Tribute to the aesthete who ruled India

Sabah Husain’s latest work celebrates the legacy of the majestic Empress Nur Jahan. Dr. Marcella Sirhandi takes us through the display

Tribute to the aesthete who ruled India
Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir, played a unique role in medieval Indian history. Her architectural and cultural contributions were accompanied by her keen sensibility as de facto ruler of the Mughal Empire. While we have no reliable portrait of this empress and much of her legacy was undone by her stepson, Emperor Shah Jahan, Nur Jahan’s incontrovertible fame – in addition to the tombs, mosques and gardens that she patronised and likely designed – preserve her enduring renown.

Sabah Husain has brought to light, literally and figuratively, a dazzling memorial to commemorate Nur Jahan and her accomplishments. Sixteen translucent glass panels with floral and geometric motifs, created for and exhibited at the first Karachi Biennale in October 2017, employ themes derived from tomb architecture, Paradise and public gardens with their floral enhancement and the map of Agra, a city intimately associated with Nur Jahan. Each of the glass squares measures 20 inches x 20 inches, conforming to the Mughal preference for symmetry. Thirteen of the panels hold a golden hue, two are a soft rose and one is rust coloured. All panels are mounted on double sheets of tempered glass, 9 feet x 9 feet. Hanging in the Mughal Art Gallery in the Jahangir Quadrangle at Lahore Qila suspended from pipes tied on steel wires without any use of nails, this installation consciously and judicially follows the rules of conservation. While transparency gives the impression that the panels are suspended in space, the mirror-like surface reflects the wall and antique brick floor causing the installation to be integrated within the historic space.

Since the opening of this exhibition on the 8th of March, thousands of visitors from Lahore and all over Pakistan have come to the fort specifically to the Jahangir Quadrangle and there, they linger over Sabah Husain’s tribute to Nur Jahan. The living quarters for Jahangir and Empress Nur Jahan during the months they spent in Lahore in yearly transit between Delhi and Kashmir have been converted to the Mughal Art Gallery. When Jahangir married Mehrunissa in 1611 he gave her the title Nur Jahan meaning light of the world, a symbolic gesture echoed in the reflective quality of the mirrored surface of Husain’s panels. According to scholarly research, Nur Jahan was the light of her husband’s life. She ruled the empire for fifteen years after Jahangir became incapacitated from alcohol and opium. Upon his death in 1627, deposed by stepson Shah Jahan, she retired to Lahore with her widowed daughter where she spent her remaining years. It is not surprising that the citizens of Lahore have a deep attachment for Nur Jahan and her legacy.

Foremost among the panel compositions are squares and circles. The uppermost panel on the top left features a panoply of birds ensconced in a grid within a circle. It includes a variety of species from hawks and woodpeckers to swallows and parrots, some in flight, some at rest. The grid that keeps them contained is a theme that pervades the sixteen panels and together they form a checkerboard, a type of grid. Birds, like the flora in a chaharbagh (four-part Paradise garden of an Indo-Persian tomb) are an essential element of the iconography. Flowers superimposed on a grid in the next panel make reference to the pleasure gardens patronised by Nur Jahan. Among them are Noor Afshan (light scattering), Noor Manzil (abode of light) and Moti Bagh (garden of pearls) all in Agra. The third panel defines the rooms and divisions within a tomb belonging to Nur Jahan. Nur Jahan is believed to have designed and patronised the tomb of her husband and in a nearby quadrant, her own mausoleum. In the simultaneously two- and three-dimensional circle of the forth panel, light refracted from the carved marble windows provides geometric diapered designs.

The Jahangir Quadrangle

Each of the glass squares measures 20 inches x 20 inches, conforming to the Mughal preference for symmetry

Repetition of floral motifs that decorate the caskets of Mughal rulers including those of Jahangir and Nur Jahan give meaning to the first panel in the second frieze. As one of the two rose-coloured mirrors, this panel demands a close look at details. The floor plan of Nur Jahan’s tomb in the third panel, first frieze, illustrates the chaharbagh garden that surrounds the tomb on each of its four sides. The tomb gardens are divided by canals that represent the two rivers of Paradise. The rivers are referenced in the Quran and in the Old Testament as well. The tomb itself, therefore, is a palace or resting place in Paradise. Nur Jahan designed the chaharbagh at Shahdara. A repeating geometric design from Nur Jahan’s tomb rises above her epitaph in the next mirror. In Persian, the epitaph refers to Sufi metaphors loosely translated as: “At my tomb, no one comes to light my lamp for the moths that are burned with desire for the beloved, nor to address the longing of the sad bulbul.” At the end of this frieze the ink splatters are reminiscent of the fish-scale motifs “pusht mahi” .The marble was carved with undulations like inverted fishscales, which caused the water to mummer like a brook in Mughal gardens.

The Yumna River winding through the next panel is the location for the chaharbagh tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula, Nur Jahan’s father. The white marble structure designed by Nur Jahan and decorated with pietra dura may be the inspiration for the nearby Taj Mahal, also noted on the map. A spider web on the rust-hued mirror suggests decay. A drop of blood drips top left and the bottom corner has been shaved off. Nur Jahan survived political intrigues, led armies and commanded an empire, but after Jahangir died she found quiet refuge in Lahore. The web is one of intrigue and of decay. A flowering stem extending down to the mirror below breaks the horizontal movement. It partially hides designs made by sunlight shining through the carved marble openings. Last in the frieze is the etched floorplan for the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula. Cypress trees, a symbol of death, populate Indo-Persian cemeteries.

Thorn-laden stalks that crisscross the disk make reference to the darker side of the chaharbagh and also Nur Jahan's life

Thorn-laden stalks that crisscross the disk make reference to the darker side of the chaharbagh and also to the travails in Nur Jahan’s life. Encompassed centrally within the grid in the next panel is the word ‘chaharbagh’ itself. And in the sphere of the sixteenth panel is ‘Nur Jahan’ in the Assar script. About the famous Mughal empress, the artist of these sixteen panels wrote, “Hers is a unique narrative because she did not conform to the established ideals of a woman of the time and stood outside the realm of traditional Indian prototype. Her story is one of political dexterity, military competence and, not least, numerous cultural achievements.”

Sabah Husain’s tribute to Nur Jahan is intelligent and elegant – and executed with artistic virtuosity.

Dr. Marcella Sirhandi is Professor Emerita at Oklahoma State University