The Prince and the Pir

Cleo Cantone looks at the British Museum exhibition, The Prince and the Pir, Dervishes and Mysticism in Iran and India (16th- 19th centuries)

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Historically, the histories of Iran and India have been intertwined at various stages. In the 16th century, with the invasion of the Mughals, a much stronger wave of Persian influence reached India. Upon the return the Mughal emperor Humayun (1508 – 1556) from the court of Shah Tahmasp of Persia, he was accompanied by artists and craftsmen. Under his successor, Emperor Akbar (1556 – 1605) Sufism, another Persian import, thrived in the Indian sub-continent. Akbar himself was drawn to Sufi teachings, especially those of the Andalusian mystic, ibn ‘Arabi (1164 – 1240). In the painting of the Dervish with snake-headed staff (ca. 1570) a blue-eyed dervish, covered in amulets and carrying a staff may represent the ascetic who lived under Akbar. The serpent is emblematic of the carnal soul, which, when poor and weak it is like ‘a little worm’ but grows big through power and riches. Thus the painter may have been making a subtle allusion to the mystical power of the dervish as opposed to the temporal power of the ruler.

Sufi mystics-also known as dervishes from the Persian meaning ‘poor’-started off being ‘murids’ (literally, ‘one who has made up his will’) when embarking on their spiritual path to enlightenment and required the guidance of a pir or shaykh. They started to appear in Persian paintings from the 15th century and became particularly common during the 17th century in Iran and India. Indeed, the exhibition proclaims to display ‘works produced in Iran and India between the 16th and 19th centuries, rang[ing] from album and manuscript pages to objects used in daily life.’

As an Indian painting of a Dervish under a tree illustrates, dervishes often sat in an isolated spot under a tree, some­times on a platform or a mat with some prayer books. Here they would receive guests, be it kings or commoners, the emphasis being on their modesty. If they were buried on the site when they died, it would become a place of pilgrimage marked by a tomb. Sufism evolved from being relatively reclusive to a more communal practice in the 9th and 10th centuries reaching its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Miniature painting peaked in the 15th century but experienced a decline a century later. From this time, rather than whole books, miniatures were produced separately and compiled into albums as the painting of the Seated Dervish pertinently illustrates (Isfahan, ca 1800s). During this period, portraits of pirs proliferated. An earlier album folio, Saint on a Fish (India, ca 1600) proposes a recurrent Sufi theme of miracles involving animals. Here, the haloed pir holds a golden jar and is standing on a large fish in the river. Interpreted as being the river god or al-Khidr himself, this immortal mystical figure is revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Under the Mughal Empire, in fact, saw something of a synthesis taking place between the two religions, the result of which is attested in the art and architecture produced in this period.

Paradoxically, although Sufi saints were renowned for their renunciation of material goods, the occasional appearance of luxury objects provides a clue to the scrupulous eye of the art historian as to the date and provenance of the painting. Such is the case with ‘A group of dervishes’ probably painted in Isfahan in around 1640. Scattered among the dervishes are a selection of blue-and-white wares which may represent a donation of such wares of Shah Abbas I (r. 1587-1629) to the Ardabil shrine. During Abbas’s reign, the local production of porcelain was greatly influenced by Ming Chinese wares produced on a white translucent body and often of better quality than the wares they took inspiration from. It seems unlikely that dervishes would have used this kind of vessel, rather, their depiction in contemporary paint­ings is analogous to Renaissance artists such as the Italian Giovanni Bellini (‘Feast of the Gods, 1514) and may indi­cate a particular penchant for exotic and therefore exclusive wares.

In the other case, we find a kashkul (begging bowl) symbolising the empty nafs (ego) and made from a coco de mer in the islands of the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, it depicts a Sufi with a kashul as well as the names of the Prophet Muhammad (s), Fatima(a) and the Twelve Imams. Dated to 1257/1842, this kind of object is not frequently on display. Similar examples are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and are also dated to the 19th century. The beggar’s bowl or ‘kashkul’ was a sign of religious poverty and therefore emblematic of Islamic mysticism. The inscriptions usually include verses from the Qur’an as well as poetry in Persian praising the ‘kashkul’ in mystical terms. Sometimes they are made of metal; others are carved from half the shell of the fruit of the coco de mer palm which grows in the Seychelle Islands in the Indian Ocean. As the shell washes ashore in southern Iran, its journey symbolises the spiritual journey of the dervish in his attainment of mystic knowledge. ‘Kashkuls’ were used to place gifts of food and they sometimes have a small spout to make the bowl into a drinking vessel. Alongside the begging bowl is a 17th century Indian staff carved in ivory and ebony, also very rare, and a Qajar pen box (of which there are several on permanent display).

Instead of following the more conven­tional categorisation by dynasty, The Prince and the Pir is organised into themes, such as Sufis, Masters, Disciples and Princes or Sufi Brother­hoods: Gatherings and Rituals. This concentration on subject-matter rather than chronology allows for a more fluid appreciation of the displays, which include two cases of related objects.

In one, a patched garment known as a 19th century khirqa or jibba from Sudan is displayed alongside a contemporary hat from Kirgyzstan. Both objects were loaned by the museum’s ethnographic collection and though their provenance is otherwise irrelevant to the exhibition, they make a point about the contempo­rary practice of Sufism in other parts of the Muslim world.


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