A Pakistani/Canadian artist, curator and art writer, Alia works as Curator at Khaas Gallery, Islamabad, where she is currently based. A recipient of the Cecil Collins Memorial Award for Drawing (2010) at Central Saint Martins, Alia has exhibited around the world in Italy, Hong Kong, London, and more. Interested in exploring notions of displacement, which feature heavily in her practice, Alia’s recent projects include independently co-curating and organising Ato Nexus - an Artist’s Residency that culminated in an exhibition at the Pakistan Embassy in Tokyo, Japan where she was also one of the Artists in Residence; and representing Khaas Gallery's booth at START Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery, London in September 2016. (Photo credit: Amean J)
Palates & Palettes: Food, Art and the Mughals
You cannot make art on an empty stomach, they say. The Mughals, it seems, understood this – and as with much of everything else they did, they turned this truism into an art form. Artist and Curator Alia Bilgrami explores royal palettes and palates and discovers how the inextricable link between them is the real Mughal conquest.
I stood riveted at every single piece on display as part of the exhibition titled ‘Muraqqa’ – Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, which took place at the Freer & Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC in 2008. It was an overwhelming experience, viewing the degree of skill and detail present in every single work, masterpieces all. The flawless portraits were of course, magnificent, but the illuminated borders and calligraphy were equally spellbinding. From the Minto album, calligraphy works by Mir Ali were embellished with intricate flowers in soft pastel colours. An unforgettable work was a beautiful portrait of Mu’in al-Din Chisti called Holding a Globe, by the famous miniaturist, Bichtr; the inscription reading, “The key to the conquest of the two worlds is entrusted to your hand.” The Sufi scholar and philosopher is dressed simply in a white robe and turban, but the beauty of this portrait lies in the intricate lines of his face, his expressive eyes and the folds of his white turban, the gentle drapery of his clothes and his simple brown shawl. The fine lines of gold that compose the halo around his head and the detail on the red and gold crown above the globe and the feather on top are ever-so-minute and hence, breathtaking.
I have always been fascinated by how the Mughals fused the Persian and the Indian aesthetic, eventually creating their own style of miniature painting, which is what they are best known for, as much in contemporary times as throughout history. Their attention to detail was enviable and they had the means and foresight to hire the best artists from Persia as well as Indian artists from all over the region, starting with northern India and then extending to the entire subcontinent north of the Godavari River. In the process, through their vast resources, they handpicked artists and created an unparalleled Karkhana (artist’s atelier), headed usually by an Ustad or Ustads who would pass on the tradition and skill to his pupils. A Karkhana that is said to have swelled to the inconceivable size of 130 artists by the early 1600s, unmatched in skill and creativity. Illuminated manuscripts such as the ‘Hamzanama’ or the ‘Akbarnama’ are wonderful examples of how the ethos of the Karkhana was perfectly exemplified – where each artist, specializing in specific areas of painting, created a near perfect picture, in a collective effort. For instance, if one artist would make the flora and fauna, another (usually the Master or Ustad) would make the portraits and yet another would make the costumes, architecture or landscapes and so on; this collaborative process is what makes these paintings so masterful. The colours and textures they used were an outstanding amalgamation of pastel shades, drawing from the Persian school, interspersed with gorgeous rich colours inspired by the vibrant Indian miniature schools such as Jain, Rajasthani and Pahari. Eventually a palette developed which was purely Mughal, mixing the best of both worlds. The Mughals carried forward the traditional pile-up perspective in their paintings, echoing what was already resonant in Persian miniatures, whilst adding more depth through rendering instead of the flat colour and black outlines that were previously employed in Persian and various Indian schools. The Indian Pahari school was perhaps the most extensive that one could compare with, branching out according to the regions they were produced in, such as Basholi, Sikh and Kalighat styles or the darker more lush Kangra style which is my personal favourite. Also noteworthy is the Deccan school of painting hailing from the Hyderabad/Golconda region.
