Taj Mahal, The Building of a Legend

Released September 15, 2005

SALEM, Mass.–The Taj Mahal: The very name evokes grandeur, beauty, and mystery. Only a handful of structures–the Egyptian Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Great Wall of China–are as universally recognized. This fall, the Peabody Essex Museum opens Taj Mahal, the Building of a Legend, an exhibition of approximately 40 paintings, watercolors, photographs, and objects that explore the architecture and mystique of this remarkable site. Drawn mainly from the museum’s Asian Export Art collection and organized by curator Karina Corrigan, Taj Mahal runs from Oct. 15, 2005, through July 23, 2006.

Renowned for its architectural magnificence and for the dramatic love story that inspired its construction, the Taj Mahal was built by the Indian Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Highlights of the exhibition include an important pair of portraits on ivory of the royal couple—new acquisitions to the museum’s permanent collection. With their bold outlines and brilliant colors, the portraits demonstrate how Indian artists adapted Mughal miniature techniques for European patrons.

In the late 18th–century, as the power of the Mughal court waned, a genre of paintings known as “Company paintings” emerged. The term got its name from the British East India Company, which hired Indian artists to create images for a new European clientele. Company paintings of Mughal monuments are fascinating both as architectural studies of important buildings and as documents of the interaction between Indian and British cultures in the early 19th century. Over twenty paintings of the Taj Mahal and Agra from this era are on display, including seven important works by Sita Ram. Painted in 1815, the works are a perfect example of the European style and technique of capturing light and shade, space and volume that were favored in the day.

Visitors will also be able to see a late 19th–century chessboard made by the artistic descendants of the Taj’s original builders. Fashioned of marble and semi-precious stones, the piece illustrates the Taj Mahal inlay technique to sumptuous effect. PEM’s alabaster and agate model of the Taj Mahal, one of the largest and most exquisite mementos brought back by a Western visitor to Agra, is also included in the exhibition. It is a work of luminous detail and an enduring tribute to the original form. Nineteenth–century photographs by English artist Samuel Bourne and more recent photographs by Kenro Izu of sites in Agra complement these paintings and objects.

A contemporary artist’s response

As a contemporary counterpoint to the historical works in the exhibition, artist Rina Banerjee’s plastic–wrapped re-creation of the Taj Mahal will be installed in the museum’s Atrium. Take me, Take me, Take me . . . to the Palace of Love is a 19-foot high copper frame, wrapped in several thousand square feet of hot pink plastic wrap. Suspended from the Atrium’s soaring 60-foot ceiling, the installation hangs like “a gigantic yet delicate ornament, a fanciful flying machine, or even a latter-day architectural folly,” writes curator Karina Corrigan in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

Inside this rosy “palace” are a plastic chandelier and a heavily carved 19th–century Anglo-Indian chair over a semiprecious stone globe. Banerjee selected the chair from the Peabody Essex Museum’s notable collection of furniture from British India. The installation evokes a view of India through rose-tinted glasses—a romanticized view that characterized the colonial British presence in India.

Banerjee is a Kolkata-born, Brooklyn-based artist with previous installations in Spain, Africa, India, Canada, and the United States.

Building a legend

Company paintings were among the earliest images to communicate the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, but it was photography that helped fuel the building’s status as a legend. An entire industry of mass–produced images of the Taj, was born. Advertising and marketing campaigns have used the Taj Mahal to sell everything from T-shirts, hotels, and airlines to basmati rice, beer, and broadband service. Every day, thousands of visitors have their photos taken in front of the famous structure. Visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum can participate vicariously in this ritual by having their photos taken in front of a mural of the building as part of the exhibition. A monitor in the gallery features these portraits along with a technology-based scrapbook of famous and anonymous visitors to the Taj Mahal.

About the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was built along the banks of the Yamuna River, near the city of Agra, the imperial seat of Mughal rulers during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628–1658) commissioned the structure as a tomb for himself and his wife, Arjumand Banu, better known as Mumtaz Mahal (Exalted One of the Palace). Mumtaz Mahal was her husband’s inseparable companion and counselor until her death in 1631. The tomb is a

42-acre site of courtyards, gardens, and structures laid out as a cosmic diagram of paradise on earth. After 23 laborious years, and the combined efforts of over twenty thousand workers and master craftsmen, the complex was finally completed in 1654. The government of India recently celebrated a year-long festival to commemorate the 350th anniversary of its completion.

Shah Jahan, whose name means “Ruler of the World,” was the fifth of the legendary Mughal emperors of India. He was a great military leader, but was also a celebrated patron and connoisseur of miniature paintings, jewels, textiles, jade, and architecture. His throne was one of the most lavish pieces of furniture ever constructed. Shah Jahan sat on this “peacock” throne, encrusted with gold, diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, for daily audiences with his subjects at the Agra Fort. Tragically those sumptuous surroundings would ultimately become his prison. His son, Aurangzeb, seized the throne and imprisoned his father for the last eight years of his life. Legend maintains that Shah Jahan spent his final years locked in the Agra Fort, gazing from the Jasmine Tower of his marble palace, down the Yamuna River to the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his beloved wife.

Asian export art collection

The department of Asian export art at the Peabody Essex Museum is internationally recognized as housing the largest, most comprehensive collection of its type in the world, consisting of over 25,000 objects made in China, Japan and India for the Western market between the 15th– and 21st–centuries. Works in the collection range from porcelain, to lacquer, paintings, silver, textiles, and ivory, among others. While the museum was founded by Americans who made their fortunes in the China trade, the majority of the collection was produced for the European market and dates to the 18th–century, the apex of international commerce between Asia and the West.


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