” Sultans of Deccan , 1500-1700 – Opulence and Fantasy “

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an exhibition on the Sultans of Deccan, based on a diverse group of Shia dynasties in the subcontinent during the early modern period. The Deccan sultanates were originally part of the  larger Bahmani Sultanate founded in 1347 by the Turkish governer Alauddin Hassan Bahman Shah. About eighteen Deccan Sultans ruled during the nearly 200 years of the sultanate and its but the exhibition only focuses on the period between 1500- 1700. After 1518, the Bahmani kingdom was divided in four sultanates: Barishahi (of Bidar), Qutbshahi (of Golkonda), Adamshahi (of Ahmadnagar), Imadshahi (of Berar) and Adilshahi (of Bijapur), but are collectively known as the Deccan sultanates.

Here is an excerpt from the museum literature about the exhibition

” Opulence and fantasy characterize the art of India’s Deccan courts during the rule of its sultans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The diamond-rich region attracted artists, poets, writers, and traders from all over the world—including Iran, Turkey, Africa, and Europe—who were drawn to the Shi’a culture and material splendor of the courts. Under their mixed influence, captivating art styles of otherworldly charm evolved. At its zenith, the Deccan became home to Indian and Persian artists, the abode of African elites, and the place where European discoverers embraced new tastes in textiles and gems. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Deccan courts gave way to Mughal domination from the north, but their preceding efflorescence offers a glimpse of the imaginative heights reached in the arts of painting.”

Miniatures Sultan Adil Shah and female regent Chand bibi of Bijapur

Among other artifacts displayed at the exhibition were official alams possibly from tazia or azadari processions, rugs which show sacred religious monuments and other decorative objects such as a metal shaped falcon inscribed with the Naad-e-Ali dua.  Most of the relics and artifacts in the exhibition reflected a Persianized or Arab influence. But it is interesting to note that Urdu literature was born in the courts of Bijapur and Golkonda in the late sixteenth centuries, which is why it naturally has a very diverse and organic Shia vocabulary.


Alams from different sultanates in various periods

Miniature painting – Sultan of Golkonda

According to historical sources the Deccani kings considered the Safavid state in Iran as their prime source of legitimacy and maintained strong ties with the Shia holy cities in Iraq. Shia Islam was decreed the official state religion and the Friday sermons were read in the name of the twelve imams in all the sultanates. However  while the Shia rulers patronized Shia ulema and intellectuals, and provided them refuge from Sunni persecution elsewhere, they did not produce a strictly ‘Shia domain’ and maintained a very pluralistic outlook in the state and society. As various historians have noted, many  Sunnis and Hindus were posted in prominent positions and the local Hindus publicly celebrated their festivals like Divali and Holi.

– Following is the link for exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s website. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/deccan-sultans#sthash.xcRhtETJ.dpuf

For more historical background.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/decc/hd_decc.htm

Links for reviews of the exhibition in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal



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