Thursday, June 30, 2016

The First Indian Mehndi Design... Part Two.

One year ago, I wrote a blog post exploring an Indian Mughal painting from Rajasthan, ca. 1740, showing a woman with a simple dot design on her palm. In that post I suggested that this was “the oldest visual depiction of henna designs in Indian art”... yet. Of course, the wonderful thing about academic research is that as your knowledge grows, you can return and revise your earlier theories. I now believe that the painting I featured there is not in fact the oldest visual depiction of a henna design in Indian art, and that we can now push the date back yet another century. I am aware of how dreadfully remiss I've been in posting henna blogs, so I've written up a short post featuring this object and hopefully it will be followed by a few others that have been queued for months... 

Scribal tools and pen cases, 18th century Turkey, in the
Aga Khan Museum.
The object in question is not a painting, but a decorated pen-case, known in Persian as a qalamdan. The qalamdan was sometimes made of metal and sometimes out of wood or papier mâché, and decorated with inlay, gold, watercolour, or lacquer. 

They were a popular object among the educated and cultured classes of Persian and Indian society, representing the owner’s appreciation of literature and the arts and suggesting (correctly or not) that the owner was a writer, poet, or artist themselves.

This particular qalamdan, currently in the Freer Gallery of Art (F1959.5) in Washington D.C., is made of papier mâché with watercolour paintings that have been glued on top. 


The paintings are signed by the artist Rahim Deccani (about whom more in a moment) but it seems that the qalamdan was made by a less talented artist who used Deccani’s paintings to increase the value and beauty of the box.

Pen-case with paintings by Rahim
Deccani, Freer 1959.5
Little is known about the Indian artist Rahim Deccani (also spelt Dakani), who was active in the last half of the 17th century creating a variety of miniature paintings, jewelry boxes, and qalamdans; but his surname, meaning “from the Deccan,” suggests that he had travelled and worked outside his native India, perhaps in Iran.

Scholars agree, though, that he was trained in Golconda, the capital of the Qutb Shahi sultanate in the 16th and 17th centuries, and that his art represents a fusion of Mughal and Persian styles.

Our qalamdan, dated to around 1680 or 1690, has two scenes painted on its upper panel: on top, a couple embraces, and on the bottom, a woman holds a tray with a drinking vessel and cups. 

The exciting part is that both women are depicted clearly with visible henna patterns on hands and feet. As far as I can, while there are other examples of artwork by Rahim Deccani showing henna, they have the same solid fingertips or palms as in other Indian artwork of the period. 

But the henna patterns shown on this qalamdan are clear: the fingernails and toenails are solidly coloured (interestingly, the man also appears to have hennaed fingernails) and the fingers and toes have two stripes across them. The rest of the hands and feet are covered with dot clusters in groups of three and four. The bottoms of the feet are hennaed solidly, with a scalloped edge, while the palms have the same dot pattern as the backs of the hands. I'd love to see someone replicate this pattern! Maybe a good one to pull out when your next bride says that she loves "traditional style" mehndi.

Close-ups of the designs on hands and feet.

Again, as I’ve written before about other paintings, it’s difficult to tell what (if any) reality these idealized portraits represent. But the fact remains that this is a clearly-identifiable henna design, and is (as of now) the oldest known example of such in Indian art. 

Close-up of the designs on the lower panel.
This qalamdan, produced by an artist with strong ties to Persian style, is another piece of evidence to support the argument that the use of henna was introduced to India from Persia, and now we know that henna designs were already present in India in the late 17th century. We still have little knowledge of how the distinctly 'Indian' styles of mehndi design emerged, but it is now clear that the roots of henna patterns in India can be traced all the way back to the Mughal period.

We might also wonder about whether this might also be evidence for the continuing use of patterned henna in Persia — while we know that by the late 18th and 19th century elaborate patterns had fallen out of fashion, being replaced with solid orange washes for hands and feet, perhaps this represents an intermediary stage.

At least, that’s what we can say for now… Until we find the next object!


Bibliography
For information about this qalamdan, and about pen-cases and Rahim Deccani in general, I consulted the following catalogues:
  • Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates, George Michell and Mark Zebrowski (Cambridge, 1999).
  • Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy, Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015)
  • Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Maryam Ekhtiar (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011)
  • India: Art and Culture, 1300-1900, Stuart Cary Welch (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985)
  • Arts of Mughal India, Rosemary Crill (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2004)

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