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Simon Ray

Northern India (Mughal, probably Lahore or Kashmir)
17th century
Height: 19.2 cm Width: 19.5 cm

A tile in the cuerda seca technique with a design of composite flowers and variegated leaves sprouting from an arabesque of split-leaf palmettes and intertwining vines. The tile is divided into two halves by the complex bi-coloured split-leaf palmette that rises from the bottom of the tile to scroll across diagonally a from the lower left to the upper right, bisecting the green ground on the left from the bold contrast of the vibrant yellow ground on the right.

On the left edge of the tile is an overblown lotus with a pomegranate superimposed on the centre. The pomegranate and the calyx of the lotus both have a distinctive white margin, which is the white slip with which the earthenware body is covered before the application of other colours outlined by the manganese brown of the cuerda seca technique.

The split-leaf palmette at the bottom of the tile is composed of contrasting ochre and manganese purple sections, each ornately ornamented with buds and flange-like projections incorporated into sections vine resembling cloud bands. Curling across the split-leaf palmette is a serrated saz leaf composed of overlapping sections in ochre and manganese purple outlined with white margins. On the right edge of the tile can be seen a flower with purple petals edged in white over ochre petals peeping out from a layer beneath. The purple petals are similarly outlined in white. The flower forms the radiant centre of the circular yellow cartouche to the right.

This tile relates closely in design, colours, technique and stylistic treatment of the flowers and leaves, including the distinctive white outline of the petals against the green ground, to a group of tiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London said to come from the tomb of tomb of the saint Shah Madani at But Kadal, Zabidal, near Srinagar in Kashmir.

The group in the Victoria Albert Museum was acquired from Mr Frederick H. Andrews in 1923. He had been living in Srinagar, where he was the Director of the Technical Institute of Kashmir, and wrote to the museum in 1922 offering to sell his collection before he left that year to return to the United Kingdom. He said that the tiles were part of the decoration of Madani mosque and tomb but the Victoria and Albert Museum believe that though the tiles were installed in a Kashmiri monument, they were probably made in Lahore.

The tiles at the tomb of Shah Madani show similarities of design and colour to the present example. According to Rosemary Crill, the tomb dates from the mid fifteenth century, but it was refurbished by a Mughal nobleman during the reign of Shah Jahan, when tiles in the cuerda seca technique were installed.(1)

A group of thirteen Mughal tiles from the tomb of Shah Madani, from the donation of Jean et Krishnâ Riboud in the Musée Guimet, Paris, is published in Amina Okada, L’Inde des Princes: La donation et Jean et Krishnâ Riboud , 2000, pp. 128-133.

Thirteen tiles from Shah Madani in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum were exhibited and published in Robert Skelton et al, The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule, 1982, pp. 26-27, no. 5. Some of the tiles have designs closely related to the Riboud donation at the Guimet.

The present tile with white margins to flowers characteristic of the Victoria and Albert Museum group, and bi-coloured arabesques against green and yellow grounds relating to the Musée Guimet group, thus exemplifies characteristics of Shah Madani tiles from both the famous museum collections.

The use of the cuerda seca technique would also have been learnt from Safavid tile-makers. In this technique, the design is outlined on the fired tile with a manganese purple pigment mixed with a greasy substance, which separates the areas to be coloured. These are then painted with a brush and the tile is fired a second time. The greasy lines disappear, leaving a dark brownish outline separating the different colours. Cuerda seca, literally meaning “dry cord” in Spanish, was developed during the latter part of the fourteenth century in Central Asia.

The cuerda seca technique (kashi) was brought to northern India from Iran. Robert Skelton has made the observation that “even in recent times, the makers of glazed tiles (kashigars) have been Muslims, whereas Hindu builders (sutradhars) have restricted themselves to working with unglazed terracotta.(2) The use of a resist application between the colours gives distinct separation between them and a clarity of line which is particularly effective in architectural decoration. The tiles combine glaze techniques learnt from Persian craftsmen with a palette that is distinctly Indian in its warmth. It is likely that Lahore was one of the principal centres of the Mughal cuerda seca tile manufacture, but tiles in the cuerda seca technique may also have been made in Kashmir for the monuments constructed there.

The Howard Hodgkin Collection

1. See Robert Skelton et al, The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule, 1982, pp. 26-27, nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, for a discussion of Mughal tiles in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
2. Ibid.

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