Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 22, 2019
Chanchal B. Dadlani From Stone to Paper: Architecture as History in the Late Mughal Empire New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2019. 232 pp.; 97 color ills.; 22 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300233179)

Chanchal B. Dadlani’s From Stone to Paper adds an exciting new chapter to a growing body of scholarship exploring the arts and architecture of Asia beyond the “canonical” limit of the seventeenth century by considering the 150 years of the “long eighteenth century,” which, in this case, connects the heyday of the Mughal empire with the advent of the British Raj. Monuments, urban spaces, building practices, and modes of theorizing and representing architecture are examined “on their own terms,” building a case for the primacy of internal forces in shaping the concept of a “Mughal style” in architecture. Crisp, engaging, and lavishly illustrated, this book is not a comprehensive survey of eighteenth-century Mughal architecture, but a thought-provoking methodological contribution to the field of Mughal studies and to ongoing conversations on the global eighteenth century.

Although the book unfolds chronologically, its five chapters are organized around distinct thematic nuclei. The first chapter outlines the formation of an emblematic “Mughal style” under ‘Alamgir (r. 1658–1707), identifying its roots in the architecture of his father Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58), best known for commissioning iconic buildings like the Taj Mahal in Agra. The recasting of the Shahjahani idiom into a paradigmatic Mughal style involved an increasingly idiosyncratic use of two building materials characteristic of Delhi architecture: red sandstone and white marble (with the latter increasingly replaced by stucco). Dadlani connects the preference for sinuous, often explicitly vegetal forms with an impulse already discernible in the architectural ornament, chronicles, and panegyrics from Shah Jahan’s era, when verdancy and fertility were metaphors for imperial wealth and divine sanction. By the early nineteenth century, this recast Mughal style would come to stand not only for the imperial dynasty but also for India more generally. Whereas scholarship traditionally viewed the eighteenth-century Mughal architectural idiom as a sterile repetition of forms, Dadlani points to the centrality of istiqbal (active reception) in the practitioners’ approach, allowing for a creative engagement with tradition. Thus, she effectively obliterates the eminently Western dichotomy between imitation and innovation. Another force at work that she identifies is the “culture of regulation” found in Islamic society, particularly regarding religious architecture, such as restrictions on the use of inscriptions during ‘Alamgir’s reign (dictated by extreme respect for God’s word) that encouraged the proliferation of vegetal ornament.

The second chapter investigates the urban culture of Mughal Delhi, which became the empire’s iconic capital in the eighteenth century. Despite the crucial role of patrons at that time in shaping the city that remains India’s capital to this day, urban and architectural studies of Delhi tend to underscore earlier periods. The oldest Islamic metropolis in north India, Delhi had been revived by Shah Jahan in 1639 with the building of a new walled city with its main axes extending from a new fortified palace complex (today’s Red Fort); construction of major landmarks such as mosques and garden estates were under the imperial family’s exclusive purview. By the 1720s, a redistribution of power and resources meant a wider group of patrons endowed mosques, funerary monuments, residences, and gardens, mostly built outside the walled city and often in connection with burgeoning new districts. Holy sites were powerful catalysts of patronage: these ranged from Sufi establishments appealing to all denominations and faiths to Shi‘i shrines reflecting the rising importance of Iranian émigrés in north India following the decline and dissolution of the Safavid empire in Iran (1501–1736). The process, Dadlani argues, “re-scaled” and “enshrined” forms inherited from Shah Jahan’s reign, resulting in the emergence of a sense of history and self-reflection decades before Western conceptualizations of the Mughal style.

As a complement to the built record, Dadlani considers a period travelogue known as the Muraqqa‘-i Dihli, written by a distinguished Deccani visitor whose descriptions of assemblies at Sufi shrines and gatherings in private mansions convey the multicentric, peripatetic, and inclusive experience of eighteenth-century Delhi. A more detailed discussion of this source would have been welcome. One also wonders how many of the new building projects actually responded to the demands of a growing population: with the return of the Mughal court to Delhi in the early 1700s, the increasing loss of territory to other polities, and fresh infusion of immigrants from Iran, there would have been demand for new markets, neighborhood mosques, and gardens (primarily agricultural estates in the Mughal realm). The author’s unwavering choice to grapple with sociocultural motives and methodological questions means she sometimes disregards such pragmatic concerns.

On the other hand, Dadlani successfully outlines the mechanisms through which some of the architectural projects challenged the primacy of the ruling dynasty while concurrently reinforcing the prestige of the Mughal architectural idiom. The third chapter focuses on an emblematic example: the tomb of Abu al-Mansur Safdar Jang (r. 1739–54), head of the Awadh dynasty (1722–1856) and the Mughal empire’s prime vizier at the time. Safdar Jang’s funerary garden and mausoleum were built in 1753–54 at a scale previously reserved for the Mughal rulers and their kin. His tomb’s location near an emerging Shi‘i shrine encouraged the latter’s development into a pole of attraction for noble burials, rivaling the historic Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin, a favored Mughal burial site. Safdar Jang’s project also set the stage for the proliferation of Mughal-inspired architectural styles in other parts of India.

