A Unique Kashmir Shawl at the Guimet Museum

This Article is from the October 2007 Orientations Magazine, whose edition features articles written by the co-curators of the current exhibition at Asia Society on Park ave, The Arts of Kashmir, which runs until 6 January 2008.

A Unique Mughal Kashmir Shawl at the Musée Guimet
by Frank Ames

A remarkable fragment from a 17th century Kashmir shawl in the collection of the Musée Guimet is one of the highlights of the exhibition ‘The Arts of Kashmir’ being held at Asia Society this autumn (Fig. 1). The passage of time has imbued the seductive taupe pashmina with a soft, glowing patina. Originally, the shawl reached a length of nearly 2 ½ metres and a width of over one metre; preserved on the fragment is a pattern of three flowering plants. The design is a particularly fine example of what became known as the ‘Mughal style’, a manner of depicting the grace and beauty of flowers, that reached its greatest popularity under Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58).

This Mughal fragment was formerly part of Krishna Riboud’s large collection of Asian textiles generously bequeathed upon her death in 2000 to the Musée Guimet. While living in Paris in the 70’s and 80’s, I had the pleasure of knowing Madame Riboud. She was a fastidious collector, acquiring only objects that measured up to the high levels of quality and historical importance to which she perseveringly adhered. The dynamic energy she invested in collecting, her own research in Chinese textiles, and her constant coterie of renowned experts in the field, resulted in a rich collection of very rare textiles. This Mughal fragment, with its novel pattern and charming botanical nature, is very representative of her discerning taste. I recall the feeling of surprise when Madame Riboud first showed it to me at her home on the Rue de Breteuil, back in 1985. Seeing the fragment was to be reminded of the seemingly boundless creative spirit of the Mughal artist applied in almost all crafts. Evidently, the maker was consciously attempting to create a unique aesthetic experience, rather than slavishly trying to duplicate a known pattern.

The most unusual features of the floral bouquet decorating the fragment are the curious jagged, wing-like and speckled devices attached to the blossoms. These devices may be sepals or petals that separate from the sheath of flowers (perianth) cupping a blossom. Notice, also, on the two budding flowers on the left, the calyx tubes or bulbous sections with their crosshatch patterns, formed like the abdomen of a butterfly. The overall effect is of blossoms that seem not so much supported by the faint outline (now oxidized black) of their spindly stems as by the ‘fluttering wings’ of the sepals that imbue the plant with an ‘unbearable lightness of being’. As the stippled petals mimic the wings of the monarch butterfly , the artist is depicting the blossoms in various positions of ‘flight’. Winged insects are commonly found in Mughal architecture and decorative arts, and in the late 16th century Amber Fort, on a sculptured marble dado, one sees a similarly playful admixture of butterflies and scorpion-like flowers (Fig. 2).

Kani (twill tapestry woven) shawls or shawl fragments from the 17th century exhibiting this level of sophisticated visual synesthesia, woven as if expressing a poetic play-on-words, are extremely rare. In fact, the Guimet fragment is the only one I know. Such designs, in a way, reflect the great contemporaneous passion for poetry, where poet laureates competed for the emperor’s nod, and merchants, goldsmiths and bankers appreciatively stroked their chins as they reveled in lyrical and romantic ghazals. Perhaps the shawl’s creator was inspired by the words of the 15th century poet Alisher Navoi, who wrote ‘…there is an image of the world in this flower bed, and the whole world is hidden in every flower’; or even the echo of a sonnet by Shakespeare, a contemporary of the Mughal artist: ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity/ wears yet a precious jewel in its head/finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks/sermons in stones and good in every thing’ (As You Like It, act II, sc. I).

Although all the great Mughal emperors were poets themselves, Abul Fazl, Akbar’s court chronicler, points out that thousands of poets were continually at the court of Akbar(r. 1556-1605). Textiles, weavings and carpets reflecting a poetic grace or which are enigmatic in nature, are not exceptional considering the Mughal period’s artistically stimulating and intellectually charged atmosphere. For example, the Aynard carpet, considered one of the greatest pashmina knotted Mughal carpets, contains a bouquet of blossoms that resemble octopi floating languorously on a crimson sky filled with dragon-head chi clouds (Fig. 3). Here, we enter the surreal world of the artist’s brilliant imagination, whose floral bouquet of voluptuous efflorescence sweeps us away into a metaphysical reverie.

In the masterful border design of the Altman pashmina carpet, (illustrated in Figure 4) we see another excellent illustration of this resonant visual poetry. The Altman is the only carpet, which I know, whose artistic style bears a close relation to that of the shawls of Kashmir. Apparently drawn by a Kashmiri artist, the border displays evergreen trees alternating with jasmine bushes and artichoke plants on a landscape of alluring hillocks. A golden ground colour bathes this vegetation in a mystical twilight, pulling the viewer into the magic of a fairy-tale experience. One can only wonder if there is not a hidden alchemical metaphor embedded in this rare mix of gastronomic and odiferous plants.

