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Lucknow's golden age

A new exhibition at LACMA, 'India's Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow,' looks at the opulent art and culture that once flourished in the city.

January 02, 2011|By Scarlet Cheng, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Muhammad Azam (India, dates unknown) by Nasir al-Din Haidar, circa 1830. India, Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow. Oil on canvas - 36 1/4 x 28 3/8.
Muhammad Azam (India, dates unknown) by Nasir al-Din Haidar, circa 1830.… (Collection Drs. Aziz and…)

Some advance by conquest, some by calculated surrender. Shuja al-Daula, nawab of Awadh province, profited by the latter when trounced by British forces in the Battle of Buxar in 1764. He made concessions to the British in trade and military defense and also paid them a hefty war reparation of 5 million rupees. But he was restored to his position and thrived as patriarch of an estimable dynasty. Shuja al-Daula relocated to nearby Faizabad from Lucknow, but his son, Asaf al-Daula, moved the court back to Lucknow.

The prosperity and political stability of their reigns precipitated the golden age of Lucknow culture, lasting from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, a golden age celebrated in the exhibition " India's Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Feb. 27.

Two portraits in the first gallery are key to the exhibition, says Stephen Markel, head of South and Southeast Asian Art at LACMA, who curated the show along with associate curator Tushara Bindu Gude. "To me, these two paintings are symbolic of the entire trajectory of the dynastic history [of Lucknow]," says Markel. Because the Awadh rulers could no longer expand territorially, "they turned inward and concentrated on the glorification of their own empire." (Awadh is today the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.)

One is a 1772 portrait of Shuja al-Daula, a large and imposing man wearing a fur hat and a heavy velvet robe "that recalls his Persian heritage," says Markel. The other is Nasir al-Din Haidar, who ruled half a century later and seems to pale in comparison. While his predecessor amply fills his garments, he seems buried under his — a tall bejeweled crown, wide ermine cape and strands of gigantic pearls. The hand of Shuja al-Daula rests atop a bow, signaling his prowess in battle or hunt, while Nasir al-Din Haidar holds an ornate pen in one hand and a slip of paper in the other. Perhaps he is composing poetry.

The first portrait is an oil painting by Tilly Kettle, an early English painter in India. Like other European artists, he was drawn there by prospects of princely commissions, and his realistic style, in turn, influenced local artists. Awadh province had already been enriched by an influx of artists, poets and intellectuals who fled Delhi when invaded by Iranians in 1739 — an immigration repeated when Delhi was attacked several more times in the following decades.

Panorama of the city

In one small gallery of the exhibition, a Felice Beato panorama has been blown up and covers the walls. It shows the grounds of Lucknow's extensive and fairy tale-like Qaisar Bagh Palace, where colonnaded buildings wrap around landscaped courtyards, and the city beyond. Lucknow seems empty and desolate, photographed as it was in 1858 shortly after the British put down a violent revolt and then set about destroying the city. "This is a shadow of what it once was," says Markel. "In its heyday, Lucknow was characterized by visitors as the Paris of the East" — the wealthiest and largest of Indian cities.

"India's Fabled City" is the first major international exhibition devoted to the culture of Lucknow's golden age and will travel to the Musée Guimet in Paris this spring. It features 210 objects, of which two dozen are from LACMA's own collection and the rest from 50 international lenders.

The finely painted miniatures in the second gallery are in the late Mughal style, reflecting Lucknow culture in its depiction of rulers, courtly life and scenes from popular stories. Subsequent galleries feature ornately decorated objects such as clothing, hookah sets and jewelry — Lucknow was famed for its metalwork embellished with blue and green enameling — as well as large-format portraits, history paintings and vintage photographs.

Going through the galleries, one sees increasing European influence — such as the shading on faces, the use of perspective and European architectural details. "Hybridity is what Lucknow art in many cases is all about," says Markel.

The influence was not only one way. One watercolor depicts Antoine-Louis Henri Polier "gone native" — dressed in Indian turban and garb, he sits on floor cushions and watches an Indian dancer on his Indian-style veranda. A Frenchman, Polier spent three decades in India — serving variously in the British forces, as advisor to Shuja al-Daula and as a private trader. He also became a leading collector of manuscripts and paintings.

The last gallery features paintings and photographs of courtly leisure, including dancing girls and one of two women playing chess in the women's quarters. Curiously enough, a lasting reminder of the refinement of Lucknow music and dance is today's Bollywood films, specifically those that depict courtly life of the past. Here we find movie posters and excerpts of the films "Umrao Jaan" and "The Chess Players."

"Bollywood is obsessed with portraying the courtly culture of Lucknow, because it represents the ultimate fantasy dream world," says Indian music scholar Robin Sukhadia, who is helping to organize a tabla (Indian drum) concert at the museum Feb. 24. "Films like 'Umrao Jaan' hyper-realistically portray this incredible world of dance, music and romance. This film and many others have been incredibly successful, because they re-imagine a magical period in north Indian history, a period that remains unmatched in its opulence and richness in the arts."

Today, Lucknow is a large and thriving city, but most of the glorious monuments and palaces of its Golden era are gone.

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