Posted by: Titus Presler | November 30, 2011

Interfaith gathering featured in 18th-century Mughal painting at the Met

Interested in interfaith dialogue and cooperation in south Asia from the perspective of my work in Peshawar, I was arrested last week by one particular watercolor in the refurbished and renamed Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“A Gathering of Holy Men of Different Faiths” is the name given by the museum for the painting by Mir Kalan Khan, and it is thought to have been painted at Lucknow between 1770 and 1775.  You can view it at this link.

“Based on a well-known work of about 1655 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, this painting presents an established theme in Mughal painting: a mystical gathering of holy men of different faiths,” explains the gallery catalogue, what museum director Thomas Campbell calls a “handbook” of the museum’s holdings in this area. 

From the standpoint of relations among the region’s religions today – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and, marginally, Buddhism – I was struck by this theme being prominent in painting in the tradition of the Mughals, the Muslim empire based in Delhi that was declining during the period of artist Mir Kalan Khan’s activity.

The holy persons depicted include: Kabir, the early 15th-century mystic, poet and social reformer, who drew from Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, but sought to transcend all of them; Kamal his son; Aughar, a follower of Gorakhnath, an 11th-century Hindu yogi; Namdev, a 14th-century devotee of Vitobha and who is revered by Sikhs; and Ravidas, a 15th-century mystic of the Bhakti movement and a religious and social reformer.  Four disciples, or chelas, are depicted on the right side of the painting.

This list does merit the term museum’s phrase, “Holy Men of Different Faiths,” in two senses.  First, the figures represent significantly different schools of faith and practice.  Second, to the extent that “-ism” signifies a Western categorization of religions rather than a self-categorization by the religionists involved, it would be incorrect to dismiss the interfaith dimension of the depiction because those present could be viewed as inter-related in “Hinduism” or “Sikhism,” which were not nearly as defined at the time as they may be now, whether correctly or incorrectly.  At the same time, I was disappointed not to find in the Mughal painting a figure who could be clearly seen as simply Muslim. (See the update below.)

One principle of selection might have been, in fact, mysticism, which tends to blur sharp edges of religious identity.  The mood of the painting is indeed mystic: quiet, receptive, prayerful, kindly.  If you have a chance, try to see it.

The exhibit as a whole is spectacular and is a significant global event for the art of the region.  The galleries of the Department of Islamic Art were closed for renovation in 2003, and the reopening is the result of eight years of work.  The overlong and clumsy new name for the galleries obviously represents an attempt to specify their geographical scope and, at the same time, not limit the works to Islamic art.  Nevertheless the 431-page catalogue is titled Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And on Fifth Avenue the posters proclaim “Rediscover Islamic Art.”  While “rediscover” doubtless refers to the fact that galleries of this art are now accessible again, for many visitors this will be their first discovery of Islamic art, as well as other art of the region.

Jan. 6, 2012, update: Revisiting the exhibition several days ago, I was startled to see what I did, in fact, remember from my first visit, but what I decided I’d misread from the first visit.  The actual label on the piece in the gallery reads: “A Gathering of Muslim and Hindu Holy Men” (not “Holy Men of Different Faiths”).  Daughter Emma, who manages the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, noted to us that catalogue preparation often precedes label preparation for an exhibition simply because of publication deadlines.  Thus it would appear that the the more generic catalogue title preceded the more specific exhibit title.  The shift seems odd because, as noted above, it is not clear that any of the worthies depicted can be clearly categorized as Muslim.  I recall, for instance, being corrected in Peshawar when I identified Kabir as a Muslim poet – No, I was told, Kabir was a Sikh!

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