forces had become effective and when cultural integration had stabilized enough for art to be successful, productive and highly creative. A new artistic expression is born which is neither colonial nor imitative. Mughal art, using a Perso-Islamic idiom, acquired a whole new repertoire of symbolic motifs. At the same time, a new perspective, elegance in line, emphasis on beauty, symmetry and rhythm was introduced into Indian art. At a superficial level, these developments may be seen as empty ornamentation, but the prominent and consistent emphasis on these effects requires a deeper examination of the meaning in this new art. Without any meaning it would neither have continued in a sophisticated idiom, nor reached a classical stage of expression. Mughal art is neither didactic nociconographically symbolic in the same sense as traditional Indian art is. The Islamic injunction against figural representation was probably a reason for this move away from iconographically meaningful art. As in Islamic art in general, here also, we note an ideological shift in artistic expression from the strictly-ordered metaphysical to the elegant and mundane sphere of time and physical senses. However, a spiritual message remains, although it is now expressed through the subjective intellect and senses. Such a message can be seen in the underlying attitude in this art. The treatment of existing forms rather than the invention of new ones becomes important. Abstraction, arbitrariness, stylization, mixture of thematic elements, illusion-creating effects, play on light and shade are used not just for visual pleasure but also to convey certain ideas. If one were to seek a parallel in a general cultural attitude, then the idea that no creation of man can reproduce that of God ' s is perhaps the underlying assumption in this artistic idiom. Man ' s creations can only express, in an artificial way, the beauty of such a creation. The other meaning in form may be found in Islamic geometric art where the emphasis is on an underlying order to all phenomenal diversity. It is this idiom which gives uniformity to Islamic art from Cordoba to Agra. A new way of contemplating motifs, and expressing them as a unified whole, becomes the ~rime concern of this artistic expression. Therefore, not any subject was randomly chosen or immediately ornamentalized. Art, on the contrary, becomes a way of treating a variety of motifs and themes, without necessarily destroying their independent meaning. Thus iconographically meaningful themes are used along highly stylized ornamental ones. At Fathpur Sikri this system is employed so often and so harmoniously that the interpretation in art appears to be entirely subject to the mood and capabilities of the beholder. Such an interpretive value was a remarkable development for its time. The formal method employed in this type of ornamentation is based on the atomization of motifs, an analysis of their constituent elements, and a logical recomposition of these on the principles of ornamental geometry. This method is basically an Iranian heritage. It was a pre-Islamic method used in Sasanian art, but had been taken to new heights under Islamic patronage. Such a method suited an art which not only borrowed from a large number of sources, but also placed an emphasis on stylized effects. Although change and evolution were characteristic of Islamic art in general, the qualitative aspect of this change finally depended on the nature of the specific Islamic patronage and on the indigenous milieu it interacted with. Th us Islamic art is a series of different interpretations of a similar perspective. India, with an ancient and sophisticated tradition of symbolic art, naturally posed a dynamic challenge. It is here, therefore, that we find one of the finest expressions of change in artistic form and meaning in medieval Asia.






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