Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Jahangirnama - Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India

Author:       Jahangir
Published:   1999
Translator:  Wheeler M. Thackston
Hardback:  502 pages
Readers in India:
Akbar, the great mogul emperor and his grandson Shah Jahan who commissioned Taj Mahal are very well known.  But how much you know about the Jahangir, Akbar's son , the mogul emperor who reigned in the interim period ?
Welcome to his memoirs the Jahangirnama !
In his memoirs Jahangir gives an honest account (Hopefully an honest account since emperors and kings generally exaggerate or even hide the truth in order to be seen in a better light)  about his life, the battles fought by his army, the political scenarios and intrigues prevailing during his reign.
We come to know him as a person - his emotions, his views, his relationship with his sons, his interests.
We also come to know that he was a real lover of nature and had a scientific temperament with  keen sense of observation.
Several other interesting experiences,facts, things which Jahangir came across are also recorded by him in this memoir (see below for a representative selection).
All these indicate a multi-faceted personality of Jahangir.

However about a quarter of the  memoir is somewhat repetitive and monotonous in parts - descriptions of promotions and honors he bestowed on his nobles; people who came to pay their homage and the gifts they offered; his weighing ceremonies etc.
This book is an excellent down-to-earth translation from Persian. The book's preface is very helpful in setting the context of the memoirs and promotes better understanding of its contents. The preface is well supported by an extensive glossary which explains all the Persian words used in the memoirs.
The book is profusely illustrated with mogul paintings from Jahangir's era which greatly enhance the appreciation of the text. It is a heavy read - not in a figurative sense, but in a literal sense for it is large sized hardback weighing almost two kilograms !
I have been wanting to read a book of this genre for a long time and enjoyed reading most of the portions of this book (except the repetitive parts mentioned above)
The book is expensive though ($65 in 1999, may be more now). I borrowed it from the British Library.

A highly recommended read for all history enthusiasts.

Some Interesting Facts/Extracts  from Jahangirnama

1. Jahangir was instrumental in getting two eminent personalities killed due to some suspicions or misunderstandings and difference of opinions  - One was Abul Fazl, author of Akbarnama and one of the nine jewels in Akbar's court. The other one was Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru and the compiler of  Adi Granth.

2. "Honesty and dishonestly are not limited to cash and goods; rather to misrepresent one's friends as having talents they do not have and to conceal talents that strangers do have are also dishonest". [As told to Jahangir by Amiru'l-Umara. Nepotsists, please note !]

3. "....I ordered that bhang (narcotics) and buza (beer), being sources of great mischief...." ["buza" - probably the source of the modern day word "booze" !]

4. Hotheadedness of Jahangir - " I was just within range for shooting a nilgai, suddenly a groom and two palanquin bearers appeared from nowhere and the nilgai shied and ran away. I was so mad I ordered the groom killed on the spot and the bearers hamstrung, mounted on donkeys and paraded around the camp lest anyone else dare to do such thing."

5. Jahangir was highly addicted to drinks. He describes at length in Jahangirnama how he got into this habit.

6. A Strange Episode with Cranes - "... a eunuch went to the edge of a large lake in the village and captured two baby sarases, a kind of crane. That night, while we were camped there, two screeching adult cranes appeared in the vicinity of the ablutions tent, which had been placed by the lake. Just like a person with a complaint, they come forward, screeching in terror. It occured to me that they must certainly have suffered an injustice, most likely their young had been taken from them. After an investigation, the eunuch who had taken the baby cranes brought them for me to see. When the cranes heard the cries of the babies, they hurled themselves on top of them. Thinking they hadn't been fed, each of the cranes put a morsel of food in the babies' mouths and did all sorts of things to console them. Then, picking the babies up, they spread their wings and headed off, yearning for their nest."

6. Once on during a hunting expedition, one of the scouts tried to kill a quail at Jahangir's command.
"When the blade was placed on its throat, it squirmed out from under the blade and flew away. After that I moved from the boat to the horseback.when suddenly a sparrow was blown by the wind and impaled itself on an arrow shaft one of the scouts ahead of me was holding. It died instantly. I marveled at the twist of the fate. Back there, it protected a quail whose time had not come, and within an instant, saved it from danger, while here it made a swallow whose time had come the prisoner of an arrow of destiny in the hand of destruction. If the blade of the world moves, it will not cut a vein until God so wills."