Chapter 4 shifts the attention from architecture to its representation. Among the works considered is the Palais Indiens, a series of scrolls commissioned by French military officer Jean-Baptiste Gentil for Louis XVI in 1778. These large-format scrolls include plans and elevations of palaces, forts, mosques, mausoleums, and gardens in Delhi, Agra, and Faizabad; executed in a restrained palette and consistent format, they draw upon Mughal, Rajput, and French precedents. Landscape notations are minimal and the absence of human figures positions the architecture outside space and time. Unprecedented for India, the elevations are variations on a “type” embodying the newly popular “Mughal style”; thus, like the mausoleum of Safdar Jang, the Palais Indiens “contested, claimed, and reinforced Mughal architectural identity all at the same time” (145).

The concluding chapter considers the status of Mughal architecture in the early nineteenth century, during the transition from manuscript to print culture and prior to the British political takeover and the imposition of Western perspectives on Indian architecture. Dadlani considers the lasting legacy of eighteenth-century Mughal self-reflections on architecture, while stressing the difference between Mughal and late nineteenth-century British architectural histories. From the 1810s to the 1840s, for instance, printed copies of ‘Amal-i Salih, a court history from Shah Jahan’s reign illustrated with “architectural portraits” of Delhi’s major landmarks, became popular. A richly illustrated copy was commissioned by Akbar II (r. 1806–37) as a gift for the British magistrate J. T. Roberdean in 1815; in it iconic renditions of monuments are arranged in a processional-like sequence based on Delhi’s topography, conveying the prestige of the emperor’s dynastic past and his cultural authority. Differing from subsequent British surveys, the first printed histories of Delhi architecture (e.g., the first edition of Asar al-Sanadid from 1847) were organized in similar ways: geospatially, rather than historically or typologically. 

Dadlani’s book raises important questions regarding the Shahjahani idiom. ‘Alamgir’s choice to embrace his father’s architectural style is explained as part of his attempt to legitimize the imprisonment of Shah Jahan. It is argued that in order to combat the perception that his rule was illegitimate, illegal, and improper, ‘Alamgir promoted an architectural style that stressed continuity with his father’s reign. Additionally, Shah Jahan’s reshaping of Delhi in 1639 meant that his architectural style dominated the visual landscape of an increasingly Delhi-centered empire during the eighteenth century. But could it also be that the Shahjahani idiom was chosen because of a desire to connect with the historical origins of the Mughal dynasty in Central Asia? Shah Jahan styled himself as “Second Lord of the [Auspicious] Conjunction,” duplicating the title of his remote Central Asian ancestor Timur (Tamerlane the Great, r. 1370–1405). Previous scholarship has convincingly framed Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal as part of his Timurid revival. Two examples discussed in Dadlani’s book might well illustrate a similar process. One is the latticed funerary enclosure open to the sky favored by the later Mughals, whose prototype Dadlani identifies in the screen that surrounds the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and his wife inside the Taj Mahal. But the form, which was more explicitly adapted in the burial sites of two of Shah Jahan’s children, ‘Alamgir (in Khuldabad, Deccan) and Jahanara (in Delhi), reproduced that of the tomb of Babur (r. 1494–1530), founder of the Mughal dynasty. Similarly, the proliferation of gardens in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Delhi effectively connects with Shah Jahan’s refurbishment of gardens in Kabul, the first Mughal capital: his princely engagement with the city’s old Timurid estates inspired the gardens he later built in Kashmir and Delhi. One cannot help but think that the later Mughals were fully conscious of this revivalist impulse and chose to further engage with Shah Jahan’s Timurid-inspired architectural forms in an attempt to connect not only with his era, but also with their more remote, much-coveted (and by then quite inaccessible) Central Asian roots. There is plenty to support this suggestion in other realms and media, from titulature to the patronage of illustrated dynastic histories. This is only an example of the bounties yielded by Dadlani’s fresh research on an often-neglected period in Asian art history.

From Stone to Paper will entice even the most skeptical reader to exercise a discerning eye and rethink later Mughal architecture. The book conjures up a vibrant and intriguing picture of Delhi at a critical historical juncture and successfully demonstrates how notions of architectural history circulated among the architects, patrons, and audiences of the late Mughal empire, who were conscious of surrounding regional powers and international players.

Laura E. Parodi
Department of Education (DISFOR), University of Genoa