Gulbransen discusses Indian art

On Monday, April 9, Professor Krista Gulbransen gave a lecture on “Prayer, Performance, & Politics: Portraits of the Mughal Emperor Akbar Worshipping the Sun.” Gulbransen is an assistant professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Whitman College. Gulbransen shared her specialized knowledge on how the portrait genre in 16th and 17th-century northern India related to history, religion and cultural exchange.

Several students and professors were excited to attend the event. One of the attendees, Marcella Gallo ’18 commented, “I’m a religion major and interested in how rituals connect to divinity. In this event, I would like to learn more about how rituals have expressed a connection with God individually and collectively.”

The primary subject of the discussion was Akbar, the greatest Mughal emperor of India. He reigned from 1556 to 1605 and expanded Mughal power over most of the Indian subcontinent by integrating different religions such as Hinduism, Parseeism, Christianity and Islam. During Akbar’s regime, a cultural fusion actively occurred and produced a distinctive style in the arts. Gulbransen discussed how this transition can be seen in portraits of Akbar and spiritual figures.

Gulbransen noted that the first major change in paintings of Akbar’s time was that pictures became more realistic and detailed. She introduced two paintings, one from a previous era and the other from Akbar’s regime. Gulbransen pointed out that, in the first piece, figures are hardly distinguishable as specific people, since they are depicted in a simplistic manner. Instead, their names are written above their heads. However, the piece influenced by Akbar’s cultural fusion includes intricate details, such as wrinkles around the subject’s eyes.

Another important development of art during Akbar’s era is the use of solar symbolism. Akbar chose reverence of the sun as a form of ceremonial expression in order to appeal to and integrate a spiritually diverse populace. Gulbransen explained that Akbar was a pioneer of connecting religion and art with the sun. The image of Akbar standing barefoot on a rectangular mat and praising the sun became a common motif repeated throughout the history of Indian art. Additionally, the sun and light were frequently depicted in paintings and artifacts. For example, Gulbransen introduced an ancient coin decorated with a divine light symbol and a portrait of Akbar. In the realm of painting, halos became common motifs. Gulbransen commented, “Incorporating philosophical principles and various theologies, Akbar established Din-i-Ilahi, or Divine Faith, in the 1570s and 1580s.” Akbar’s commission of multiple portraits of himself in the act of sun worship speaks to his personal investment in this performance of inclusivity and religious tolerance.

Art forms in Akbar’s time also incorporated European culture in various ways. To begin with, one of the portraits from the Salim Album—a collection of art named for Akbar’s son—depicted a Jesuit priest with his traditional black hat and cloak. Ambassadors and governmental officials from European countries can also be found in the Indian paintings of the 16th century. The artists during Akbar’s regime often copied Catholic paintings for practice and adopted aspects of their style, such as structure and details.

Attendee Haniya Habib ’18, reflected on what she took away from the event, saying, “There is not enough discussion about South Asian culture on campus. This lecture [was] a great opportunity to learn what I cannot gain at Vassar.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *