Beyond Modernist Frames: Ebba Koch on the Mughal World

It’s a breezy, spring morning in Delhi, the sparkling sunlight streaming through a speckless, blue sky is rather Pahari. Professor Ebba Koch, sitting across the table, under a bougainvillaea blossom, wraps her head to keep the sun at bay- “never thought I would be in purdah”, she laughs. The Mughals, her dramatis personae, did construct tents to provide shade from the scorching tropical sun. This, too, was expressed as a political metaphor- the tent separated the light of the sun from the radiance of the emperor, the carrier of divine light, or Farr-i izadi, invoking notions of illumined kingship from early Indic, Persian and Timurid traditions. Notwithstanding the sun, what followed was a conversation on the political iconography of the Mughals, the nature of early modernity, and Professor Koch’s work in South Asia and Europe, spanning over four decades. A fascination for fluid histories took over a previously structured framework for an interview, and what we have is a stream-of-consciousness conversation, held together by the very nature of early modernity, a connectedness that defies delimiting frames. We parted while discussing Professor Koch’s photographic archive, painstakingly put together over the years, her harvest from the field. I wonder what personal memories and histories each photograph, each negative might whisper if heard attentively, transgressing temporal and geographical boundaries, as in her work, reading the contemporary in the early modern, making the imperial intimate. As Professor Koch asked reflectively, in her essay, "The Mughal emperor as Solomon, Majnun, and Orpheus, or the Album as a Think Tank for Allegory"(2010), I ask with wonder- “how much more multilayered could an image be?”

Somok Roy: Professor Koch, let’s begin with a discussion on early modernity. With the recent shifts in historiography, early modernity has received scholarly attention. As an art historian working with visual sources, how do you reconstruct the early modern, in terms of the methods that you use?

Ebba Koch: Firstly, in India, the Mughals are not put under the category of early modern, they are thought to be medieval, and I have a problem with that. But we could talk about my methodology, to begin with. I studied European art history in Vienna. The Viennese school of art history and architecture focuses on the analysis of forms, identification of the style of a particular artist, and they question where a particular form comes from. The major thrust is on formal and stylistic issues. I was asked to do a paper on equestrian monuments in the Austrian Baroque and thought the formal analysis was somewhat limited. I turned to Germany, where in the 60s and 70s, Critical Theory and Habermas’s work had introduced a different approach to art, and the economic conditions in which art was produced, and its political context were being studied. I found this very appropriate, and these are the two methodologies that I have been working with when I came to India. However, I was asking myself whether it was justified or legitimate to approach Indian art with methods that have developed in the European context. Eventually, I used a syncretistic approach, on one hand, the analysis of style, on the other, to look at the context and ask about the meaning- why was a particular work of art created, what was it meant to express, and here I was particularly interested in the political context because the ‘use’ of art was a major concern of the patrons. I read Mughal sources, with the help of Dr Yunus Jaffery of Zakir Hussain College. Not much was coming from Mughal sources in terms of theorising art, compared to the literary genre of theories on art and architecture that were produced in early India1, hence I had to go forward with my own method.

SR: Your magnum opus, Shah Jahan and Orpheus: The Pietre Dure Decoration and the Programme of the Throne in the Hall of Public Audiences at the Red Fort of Delhi was published in 1988, much before "connected histories" became a fashionable thing to do. Sanjay Subrahmanyam begins his explorations in connected history in the 1990s.

