Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 1999
Bonnie C. Wade Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 470 pp.; 20 color ills.; 166 b/w ills. Paper $80.00 (0226868419)

How can paintings inform us of past cultural practices? By interrogating paintings produced at the Mughal court, Bonnie Wade reconstructs musical practices prevalent at the medieval royal courts of North India. Although Wade’s project began as an ethnomusicological enquiry eager to mine more than textual sources, her study ends up problematizing what meanings Mughal paintings had for past as well as present viewers. For historians of South Asian visual culture, Wade’s innovative study therefore signals a sharp turn away from the “dating game” that has dominated the field of Mughal painting history. Instead it situates these paintings within the cultural contexts of their production and function. In her use of paintings as visual evidence for cultural practices, paintings illumine cultural mentalities rather than merely mark a stage in a history of painting. In the process, Wade also explores codes of representation and modes of visual communication reproduced within these paintings. In her detailed study of gestures, material culture, social and gender roles depicted within paintings, Wade moves from the “miniature” toward the macrocosm of cultural politics. It is this choreography of Wade’s scholarship that suggests new ways of studying Mughal miniature production.

Wade’s book is organized into two parts, each with three chapters. In the first part, titled “The Political Agenda: The Early Mughal Era,” Wade lays out the musical, artistic, and cultural paradigms that were operative in the courts of the first Mughal rulers. Separate chapters present court traditions of producing illustrated texts, music performances, and cultural practices of women in the harem that reflect the Central Asian and Persianate origins of early Mughal court culture. In Part Two Wade traces shifts in court musical culture, which she claims results in its “Indianization,” from its beginnings during the reign of Akbar (r. 1556-1605) through the last “great Mughal” Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707). Throughout her study Wade takes musical clues from visual evidence found in paintings produced at the court. She limits herself to those paintings that include musicians and/or dancers. Within this set of paintings, which are conveniently reproduced at the center of the book, Wade tends to focus on the depiction of specific musical instruments as signifers of musical change. This emphasis on musical instruments gives Wade’s book an organological base line that in method continues an ethnomusicological tradition begun early this century by Eric Hornbostel.

Wade’s larger agenda is to provide, through examples of musical practices, proof of a “cultural synthesis” in South Asia and to connect this to the agency of Mughal emperor Akbar. To any South Asian scholar this is an old plot, long overdue for deconstruction. In this simplistic construction of Mughal history, that dates back to nationalist and even colonial historians, Akbar becomes not only the metaphor for a mixing of Persianate and South Asian cultural forms, he also becomes its main instigator. This metanarrative has been used by many scholars to frame their explanation of the development of diverse cultural forms, from mystical Islamic religious practices that incorporated Hindu elements to the inclusion of regional Gujarati architectural vocabulary into Mughal built form such as found in buildings Akbar commissioned for his capital at Fatehpur Sikri. The quick-step that these cultural historians take is to dub any mixing of cultural forms as “Indian,” thereby appropriating it for the construction of an “Indian” national identity. The problem is that this erases or rarely acknowledges the Persian or Central Asian origins and continuing Persianate qualities of these cultural forms. Throughout her text Wade enthusiastically applies nationalist labels to past agents and cultural phenomenon, where she has sixteenth-century Indian musicians “Indianizing” Persianate musical culture. In her eagerness to find evidence for a “cultural synthesis” allowing her to apply the label of “Indian,” Wade avoids the more interesting question of possible pluralities in musical culture at the Mughal court, where musicians might have been bimusical, just as court artists could paint in both “Persian” and “Indian” styles. The co-existence of two different musics as well as artistic styles speaks of the cosmopolitan nature of Mughal metropolis.

The trope that Wade uses to frame her master narrative of “Indianization” is again a remnant of old historiography, where the successive reigns of the “grand” Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan are directly mapped onto major cultural changes. Wade probably resorts to this because most historians of Mughal painting try to link artistic changes to shifts of the ruler and hence have also organized the archive of known paintings by ruling emperor, but does music change with dynastic succession? In fact, if Wade’s agenda is to trace the hybridization of Persianate musical culture with an existing South Asian one, her story should begin three centuries earlier, when during the early Sultanates the first groups of Central Asians began residing in South Asia. The poet and musician Amir Khusrau (1251-1326) from Sultanate Delhi is reputed to have created the first forms of what is now known as Hindustani classical music by combining aspects of South Asian musical culture with Persianate ones. These prior centuries of musical transformation have been omitted from Wade’s narrative, possibly because there is no comparable archive of paintings from these earlier medieval courts, yet this creates the misperception that the new hybrid music culture was solely the product of Mughal courts.

Wade is best in her focused musicological studies that are peppered throughout her book. These include a brilliant discussion of how depictions of military bands, called naubat, are the visual equivalent of the loud official sound of these ensembles, where kingship was associated with the sound of kettledrums. Here we begin to believe in the ability of paintings to conjure up sounds within the minds of intent viewers. In another fascinating etude, paintings provide evidence for the different types of music and dance performed by women at the court, where the style and instrumentation for Central Asian dances is depicted by artists as distinctly different from that for women dancing in a South Asian style. She promises to expand on this theme in future research.

Focusing primarily on the musical instruments found within paintings, Wade seems to limit her exploration of many cultural aspects to the musical performances being depicted. In a painting showing singing at a poetic gathering held within a garden setting, Wade only comments on the drone instrument being plucked by one of the singers rather than discussing the Persianate musical tradition of singing poetry which is an activity depicted in this and many other Mughal paintings. Nowhere in the book is the poetics of music at the Mughal court discussed, nor is the whole genre of album paintings framed with poetic verses ever mentioned. These paintings with accompanying poetry could well have been the only paintings actually used in musical performances, where while viewing painting appropriate poetry was sung. Does Wade ignore this because it is a Persianate musical practice that does not fit into her scheme of “Indianization?”

By concluding her innovative study with a painting that includes a musical ensemble with the requisite instruments and singers needed to perform the Dhrupad style of music familiar to modern musicologists and world music enthusiasts, Wade allows contemporary readers to infer sounds from paintings. This operation that relies on a viewer’s musical memory to create musical meaning from visual forms is the paradigmatic shift Wade offers as a challenge to future studies of visual culture. By probing paintings for the past meanings and sounds of music, Wade throws the field of ethnomusicology into reverse gear. For historians of visual culture, Wade’s study offers innovative ways to interrogate paintings for varieties of past meanings, even their musical resonance.

Woodman Taylor
University of Illinois at Chicago