Behind the Scenes, Exhibitions, South Asian and Himalayan Art

Emperors and Interns: Behind the Scenes of Worlds within Worlds

Book cover from a volume of the Gulshan Album, painted with colors and gold and lacquered, India, F1999.2a-b

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013. Mekala Krishnan is a curatorial researcher working on the yoga exhibition.

Mekala Krishnan: Tell us about your work at F|S. Maybe describe your typical day in the curatorial department.

Najiba Choudhury: I don’t think there is a typical day for a curatorial intern. There were weeks when I was doing only pure research. You know: scouring for material, poring over books, and writing reports on objects for an upcoming exhibition. Then there is the usual scanning, xeroxing, editing images, and putting together PowerPoint presentations. I was also able to assist my supervisor, curator Debra Diamond, on the Worlds within Worlds exhibition. For a while I was just reading multiple rounds of the label texts for the exhibition, proofreading, and fact-checking. The nature of the work varies wildly, depending on the needs of the department at that moment. You also get to attend talks, events, and storage visits at the Freer and Sackler.

MK: Are there aspects of curatorial work that you hadn’t expected coming in?

NC: The public aspect of a curator’s job surprised me. I hadn’t realized that a BIG part of being a curator is interacting with people. This includes not only communicating with multiple departments within the museums but also with the public. You have to keep in touch with scholars in your field and museum professionals from the other institutions, cultivate relationships with donors and friends of the museums, and talk to the press. Then, obviously, curators have to give exhibition tours and other talks for the general public. It’s a lot!

MK: What was your favorite part of working on Worlds within Worlds?

NC: First of all, it was an amazing learning experience to observe the whole process of putting together an exhibition; so many different departments are involved in the process. It truly is a team effort. But I have to say, the most exciting part for me was going into storage and the conservation labs and just looking at the objects really closely, and listening to the curators and various experts talk about the pieces, discussing their details. It’s almost like going to a jam session. I mean, there have been so many moments when we discovered something new just by looking at art objects together, discussing our thoughts, and hashing out ideas.

MK: Tell us more about the process of putting together an exhibition. How are the paintings chosen?

NC: Worlds within Worlds presented an unique situation in that the exhibition is in honor of the revised and expanded edition of Milo Cleveland Beach’s book The Imperial Image, which presents the Mughal collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. So in some ways, we already had the source material in hand. But the exhibition curators, Debra Diamond and Massumeh Farhad, wanted to add another layer, highlighting the historical and stylistic connections between Persian and Mughal painting traditions. While selecting paintings for the three galleries, we not only tried to pick our strongest works, but also examples that demonstrate the distinct sensibilities of the three Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan), show certain shifts in style and subject based on the emperors’ demands and desires, and demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Mughal courts between the 16th and 17th centuries. I think it’s quite clever the way each painting serves multiple purposes/narratives at the same time.

The literal answer to your question is: One day I came into Debra’s office and the whole floor was covered with printouts of images. She was pairing paintings together and trying to curve out narratives from them, in an attempt to plan a gallery wall. Later on, there were multiple rounds of editing, where Debra and Massumeh would sit together discuss the layout, often removing paintings from the object list and adding new ones.

MK: What can we learn about the Mughal empire from Worlds within Worlds? What new “worlds” did you discover?

NC: The Mughals were highly cosmopolitan. They were very much in touch with the Islamic world (both Persian and Ottoman empires) and also in contact with Europeans through official dignitaries and Jesuit missionaries who visited the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were distinctly aware of local traditions in India, and were in constant dialogue with Hindus, Jains, and Muslims. This cross-cultural interaction and diversity is directly reflected in the paintings that were commissioned by the Mughal emperors, as seen in Worlds within Worlds.

As to discovering new worlds: Even since the exhibition went up, I’m discovering new things every day. Just the other day, I was touring the exhibition with two of my coworkers from the Islamic Department and one of them pointed out the face of a woman poking out of a window in the Noah’s Ark painting. You only see a tiny face, but there is no doubt that it’s a woman. It’s totally cool! I find that it’s moments like these that make working in a Mughal exhibition truly special. The paintings are filled with intricate details; they were meant to be held closely, like a book, and carefully studied. Hence, you are constantly finding new elements.

MK: You were involved with creating the website for the exhibition. Tell us about what you did.

NC: I was involved from the initial stages of creating the online component of Worlds within Worlds. I selected the Mughal paintings on which you can zoom in and click on specific parts for more details. I also helped shape content, which included writing some of the zoomify details, among other things.

MK: What is your favorite zoomify detail and why?

NC: I love the Gulshan album cover details. They are difficult to see even with magnifying glasses, but now people can visit the website to view them with very high degrees of magnification. I love the scene showing a group of Europeans dressed in their fineries, enjoying fine food and music. It’s very much about indulging your senses. And then to its left, there’s another detail showing two ascetics (yogis) scantily dressed who have renounced all forms of pleasure. The way it juxtaposes opposites, indulging your senses and austerity, all in the same page is really interesting to me.

There is another detail from the album cover where you have an adorable cheetah sitting on a horse, next to a royal hunter. I didn’t know before working on this project that a) you can tame a cheetah and b) on hunts the Mughals would take domesticated cheetahs as part of their royal entourage.¬†Every time I see the cheetah, just casually sitting there, it cracks me up!

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran closes on Sunday, September 16, 2012.