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Salman Rushdie Speaks on Mughal Art at Emory

April 2007
Salman Rushdie Speaks on Mughal Art at Emory

Salman Rushdie, who joined Emory University this year as a Distinguished Writer in Residence, recently gave a talk, "The Composite Artist," in which he made no mention of his books or even his life as a famed – and, for a while, embattled – author. His title for the Sheth lecture on February 25th was, in fact, making a direct reference to the diverse painters of the Mughal court. Their eclectic style of composition, especially during Akbar's long reign, was a hallmark of Mughal art. All the same, Rushdie's title would have been just as appropriate if he'd been talking about his own acclaimed and much-scrutinized career. As a novelist who uses vast canvases for his inventive, multilayered stories, Rushdie – the composite artist – has already created an impressive body of work, starting with the path-breaking Midnight's Children, which bagged not only the Booker Prize a quarter century ago, but also the Booker of Bookers in 1993. His other novels include Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor's Last Sigh and, most recently, Shalimar the Clown.

Welcoming the capacity audience at Glen Memorial Auditorium, Robert Paul, Dean of the College, noted how Emory continues to play a significant role in the cultural life of Atlantans. The Dalai Lama, reportedly, will be joining the university faculty as a Presidential Distinguished Professor. Deepika Bahri, Director of Asian Studies at Emory, introduced Rushdie and, while recapping his literary journey, called him the "greatest of our storytellers." Earlier, noting that "he is a master of world literature spanning India, Europe, and North and South America," she added, "Rushdie is also one of the most important voices of our time for human rights." Bahri also introduced Jagdish Sheth, the Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing at Emory, and thanked him and his family for their generous support of the lecture series on Indian studies.���

Rushdie has long been fascinated by Indian art. A primary character in The Moor's Last Sigh, for instance, was inspired by the painter Amrita Sher-Gil. But whereas that novel has contemporary Indian art as a crucial point of reference, Rushdie's current work, as he pointed out, takes us back to an earlier era: the parallel worlds of Mughal India and Renaissance Italy. With the help of images of paintings projected onto a screen, Rushdie was able to show how Mughal India also experienced a cultural Renaissance during Akbar's rule. Interestingly, a concurrent display of Indian paintings at Emory ("Domains of Wonder") seemed to be making the same point. As one of the exhibit labels stated, "Guided by Akbar's taste for realism and dramatic action, these artists, who came from widely divergent cultural backgrounds, created a vital new style with its roots in both Persian and Indian traditions."

Of the more than 100 artists in Akbar's kitab-khana or atelier, many – in fact, the majority – were Hindus. Basawan, Mir Sayyid Ali, Kesu Das and Daswanth were some of his leading painters. Rushdie mentioned how Akbar was not only tolerant and curious, but also quite receptive to outside influences. It was during this period that, in part because of Western art, Indian paintings gained volume and depth, becoming more three-dimensional. Rushdie's focus was on the Hamza-nama, a series of 1400 paintings commissioned by Akbar. Only 200 of these paintings, which dwell on the adventures of the heroic Hamza, have survived over the centuries. The creative process was very much collaborative, with each artist bringing his particular strength and skill to the canvas. It resulted in evocative, richly detailed paintings that – unlike Western art – had the imprint of several artists.

Rushdie leavened the talk with his trademark humor, making the audience laugh in appreciation. Despite the achievements of that era, he observed at one point, dentistry is an example of how much better life is in the 21st century. His references, in the erudite yet engaging lecture, ranged from the classic Don Quixote to the wacky Monty Python's Flying Circus. In his closing remarks, Rushdie maintained that this vibrant Islamic culture remains an integral part of Indian history and civilization.

- Murali Kamma

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