A universe of Mogul royalty portrayed in miniature

This jubilant image of musicians playing away while perched atop an elephant hardly looks like an excerpt from an official document. Most official documents are less lively and colorful, and aren't so sharply observed.

In fact, this is a tiny detail from one of 44 illustrations in a book, a Mogul document known as "The Padshahnama," or the emperor's chronicle. This manuscript records major events in the first decade of the reign (1628-58) of Shah-Jahan of the Mogul empire on the Indian subcontinent. It celebrates his military prowess and extravagant court occasions, ceremonies, processions (in this case a prince's wedding), hunts, and significant arrivals and departures.

The musicians are a small part of a small painting measuring a mere 13 inches by 9 inches. No wonder that when these extraordinary miniatures have been exhibited in recent years, visitors have sometimes been provided with magnifying glasses. This is happily the case at The Queen's Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the Padshahnama is currently on display until May 3.

The artists were required to measure up to the complex facts of often densely peopled events in spite of having to work in such restricted dimensions. They used minuscule brushes sometimes consisting of a single squirrel or kitten hair.

Mogul painting was naturalistic while also having a high degree of subtle contrivance. These royal paintings reflected the hierarchical order of court society. Lesser figures often inhabit lower reaches of the picture (the musicians, for example, are near the bottom) and are crammed together, while the emperor may be seated high in an architectural compartment, like a loggia or canopy. Important figures were recognizable portraits. But even the humbler people were endowed with something more than merely typical features. The viewer is half persuaded that each of the musicians could have been identified by friends or relations.

Rich clothing, intricately patterned textiles (note the elephant's saddle cloth here), and brilliant jewelry were signs of imperial power. The artists clearly relished this. Their paintings are frequently described, with justification, as jewel-like.

Shah-Jahan, the fifth Mogul emperor, ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent. He surpassed his predecessors in his commissioning of lavish books, paintings, and architecture. He was responsible for having the Taj Mahal built.

The scribe of the Padshahnama (written in Persian) left spaces for illustrations. These were not, however, painted specifically for the Padshahnama, but incorporated from "stock" at a later date. This single extant copy of the Padshahnama to have illustrations painted during Shah-Jahan's reign found its way into another royal collection in 1799 when it was presented to Britain's George III by the Nawab of Oudh.

In 1994, the volume was unbound for conservation, and the paintings became exhibitable for a period. After their display in Edinburgh, the question is: Will they retire again into the collection's private obscurity, or be made permanently accessible to the public?

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