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Art Special: what the tombstone caption hides

The mystery of one jewelled object shows why a cursory study does Indian art a disservice

(left) ’Falcon On Perch’, The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha; and the late Princess Prem Kumari  of Jaipur, with an identical falcon behind her.
(left) ’Falcon On Perch’, The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha; and the late Princess Prem Kumari of Jaipur, with an identical falcon behind her. (Courtesy Roli Books (left) and Urvashi Devi Baria/Dharmendra Kanwar )

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An object of Indian origin is on display at a museum in a distant land with a changing tombstone caption. Tombstone caption is museum-speak for the core details of an art object—title, maker, date of making, materiality, the museum’s reference for it. Sometimes this is accompanied by additional information that sheds light on an interesting aspect of its history. But what happens when a caption is not possible given conflicting information?

This is about one such conflict, a recurring one in material culture collections.

In the rarefied world of museums, surviving objects offer clues to our past, not just what was in use, but also by whom and when. They examine materiality, manufacturing techniques, craftsmanship, aesthetic, stylistic influences, and sometimes the idea behind the creation of an objet d’art. One significant example is the celebrated falcon finial, a bejewelled masterpiece at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), Qatar. Variously dated from circa 1650 to the 1930s, it is truly fascinating. For besides its unknown origin story, it is emblematic of the complex way in which art from the subcontinent may be studied.

Our story begins around 2001, with the arrival of the bejewelled falcon at MIA, where its presence has been wowing audiences. The falcon’s history is a bit of a mystery, though we shall hear a bit more about it from one of its previous owners. The golden bird’s nearly 10-inch surface is covered by an inlay of carefully graded rubies in fish-scale and linear patterns. Shaped emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and onyx details make up the rest of the object, alongside a white enamelled chest.

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The falcon is often seen in Mughal miniatures, with the bird and its distinct form featuring in fauna studies, portraits and court settings. Tantalisingly, the MIA falcon has two inscriptions, the first variously described as “Baithak 210” and “210 tolas”, presumably referring to the weight of the object. The other inscription, “Ruzbihan”, has been alluded to refer to Khwaja Ruzbihan, Shah Jahan’s treasurer, mentioned in the Padshahnama, an official account of the emperor’s reign. If this is true, then the falcon becomes a bona-fide object from mid 17th century Mughal rule.

In 1619, emperor Jahangir (Shah Jahan’s father) records in the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri (memoirs of Jahangir) the gift of a falcon from Persian emperor Shah Abbas II. “What can I write of the beauty and colour of this falcon…. As it was something out of the common, I ordered Ustad Mansur, who has the title of Nadir-ul asr (wonder of the age) to paint and preserve its likeness.” Today, a painting by Mansur of a falcon survives in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Is this the one Jahangir commissioned? We really have no way of telling. What we do know is that the falcon was greatly valued since numerous copies of this painting survive.

However, the late Martand Singh, a great fount of information on princely India’s material culture, had once mentioned to me that the MIA falcon had a Jaipur connection. Coincidentally, a few years ago I came across a privately published book by Urvashi Devi of Baria titled The Baria-Jaipur Album (2013). The book showed an image of her late mother, Princess Prem Kumari of Jaipur, seated with an identical falcon behind her (circa 1941). Furthermore, the bird had a base (now missing) below its bejewelled perch.

In another twist, a 19th century copy of Mansur’s famed falcon painting is at the city palace museum, Jaipur. If I am to hypothesise, is it possible that someone at Jaipur decided that a falcon needed to be reinterpreted in three-dimensional form? And what better medium than as a bejewelled object—fit for a ruler and based on a painting at court? Thanks to the photograph, we now know that the court at Jaipur once owned the bird. But was it the original owner?

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A clue to its origin can only emerge from close examination. This would allow us to tease out clues of craftsmanship, inlay, stone cutting methods and the application of enamel, and, hence, provenance. While a detailed study of the enamel traditions of India is pending, we may learn in the future if the superbly executed white enamel painted on the falcon’s chest is from Jaipur, the Deccan or elsewhere. So the question of the bird being a product of Jaipur’s illustrious enamelling and gem inlay tradition remains unanswered.

The falcon again came in for attention as the cover object of leading art historian Vidya Dehejia’s book, India: A Story Through 100 Objects, published by Roli Books in 2021. Dehejia summarises that in the Sufi tradition, a falcon returning to its owner’s fist is a metaphor for a troubled soul returning at peace to the Lord. But the Sufi context makes me think of another Ruzbihan, not necessarily the imperial storekeeper. What if the Ruzbihan in the inscription refers to the renowned 12th century Sufi master Ruzbihan Baqli?

Visualising birds and flight has a hallowed past in Sufi thought, as a symbol of ascension to a state of profound consciousness and realisation. In the world of Persian Sufism, it was Ruzbihan Baqli of Shiraz who frequently invoked the metaphor of birds and flight as a mode of mystical experience. We are also aware that Mughal India was greatly influenced by Persian religious and courtly culture. Tantalisingly, Dara Shikoh (Shah Jahan’s son) had some of Ruzbihan’s Arabic works translated into Persian along with his own commentary. Does this give the falcon Mughal provenance once more?

The reason behind inscribing a storekeeper’s name on an object is as vague as writing the name of a Sufi master on it. So where does this leave us with regard to the falcon at the heart of this affair? Art history, the attribution of provenance, place of origin and making are much more nuanced than what meets the eye. In the art market, labelling an object as the product of a particular culture is fairly rampant, especially if the returns are good.

For a closer understanding of the past, a cursory study does Indian art no good. A single truth perhaps no longer exists and the way forward necessarily involves the coming together of several viewpoints, nuanced cultural studies and the acceptance that we may never have the full picture.

Ruzbihan gave several interpretations to the figure of the fortunate bird, as a symbol of people, spirits and experiences. His work frequently conflates different birds like the Simurgh and the Huma into one—a royal bird whose shadow crucially designates a king. Perhaps it was this element of being in the bird’s shadow that was the intended purpose of the falcon’s making? The tombstone caption awaits its text.

Pramod Kumar K.G. is the managing director of Eka Archiving Services, Delhi.

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