Similarly, the Mughals took on the local cuisines as well, blending them with what they had brought along from the Persian, Central Asian and Ottoman empires. It would be safe to say that the process through which innovations were made in both the Karkhana and the Matbakh or Dawatkhana (Imperial kitchens) were fairly similar. Chefs were brought in from different areas in the region, in the exact same way that the Miniature Karkhana evolved through its diverse artists who were engaged from all over. What ensued as a result, was a beautiful and rich combination of spices, flavours and colours. In fact, sometimes the aesthetics and activities of the atelier and the kitchens even overlapped. Life in the court often revolved around rich, elaborate Dawats and these feasts were often the occasions at which major political decisions were made. Interestingly, the settings in which new paintings and illuminated manuscripts were viewed for the first time were also during the course of the Dawat or post the feast, at leisure, which to my mind is perhaps the first semblance of a private viewing of art in the subcontinent. Over time, Mughal cuisine became more and more Indian, absorbing and incorporating indigenous spices and herbs that were not available to them before, infusing local flavours and eventually creating a wholly different (not to mention delectable) cuisine that is remembered and recreated and celebrated to this day. Haleem Khasa, Qorma, Murgh Musalam, Yakhni Pulao, Pasandey, Koftas and desserts like Lauzeena/Shahi Tukras, Sheer Khorma, Kheer, an assortment of Halwas and Mutanjan/Zarda, being just a few examples.
The nomadic tradition inherent to the Mughals with their Persian, Chagatai Turco-Mongol ancestry also contributed here. The Mughal imperial capital was likened to a moveable city as it would often move around in huge tents, never fixed in a specific location. The entourage would comprise of an unimaginable number of camels to carry supplies, cows for milk, and numerous coolies to carry the china, while the other dishes, utensils and pots were carried by mules. This rawaj or tradition added to the cuisine as each emperor went about adding his favourites wherever they would go. Persian, Turkish and Central Asian dried fruits, saffron and nuts were added to the Indian style of cooking while the Mughal table absorbed numerous local dishes like pooris, parathas and kachoris that are still very much part of the local fabric of street food and home cooked meals in present-day Pakistan and India. One palate was enriched by the other and chefs from all over the region created one scrumptious gourmet meal after another.
If we were to observe the history of how each Emperor brought in his own likes and dislikes, we can see how the royal kitchen kept changing over time as well as what art form was emphasized on. When Babur (1494-1530) first came to India, he found it, understandably, difficult to get used to the local flavours. Although during the Ottoman Empire, even Turkish and Central Asian food became more sophisticated and exotic, Babur preferred simple, wholesome Turkish food. He missed the bread of Samarkand and Bokhara. It was during Humayun’s time, however, that the true essence of the Karkhana was initiated and he was instrumental in pioneering the Mughal style of miniature painting. It was through his initiative and keen interest that several Persian craftsmen followed him to India when he regained the throne (there was a 15-year lull when Sher Shah took over after Babur passed away and Humayun was forced to move back to what is present-day Afghanistan).
When Humayun (1508-1556) returned to India, he was also influential in bringing in a more Persian centric flavour to the table, perhaps because his wife Hamida Bano Begum was Persian. A lot of the traditional Turkish and Central Asian flavours were replaced by a richer cuisine that incorporated more saffron and additional nuts. Persians were famous for their sweets as well as their vegetables and lentils; game was cooked in many innovative ways for instance in Khoresh Fesenjan, where duck was glazed with pomegranate juice or Luleh Kebab, in which lamb kebabs were wrapped in bread– and this reflected in Humayun’s kitchens. What was truly fascinating was the all-white menu presented to the Badshah on special occasions – known as Jashn-e-Mehtabi where every dish served had to be the colour white – a majestic coming together of palates and palettes, an embodiment of food as an art form if there ever was one! Despite the fact that the palate changed significantly during his reign, Humayun is not often celebrated for his innovations in this regard; it is his contributions to painting and art that are more acclaimed. Nevertheless, the Jashne-e-Mehtabi is, I believe, testament to the fact that Humayun very much contributed to the symbolism of palates significantly.
