“Strategies of Presenting Text and Illustrations: Turning the Pages of a Sixteenth Century Book of Wisdom”: An Interview with Seher Agarwala


The Raven leading men to the Serpent’s cave, 1816, scribe Ṣādiq ibn Muḥammad Jaʻfar al-Iṣfahānī, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, X892.8 B472, fol. 70r

Last week, I “sat” down via Zoom with Seher Agarwala, a PhD student in the Art History and Archeology Department at Columbia , and asked her a few questions related to Indo-Persian manuscripts, the Muslim World Manuscript project and her own dissertation, which addresses the politics and ethics of 16th c. aesthetics in the Islamicate world. Our conversation led us onto fascinating paths regarding  the ethical formation of the Islamicate subject through text, literature and adab, but also through art and aesthetics, and illustrations and illuminations of manuscripts. How can an image, illustration or illumination embedded  in a  manuscript play a formative role in fashioning a subject’s adab and support her ethical and cultural transformation? The power of material culture and of art in making us who we are was explored in fascinating ways through a focus on Indo-Persian and Islamic manuscripts and Seher’s work.

Seher, welcome. Can you please introduce yourself and your field of study?

Anvār-i Suhaylī, Qutb Shahi, Golconda, 1582, Victoria & Albert Museum, IS.13:120-1962

I am a PhD candidate, studying the Arts of South Asia in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia. In my dissertation I focus on illustrated manuscripts written in Persian, specifically a manuscript produced in the Qutb Shahi court in Golconda in the Deccan. I rely mainly on the following copy of the manuscript: the Anvār-i Suhaylī, Qutb Shahi, Golconda, 1582, currently at the Victoria & Albert Museum, IS.13:120-1962. This manuscript is known as the Golconda Anvār-i Suhalī. It was produced in 1582 and has almost 130 striking illustrations. My dissertation is tentatively titled, “Strategies of Presenting Text and Illustrations: Turning the Pages of a Sixteenth Century Book of Wisdom”, and it examines the role of images in the cultivation of ethical subjects.

Can you tell us more about your project? Have you used archives and manuscripts in your research?

Anvār-i Suhaylī, Folio 1v, 1816, scribe Ṣādiq ibn Muḥammad Jaʻfar al-Iṣfahānī, Columbia University., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, X892.8 B472

I will just give a brief overview of the cultural context before talking about my project specifically. From the twelfth to the nineteenth century, Persian language was the transregional language of power and culture across Central and South Asia. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a period of great social change, as an unprecedented number of people, objects and ideas circulated across Persianate courts from North Africa to Southeast Asia, and military commanders carved out new kingdoms, set up courts, and expanded the realm of Persian influence. Persian became the language of communication and of high culture, and the circulation of Persian works ensured a shared notion of the good life, of aesthetics, and ethics. A resulting complex and rich shared idea of goodness was developed, lived and then transmitted through literary works. This idea of a courtly ethics/aesthetics is particularly significant for the only Shi’a kingdom in South Asia, namely the Qutb Shahi court (1495-1687), which was established by immigrant Turkmen but included Hindus, Muslims who were Afghans, Turks and Persians, as well as Muslim converts and people who spoke Urdu, Telegu, Persian, Arabic, and Marathi. People of different ethnic, religious and cultural/linguistic affiliations navigated normativity by engaging with others through Persian and through reading Persian works. Manuscript culture in the Qutb Shahi court is vital to the study of how a uniform understanding of ethical and ideal, normative and “excellent” behavior was created among trans-local and regional groups. I broadly study the different strategies used in books to achieve that aim and inculcate this adab, this high ethics, this way of life. I specifically focus on analyzing the text and paintings, first separately by focusing on each medium, and then by bringing text and image, materiality and content, in dialogue to unveil complementarities between the content and experience of the written and visual texts and their effects on the reader. I look at different modes of bringing images and text together as they are put at the service of edifying their readers in unison.

Returning to your dissertation and to the manuscript you focus on: tell us a bit about your interests and the Anvār-i Suhayī  manuscript. What is it about? Why is it significant?  

