From the late sixteenth century onward, Mughal India actively exported goods to Europe, particularly to Portugal, where such inlaid work was treasured. While many Europeanizing elements are evident in the decoration of this box, the hunting scenes were originally inspired by Persian compositions, which had in turn become popular in Mughal painting. The undulating branches of the bird‑filled trees against which the European hunters and animals have been set make this one of the most expressive pieces of its type.
To create the lively decoration on this box, ivory was cut into very thin strips and shaped into tiny flowers and leaves—some stained with color—then inlaid into ebony veneer. The top and sides depict Portuguese hunters riding elephants and horses in a forest setting, and the borders are filled with scrolls, roundels, and stylized bird and animal heads. Such hunting scenes were adapted from Indo-Persian painting to decorate exported furniture, where they depicted European patrons in a princely Indian manner. In this example, the exuberant treatment of foliage, with repeating scrolling vines springing from tree branches and flowers, imbues the decorative scheme with a particular lyricism. The fact that the geometric frieze along the bottom edge is inlaid in lac rather than wood is somewhat unusual and suggests a time of manufacture when craftsmen were shifting from the older technique of lac inlay, for the Ottoman and Persian markets, to hardwood inlay, for the European consumer. During the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, such inlaid hardwood items were produced for the Portuguese market, possibly in Gujarat and Sind, and exported from Goa and other coastal towns in western India.
This box can be associated with a group of ivory-inlaid hardwood boxes and furniture that may have been made in the same workshop, the most notable examples of which are a small cabinet in the Cincinnati Museum of Art and another in the Kuwait National Museum, Kuwait City, that bear similar hunting scenes featuring Indian and European figures in a forest. The upper portion of a cabinet in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, exhibits an iconographic program similar to that of the Metropolitan’s box, although the Lisbon cabinet’s overall iconography is more complex. An altar converted to a tabletop in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has almost identical zoomorphic S-shaped motifs in the border pattern. In general, this group of related works reveals consistent decorative principles and details.
The long drawer and relatively simple form of the box are rare, however, and suggest that it may have held writing implements (as an abbreviated form of the larger, more elaborate writing cabinets that are known) or valuable trinkets and personal possessions. Comparable boxes may have been used in the Mughal court as containers for precious objects, but inlaid boxes of this type usually rank among the portable trappings of wealthy European travelers. This particular form of long box with a drawer at one end is found in lac inlaid with mother-of-pearl but not, with the exception of this work, in ivory-inlaid wood.
Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Pride of the Princes: Indian Art of the Mughal Era in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Exhibition, Cincinnati Art Museum. Catalogue by Ellen S. Smart, Daniel S. Walker and others. Cincinnati, 1985, p. 81, no. 58.
2. Jenkins, Marilyn, ed. Islamic Art in the Kuwait National Museum: The al-Sabah Collection. London, 1983, p. 123.
3. Via Orientalis. Exhibition, Galerie de la CGER, Brussels. Catalogue by Ezio Bassani and others. Brussels, 1991, p. 145.
4. Goa and the Great Mughal. Exhibition, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. Catalogue by Nuno Vassallo e Silva and Jorges Flores. London, 2004, p. 115, no. 84.S; also in Jaffer, Amin. Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet Maker. London, 2002, pp. 34–35.
5. Digby, Simon.“The Mother-of-Pearl Overlaid Furniture of Gujarat: The Holdings of the Victoria and Albert Museum.” In Facets of Indian Art: A Symposium Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 26, 27, 28 April and 1 May 1982, edited by Robert Skelton et al., London, 1986, p. 221, fig. 12, shows a late sixteenth-century mother-of-pearl box with a scene of very similar composition; The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule. Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. [Catalogue by Robert Skelton.] London, 1982, p. 162, no. 549.
Private collection, Lisbon; [ Manuel Castilho Antiques, London, by 1999–2000; sold to MMA]
New York. Asia Society. "In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India, Selections from the Polsky Collections and The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 14, 2004–January 2, 2005, no. 125.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 59 (2000–2001). p. 15, ill. (color).
Topsfield, Andrew, ed. "Arts of India." In In the Realm of Gods and Kings. London; New York: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2004. no. 125, pp. 286-287, ill. p. 287 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 267, pp. 341, 378-379, ill. p. 378 (color).