Pearls of the Parrot of India
The Emperor Akbar's Illustrated Khamsa, 1597–98
October 14, 2005–March 12, 2006
Accompanied by a publication
In the late sixteenth century, the Mughal emperor Akbar—ruler of the Indian subcontinent and a great patron of the arts—created an extensive library of some twenty thousand manuscripts, many beautifully illustrated and illuminated. One of the most sumptuous was a lavishly ornamented copy of the Khamsa (Quintet of Tales) by Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (1253–1325). Considered the greatest Persian-language poet of the Indian subcontinent, Amir Khusrau often described his poems as "pearls" spilling from his lips and—invoking the bird that symbolized eloquence in the Indo-Persian tradition—referred to himself as the "Parrot of India."
Twenty-nine surviving full-page illustrations from this manuscript are shared between the Metropolitan Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The unbinding of the Walters manuscript for conservation purposes allows all painted folios to be reunited, together with some illuminated text pages, in this jewel-like exhibition.
Among the tales of the Khamsa are a story about Alexander the Great, a religious text, a metaphorical text, and two allegorical love stories that end tragically. The manuscript features illustrations and calligraphy executed by some of the most important artists in the service of Akbar, and the beautifully detailed illustrations by artists such as Basavan and Manohar tell us as much about everyday life in sixteenth-century India as they do the stories of the text. The writing in the graceful nasta'liq style is by the famed calligrapher Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri, who was known as zarrin qalam (or Golden Pen) for his highly admired skills.
Amir Khusrau's Khamsa combines history and legend with mysticism and morality, providing much lively material for illustration. A folio from the famous love story of Khusrau and Shirin painted by the artist Sanval shows Shirin taking a ride with her maids and meeting the sculptor Farhad, who had just finished cutting a channel through the mountains to bring milk from his flocks to her court (Walters Art Museum). Another folio, painted by Manohar, from the Hasht Bihisht (Eight Paradises)—illustrating the story of the princess of the Blue Pavilion—depicts a youth in a pavilion in a tranquil garden, under a starry sky, being entertained by a fairy and her maidens (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
In addition to the illustrated pages, the exhibition includes several folios featuring illumination, such as ornamented chapter headings and richly painted borders.
The Metropolitan Museum's Khamsa folios were part of a generous early gift to the Department of Islamic Art by the collector Alexander Smith Cochran, in 1913.