Notes on DVDs watched - 2 India & Persia

Notes on DVDs

11.12.17 Arts of the East: China, Tibet, Japan, India
An introduction to the arts of the east, this DVD looks at the art of these four countries in turn, showing the characteristic subjects and styles of each.

11.12.17 Encounters, the meeting of Asia & Europe 1500-1800 - V & A Exhibition, 2004
"In the three centuries after the explorer Vasco de Gama first landed in India in 1492, meetings, trade and exchanges of all kinds flourished between the peoples of Europe and Asia. These encounters and the hybrid cultures that developed have left an extraordinary legacy of exquisite works of art and compelling human stories. Produced alongside the V&A's landmark 2004 exhibition, Encounters explores both the western fascination for the exotic materials of Asia as well as the interest in European technologies in India, China and Japan. The film considers the religious and diplomatic dimensions of the story, the immensely profitable trading networks and the fantasies imagined of faraway cultures by both Europeans and Asians...There are 6 additional short films that focus on some of the most precious and spectacular artworks from the V&A exhibition."

08.01.18 Ancient India: Lost treasures of the ancient world
The history of India is shown through a sequence of various artefacts. The DVD looks at the very early cities of Harrapa and Mohenjaro, with 3D models of how they might have looked. The helpful timeline shows the Mauryan empire, where Chandragupta Maurya defeated the satraps left by Alexander the Great when he went back west. His descendent Ashoka then coverted to Buddhism, which ensured that it would last, and he erected several pillars throughout the empire, declaring his edicts on right conduct. The Ajanta caves contain many cave paintings, some showing Buddha as a prince, which gives an insight into the court life. The later Gupta dynasty was a Hindu one, and erected many temples with erotic carvings, depicting Hindu deities. Then under Mongol rule there was some Persian influence on artistic styles. Finally, the Mughal empire brought Islam, and Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal, which was a monument in a Mughal tradition.

08.01.18 Treasures of the Indus 1 - Pakistan unveiled
For this series, Sona Datta of the British Museum travelled round India and Pakistan. She took a train from Lahore to ancient Harrapa, a site of the Indus Valley civilisation, 2,700 BC - 1,700 BC, , which was built of bricks. The site was laid out on a grid pattern, but there were no grand monuments - it was a more egalitarian society. Other similar cities were found, at Mohenjodaro and elsewhere along the Indus. Various artefacts were shown, including fertility figures and jewellery such as carnelian beads, and the dancing girl from Mohenjodaro, with a confident pose, which was unusual. Then the city disappeared - maybe because the water for the extensive drainage and water supply system came from the Indus, which changed course.

She then moved to Taxila, to talk about Buddhism and the Greeks, 376BC - AD 700. Alexander the Great crossed the river at Hund nearby; he wanted to find the fabled land to the east. Taxila was a thriving city with many customs and languages. When Alexander marched in ready for battle he was given silver instead by Taxilos the Indian; he found unrecognisable spices and foodstuffs, eg tamarind. The Greeks rebuilt the ancient city of Taxila, which was then called Sirkap. This covers a vast area with a main boulevard, planned like a Hellenistic city. Many of the walls are still standing, with shops and residences, all ordered. India showed Greek cultural influence over several 100 years. One result was its effect on Buddhism, which changed its architecture and art. The early Buddhist temple here was like a Greek one; this fusion is exemplified by the stupa at the top of a flight of steps, which has a double-headed eagle, and acanthus decoration. In the museum, it can be seen what the impact was on how the Buddha was portrayed: the earliest portrayal was just a footstep, containing symbols associated with the Buddha. After the Greeks came, the Buddha was represented as a person with Greek style drapery, and given idealised features. In this Indo-Greek culture he had hair arranged like statues of Apollo and had the toned body of a Greek athlete. The Greeks took back with them gold and silver, and myths of Indian civilisation as being strange and mystical; Alexander trekked back in 325 BC.

