by Marlena Donohue

(Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA], West Hollywood) I could encourage you to go to see some of the finest examples of Mughal manuscript painting that have been gathered in one place. Lots of you would probably stop right there and move on. Or, I could ask you to dig sleepily back into your world history to recall that the Mughals were fierce people of Central Asian origin who, beginning in the 8th Century, spread the influence and culture of Islam as far as India. But I still hear the restless rustle of page turning.

But if I were to tell you to check out printed books commissioned by the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, which houses the body of his fair and favorite wife Mumtaz-i-Mahal, and which was designed to mirror the description of heaven given in the Koran, I suspect you might perk up. Such is the power of a juicy--and familiar--love story.

In fact by 1500 very famous Mughal leaders like Babur and Akbar had established powerful Islamic dynasties, ruling large parts of the Indian subcontinent from strongholds near Delhi. These rulers mixed elements of Hindu and Islamic culture into re- markable artistic hybrids at very cosmopolitan courts. Shah Jahan, the grief-stricken hero in our Taj Mahal tale, was part of the Akbar line, ruling roughly from 1630 to 1660 as one of the wealthiest and most powerful of all the Mughal kings.

King of the World: A Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle includes 44 paintings and two separate illuminations from the 17th Century manuscript known as Chronicle of the King of the World, an obvious reference to the fact that Shah Jahan saw himself as, and was seen as, master of the four corners.

The pages on view from this book are remarkable for their sheer artistry. By the 17th Century, Mughal rulers had gathered at their courts artisans exposed to and facile with Hindu, European and Persian Islamic art. This melange resulted in precisely worked page paintings with all the technical detail of medieval book art, plus the naturalism afforded by the post-Renaissance era.

This art is also notable because this is the only known chronicle--made in his day--of the 33 years of Shah Jahan's rule. There is the predictable degree of self-promotion in these delightful works. Shah Jahan sits on one elevated, cushioned platform after another, always seeming to dominate finely detailed, crystalline blue skies, reminding us again and again that he is the master of heaven and earth. But between the expected propaganda there is also a fascinating degree of legitimate historical record.

Murar, "The siege of Daulatabad," opaque
watercolor on paper, 35.5 x 25.3 cm, ca. 1635.

Unknown artist, "Shah-Jahan hunting,
c. 1645," opaque watercolor on paper,
34.2 x 23 cm, ca. 1645.

Unknown artist, "Price Awrangzeb facing a
maddened elephant named Sudhakar," opaque
watercolor on paper, 26 x 41.4 cm, ca. 1635.

Unknown artist, "The capture of
Port Hoogly ," opaque watercolor
on paper, 35.5 x 25.3 cm, ca. 1635.