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Simon Ray: Indian & Islamic Works of Art

MUGHAL FLORAL CABINET
Western India (Gujarat or Sindh), circa 1650
Height: 45 cm
Width: 66 cm
Depth: 44 cm

A large and magnificent rosewood and ivory inlaid two-door cabinet, decorated with wide borders of stylised floral meanders to the exterior. On either side, a square tapered iron handle is attached and to the rear of the cabinet is an inlaid border of ebony edged in a thin ivory band.  Upon opening the doors, a series of inner drawers are revealed, decorated with elegant Mughal flowering sprays.

The ivory has been engraved and stained with black lac, and to the exterior is inlaid into the dark rosewood where it creates identical borders of floral arabesques to the front, top and sides.  Continuous thin looping tendrils, punctuated by small leaves and larger single poppy and iris sprays, work their way around the edges of each panel.  The patterns are contained within thin beaded borders.  Full of rhythmical movement there floral meanders frame the rich Indian rosewood within.

The front of the cabinet has a lock with a brass keyhole to the right hand door.  When opened, the doors reveal a series of drawers inlaid with flowering plants.  The insides of the doors are decorated with two diagonal pairs of large flowering sprays, contained within arabesque borders identical to the exterior.  The flowers suggest two versions of stylised lilies, with similar examples being found in George Michell, The Majesty of Mughal Decoration, 2007, pg. 173.  The ground surrounding the flowers is punctuated by small floating chinoiserie cloud bands.

The series of drawers to the interior are of differing sizes, with the double-height central drawer also featuring a brass keyhole framed by a symmetrical pair of iris sprays within a plain ivory border.  The twelve surrounding drawers are each decorated with pairs or rows of single flowering sprays, arranged formally within thin ivory borders.  The variety of flowers presented suggests lilies, irises and chrysanthemum style rosettes, all typical of the Mughal period.

Each drawer has a turned ivory knop handle.  To the top, what appear to be two drawers are revealed to be only one long drawer when opened.  This visual sleight of hand is to be found on the top drawers of most cabinets of this type.  The disguise maintains visual balance while allowing larger items such as sheets of paper, documents, scrolls and maps to be kept in this large drawer.

Amin Jaffer publishes a late seventeenth century or early eighteenth century two-door cabinet on stand in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet-Maker, 2002, pp. 64-66, no. 25.  He observes that towards the close of the seventeenth century, two-door cabinets of this type replaced fall-front cabinets as the leading form produced by furniture-making workshops in western India.(1)  Their configuration and dimensions reflect changes in Europe in the design and use of cabinets, which were increasingly devised as showpieces mounted on stands.(2)  However, the fluid and more naturalistic designs of this cabinet indicate a slightly earlier date, suggesting that this is one of the first of the larger two-door cabinets, which initiated the fashion for similar designs as the century progressed.

According to Jaffer, the ornament on ivory-inlaid furniture made in western Indian in the mid to late seventeenth century reflects more closely the Mughal court style in contrast to earlier cabinets from this region.(3)  This shift in design is matched by an improvement in the quality of the inlay itself.  The round-headed trees and dense foliage of earlier work are replaced by the full-blown flowering plants that began to permeate Mughal painting, architecture, textiles, dress and metalwork from the second quarter of the seventeenth century onwards.(4)

As Daniel Walker observes, “the flower style” commonly identified with the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan did not emerge suddenly or spontaneously, but followed in the train of a long-standing Mughal appreciation for flowers that since Akbar’s day was manifested in courtly painting and the decorative arts.(5)  The new “flower style” featured naturalistic flowering plants depicted in profile against a plain background or formally arranged in rows.  It is the heightened naturalism of the flowers and leaves, in combination with their contrasting formality of presentation, that distinguishes the “flower style” from earlier styles in Indian art and decoration.  It represents a purely Mughal aesthetic quite different from anything seen in earlier Indian art and may be regarded as the epitome of Mughal decoration.

Though the “flower style” reached its perfect and most characteristic expression during Shah Jahan’s reign (1628-1658), it was not originated by Shah Jahan’s court artists.  Floral blossoms and whole plants were commonly represented during the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir but the representations were not especially naturalistic, nor were they formally arranged.  Plants were treated as secondary decorative elements and were not the primary focus or subject of the decoration.(6)  It is important to note that two of the most significant artistic projects of Jahangir’s reign, the great album compiled between 1599 and 1618 and the tomb of Itimad ud-Daula, completed in 1628, are classic examples of the Persian style in India.  Walker argues that the absence of formally arranged flowering plants on these two imperial productions signifies that the “flower style” had not yet become part of the standard decorative vocabulary.(7)

However, the origin of the style can in fact be linked to the later reign of Jahangir. A key event in its development, as demonstrated by Robert Skelton, was the famous visit of Jahangir to Kashmir during the spring of 1620, when the emperor commissioned the court artist Mansur to depict flowers of the region.   In Mansur’s sharply observed and botanically accurate “flower portraits” lie the genesis of the “flower style”.(8)   They combine a heightened indigenous naturalism with the formal pose, relatively plain background and hovering butterfly or other insect characteristic of the European herbalist style.  Scholars are divided over the degree of influence that European albums of flowers exercised over Mansur’s works but his treatment of floral subjects was probably directed to some extent by herbal drawings and prints collected by the Mughal court.   Copies of European engravings have appeared in Mughal albums of miniatures.  

The present cabinet exemplifies therefore the brilliant fusion of Mughal decorative motifs, Indian materials and techniques, and a European furniture form.  According to Jaffer, the development of schools of Western-style furniture-making seems to have first taken place in the textile-producing region of Gujarat.(9)  It is apparent from contemporary accounts as well as the objects themselves that in the sixteenth century Gujarati artisans had access to Western prototypes as well as Western-style objects made in other parts of Asia.(10)  The craftsmen’s familiarity with furniture imported from Europe was supplemented with more practical understanding of the furniture-making trade acquired from the growing numbers of European tradesmen, among them cabinet-makers, who arrived in India from Europe, hoping to make a fortune from the rapidly growing settlements at Madras, Calcutta and Bombay.(11)  At ports such as Surat, the convergence of diverse goods and patrons who brought with them their own decorative traditions, created an atmosphere highly conducive to artistic and technical exchange.(12)     

References:

  1. Amin Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet- Maker, 2002, p. 65.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.. p. 62; and Daniel Walker, Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era, 1997, p. 86.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Walker, 1997, p. 86.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Robert Skelton, “A decorative motif in Mughal art”, in Pratapaditya Pal (ed.), Aspects of Indian Art, 1972, p. 151.
  9. Jaffer, 2002, p. 9.
  10. Ibid., p. 10.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.

Acknowledgement:
We would like to thank Amin Jaffer for his expert advice on this catalogue entry.

all text & images Simon Ray: Indian & Islamic Works of Art

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