As in the Altman carpet, such stylistic borrowing is evident in the small unidentified protrusions or pips visible in the mound at the base of an exuberant bouquet design in the patka (waistband) at the National Museum in Delhi (Fig. 5);. The bouquet appears to overflow with colour and life: a spray of lower branches with dark-green leaves undulates upward in such a caressing, coaxing manner, the viewer is taken aback by the unexpected flow of energy between leaves and flowers.

The great shawls of this era often display unusual or exotic flowers not found in shawl weavings of the later Afghan, Sikh and Dogra periods of Kashmir’s history. Through the juxtaposition of subtle tones and the purposeful placement of flowers, different moods are achieved. The white ground dochalla (long shawl with plain center) at the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum in Banaris, for example, exhibits botehs comprised of a fanciful coxcomb variety (Fig. 6). The blossoms, all tilting downward, contain centers tinged with yellow, creating the effect of Chinese lanterns all aglow. The well-known boteh fragment illustrated in Figure 7, impresses us by the femininity and daintiness of a frail plant unsettled by the light breeze that appears to be tousling its ‘feathers’. In another rare, white-ground dochalla at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, we encounter the beauty of delicate, yet wilting bouquets, freely spaced and drawn with an almost melancholy indolence (Fig. 8). They rise from a root-securing device fashioned in the shape of a Chinese character; another character performs the same function at the other end of the shawl. In fact, such Chinese character-shaped bases appear occasionally in shawls of this era, including the Banaris shawl discussed above (Ames, 2003, p. 94).

Of all the known Kashmir shawl designs of this period, it is extremely rare to come across an herbal botanical pattern with its smooth outlines and curves, due to the constraints of the kani technique of twill tapestry weaving. While the graceful beauty of the few other surviving Mughal shawls cannot be denied, most of these weavings display standardized patterns, whereby one flower is either monotonously repeated, or all the flowers are drawn from a pool of disparate but recognizable types. As an exception, the Guimet fragment, by its novelty of pattern and execution of weave, illustrates the weaver’s great efforts to overcome the challenges of these constraints. Where the artist excels and succeeds, we find a bouquet of flowers, budding or reaching full bloom; stems twisting and taking unexpected turns; and entomological or anthropomorphic life surprising the casual observer.

It was during the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) that the decorative arts adopted the motif of freely spaced, naturalistically rendered flowers which eventually came to be known as the ‘Mughal style’. Evidently, the Mughals were very impressed by European herbal and florilegia books brought to the imperial court by the Jesuits and other firengi (foreigners); several Indian flower paintings are known to exist that closely match the wood block prints of well-known 16th century Flemish botanists.)The beautiful realism of the Flemish botanicals reflect the flowering plant’s European ‘Renaissance’ harkening back to the nature studies of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. With the laser-like focus of the naked eye, presciently anticipating the microscope a few hundred years away, these two geniuses were able to bring into sharp focus the minutest aspects of nature. (2)

Current theory submits that the Mughal Style first developed as a result of Mansur’s large series of painting of flora and fauna, following Jahangir’s spring visit to Kashmir, in 1620 (Skelton, pp. 147-152). Mansur’s botanical studies were renowned for their approximate photographic realism. Analogous to the phenomenon in Europe, flowers, as depicted in painting, flowers were raised from minor decorative embellishment, to full portrait treatment. Whether in textiles or architecture, the freely-spaced flowering plant was now shown naturalistically.

Scholarly discussion of the herbal’s impact on the Mughal decorative arts has so far omitted the textual descriptive aspects associated with the book’s woodblock prints, often in Latin or German. Transforming botanical studies, Valius Cordus, one of the most celebrated botanists, invented a whole new descriptive language for flower studies.

“Through Cordus’ powers of observation one can sense the movement of the plant’s growth, witness its various morphological configurations, its colorful hues, taste the bitterness or sweetness of its odor and experience, even sense the kinesthetic effects of swallowing such flavors. Besides his photographic memory of all that Pliny, Theophrastus and Dioscorides had written, Cordus’ heightened olfactory, gustatory, and tactile sensitivities were gifted abilities that greatly aided him in revolutionizing the world of botany” (Ames: from soon to be published Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage)

More importantly, in terms of the Guimet piece, in his description of an orchid, the figure of a butterfly appears with its wings spread as though about to take flight (5). For this, Cordus devised the word “papillionaceous” (from French), a term which became popular among succeeding botanists, and among court artists.

