Bright Plumage

At the Walters, a rare opportunity to see painted pages of a Persian-Indian masterpiece from the 16th century


July 03, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

From childhood, Majnum burned with passion for the beautiful Layla, and she returned his devotion. But because the couple could not marry, Majnum went mad and wandered through the wilderness clad only in rags.

Then Majnum's friend, seeking to test Layla's love, told her Majnum was dead. This news broke Layla's heart, and she perished from grief. When Majnum arrived at her funeral, so overcome with remorse was he that he leapt into the grave beside his beloved and died on the spot.

This tragic tale of star-crossed lovers forms the central chapter of the Khamsa -- or quintet of tales -- by Amir Khusraw, a 13th-century Persian-language poet known as "the Parrot of India." Khusraw's verses were so admired by his contemporaries that they helped establish a Persian literary tradition that the fierce Mughal warriors of Southwest Asia would carry to the furthest corners of their empire.

In the 16th century, India was ruled by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who commissioned his court painters and scribes to produce a beautiful illuminated manuscript of the Khamsa. That volume is now the centerpiece of a striking exhibition at the Walters Art Museum.

Created in the years 1595-1598, Akbar's Khamsa is one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts of the Mughal dynasty period in India (1526-1857), when Muslims of Turkish and Mongol ancestry ruled a vast empire stretching from pres-ent-day Iran to Pakistan and India from their capital in Delhi.

The Mughals brought to their capital artists, poets and skilled craftsmen from every corner of the empire, and Akbar was one of the dynasty's greatest patrons of the arts. By the end of his 50-year reign in 1605, his royal library contained more than 24,000 volumes.

Though the Mughal religion was Islam, Akbar tolerated a variety of faiths among his subjects, who included Hindus, Zoroastrians, Jains and Christians.

In addition to tales of star-crossed lovers, the manuscript contains chapters on moral and religious instruction, heroic deeds of the Greek general Alexander the Great, whom Akbar sought to emulate, and ecstatic visions of earthly paradises.

Originally, Akbar's Khamsa contained 31 illustrations among its 420 hand-lettered pages, each of which was bordered by intricate floral designs.

The Persian-language text was written out in elegant Arabic characters by the royal scribe Muhammad Husayn al-Kashmiri, who was renowned as the "Golden Pen" and the greatest calligrapher of his day. (In Akbar's time, the art of calligraphy enjoyed far greater prestige than painting.)

By the time that museum founder Henry Walters acquired Akbar's manuscript in the early 20th century, however, 10 of the illustrations had been cut out.

Eight of those missing pages now belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and for this exhibition they have been temporarily reunited with the 21 opaque watercolor paintings owned by the Walters (the remaining two illustrations are presumed lost). When the Walters' Khamsa was taken apart recently for conservation work, the museum decided to exhibit the illustrations in one show. So, this is a rare opportunity to see the works displayed together.

All the watercolors are characterized by exquisite draftsmanship and a vibrant sense of color. The images, many of which suggest the influence of early European Renaissance art on Persian miniature painting, are captivating, even if one doesn't know the elaborate stories they illustrate.

In any case, Akbar's artisans often embellished the original narratives with pictorial motifs of their own invention, so the exhibition's extensive labels and wall texts provide invaluable context.

The installation also includes a handy set of plastic magnifying glasses so viewers can observe in minute detail the amazing artistry with which these diminutive but timeless masterpieces were executed.


What: Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Emperor Akbar's Illustrated Khamsa, 1595-98

Where: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Through Sept. 11.

Hours: Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students.

Call: 410-547-9000 or visit the Web site

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