Buddhism then entered a golden age; there was a monastery at Taxila, to which came students from Persia and India along the Silk Road, and Chinese pilgrims, who took Buddhism back with to China. There was an open area with small rooms at the back; one contains a replica of a fine statue of the Buddha, as art was used to spread Buddhism. A statue in the museum shows the Buddha as very gaunt from his 6 years of fasting; it is carved from one piece of schist. He looks serene, but he realised that this was not the road to nirvana, and had to beg for food before continuing on his quest. The Dharmarajika Stupa at Taxila was remote, but Buddhism spread from there to all over India. The city became prosperous, mass-producing images of the Buddha. There was more commerce, with many goods for sale in the market, as now. One current example of the colourful style not normally associated with Pakistan is in the many painted lorries, which are covered with decoration. Trade spread Buddhism everywhere, including China. Later, when Chinese monks came to find the origin of Buddhism, they found the Bhamala Buddhist Complex near Khanpur deserted. The White Huns had invaded and destroyed much of it, and the Buddhist monks found that tolerance had gone; these Islamic warriors denied the existence of the complex cultures which pre-existed them.

Then more invaders came, horsemen from Afghan bringing Islam. They founded Lahore, and introduced the bazaar and the camel, and the call to prayer. This was the era of the rise of Islam - AD 1000 to the present. Mahmud of Ghazni gathered craftsmen to Lahore from Persia, including musicians, whose style is till in use in the mosque. Then the Mughals came, from places with palaces and gardens; they built the palace at Lahore and recreated their idea of Paradise as a garden. Shah Jahan built the palace of mirrors; the Mughals had brought the Persian concept of purdah with them, where a wife was supposed to show submission to her husband by staying within the palace walls. Jahangir married Nur Jahan in 1517, she being his last, most beloved wife. He became dependent on her, not least because he was by now addicted to opium. Although he had extravagant tastes, and built a minaret for his pet deer, he also patronised the arts. She acquired political power and they ruled together. There was a public balcony in the council chamber where he sat, but just behind was a secret niche where she sat, and could listen to the debates and whisper in his ear. Jahngir built her a set of private chambers, with intricate paintwork, marble floors, carpets and stucco work, depicting vases of flowers; the ceiling was covered with mirrors and very colourful, with gold paint. Nur Jahan designed a tomb for Jahangir, which was very ornate, but her own tomb which she had to build herself nearby was more modest - she is buried there next to her daughter.

12.02.18 Treasures of the Indus 2 - The other side of the Taj Mahal
Babur, the first Mughal emperor, (1483-1530) transformed Lahore into a garden city, with emphasis on symmetry and flowing water. Paradise in Islam is represented as a garden, but the city is also symbolic of Mughal power. He also introduced an Indo-Persian style of architecture, which used red sandstone, decorated with flourishes and tilework. Babur's grandson Akbar (1542-1605) became more powerful than Babur, and wanted a new city. As a celebration of his triumphs, he built his capital Fatehpur Sikri, of red sandstone and in the middle of nowhere. He then became more spritual, and began to explore other religions, and created different rooms in his palace, where he took part in discussions with religious leaders. Akbar experimented with architectural decoration, putting different elements together in a playful way, but the city was then abandoned, possibly because of a lack of water. He also commissioned paintings of court life, which led to a more dynamic art. Later styles were more intimate, with portraits, e.g. of Shah Jahan (1592-1666). Under him also architecture changed from tradtional red sandstone to white marble, as at the back of the Red Fort in Agra; this was highly decorated. Gardens were important and flora were shown in stone; also the technique of pietra dura, or inlay of marble with coloured stones, was borrowed from the Italians. Shah Jahan's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died in 1631 and he caused the Taj Mahal to be built in her memory. Artisans from across the empire were involved - Persian calligraphers, Hindu craftsmen and Mughal architects. It is called the greatest monument to love in the world, but it is also a depiction of paradise; the gardens are equally important. Shah Jahan's son Aurangzeb was less tolerant than his predecessors, forcing Hindus to convert to Islam, and destroying their temples. He built mosques in Agra and Delhi which symbolised his power; some artists fled to Hindu courts. In Bikaner they made a manuscript which shows the joining of Hindu and Mughal art: Vishnu is shown on a mountain, painted like a Mughal landscape with perspective. Aurangzeb allowed no music, art or poetry and initiated austerity. He was so heavy-handed that it led to rebellion, and when he died the Mughal empire weakened, eventually allowing the British to rule.