There is no doubt about the Mughals’ fondness for food and the lengths they went to in order to obtain ingredients and acquire the best chefs. They contributed several recipes to the general whirlpool of subcontinental dishes that we still enjoy today, albeit modified and cooked in a simpler and faster way. One interesting characteristic of Mughlai cuisine that seeped into the local cuisine and is very tricky to master, is the art of balancing sweet and savoury in food (later known as Ganga Jamni). Sweet and sour elements like dried fruits – pomegranate, apricots and plums or gur/shakur – were added to enhance the flavour of savoury dishes just like you would add a pinch of salt to a chocolate cake to enhance the sugar, except in a far more complicated way. It isn’t so hard to cook something purely sweet or something that is purely savoury, but when you combine them, striking a balance is extremely difficult and it would be very understandable if things went horribly wrong. The Ganga Jamni culture also transposes itself in textiles and art, replacing the concept of sweet and savoury visually with real gold and silver thread or wire in beautifully embroidered silks or gold and silver thread directly woven into the fabric itself in kamkhwab and jamewar or applied to the surface of miniatures in the form of gold/silver pigment or gold/silver leaf. Incidentally, gold and silver leaf was also used to decorate or embellish dishes with before they were presented on the Dastarkhwan. This subcontinental concept forms the basis of our Indo-Islamic past and the tehzeeb and adab that personify us.
The Mughals are etched in posterity of course for their architectural masterpieces like the Taj Mahal or the Badshahi Mosque or the alluring and symmetrical gardens in Lahore or Delhi. However, the truth is that they refined all aspects of culture, including literature, music, painting, and the fine art of taste, and never missed an opportunity to display their imperial wealth and power. They used sophisticated dining to impress their courtiers, subjects and foreign visitors alike; their hospitality is the stuff of legends.
Going back to the chain of Emperors, let’s consider Akbar (1542-1605), and his contributions towards streamlining the Mughal kitchen. During his reign, the kingly tradition of consulting hakims was enhanced even further and they were consulted about every detail to ensure cooking methods and ingredients were healthy all the way down to the nature of the pots they were cooked in! For example, rice was cooked in copper pots lined with tin to soothe the body and keep indigestion at bay. If the same rice was cooked in a gold pot, this warded off jaundice and so on. Every possible outcome was thought of and it is fascinating how the material of the pot that the food was cooked in affected the person consuming it in different ways. Gold, silver, tinned copper, earthenware and stone were all used to cook in. The ‘art’ of it was not ignored either – every possible aesthetic nuance was paid attention to during Akbar’s time – food was presented on gold and silver platters, studded with ruby, turquoise and jade stones. Perhaps being a great patron of the arts – arguably the greatest connoisseur and promoter of the arts amongst the Mughal emperors – coupled with his oft-cited goal to unify Hindustan had a role to play in all this.
Akbar’s court was full of the most renowned contemporary scholars and artists. Abu Fazl was commissioned to write the Akbarnama and Ain-e-Akbari. Not only did Akbar have a sumptuous library, he also had an extensive translation department at his court where works were translated to Persian from Sanskrit and Turkish. It goes without saying that Akbar’s attention to detail extended to his table. He was a true gourmet and connoisseur, whose love for food revolutionized Mughal cuisine and the delicate amalgamation of Turkish, Persian and Indian flavours.
One of his greatest achievements was to ensure that cooks were elevated to a respectable tier in the Mughal court where they were given the respect that they deserved. The kitchen became a department unto itself during his reign and even though he is said to have been a very simple eater and was not very fond of meat, his Dawats consisted of no less than 40 dishes at a time! Additionally, Akbar’s strong ties with the Rajputs, including his marriage with Jodhpur Princess Jodha Bai, meant an influx of Rajasthani flavours – a prime example again of how each Mughal emperor’s personal favourites came to the forefront of the royal kitchen. A personal favorite of mine – the delectable kulfi – also seems to have its roots in Akbar’s royal kitchen and for inventing this luscious desi ice cream, I find myself eternally grateful to him! (It is described in the Ain-e-Akbari as a frozen dessert made out of reduced milk, pistachios and saffron that was moulded in a metallic conical contraption and sealed with dough.)
Moving on to Jahangir (1569-1627), an intelligent Emperor with a keener eye for detail than his father, who was best known for being a just ruler. Jahangir was not a city person and often escaped the hustle and bustle of Delhi, Agra and Lahore, seeking peace in his favourite place – the tranquil and scenic Kashmir. During his reign, regular visits through Pir Panjal were a regular feature of court life. His sensual personality and love for nature found gratification in this serene habitation, and so Jahangir divided his time between Punjab and Kashmir. His royal kitchen, as a result, was enriched by culinary masterpieces from both regions. The Emperor was served lavish banquets, with food that took hours to cook on low heat, such as Gusthaba.