EK: Yes, but this has to do with the fact that I came as a European art historian to study the Mughals. My formal training in Vienna had nothing to do with Islam or the cultures of the Ottomans and Safavids. Both Islam and India were new for me, which I really had to work on. Initially, I was interested in and fascinated by the European elements in Mughal art, and tried to answer the question of why would the Mughals use European forms. This is how I came to connected histories. At that time I used the word “influences”, which in today’s time is wrong. So my first paper has its origin in my friendship with a Jesuit scholar who invited me to read a paper on the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first Jesuit Mission to the court of Akbar- "The Influence of the Jesuit Missions on Symbolic Representations of the Mughal Emperors", which was the first in a series. As a European art historian, I first saw the European quotations and motifs in Mughal art, in a similar way, the Mughals looked at the cultures and traditions of the European courts for newfound expressions for things that were already familiar to them. This again relates to the question of micro and macro history, but I would like to describe myself as a micro-historian. I’m interested in a detailed study, but I also like to look at linkages, I like comparisons of two factors which one knows reasonably well. Often macro or global historians end up talking about things superficially, perhaps because one relies a lot on secondary literature. For instance, millenarianism has become a catchword. I don’t think the Mughals were so impacted by thinking about the end of time.

SR: This brings us to Azfar Moin’s The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (2012) on millenarian sovereignty, in which he vividly draws upon art historical materials, especially in The Painted Miracles of the Saint Emperor (2014).

EK: He engages with the German scholar Kantorowicz’s work on the king’s two bodies. Moin operates with the notion of sacred kingship. The way the Mughals described it was perhaps a kingship sanctioned by God, as it was represented in different media. What I find really valuable in Azfar Moin’s work is his engagement with the irrational side of the Mughals. He looks at magic and other such practices, which too was part of early modernity, and gives a complex picture.

SR: Going back to micro-history, I’m reminded of Carlo Ginzburg, who was in Delhi a couple of weeks before. In a conversation, he said that he tries to write about the methodology so that the reading public has a sense of the inferences, of the practice of "doing" history. In your recent essay, "Palaces, Gardens and Property Rights under Shah Jahan: Architecture as a Window into Mughal Legal Custom and Practice" (2019) which employs architecture as a source to study the history of legality and inheritance, you begin on an anecdotal note, discussing your survey, documentation and analysis of Shah Jahan’s palaces and formal gardens. It perhaps helps the reader to contextualise the work of the historian.

EK: What I try to do is to make the reader trace my process of recognition, to take them along in this journey. Talking about methodology, like what I did with my paper on equestrian monuments, I structure my approach based on the material I’m investigating. You cannot come with a preconceived set of ideas. Methodology evolves from the material in the archives. For instance, we don’t have texts that directly tell us about ownership rights in Mughal India. A picture began to form in my mind when I was reading the histories of Shah Jahan with Dr Jaffrey, who was a big help, and I would make a note when a palace of a mansabdar was mentioned. When I put this material together, I realised that the palaces, havelis and gardens would not remain with the mansabdar on an inheritable basis. Constantly things were changing in terms of land ownership, and this comes out when you put isolated material together, in a context. Again, I have restricted myself to a specific social category, that of the highest ranking officers or the Khassan. I think the historical material should be the basis of method, to avoid stereotypical thinking and generalisations. In the 1990s, at a conference of the College Art Association, in the United States of America, I remember almost every panel was trying to fit into the frame of either postcolonialism or deconstruction. I, however, did stylistic analysis put into the specific context of the artwork.

You were asking about visual material as a source of early modern history. The Mughals expressed certain things only in art, and visual sources make a different statement, as I have shown for the Padshahnama. The empire’s whole relation to Europe was expressed visually. Thomas Roe spent more than two years in the court of Jahangir, and not for once does Jahangir mention him in his memoirs. But the interest in European art is expressed in other media- painting, architecture, applied arts, and obviously now in India, it’s not politically correct to follow Mughal interests! Interactions with other cultures in the Roman Empire have led to famous discussions amongst scholars, for instance, the French anthropologist Paul Veyne’s work on Palmyra, which was a Greco-Roman province in Syria. He says that the people in Palmyra adopted certain foreign practices and usages, in order to update themselves, but not to lose sight of their historical identity. Similarly, the Mughals looked for newer forms of expression. Their interest in naturalism drew from the arts of the European courts. Abu’l Fazl writes that art was also used to express abstract ideas and in this case the idea of rulership.

SR: We could think of visual expressions of the divine light in the form of a halo or nimbus in the works produced in Jahangir’s atelier.