7. A Scientific Experiment - "Inasmuch as the bravery and valor of lions and tigers are established facts, I wanted to open it up and have a look. After it was cut open it was apparent that unlike other animals, whose gall bladders are outside the liver, lions' and tigers' gall bladders are located inside their livers. It occurs to me that lions' and tigers' courage is due to this fact." [Most probably a wrong conclusion, but we should appreciate Jahangir's curiosity and investigative nature.]

8. Jahangir's concern for Elephants - "Of all animals the elephant particularly likes water and loves to get into it, even during the cold weather of winter. If there is no water available, it will take water from a bag and spray it over its body. It therefore occurred to me that, no matter how much elephants enjoy water and are accustomed to it by nature, surely during the winter they must be affected by the cold water. I therefore ordered the water heated to lukewarm and poured into its trunk. On previous days when it sprayed cold water over itself, the effects of shivering and trembling could be seen, whereas, in contrast, it seemed to enjoy the warm water"

9. Jahangir on Gosain Jadrup, a Hindu holy man whom he visited and conversed on several occasions - "God has bestowed upon him a rare ability and given him a fine understanding, elevated mind, and quick comprehension together with knowledge. He has freed his heart from attachment to material things and turned his back on the world and everything in it, seated in a corner by himself in need of no one and nothing. Of worldly goods he has only a half a yard of old cotton to cover his private parts and a piece of pottery with which to take a sip of water. Winter, summer, and monsoon, he lives naked, head and feet bare, and has taken up residence in a hole in which it is extremely difficult to fit, with a passage so narrow a nursing babe would have trouble getting through.
The following few lines by Hakim Sana'i are appropriate to his condition:
"Luqmann's cell was small and narrow to boot,
Like the throat of a pipe or the breast of a lute.
A foolish one said to the grand old man -
'What house is this - three feet and six span?'
With tears and emotion the sage made reply -
'Ample for him whose task is to die"

10. A Self-Sacrificing Lover - A blacksmith named was madly in love with a woman who spurned him totally. Jahangir summoned them both and tried to persuade her to accept Kalyan, which she refused. Kalyan then said to Jahangir "If I knew for certain that you would give her to me, I'd throw myself off the top of the Shah Burj tower.". Just as a joke Jahangir replied, "Never mind the Shah Burj. If your claim of love has any truth to it, you'll have to throw yourself off the roof of this building. Then I'll give her to you by command."
Hardly Jahangir had uttered these words, Kalyan jumped off the roof and died. Jahangir really regretted having spoken in jest and was dreadfully sorry. He has described this incident in Jahangirnama and has said "A lover who sacrifices himself at that threshold dies of ecstasy using fate as a pretext"

There is another classic translation (published 1909-1914) of Jahangirnama by Rogers and Beveridge which is available free online.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Story of Art

Author:       E.H. Gombrich
Published:   2006 (Pocket Edition)
Publisher:    Phaidon Press
Paperback: 1044 pages
Readers in India:
Prof. Gombrich takes us through a fascinating journey of art from the cave paintings of stone age to the contemporary art of 1980s. The 500 odd pages of text is well supported by 400 pages of illustrations of paintings, sculpture, and buildings.
The first edition of this book was published way back in 1950 and since then it has been published in sixteen revised editions and also a  pocket edition, which I review here.  It has been the most famous and best selling introduction to art ever written.

In author's own words in the preface of the book 
"The book is intended for all who feel in need of some first orientation in a strange and fascinating field. It may  serve to show newcomers the lie of the land without confusing them with details; to enable them to bring some intelligible order into the wealth of names, periods and styles which crowd the pages of more ambitious works, and so to equip them  for consulting more specialized books. "
"It sets out to place the work it discusses in their historical setting and thus lead towards an understanding of the master's artistic aims."
"The urge to be different may not be the highest or profoundest element of the artist's equipment, but it is rarely lacking altogether. And the appreciation of this intentional difference opens up the easiest approach to the art of the past. I have tried to make this constant change of aims the key of my narrative, and to show how each work is related by imitation or contradiction to what has gone before."

