Tuesday, December 20, 2011

82. Miniature of a Mughal Prince (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Mughal India; or, Moslem and Hindu are Friends!
MacGregor begins his contemplation of this beautiful little painting, which wasn’t on display for some reason, with his standard questions about images, image-making, and the role of images in politics and control. Modern rulers, for instance, can effectively neuter each other in debate if they can catch their opponent in the grievous sin of FLIP-FLOPPING, which I guess means not always being 1000% sure that you’re always right about every question ever asked of you. How refreshing, then, this old Indian tradition that celebrates the religious leaders who advise rulers and nobility. In today’s west, we look with great suspicion upon any would-be ruler who seems capable of hearing advice on any topic, particularly advice from spiritual guides—whether Obama’s fiery preacher or Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.

It may be that this wasn’t such a big issue in this Indian tradition, where everybody kind of understood that these religious leaders, common features of the landscape, had attained spiritual distinction through renunciation. I think our modern western problem with rulers turning to religious leaders for advice is most of us have a hard time imagining religious leaders being anything other than a) devious Machiavellians aspiring to control, b) batshit insane, or c) both. The poor mendicant Hindu here can be trusted, if only because anyone living in this world was familiar with this poverty. It was everywhere, and even the Prince Siddartha-like (Moslem Mughal) prince depicted here knew all about it.

The Mughals established the Islamic empire in northern India at something like the same time that the Turks were establishing the Ottoman Empire some miles to the west. Racking my brains at first, to think of a contemporary western image where you have the proud, wealthy, powerful ruler going to the humble mendicant in search of advice and/or enlightenment, eventually I came to focus on King Lear.

Written we believe during the reign of King James I, King Lear doesn’t twist itself as easily into an allegory of contemporary Elizabethan politics as do (say) Macbeth or some of Shakespeare’s history plays. Based on Biblical sources, it does present an image somewhat congruent to MacGregor’s miniature, of acquisition of learning, when the king takes as his advisor the holy fool, poor mad Tom. What’s weird about this analogy is that Lear has in it so much pain and despair, even though that pursuit-of-wisdom plot may offer a hint of redemption, it seems unfair to compare it to the pretty Mughal miniature. Could the genius that created the ineffable beauty of the Taj Mahal also create the soul-searing sublimity (I don’t think the word ‘beauty’ is appropriate here) of King Lear?

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