EK: Yes, the halo was used in Buddhist art, from ancient times, but the Mughal depiction was different. The Mughals looked at the materials that the Jesuits brought with great interest but did not convert to Christianity, but used it for their own representation as sacred kings, as rulers sanctioned by the divine. Another thing that we might reflect upon is that after the construction of a self-image, how far does a ruler believe in it, in terms of practice. Take, for instance, Jahangir’s chain of justice. It is a royal gesture going back to the Achaemenid times. It could have been a public performance, a spectacle, a mere allegory!

That Jahangir was using Achaemenid symbols in the seventeenth century, reminds me of the French scholar Bruno Latour, who said that we have never been modern2. This could also answer your question on early modernity! Something that Azfar Moin also points out, the other side of the Mughals, as we have discussed before. Again, in the early modern, allegory is constructed with reference to science, for instance, Jahangir’s globes. Scientific instruments, globes and cartographies are depicted in paintings of the emperor. This could seem like a contradiction, given we have magic practices on the other hand, but that was the complex nature of early modernity.

I was also thinking of Jahangir’s image as an Indian king. Akbar had undoubtedly started this, but it was Jahangir who expressed many of his ideas in the visual arts. It is remarkable to think of how he expressed through allegories the idea of justice, carved out elephants in keeping with the notions of Indian kingship, and to depict himself clad in a yellow dhoti like a Rajput ruler. The Mughals would take from any source that served their purpose, that was their form of universalism.

SR: So we could call it transcultural.

EK: Yes, very much so. In his letter to Shah Abbas, Akbar wrote that he accepts all religions and cultures that give him the right to rule above all. Tolerance was also seen as an instrument to rule.

SR: Coming to your extensive work in the field, how did it all begin?

EK: When I came to India and looked for plans of Mughal buildings, it was very hard to find them. The British had done surveys and the Archaeological survey of India continued to map sites and monuments after Independence, but hardly a few on Mughal monuments were published. I started going around with a measuring tape, with the architect Richard A. Barraud, much like a nineteenth-century colonial surveyor! We would measure buildings, prepare ground plans, make drawings, and at that time there was no internet. The architect would make blueprints and send them to me, which I would correct and send him back. It was a very challenging task. Many of the palaces of Shah Jahan were being looked at for the first time. We also did a survey of the Agra Fort. The survey and documentation material of Shah Jahan’s palaces and gardens is weighing heavily on my shoulders.

SR: Can we expect Shah Jahan’s palaces and gardens as the next publication then?

EK: Inshallah! One had to cross over a hundred years of art history for this. On one hand to do the basic documentation in the field, and then to ask the finer questions that the discipline has developed.

SR: There has been a concerted attempt on part of the current ruling party in India and its allies to vilify the Mughals, and very viciously and simplistically equate the Mughals with Muslims at large and tell them that this is not their homeland. The question of the homeland, however, was important in a fluid early modern world characterised by frontiers and contact zones. What is often invoked for wrong purposes, based on intentional misreadings is Babur’s distaste for things Indian as recorded in the Baburnama. How would you look at the question of the homeland as it appeared in the Mughal imagination, and the recurring references to Timur as a source of legitimacy in the Mughal world?

EK: One thing that Babur complaints about is the Hindustan of the Lodhis, and not of earlier Hindu rulers, something that is often made out of his writings. Obviously for Babur India wasn’t a place of preference. He wanted to build an empire in the footsteps of his ancestral provinces in Central Asia. The situation was fraught with the contesting claims of the Uzbeks. But he came to Kabul and then India, quite literally in the footsteps of Timur, carrying the Zafarnamah of Sharaf ad-Din Yazdi. Akbar focused less on Timur as a source of legitimacy, but later it was Shah Jahan who commissioned a genealogical dynastic portrait to document his lineage from Timur and undertook the Balkh and Badakhshan campaigns, to come as close as possible to him. References were also being made to Timur’s legacy in Samarkand, particularly in architecture, by adopting elements like the use of minarets in the Taj Mahal and other Shah Jahani structures. The Ottomans also did it, but there was a renewed interest in the Mughal world. Jahangir too sent finances for the upkeep of Timur’s tomb, Gur-i Amir, in Samarkand.