While writing this book, Prof. Gombrich follows three self-imposed rules in order to facilitate better understanding among his readers. The rules are:
1. Not to write about the works which he could not show in the accompanying illustrations. He does not believe in degenerating the text to "lists of names which could mean little or nothing to those who do not know the works in question, and would be superfluous for those who do."
2. To discuss only the real works of art, "..and cut out anything which might merely be interesting as a specimen of taste or fashion."
3. Not to discuss the lesser known works of art, even if some of them were his personal favorites, because  the book "is meant for  those who look for bearings in a new field, and for them the familiar appearance of apparently 'hackneyed' examples may serve as welcome landmarks."

Its popularity over the last six decades has been due to the direct and simple manner it is written, and also because of author's superb narration. Really, you feel you are reading a nice long, continuous and coherent  epic rather than an academic treatise on art.  

A few minor drawbacks purely from my perspective.
The last chapter loses some coherency with rest of the book. Probably because it is actually an add-on to the original first edition or maybe because it deals mainly with contemporary art for which I am yet to develop a complete appreciation.
The book should be titled "The Story of Western Art", since it hardly discusses the art of the eastern world. The author's son Richard Gombrich is an Indologist and a scholar of Buddhist studies. I really look forward to a book by him on the Eastern Art on the similar lines, assuming he possesses the excellent narrative skills of his father.
The cover page design of the pocket edition which I read is rather drab and academic looking. Since this book is intended to attract lay readers to the fascinating world of art, a better cover design - may be a collage of some of the master pieces- would have been more apt.

To sum up this is undoubtedly the best book I have read on art over the last two decades. It is one of the excellent examples of customer-centricity, where a learned academician has written a highly understandable, lucid and delightful book for the art newbies.
I would highly recommend this book to readers of all ages who want to develop a basic appreciation of art.
Introduction - On art and artists
1. Strange Beginnings - Prehistoric and primitive peoples; Ancient America
2. Art for Eternity - Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete
3. The Great Awakening - Greece, seventh to fifth century BC
4. The Realm of Beauty - Greece and the Greek world, fourth century BC to first century AD
5. World Conquerors - Romans, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, first to fourth century AD
6. A Parting of Ways - Rome and Byzantium, fifth to thirteenth century
7. Looking Eastwards - Islam, China, second to thirteenth century
8. Western Art in the Melting Pot - Europe, sixth to eleventh century
9. The Church Militant - The twelfth century
10. The Church Triumphant - The thirteenth century
11. Courtiers and Burghers - The fourteenth century
12. The Conquest of Reality - The early fifteenth century
13. Tradition and Innovation: I - The later fifteenth century in Italy
14. Tradition and Innovation: II - The fifteenth century in the North
15. Harmony Attained - Tuscany and Rome, early sixteenth century
16. Light and Color - Venice and northern Italy, early sixteenth century
17. The New Learning Spreads - Germany and the Netherlands, early sixteenth century
18. A Crisis of Art - Europe, later sixteenth century
19. Vision and Visions - Catholic Europe, first half of the seventeenth century
20. The Mirror of Nature - Holland, seventeenth century
21. Power and Glory: I - Italy, later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
22. Power and Glory: II - France, Germany and Austria, late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
23. The Age of Reason - England and France, eighteenth century
24. The Break in Tradition - England, America and France, late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
25. Permanent Revolution - The nineteenth century
26. In Search of New Standards - The late nineteenth century
27. Experimental Art - The first half of the twentieth century
28. A Story without End - The triumph of Modernism; Another turning of the tide; The changing past

Artists Featured
Limbourg Brothers, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, van Eyck, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, van der Weyden, Verrochio, Leonardo da Vinci, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, Titian, Corregio, Du:rer, Gru:newalde, Cranach, Bosch, Parmigianino, Tintoretto, El Greco, Holbein, Hilliard, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Carraci,  Caravaggio,  Poussin, Lorrain, Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez, Hals,Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Vermeer, Tiepolo, Watteau, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Copley, David, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Rossetti, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas, Rodin, Whistler, Cezanne, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Kandinsky, Picasso, Klee, Mondrian, Rousseau, Chagall, Dali, Pollock, Kline,Hockney.