Under Jahangir’s reign, scholars, poets and painters flourished. Through his quest for and love of knowledge, he made sure that education spread throughout his kingdom. Indian painting reached new heights because of his impeccable aesthetic. It was because of him that Lahore became a beautiful city full of gardens, majestic buildings, palaces and mosques. Amongst his many achievements, most noteworthy are Shalimar gardens in Lahore and Nishat garden in Kashmir.
Jahangir was not alone in his passion for all things creative. His beloved and favourite wife, Nurjahan shared his passions. Her two most magnificent achievements are the tombs of her father and her husband, both of which set the tone for the Taj Mahal. Her father’s tomb is the first example of inlaid marble work in architecture – a style that evolved directly from the Persian tile-mosaics. The detailed latticework and semiprecious stones laid in pietra-dura were meant to echo the intricate aesthetic of white on white lace. She is said to have instructed her craftsmen and constructors to follow floral lace patterns that she provided them with and they were initially rather perturbed! One of her most invaluable Persian-centric talents was her passion for garden design and aesthetics. She spent hours with Jahangir in their self-designed masterpieces.
Said to have been the only woman during Mughal times who virtually took over the helm and had an incredible amount of power and clout, Nurjahan was a brave military leader, a great administrator, a graceful diplomat, a suave politician and the only woman to have coins struck in her name. She ensured that the royal seal included her signature, had no qualms about using it, held court and took several major judicial decisions. Her military and political acuity apart, she made contributions to the arts and introduced innovations in fashion, textile design, poetry, art, architecture and of course cooking. Her forte was preparing meat with new and improved recipes and she is credited with the discovery of, among other things, sandalwood. We also have Nurjahan to thank for stitched clothing, over the earlier wrapped and draped styles, longer kameez lengths and tang/choori dar pajamas.
Going back to the art of food, Jahangir took a real shine to a Gujarati style khichri called Lazizan prepared with millet, pulses and rice. He is known to have appreciated good food and some of his favourites were black partridge, large quail and rahu fish. He drank only Ganges water, loved mangoes just like all his ancestors and handpicked cherries in Kashmir himself. Jahangir’s passion for art and jewellery can be perceived in the miniatures of his time. Traditionally, precious and semi-precious stones were crushed along with minerals to make pure pigment to paint with (an extremely laborious and lengthy process) just like spices and herbs were crushed to make masalas to marinate and cook with; gold and silver leaf was applied directly or crushed into pigment for illuminated manuscripts and this practice was increased during his time. Prior to having officially ascended the throne, he had set up an independent studio in Allahabad where he employed master painter Aqa Raza and his son Abu Hasan. Jahangir was a revolutionary and ahead of his time, in that he was instrumental in emboldening artists to develop their own individual style, which prior to this was unheard of in the Mughal Karkhana. This visionary approach, extremely unique for its time, encouraged artists to hone their skills and maintain their own creative license – something that artists today almost take for granted. He was not in favour of the collaborative process employed by his father’s miniature atelier, and had such a good eye that it is said he could recognize the hand of the artist just by looking at the portraits in a painting.
Some of Jahangir’s favourite depictions were of the pleasures and pastimes of court life while Nurjahan is credited with increasing the number of women represented in miniature paintings through her patronage and encouragement. Jahangir also enjoyed commissioning portraits, bird studies, flora and fauna, animals and sometimes reproductions of European paintings, which Nurjahan collected from European merchants. The Muraqqa-e-Gulshan album/folio is one of the most impressive. He valued his artists and honoured them with titles like Nadir-ul-Asr for Mansur and Nadir-uz-Zaman for Abu Hasan. Bishn Das, Manohar, Govardhan and Daulat were all the best painters from his Karkhana. Many of their renderings are preserved in albums created for Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan (1592-1666) who was also a great patron of the arts under whom the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal for his beloved, Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Bano) in Agra were built.
The history of culinary arts under the Mughal regime is a fascinating one. Each Emperor was also unique in his talents and interests and so were their Queens – this is what enriched and informed the culture and priorities of his Darbar. The Mughals could not live without the finest of food and fruits, and barring Aurangzeb (1618-1707), neither could they live without the arts. Their contribution to our mixed culinary heritage is what keeps them alive in our lives, as does their patronage of miniature painting. The genre has become part of the fabric of Pakistan’s visual identity, growing and evolving into a contemporary aesthetic or sensibility that Pakistani art is now synonymous with.
Slideshow: Mughal Love for Food Represented in Miniature Art