SR: Shah Jahan even goes on to use the Timurid epithet Sahib Qiran3

EK: Yes, but even the Safavids and Ottomans used it. But Shah Jahan used it in a very ostentatious way. His usage was very formalised, structured, and demonstrative.

SR: Thinking of formalism and demonstration, I’m reminded of your work on Mughal gardens, and especially the integration and use of natural formations like grottoes and terraces to further political ideas. Could you talk about such parallels of political landscaping in other cultures?

EK: In China, scholars left inscriptions in interesting natural settings, but it was not so much of an imperial practice. In early India, Ashoka, of course, commissioned inscriptions on rock faces. The Achaemenids and Sassanians also used rocks and other natural formations to inscribe kingship allegories. In early modern Europe, gardening was prevalent, not just out of love for nature but to demonstrate both economic status and rulership, for instance, the gardens of the Medicis of Florence. The idea was to leave an imprint in the natural world. The inscriptions that the Mughals commissioned were often genealogical in nature.

SR: Another interesting theme that you have written about is the erotic in imperial art. I’m reminded of your reading of the Mughal hunt as a romantic dialogue between the predatory and the prey, who behold each other. Could you touch upon the writing of the history of emotions with reference to this image?

EK: Let’s look at the image of Shah Jahan as portrayed in contemporary sources. The European travellers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century read love into the story of Taj Mahal, influenced by the idea of romantic love in eighteenth-century Europe. Qazvini too wrote about Shah Jahan’s grief on Mumtaz’s death, and tells us that the court was clad in white, the colour of mourning, and that there could be no public celebrations on Wednesdays, the day of her death. Grief, and indeed emotions, become the subjects of history. There’s a shift in the writing of Shah Jahan’s history- suddenly tarikh stops and masnawi begins, and once the story of Mumtaz’s death is narrated, it goes back to the genre of tarikh. It is through a reading of these accounts that one feels that Shah Jahan could also be described in the light of the story of Layla and Majnun.


SR: In that sense, the style of writing official histories was being experimented with.

EK: Yes, but also the content- what constituted history. Architecture too becomes a subject of history. What Jahangir does for natural history, in terms of minutiae observations, for instance, his description of the breeding habits of the saras cranes, Shah Jahan does for his architecture. Scientific descriptions of architecture and consistent usage of terms is a remarkable feature of Shah Jahan’s chronicles. On consistent use of terms, Stephan Popp’s recent work on the practices of gift-giving shows how pishkash, pay-andaz, etc. were used in a more formalised manner in Shah Jahan’s histories.

SR: Coming back to the Mughal hunt, how did it occur to you that the Persianate allegory of the moth being attracted to the flame could be read in the relationship between the prey and the predator?

EK: I studied the hunting palaces of the Mughals, of which Shah Jahan built some. I read Persian poetry with Dr Yunus Jafferey during this time. The Mughals, as hunters, were aware that in India hunting was slightly problematic because it went against the principle of ahimsa. The Rajputs did hunt, but the Mughal hunt was quite different. In "primitive societies" hunting rituals were performed in which the relationship between the hunter and the hunted was expressed. The Mughals chose to depict the prey as the one craving to be hunted, and since this was expressed in poetic terms in which the predator became the lover and prey the beloved, the moth and the candle imagery was used.

SR: Do we have records that tell us about the traditions of apprenticeship in the imperial atelier?

EK: There were family lineages, for example, Abu’l Hasan was the son of Aqa Riza, and Manohar the son of Basawan. Painters did learn from their fathers and elder brothers. Manuscripts were produced and illustrated in the ateliers. Akbar looked into the work of his painters, so did Jahangir in an even more engaged manner, and Shah Jahan. Qazvini writes about it, but Shah Jahan’s official historian Lahori doesn’t. There’s a history of close interactions between the ruler and his painters. Jahangir claimed to recognise the work of each painter in his memoirs and prided himself as a connoisseur. Coming to the institution of the kitabkhaneh, it was run by a closely-knit group of people involved in the art of the book.