Tārīkh-i Quṭb-i Shāhīyah, scribe Mirzā ʻAlī Bayg Riz̤ā Hādī, 1858, Library of Congress. Persian manuscript, M61

The focus of my dissertation is an illustrated sixteenth century Anvār-i Suhaylī made for the Qutb Shahis. The Anvār-i Suhayī was written in the Timurid court in the 15th century by Persian cleric Va’iz Kāshefī as an instructional book and was produced in the hundreds. It is related to the more well-known Kalilah wa Dimnah. My dissertation is focused on a single manuscript, partly because of my own curiosity to know what happens as we look at and take in a specific manuscript: how does it work? how is this effect transmitted to the reader/viewer, not only at the level of comprehension of the text, but its “pedagogical” effect on fashioning a specific type of subject, with specific ethical virtues, ways of being in the world, and ways of seeing the world?  I am also influenced by the scholarship of Christine van Ruymbeke whose analysis of the text made this possible. Even though we know that Persian illustrated manuscripts were central to the production of ethical subjects, what paintings had to do with ethics or the processes through which manuscripts transformed, fashioned and molded the viewer is still largely unknown. To answer this, my dissertation studies how illustrations functioned within manuscripts and how manuscripts functioned within Persianate courts. To evaluate these two queries, I analyze how the manuscript’s internal word and image mechanisms determined how its audience engaged with it. My dissertation argues that paintings served a range of functions, as markers of status and as facilitators of thought, and ultimately as anchoring  a process of transformation of the subject on the lived, experiential ethical as well as aesthetic planes. In order to ground my study in its historical context, in addition to comparing related manuscripts in the Qutb Shahi library, I will also reference works written about what life was like in the Qutb Shahi court. For example, I will examine and rely on the Tawarikh-i Qutb Shahi by an anonymous writer (currently held in the Salar Jung Museum), some copies at the Library of Congress as well as the letters exchanged between the Qutb Shahis and Safavid court (at the British Library). Columbia has a 19th century illustrated Anvār-i Suhaylī manuscript in its collection, which I’m very happy about, and will take a close look at.

Humayun Fal and Khojastah Rai, Anvār-i Suhaylī, Folio 9v, 1816, scribe Ṣādiq ibn Muḥammad Jaʻfar al-Iṣfahānī, Columbia University., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, X892.8 B472

So how do you use the Anvār-i Suhaylī manuscript in your dissertation, and to what effects? How does text and illustration work together within the manuscript to achieve complementary ends?

The manuscript, which is produced in Iran, contains a number of initial paintings that present a good example of how this book works and the role that images play in encouraging reflection on the book’s key themes. The Anvār-i Suhaylī is a rewriting of the earlier Persian Kalilah wa Dimnah. In Anvar-i Suhayli, Kāshefī adds a preface, where he expresses the purpose of the book, its history, who it is meant for and how to use it. I want to discuss two paintings which belong to this preface section of the book. The first painting (Anvār-i Suhaylī , fol. 9v) depicts a king Humayun Fal and his minister Khojastah Rai in a clearing on a mountain, mid-conversation, with the king asking his minister about the coming and going of bees. There is a narrative pause at this point, where, in his response to the king, Kāshefī (in the words of Khojastah Rai) gives a discourse based on the Quranic ideal of kingship modeled on a beehive (Sura:14, al-Nahl). On the successive page, we also find the Qur’ānic verse in red colored script (Anvār-i Suhaylī, fol.10r) . This is an extremely important section of the Anvār-i Suhaylī for it is where its writer is most explicit about the characteristics and duties of the monarch and subjects. The second painting (Anvār-i Suhaylī, fol.18r) depicts another ideal king- wise man pairing. In this case, king Dabshalim has found a piece of white cloth inscribed with fourteen axioms of wisdom in an unknown language inside a mountain cave and has summoned a sage named Hushang to translate it. These fourteen axioms form the fourteen chapters (bābs) under which the stories in the Anvār-i Suhaylī are organized. This is another significant moment in the book. This event between Dabshalim and Hushang discussing the organizational logic and contents of the Anvār-i Suhaylī concludes the preface. It is also significant in terms of explanting the internal structure of Kashefi’s text. On the painted page, the book (Anvār-i Suhaylī) is referred to as ‘a book of treasure’ (khazīneh nāmeh).

Dabshalim and Hushand, Anvār-i Suhaylī, Folio 18r, 1816, scribe Ṣādiq ibn Muḥammad Jaʻfar al-Iṣfahānī, Columbia University., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, X892.8 B472

While the artists have chosen to represent two significant moments apropos the book itself, these two episodes are related in other ways. The structure of the book follows stories embedded within stories. For instance, Khojastah Rai explains ideals of kingship by narrating the story of Dabshalim so the Dabshalim storyline is connected with the larger Humayun Fal framework story via its embedded nature. In addition, the text repeats situations, characters and scenarios. Both instances are variations of a king retreating from the city/castle, undertaking an arduous journey, beholding a majestic and verdant mountain, perambulating it, before finally coming across a clearing, where the discourse takes place. Repetition plays a key role in meaning making in the Anvār-i Suhaylī. Employing repetition triggers the reader to recall earlier passages, brings unity to the narrative and aids in interpreting the different stories as a coherently. The repetition of princely advice stories doesn’t just unify the stories but also encourages the reader to extract the core themes common to both paintings– in this case, to read Anvār-i Suhaylī as an instructional manual for moral governance.

The particularities of the paintings help identify the episodes, but the similarities they share, visually and textually, aid the viewer in interpreting them as a pair. Both the paintings have a richly attired figure in orange on the left and a more modest one on the right, facing each other with open arms, suggesting an ongoing conversation between them. Instead of stemming from a lack of imagination, the repetition in the paintings is analogous to the text’s structure and works alongside the text to manufacture moments of contemplation in the viewer. My preliminary analysis of his manuscript shows that placement of the paintings allowed the reader to understand them illustratively as depictions of the stories but on account of authorial decisions taken by its scribes and artist regarding their composition and strategic location, these paintings activate the mind in several ways.

How do you situate your research within the broader field, and have you been able to get around the specific challenges of access in these unprecedented times of the epidemic?  

(Fig., Anvār-i Suhaylī, Victoria & Albert Museum, IS.13:116-1962, painting 27, fol. 119)

There has been significant achievement in connecting paintings with the history of style, e.g. the Shirazi style, the Jalayarid style, individual tastes and artistry of specific royal patrons such as the Mughal emperor Akbar or Safavid Shah Tashmasp and well-known artists like Bihzad. There is also a ell established practice of connecting paintings with specific political identities ( e.g.Timurid, Ilkhanid etc). I am not so interested in identifying specific styles, or examples of styles, but rather, my interest lies in linking objects to the intellectual and social environment in which they operated. One possible way around this is to analyze how a manuscript’s words and images converge and make meaning together. The manuscripts I need to study are related to the Golconda manuscript in England in V&A, British Library, Khalili Collection) and to study those, I need to travel to France (BnF), Turkey (Topikapi Sarai and University of Istanbul), State Archives in Croatia, Salar Jung Museum and National Museum in India as well as museums that hold Shirazi manuscripts in the US. So far scholars, librarians and curators have been extremely generous with sharing material and helping in this time of travel-restrictions.

At present, I am gathering manuscripts that are in any way related to the Golconda Anvāri Suhaylī, which includes commercial manuscripts produced for sale in Shiraz in the 15th and 16th centuries and manuscripts which have Qutb Shahi seals. By the way, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has at least one manuscript of Yusuf and Zulaykha, which was in the collection of the royal Qutb Shahi library.

You have recently (pre-COVID-19 lockdown) visited some archives and manuscript centers in South Asia? Can you please briefly describe the resources they hold and their potential significance for researchers and students?

