Pearls of the Parrot of India
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog staffer Kabir Singh reviews the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit featuring Emperor Akbar’s lavishly illustrated Khamsa (quintet of tales).
Although a little hard to navigate at first, I grew to love the true to its provenance right-to-left organization of Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Emperor Akbar’s Illustrated ‘Khamsa,’ 1597–98. Spanning this one-room exhibition at the Met are the pages and cover of an illuminated manuscript from the Indo-Persian Mughal Empire, the power that built the Taj Mahal. The curators have set out magnifying glasses, so you won’t miss any detail of the exquisite miniatures and calligraphy.
The poems of the Khamsa, or Quintet, are the work of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, the self-proclaimed “Parrot of India.” Several centuries later, the Mughal emperor Akbar ordered the creation of the manuscript that appears at the Met in his royal workshops. The best place to begin viewing this exhibit is the gold and lacquer-coated front and back covers, decorated with parts of the narrative that lie within. Continue around the room counterclockwise to view excerpts from each of the five poems of the Quintet in order.
Of particular interest is the second to last poem, entitled the A’ina-yi Sikandari (the Mirror of Alexander), which recalls episodes from the life of Alexander the Great. One spectacular illustration from this section of the Khamsa done in ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, which curators name, “To the Surprise of Alexander, the Chinese Warrior-Maiden Kanifu Sheds Her Armor and Tells Him of Her Destiny to Marry the Man Who Defeated Her in Battle.” Portrayed in the center is Alexander, just as a Mughal emperor might be depicted, wearing a full beard and crimson robe over an azure tunic, while crowned in a white turban topped with an exotic feather, and seated on a hexagonal sandalwood throne. Alexander looks down to Kanifu, whose attendant removes her armor revealing that she is indeed a woman. The gentlemen of court, while expressing their surprise at Kanifu, are each fashionably dressed in a different colored gown.
The detail given to non-essential elements in this narrative is its most compelling aspect. A peacock is seen nonchalantly walking on the roof of Alexander’s quarters, with castle and mountain scenery fading away at his left. The carpet beneath Alexander’s throne is done in a floral pattern, said to be of both Chinese and Iranian influence. A red sandstone wall in the bottom fourth of the painting blocks the entryway into Alexander’s quarters, with an arch opening incidentally reminiscent of the arch from mid-seventeenth century Delhi that opens into the next gallery. A horse outside the wall wears a saddle decorated to match the carpet beneath Alexander’s feet.
In another illustrated episode of Alexander’s life, “Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in His Mountain Cave and Is Told of His Own Imminent Death,” Alexander and Plato are assimilated to the traditional theme in Mughal literature of a king visiting a hermit. Given how prevalent Orientalism has been throughout the history of Western art, this Occidentalism, as it were, is quite refreshing.
Through March 12, 2006
To get there: Take the 1 train to 86th Street and transfer to the M86. Exit on Fifth Avenue and walk across the street to the main entrance. Once inside the Met, enter the Asian galleries from the North side of the Great Balcony, and walk toward the back of the permanent Indian art gallery until you reach a faux red-sandstone staircase; ascend the stairs.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (at 82nd Street) Hours: Fridays and Saturdays: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesdays through Thursdays, Sundays: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.