By Ghazala Akbar
To most people, the city of Dresden in Saxony, Germany is notable for its exquisite porcelain. Some might remember too, its apocalyptic destruction by Allied planes in the last days of World War II. More recently, it has been in the news, for its strident marches against radical Islam by an organisation known as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West.)
Not widely known perhaps is that one Dresden’s splendid museums, the Green Vault (Grunes Gevolbe) is home to an extraordinary work of art – a hand-crafted miniature model of the Court of Aurangzeb, featuring the seventh Mughal Emperor of Hindustan (1658-1707) in all his earthly glory.
Given that ethnic Germans, unlike their other European counterparts weren’t seafarers, traders or colonists with Indian connections, Saxony may seem an incongruous place to evince an interest in the Mughals. However, by the17th century, the fame of this Indian dynasty had crossed oceans – the ‘Great’ or ‘Grooten Mogul’ almost a byword in Europe for absolute power, riches and courtly magnificence.
The Dutch Painter Rembrandt, (1606-1669) an admirer of Mughal miniatures, had attempted a few pen and ink sketches of the Emperor Shahjehan and his ill-fated son Dara Shikoh. In the late 1770s, work began on the Brighton Pavilion, a pleasure palace for English royalty — its dome and spires inspired by Indo-Saracenic architecture. In literature, Aurangzeb’s daughter, Zebunnissa inspired ‘Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance’ by Thomas Moore, Irish poet and friend of Lord Byron which formed the basis for several operatic works later.
Small wonder then that the style and splendour of the Mughals, relayed orally, written up in illustrated accounts and visibly demonstrated in artefacts brought back by returning travellers ignited the Teutonic imagination as well — finding artistic expression in a fabulous piece entitled, ‘The Royal Household at Delhi on the Occasion of the Birthday of the Grand Mogul Aurang-Zeb’.
This is a fantastical but accurate depiction of the Emperor in Durbar mode with nobles, Satraps and Ambassador arriving to pay deferential respect. Imaginatively created, the whole scene bears striking resemblance to a detailed engraving ‘Le Cour du Grand Mogul’ one of several illustrations that appeared in various European Atlases and books of the period. Incidentally, these formal ceremonies served as a prototype for the Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911 by the Mughal’s successors, the British — and — on a humbler scale, (according to some commentators) the inauguration of Narendar Modi as India’s Prime Minister!
Aurangzeb is seated under a canopy surrounded with 137 enamelled figures of men, animals and objects wrought from gold, ivory, silver and jewels. The model replica measures 1420 centimetres in width, 580 cm in height with a depth of 1140 centimetres — its size further enhanced by side mirrors that reflect the dazzling image. Befitting the Indo-Mughal penchant for fine jewellery, it comprises a jaw-dropping 4909 diamonds, 164 emeralds, 160 rubies, a sapphire, 16 pearls and two cameos.
The piece was created by one of Europe’s greatest goldsmiths, Johann Melchor Dinglinger and his family between 1701 and 1708. It was readily snapped up by Augustus II, King of Saxony whose lavish, innovative tastes in arts and architecture would have elicited wholehearted Mughal appreciation. It is a moot point though whether Aurangzeb with his orthodox views would approve of this three-dimensional portraiture.
King Augustus paid almost 60, 000 ‘talers’ for the piece –the ‘taler’ being a silver coin that served as the unit of currency in the independent German States before they were all united into a nation-state by Otto Von Bismarck in 1871. Equivalent modern values are difficult to compute but just to put things into perspective, it cost more than the construction of Moritzburg Castle, one of his prized building projects.
The area of Saxony owes much to Augustus for its magnificent palaces, Royal Chapel and terraces along the River Elbe. He was also the impetus for the luxury production of porcelain at Miessen. All the Electors and Kings of Saxony in fact were enthusiastic collectors acquiring and commissioning works of immeasurable value over the centuries.
The Green Vault where the Aurangzeb piece is located in one of four museums in the city, a veritable Alladin’s cave of glittering opulence, some of which are displayed on open shelving or tables. Even more remarkable is the fact that these works have survived war and occupation.
Dresden lay in tatters when four intense air – raids on the nights of February 13 and 14, 1945 by RAF and USAF planes flattened the city centre causing fires of almost biblical proportions. Thousands perished in the inferno. The motivation and reasons for such heavy bombardment are still controversial as the Nazis were in full retreat by then and the city was populated by fleeing refugees.
The city eventually fell to Russian land forces and in the re-arrangement of Europe following World War II it lay behind the ‘iron curtain’ to become a part of Communist East Germany. Its Marxist Post-war rulers had a different set of priorities with the result that ruins of castles and churches lay untouched for several years. Finally when the two German states re-united in the 1990s, the process of restoring Dresden to its former glory began in earnest.
At a time when war, barbarity and mindless cultural vandalism (as witnessed in the destruction at the museum at Mosul recently) plunges vast swathes of the Middle East into an area of darkness, both the example of Dresden’s resurrection and this work of art serves up a reminder that in the long course of human history these violent, periodic interregnums are temporary occurrences; that in the march of civilisational progress, the twain of East and West do cross and fertilize; and that the Phoenix can and does rise from ruins, rubble and ashes.