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Art and tolerance

BY RAFIA ZAKARIA

SOMEWHERE late in the 1500s, after he had been king for many years, Emperor Akbar asked one of the Jesuit priests then in the Mughal Empire for a copy of the Holy Bible. It was this act that led to the commissioning of a manuscript known as the Mirat-ul-Quds, or the `mirror of holiness`, that tells of the life of Jesus.

Historical records suggest that the illustrations in Mirat-ul-Quds were painted by Basavan, one of the 17 renowned artists residing at Akbar`s court.

The text of the Mirat was written by a priest named Father Jerome Xavier, a descendant of the Catholic saint Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuit order.

Emperor Akbar, it is rumoured, was dyslexic. At that time this meant that despite his best efforts he could not learn to read and write. This, however, did not cause his curiosity or love of beauty to abate. The Mirat was only one of the many bool(s he commissioned and its illustrations are a testament to an empire that was not afraid of religious difference but, rather, one that embraced it.

The remarkable illustrations in the book show an indigenised Jesus figure, dark-skinned and often seated on a Mughal throne. Mary, while not dressed in Mughal clothing, wears a bindi and her hands are stained with henna. Both are emblems of a pre-colonial age when an eastern empire, the Mughal Empire, was curious about things Western and sated its intellectual hunger in its own particular way.

Beyond its importance in the Mughal age, Miratul-Quds poses questions for the current era. If intellectual and spiritual curiosity was the trademark of those days, suspicion, scepticism and destruction are what define the present age.

The burden of the notion of a clash of civilisations is such that all corners of the world have divested from engagement; misguided ideas of purification justify the extermination of hundreds, even thousands. When they do not kill, these quests for purity, whetted as they are by robust greed and indefatigable hatred, sustain suspicion and exclusion.

For their part, the Mughal painters of Akbar`s court, when creating illustrations for Mirat-ul-Quds, often painted Christian figures with books in theirhands. They wished to remind their audience that these alien others, the people that followed Hazrat Isa, and who came to court in odd costumes speaking in alien tongues, were nevertheless People of the Book.

Intolerance, of course, did not have to wait hundreds of years to rear its ugly head and end the age of dialogue and interchange. Mughal emperors following Akbar, although it is difficult to tell which one, did the job themselves.

The artists that create are known by the beauty of their handiwork, by small signatures at the ends of painting; those that destroy leave only the marks of vengeance and rage, vestiges of the beauty that once was.

Some surviving versions of Mirat-ul-Quds bore thebrunt of this, successors of emperors rubbing out the faces of carefully drawn figures, the painstaking handiwork of artists long gone. It takes forever to make something beautiful, and only moments to tear it apart.

Only 19 manuscripts of the text were commissioned by Emperor Akbar, prepared in the last decade of the 16th century and completed and presented in 1602. In the Mughal era, books were not easily available and were the provenance of the elite and of royalty, removed and perused carefully in select gatherings to entertain and inform.

It would have been the royals and descendants of royals, existing leaders or leaders to be, who would be educated in the knowledge of other lands, the beauty of art, the detail and symbolism inherent in every figure, its gaze and gesture telling the many stories that come together to make up the human story.Only one of the surviving manuscripts of the Mirat-ul-Quds is in Palcistan, housed at the Lahore Museum. It is not l

One of the most complete manuscripts was recently acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio. There, it became part of the `Mughal Paintings: Art and Stories` exhibit for the institution`s centenary. Scores of Americans are said to have visited the exhibit, looked at the carefully displayed pages of Mirat-ul-Quds its pages underscoring the message that the opposition between faiths and cultures is neither inherent nor long-standing.

The capacity of art to imbue tolerance among the enraged and suspicious, the belligerent and martial, is often untapped in Pakistan. If the history of the Mughal Empire is pointed out as a template for all history, then Pakistan remains stuck in the moment of destruction, when faces and figures are rudely rubbed out, their existence a threat, their beauty an assault.

Against this reality, it is perhaps best that the most complete version of the Mirat-ul-Quds manuscript is now in the archives of the Cleveland Museum of Art and that its cousin in Lahore is not being exhibited, celebrated, presented and touted with too much fanfare.

In this present age of rubbing out, such attentions are risks, a provocation to the determined lot devoted to destruction. Hope in this regard can only be located in the postulate that history is cyclical, and that all the rest of us who cannot avail ourselves of the legacy of what was left to us will one day see a resurgence of past tolerance captured in art. • The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Source: Daily Dawn

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