The Raza Library (Rampur, Uttar Pradesh) and Khuda Bakhsh (Patna, Bihar) have hundreds of Qur’āns either produced in South Asia or collected from early Islamic dynasties and Central Asia. As yet, there is very little scholarship on Qur’āns of South Asia and aspects of their production, circulation, transmission of religious knowledge, or collecting. These libraries also have copies of illustrated works like Dala’il al-Khayrat (Blessings of the Prophet) written in the 15th century by al-Jazuli and Futuh al-Haramayn (Description of the Holy Cities), a canonical guidebook pilgrimage written for the sultan of Gujarat around the 16th century. Early modern travelogues tell us that residents of Mecca and Medina bemoaned the arrival of the pilgrims from Gujarat because their excessive spending would lead to inflation and yet we don’t really know much about the history of pilgrimage in South Asia. Raza Library also has numerous illustrated manuscripts of Persian poetry and Qur’āns produced in Kashmir also stand out as worthy of sustained scholarly attention.

Can you comment on the materiality of manuscripts, and what they can teach us?

Every manuscript is different and reveals information about its community of producers and consumers. Even the incomplete sections, mistakes and edits reveal a lot. In the Golconda Anvār-i Suhalī for example, verses from the Qur’ān are written in a color other than black. It’s usually yellow, blue or red.

al-Qurʼān, Iran or India, 17-18th century, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS Or 253, fol. 250r

On a page, in the space where the Qur’ānic verse should be inscribed, spaces have been left blank, suggesting that the Persian text was likely written first, while keeping in mind to leave space for the Arabic text, which seems to have been added later. Furthermore, leaving a precise amount of space on the page for the Arabic text indicates that the text was transmitted through a manuscript and not orally: they seem to have had access to a precedent or to a practice in order to be able to measure the needed space. In another manuscript we own at Columbia, namely Ms Or 253, the translation of the meaning of the Quran has been inscribed in small interlinear red lines, while the Arabic is in big, clear, bold black. This has not only a visual effect on the reader, but on her experience of the text. Many messages are conveyed this way.

Or to return to my favorite manuscript, the Anvār-i Suhalī from our collection, take a look at the image you display at the beginning of this blog post. There, you have the image working hand in hand with the text to achieve an effect, an ethical realization on the part of the subject. So, just to describe the image, kind of tongue-in-cheek, here is what is happening in this panel:  After losing several offspring to the serpent, the raven is advised by a jackal that he should steal a precious ornament from men, while making sure this theft is visible to them. He should fly with this ornament to the serpent’s nest and drop it into it. In order the retrieve the precious jewel, the men will destroy the snake in his nest. In the story, the raven sees a woman bathing. She has removed her ornaments and he lifts it while the woman bathes. The producers of this manuscript have chosen to depict the raven stealing her clothes instead! If you look at the image, and see how it is depicted, the viewer/reader is drawn in, and it is a participatory experience, where we are asked to ponder, reflect, and participate not only in the viewing, but also in the dilemna. It is truly fascinating!

In fact, when you think about how much the materiality of a manuscript can teach us about  a specific community or society, you realize the importance of archives and manuscripts. Access to archives is crucial. Aspects related to materiality of the book such as pages’ watermarks as well as burnishing or gilding are important to reproduce in digitized versions to preserve the access to the three dimensional and “archeological” aspect of any manuscript, where you need to look at, but also below, and across the page, and go beyond the mere rendering of the text block.

Scissors watermark across the fold in Isl. Ms. 569 p.10/11, Michigan (from Evyn Kropf blog:https://apps.lib.umich.edu/blogs/beyond-reading-room/watermark-wednesdays-scissors)

On that last note, I want to mention that I attended a workshop on Islamic Manuscripts at UCLA last year, where Evyn Kropf (Librarian for Middle Eastern & North African Studies and Religious Studies and Curator of Islamic Manuscripts Collection at the University of Michigan) made an eye-opening presentation on pre-modern watermarks in manuscripts. It was fascinating to see how these objects came to life, holding layers and layers of meaning and social praxes, from the making of the paper, to the watermark, to the illumination, the binding, distribution, consumption, etc. of manuscripts. Worlds within worlds. What I focus on in my dissertation is how some of these manuscripts played an edifying role, both through text and image, in creating a moral subject who can then internalize specific norms of behavior, including ethical as well as aesthetic ones, and become part of the court or of a specific society. A kind of  a Bildung, created through visual as well as written texts.

Fascinating! What primary resources (manuscripts, archives, etc.) are at your disposal in the U.S., and specifically at Columbia for teaching? How do you use these material objects in the classroom?

