Saturday, November 23, 2019

Dagger with Nilgai (Blue Bull) Hilt, from the Shahjahani era

This beautiful dagger is dated from 1640, during the reign of Mughal emperor Shahjahan. Shahjahan's rule, based out of Agra and Delhi, lasted for 30 years. It was a period of great cultural and artistic flowering. Some of India's most beautiful monuments belong to this period; but Shahjahan also patronised the arts and crafts. This beautiful nephrite and steel dagger reflects not only the Mughal appreciation of craftsmanship, but also of the natural world. See how wonderfully the grey-green nephrite showcases the delicate ears of the Nilgai!

The dagger is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The description on the museum website says "Daggers such as this one were sometimes awarded to officers who had distinguished themselves in military victory and were worn at court as dress accessories indicating royal favor. Animal-headed hilts were especially favored, and the realism of their rendering conveys the keen appreciation for nature by Mughal artists.

On this dagger, the hilt portrays a nilgai, or blue bull, one of the most beautiful animals found in India, and terminates at the base with a leafy scroll and lotus flower. Carved from a bluish-green nephrite that approximates the color of the animal, this hilt not only demonstrates the artist's thorough mastery of hard-stone carving, but also displays a level of accuracy and sensitivity that suggest close observation of a model, perhaps one of the captive animals kept in the imperial zoo."

The dagger found its way into the personal collection of Nasli Heeramaneck, a Parsi dealer of antiquities and art objects, who died in 1985. His personal collections were bequeathed to various museums. Around 200 objects from Heeramaneck's Pre-Columbian and Western Art collection was gifted to the National Museum in Delhi, where you can see it displayed even today.