SR: In terms of Shah Jahan’s architectural projects, can we think of the histories of labour and work?

EK: I would believe that there’s been some work on this in Aligarh. But nobody really thought of the people who were involved in making the buildings, they were always associated with the patron. Shah Jahan wasn’t very keen on recording the names of his architects. Calligraphers, however, were allowed to sign their creations, for instance, the calligrapher of Taj Mahal, Amanat Khan. Calligraphy has a very high status in the arts of the Islamic world. Interestingly, the labourers were allowed to put mason marks on buildings.

SR: What are mason marks?

EK: Mason marks are figures, symbols and inscriptions on buildings, that were probably done for collecting payments. Similar marks at different places perhaps indicate the work of the same person.

SR: In the introduction to your new book, The Mughal Empire from Jahangir to Shah Jahan (2019) you mention that the work hopes to engage students with the nature of early modernity. That makes me think of you as a teacher, and what teaching means to you.

EK: I mean students in the widest way, and we are all students. I really enjoy teaching, but at Vienna, people like to know about the Mughals, but very few work on them. But I have been engaging with students outside Vienna, like Yuthika Sharma, Chanchal Dadlani, Mehreen Chida-Razvi, and Afshan Bokhari. Afshan Bokhari’s research question looked at Jahanara’s self-representation as an imperial patron and her engagement with the sufis.

SR: In your recent essay, “Palaces, Gardens and Property Rights under Shah Jahan: Architecture as a Window into Mughal Legal Custom and Practice” you begin with a discussion of the existing literature on legal rights of inheritance in early modern South Asia which reviews the work of historians who function within methodological-scholastic frames, like Irfan Habib, Athar Ali, Ranajit Guha and John F. Richards, all stalwarts of their respective schools (here, "Aligarh", Subaltern and "Cambridge"). You, on the other hand, don’t belong to any such school of history writing. How do you think of your methodology?

EK: I still see myself as an art historian trained in formal analysis, which works fairly well for the Padshahnama paintings and the audience halls of Shah Jahan. But I’m an art historian with a strong historical bent. I try to look at the historical context and its details, and perhaps bridge the gap between history and art history. Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Azfar Moin did engage with art historical writings in their scholarship. Sunil Kumar and I engage with each other's work, and perhaps the next generation of historians would look more closely at visual material.

SR: With the populism of the global right, Islamophobia is on the rise…

EK: All images of the Islamic world that the media circulates are extremely aggressive. A couple of years ago when I was attending a literary festival in Lahore, the motto was ‘books not bombs’, but no media house reported it globally. You are absolutely right, the Muslims are under siege, one could say.

SR: So at this juncture, doing the history of Islamicate cultures could imply a political intervention, much needed to bust the myths propagated by the media. What does "doing" Mughal history feel like?

EK: Doing Mughal history is a tight-rope walk. Neither the Islamist orthodoxy in Pakistan nor the saffron in India back the Mughals. On the contrary, Ottoman history in Turkey receives considerable institutional support. But for me, it’s an extremely rewarding exercise, and I wish to impart this to my students. I see the Mughals as models of political acceptance. Rajeev Kinra, in his work, "Handling Diversity with Absolute Civility: The Global Historical Legacy of Mughal Ṣulḥ-i Kull"(2013) points out that in 1641, Thomas Roe, in his speech to the English Parliament, held up the Mughal example of rulership that could improve the economic conditions of the realm, which is quite contrary to the idea of oriental despotism. His was a different voice on the Mughals, a different opinion altogether. 


1.  Here, Professor Koch refers to the Shipa Shastra tradition of Early India, of which Chitrasutra is a part.

2.  Also the title of Latour’s book, We Have Never been Modern. Harvard University Press. 1993.

3. An epithet primarily used by Timur literally translated to ‘Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction’, which has its roots in pre-Islamic Iranian notions of kingship.