Seal in manuscript giving the names of Muhammad Quli Qutbshah (1580–1611), Yusuf and Zulaikha of Jami, Attributed to Iran, Shiraz,

Since I study illustrated manuscripts, I don’t have a lot of familiarity with anthologies of scientific or legal works. Looking at an 18th century Arabic Majmūʻah consisting of grammar, Qur’ānic recitation and astrology (MS Or 358) was a totally new experience for me. From Columbia’s collection, I was excited to come across the Khamsā of Nizami in the collection (X892.8 N651 Folio). Nizami as a writer thinks through the man-made material world to a fair degree, which makes him very attractive to art historians.

When I teach, in class, we discuss how objects, especially manuscripts can illuminate questions regarding how people thought, socialized, negotiated their present identities and social realities. I am also informed by the contemporary world and I understand that objects have the ability to disrupt widespread assumptions of peoples and cultures. Take the example of Mughal paintings of Madonna and Hindu mythologies, and Safavid porcelain modelled on China etc. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they all speak to a rich history of multiculturalism within Islamic lands.

Madonna and Child in a Domestic Interior, century,Painting by Manohar (active ca. 1582–1624) Mughal, 17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970.217
Krishna Holds Up Mount Govardhan, Folio from a Harivamsa (The Legend of Hari (Krishna)), Mughal, painted in Lahore, 1590–95, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 28.63.1)

I taught Islamic art as part of a course titled, ‘Masterpieces of Indian Art’ which stretches from 1700 BCE to the contemporary period, so there is a very short window of about half a dozen classes to allocate to Islamic art. At Columbia, classroom discussions are structured along the Socratic method, where through microanalysis of objects and questions and answers, students draw out underlying ideas on their own. For instance, the album with calligraphy and illustrations compiled in the 19th century (X892.8 M31), and filled with paintings of Islamic prophets: (X892.8 M31, fol.10r), Jesuit saints (X892.8 M31; fol. 13v); European prints (X892.8 M31) ; botanical drawings (X892.8 M31, fol. 11v), etc. can be used as a great pedagogical tool to draw important comparative conclusions for the students. This album clearly draws on different religious and courtly traditions and artistic styles. It is a tailormade manuscript, where many styles, periods, subjects were bound together. Hence I find it an ideal pedagogical tool for addressing themes of sociability, artistic tradition, courtly intellectual milieu, early modern urbanism and transmission of knowledge in the classroom.The album even has a calligraphed page bearing the signature of Faqir Mir Ali (X892.8 M31, fol. 21). Mir Ali was a renowned master of Persian calligraphy and a composer of nastaliq in the Timurid era and the Mughals were keen collectors of his work. Is this sample by his hand or that of his pupils, perhaps or not but the compiler of the album, even at a non-courtly level, and centuries after Mir Ali, felt it was important to include it in the album. Such performative provenance and attributions raise questions of artistic tradition, memory, history – questions which are embedded in the material object and its structure, archeology, provenace, as much as the display, the text and the image. I will be teaching “Masterpieces of Indian Art’ in the Spring of 2021 and it would be ideal to take a close look at this album with my students, in person. Even non-illustrated works are great moments of discovery for students. A Qur’ānic page (al-Qurʼān, Iran or India, 17-18th century, MS Or 253, fol. 250r,) with Persian translation bearing different languages (Arabic and Persian) scripts (naskh and nastaliq), colors (black and red) enables students to think about the process of production (only one page has Persian translation and this too ends three-fourth of the way), transmission of religious instruction, circulation of the Qur’ān in non-Arabic speaking lands, audience and reception etc.

X892.8 M31; Islamic prophet; Fig. 8, fol.10r
X892.8 M31; European imprint

Thank you, Seher! What a journey, and a literal eye opener! I wish you the best of luck with your fascinating research and with your teaching!

For inquiries regarding the Muslim World Manuscript project at Columbia, please contact:

Jane Siegel: Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services: RBML:  jane.siegel@columbia.edu;

Peter Magierski: Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian: pm2650@columbia.edu,

Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@ columbia.edu

Kaoukab Chebaro, Global Studies, Head, Columbia University Libraries



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