‘Islamic art dissolved line between East and West’

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Art as it developed under Islam reached a level that can be compared to the Renaissance period because it took in various influences and even played a role in dissolving the divide between the East and the West, says art historian Nuzhat Kazmi in a new book.

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“I think the most enduring element of Islamic art is its ability to accumulate and open its resources and aesthetics into functional objects and visuals. Islamic art has a plastic quality and a very different sensibility. It does not remove art from its surroundings but rather responds to it. Islamic art is minimal, mature and always ready for a dialogue,” Kazmi, who heads the Art History and Art Appreciation Department at the Jamia Millia University here, told IANS in an interview.

A Commonwealth scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Kazmi has travelled across Europe and explored Mughal and European interaction in arts.

Kazmi’s new book, “Islamic Art: Past and Modern”, traces the history of Islamic art when it peaked in the 16th century under the patronage of Mughal emperor Akbar to the contemporary 21st century idioms. The volume, published by Roli Books, is priced at Rs.695.

“It took me three years to put together the book. I visited places like Cairo and Lahore to see what is happening in modern Islamic art. The most exciting things are taking place in Iran and Turkey where younger artists are drawing inspiration and idioms from ancient Islamic culture into modern architecture, body art and post-modern installations. Islam is looking at art with very open eyes,” Kazmi said.

“But I think the most beautiful period of Islamic art is the Indian medieval art corresponding to Renaissance in Europe. You see the Baroque and the Mannerist influences in Islamic art and a movement back and forth between classical and anti-classical genres. You have the Ottomans and the Mughals. The world was becoming a smaller place characterised by different undercurrents. Islamic art was taking all of it in,” Kazmi explained.

The historian attributes the spread of Islamic art primarily to territorial expansion.

“As the influence of Islam expanded, Muslims realised that they may gain an imperial advantage by adapting a visual language,” she said.

Islam transformed local cultural idioms of the communities that came directly under its control.

“Figures, portraits and stylised (deco-style) architecture became central to Islamic artistic language,” Kazmi said.

Islamic art to a large extent succeeded in dissolving the divide between the East and the West. Baroque artists like Rembrandt, romantics like Delacroix and the modernists like Henri Matisse were influenced by Islamic culture and art, she says in the book.

The book is spiced with anecdotes, details and stunning colour spreads of paintings, artefacts and architecture.

“Akbar was a patron of the arts. As Akbar’s chronicler Abu’l Fazl observes in ‘Ain-i-Akbari’, the (Persian) story of Hamzah was represented in 12 volumes and clever painters made the most astonishing illustrations for no less than 1,004 passages of the story,” Kazmi says in her book.

The Mughals assimilated the “Renaissance illusionism and figures with intelligence”. A wonderful example of this fusion in the book is a fantasy painting of emperor Jahangir in the Renaissance realistic style. The emperor appears at a window of a double-storeyed fort holding the “imperial orb (a precious stone)” while “Jesus Christ is shown carrying his cross” at the window below, the historian says.

Paintings, miniatures and architecture apart, calligraphy was another important component of Islamic art that was “scientifically developed into an exquisite art form”, says Kazmi.

“To record the word of God revealed to his Prophet was an honour. Today we have many systems of writing within the Islamic traditions. Calligraphy became the supreme art in the very early days of Islamic culture. It was practised on not only paper but also metal, ceramics, leather, textiles and carpets.”

Writing the Koran was considered auspicious. “Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, a skilled calligrapher, apparently earned his livelihood by copying the Koran,” Kazmi pointed out.