RICHMOND -- Few architectural monuments in history have so entranced the world's imagination as the beautiful Taj Mahal. It has seriously affected architects, artists and poets in India and elsewhere, has stimulated reams of sentimental drivel, and continues to be the source of weird commercial exploitation for everything from gambling casinos to whiskeys to used car lots.
The image of the building is the resonant centerpiece of "The Romance of the Taj Mahal," a traveling art exhibition that went on view last week at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this splendid exhibition shows and tells much about the great building. It also comprises an excellent survey of Mogul art of the mid-17th century and a fascinating introduction to the life and times of Shah Jahan, the Moslem ruler who caused the Taj Mahal to be built.
Shah Jahan (1592-1666) is remembered popularly for the depth of his devotion to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal was constructed in extraordinary tribute after her death in childbirth in 1631. This is in truth an exceptional love story despite the facts that theirs was an arranged marriage and that Mumtaz Mahal was only one of Shah Jahal's wives. She was, however, by all accounts the most favored in the harem -- she bore all of the shah's 14 children and she was his companion and adviser on his many military campaigns and missions of state.
His grief at her death is attested to by reliable contemporary records -- his dark beard turned "more than one-third white" immediately thereafter, and "from constant weeping, he was forced to use spectacles" -- and of course by the great mausoleum itself. Deposed by his son Aurangzeb in 1658, the shah is said to have spent his last years forcibly cooped up in the Agra fort, in chambers with a breathtaking riverside view of the Taj Mahal, and upon his death his body was placed next to hers in its crypt.
But Shah Jahan was nothing if not a multifaceted monarch -- cruel despot, cold killer, skilled warrior, diligent king, capable administrator, kind father, enlightened patron of all the arts and, above all, great builder in the cause of his own glory, that of his religion, and of his empire (which extended over much of what is today northern India and parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh). Although not a professional architect, he was no hands-off client, either. He is known to have participated directly in his massive building enterprises; his taste and good judgment obviously played a significant role in the design of the Taj Mahal.
Great care was taken by the scholars who organized this exhibition to place the Taj Mahal in its proper cultural context, and since it has been perhaps the most reproduced image in all of architecture, they had plenty of material to chose from. Visitors are shown, for instance, how its elegant form and even its floor plan of eight rooms (called "eight paradises") surrounding a central domed chamber relate to earlier Mogul mausoleums and even back to Timur (or Tamerlane), the ruthless 14th-century conqueror from whom Shah Jahan was descended.
For reasons of imperial prestige, the shah and his family made a lot of this distant ancestry. The use of Timurid antecedents in the plan clearly was intentional; to teach the same lesson, Mogul rulers commanded their court painters to craft exquisite "trees of descent" showing the relationship to Timur. (One of the commendable things about the exhibition is how such points are made repeatedly in different ways. The curators combed world collections for lendable objects related to primary themes.)
Among the more telling documents assembled for the show are old site plans. Although the building itself has survived quite handsomely for more than three centuries, today's lawned yards are nothing like the more intimate, formal arrangements of Shah Jahan's time. The loss is significant, for as these scholars demonstrate, the entire walled complex -- encompassing 42 acres and consisting of the white marble mausoleum, two flanking buildings in red sandstone (a mosque and a rest house), a striking southern gateway that in itself is an architectural triumph, and the gardens -- was conceived as a "perfectly evolved embodiment of the Islamic concept of paradise."
This is indeed serious motivation -- to build an image of Heaven on earth -- and far better than the romantic tale of the widower's sincere love for his wife does it help to explain the wondrous beauty of the building and its environment. Of course, there's no thoroughly logical "explanation" for such a work of art, which at its core remains mysterious, but such comprehensive cultural aspirations were fundamental to the achievement. Likewise, the shah's wealth and power were basic, as was the craft of its makers. There was absolutely no intellectual or material skimping on this imperial project.
Curators here were hampered, as always in such enterprises, by the absence of the actual object -- there simply is no substitute for a visit to the Taj Mahal -- but they did well enough to make those of us who haven't been there want desperately to go. The paradisaical garden theme is apparent even in the minute details on display -- marble fragments from similar buildings of the period, beautifully incised with floral motifs in the pietra dura technique (wherein gemlike semiprecious stones are laid into the white marble). One can only imagine the effects, at differing times of day, of such details multiplied upon the vast surfaces of so perfectly proportioned a structure.
It should be said to their credit, too, that the curators were able to bring Shah Jahan's times uniquely to life in this show: Never before (in this country, anyway) has so impressive an assortment of quality objects from this Mogul ruler's opulent domain been brought together. The jewelry and glasswork are fantastic, and a tribute to the patron's exemplary taste. A skilled jewelry designer as a young man, Shah Jahan clearly was a connoisseur. There's hardly a hint of excess in any of the objects -- necklaces, pendants, bracelets, archers' thumb rings, flasks, dagger handles -- created for him and his court. (The whole imperial shtick was excessive, of course, but that's judging by external standards. At its time and place the incredible display had a political as well as an aesthetic purpose.)
Shah Jahan's justified reputation as a builder has long obscured his patronage of the other arts, but no longer. Mogul paintings, long renowned (as "miniatures") for their flawless technique and expressivity -- Rembrandt owned some and did studies after them -- were produced in quantity and quality in his imperial workshops, and quite a few of the best are in this show. There is great variety in subject -- portraits, court scenes, battle scenes, arabesques, Koranic and poetic inscriptions in fluid calligraphy, naturalistic renderings of animals and flowers -- and also in individual expression. The stillness in a painting by Govardhan, the atmospherics in another by Payag, are in themselves sufficient causes to travel to Richmond before the show closes. Most of the Western paintings here -- the ragtag "romance" part of the exhibition -- pale definitively by comparison.
The exhibition remains on view through Nov. 25. The Virginia Museum, 2800 Grove Ave., is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursday until 10 p.m.) and Sunday from 1 to 5. The excellent catalogue, fully illustrated, contains essays by the show's chief curator, Pratapaditya Pal of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and by the Virginia Museum's Joseph M. Dye III, among others.