Inside 'Rich and Troubled Cultural World' of the Late Mughals

Scholars illuminate unsettled era through emblematic lives

NEW YORK, April 14, 2012 — Following a series of lectures by scholars Michael H. Fisher (Oberlin College), David Lelyveld (William Paterson University), and Columbia University's Frances Pritchett, these three speakers joined Yuthika Sharma, co-curator of the Asia Society Museum exhibition Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, for an in-depth discussion on the social and cultural world of late Mughal India.

The speakers provided insight into the social worlds and a behind- the-scenes look at artistic patronage in Mughal Delhi by examining key figures such as the aristocrat Begum Sombre (ca. 1753–1836), educator and publisher Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), and the poet Ghalib (1797–1869).

As Fisher explained, Begum Sombre's extraordinary life was marked by her rise from dancing girl to mistress/wife of a mercenary to Princess. She became a notable patron of the arts and used portraiture to manage her public image, in the same way contemporary male rulers did. During this transitional time — as Mughal central authority declined, and before the de facto British takeover of India — there were opportunities for people and families of mixed ancestry and lower social class to emerge as leaders and social arbiters.

The late Mughal era was also a period of nostalgia — of creating a historical past and a hope, expressed through the arts, for a reemergence of Delhi to its former glory and power. At the same time, however, late Mughal society was not resistant to new technologies from Europe. Even the poet Ghalib urged his readers to pay attention to these new technologies. In publishing, lithography was adapted to reproduce Urdu until 1857, when Sayyid Ahmad Khan notably began to publish using moveable type.

As Fisher commented, it was a "rich and troubled cultural world."

Watch Part I of the program (speakers' presentations)
Watch Part II of the program (panel discussion)

Frances Pritchett's handout from her April 14 talk (PDF)

Excerpt: Michael H. Fisher at Asia Society New York on April 14, 2012 (4 min., 22 sec.)