12.02.18 Treasures of the Indus 3 - Of Gods and men
"In a journey across the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sona Datta traces the development of the Hindu religion from its origins as an amalgamation of local faith traditions to its dominant position today. She uncovers this fascinating tale by looking at the buildings in which the faith evolved, moving from the caves and rock temples on the shores of the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipurem, through the monolithic stone temple at Tanjavur to the vast complex of ornately carved towers, tanks and courtyards at Madurai, where every evening the god Shiva processes round the precincts to visit the bedchamber of his partner Parvati."

12.03.18 Oriental Images - Hokusai, Shitao & Persian miniature

Persian miniature - the gardens of heaven, 1620-4
The DVD is based on a manuscript preserved in the National Library of France. It was made between 1620 and 1624, and illustrates five verses of the twelfth century Persian poet Nezami. The story is about the love of Prince Khosrow II, future king of Persia, for his future wife, the Armenian princess Shirin. He has a black horse named Shabdiz that takes Shirin to meet him after she has fallen in love with his portrait. Only 9 of the pages are illustrated with miniatures, which tell the complicated story of their meeting and parting.

Islam was opposed to idol worship, so forbad representations of people; however, it was acceptable in private places such as manuscripts. Persia didn't have printing until the 19th century, so stories only circulated in manuscripts, for which the Persian court had a reputation. Paper was in use from the 8th century onwards, and a special paper was used for manuscripts; it had silk threads laid on it, which left a pattern. The paper was laid out in columns as a grid for the text and pictures. Gold and other colours were used to outline the grid; the frames were made as a series of lines, using a drawing pen. The paper was then passed to the calligrapher. The system was codified in the 11th century, so that the first mark was a particular size and everything else was measured from it; there were 4 columns on each page. The script was cursive, invented in the 14 century.

The painters used water colours mixed with gum arabic; colours were white lead, yellow ochre, cinnabar orange, cochineal red, lapiz lazuli blue, azurite and indigo.They were mixed to make green, light blue, pink and violet, with some silver, which has now oxidised to black, and gold. Surfaces were covered with a light primer, then details added. Finally images were outlined in black to emphasise the contours. This all took months of work, with very fine brushes; details included individual hairs and carpet patterns. When the paper was dry it was polished till smooth. Colours were allocated at random and were not realistic; the miniaturists liked to have a range - there were about 20 colours. There were no shadows and no perspective; the viewpoint was raised, as if one were looking from a mountain or tower. They knew about perspective, but chose not to use it except for odd details. Sometimes the image overflowed the frame, or there was an image within an image.

The costumes of the warriors were from the artist's own period i.e. 17th century, with hats from the time of Shah Abbas. Clouds could be shown in a style like that of Chinese paintings. Like Byzantine art, no distinction was made between different figures. The pictures showed an invented, make-believe world, and so got round the prohibition on representing human figures; if the figures came out of the frame they could show the distinction between the invented and the real world. If the Prophet was shown, his face was always veiled. During a period of iconoclasm, the heads of statues would be removed, and in paintings a line would be drawn under the head; this has not happened here, although the bedroom scene has been damaged, possibly by applying saliva.

The pictures often showed allegories, and plants abounded; there is repetition and symmetry, covering the whole surface. This also happened in architecture, where buildings were covered with many tiles, and in carpets. The garden was a Persian invention, and was intended to show Paradise, with flowers, greenery and water, either flowing or in lakes.