Mughal artist actually read herbal descriptions, and then project his newly fueled imagination into the creation of innovative designs? Secondly, is it possible to now assign any of the Mughal Kashmir shawl’s flowers to a particular European artist/botanist? In the first instance, we know that right from Akbar’s time, the Jesuit priests were a regular and intimate fixture at the imperial court, right up through Shah Jahan. They were more than capable of translating these texts, either verbally or otherwise, into Persian. (fn:Akbar revered the sacred Christian books; his sons were taught to observe the ways of the Jesuits; his son Prince Murad of thirteen, learned Portuguese. “The Jesuits and the Great Mogul”, by Sir Edward MacLagan, NY 1972)

In the second consideration, recent research in the decorative arts of India has already uncovered the origins of various vegetal designs. Ebba Koch has convincingly shown that the Mughal’s architectural use of the acanthus-leaf baluster, for example, derives directly from Durer’s engraving found on the third page of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (6). Robert Skelton and Vivian Rich have traced more than several flowers found in miniatures to the European botanists, Clusius, Dodoens and l’Obel, for whom the drawings were made by Peter van der Borcht. For example, evidence of Mughal artist’s herbal copying can be seen in miniatures found in The Dara Shikoh and Small Clive Albums, which can be positively identified from Clusius’ 1576 Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium, published by Christopher Plantin of Antwerp, and Pierre Vallet’s florilegium of 1608, Le Jardin du Roy Trés Chréstian Henry IV (4) As more textiles, shawls and other artifacts of the period are discovered, future scholarly research will certainly uncover further instances of the impact of European artistry on the Mughal decorative arts.

The nature of these black and white woodblock prints found in the herbals, was such that the actual plant often appeared dull and lifeless. The Mughal artist corrected this vapidity by adding grace and charm, with stamens and other naturalistic botanical details. He set about, using the rich working materials of the imperial atelier, to transform these dimensionless, monochromatic images into vivid and colorful bouquets.

The Mughal artist excelled in his innovative mélange of pictorial fantasies and invention of aesthetic tensions, succeeding in creating a style which recalls the Mannerist school in Europe, where art and artifice interfused. It was this style in a painting by Mansur, over which Cary Welch once enthused in describing the flowers in its magnificent border: “They(flowers) snap with freshness, gesticulate, dance, reach for the sun, and exchange views on botanical life”. (Welch, p. 225)

Frank Ames is the author of The Kashmir Shawl and its Indo-French Influence; co-curator of Asia Societies’ exhibition The Arts of Kashmir (Oct. 2007), and a well-known New York based dealer and consultant in antique textiles and oriental carpets. His new book, Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage ( forthcoming) focuses on the Kashmir shawl woven during the first half of the 19th century.

Selected bibliography:

Frank Ames, Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage, forthcoming.

__________, The Kashmir Shawl and Its Indo-French Influence, Antique Collectors’ Club, United Kingdom, 2003. p. 94

Edward Lee Greene, Landmarks of Botanical History, A Study of Certain Epochs in the Development of the Science of Botany. Part I. Prior to 1562 A.D. Vol. I, The Smithsonian, Washington, DC, 1909, 1983.

Ebba Koch, Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology: Collected Essays, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New Delhi, 2001.

Vivian Rich, ‘Mughal Floral Painting and Its European Sources’, in Oriental Art, Vol. XXXiii no. 2. Summer, 1987

Robert Skelton, ‘A Decorative Motif in Mughal Art’ in Pratapaditya Pal, ed., Aspects of Indian Art, Brill Publishing, Leiden, 1972.

Stuart Cary Welch, India: Art and Culture 1300-1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Holt, Rinehard and Winston, New York and Canada 1985.


(Fig. 1) Detail of Kashmir shawl fragment 17th century Height 18 cm, width 69 cm Musée Guimet

(Fig. 2) Scorpion-like flower, marble dado, Amber fort, Jaipur. Photo: F. Ames

(Fig. 3) Mughal pashmina ‘Aynard’ carpet, Kashmir, 17th century. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. T-90 124.5cm x 90cm

(Fig. 4) Mughal pashmina ‘Altman’ carpet, 17th century. (border detail). MMA, Bequest of Benjamin Altman 1913 (14.40.723). 417.2cm x 161.9cm

(Fig. 5) Mughal Kashmir shawl (detail), 17th century. National Museum, Delhi
285cm x 150cm.

(Fig. 6) Mughal Kashmir shawl (detail), 17th century, Bharat Kala Bhawan, Banaris,
310cm x 155cm

(Fig. 7) Mughal Kashmir shawl. V&A, IS. 70-1954, 36.8cm x 14.6cm

(Fig 8 ) Detail of Mughal Kashmir shawl, Museum of Fine Arts, Length 310 cm , width 165 cm