Jake Benson (Leiden University)
NIT, Istanbul, Turkey
31 Oct 18:30
Image: "Allusion to Sura 27:16", Manṭiq al-Ṭayr (Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din`Attar (d. 1220) transcribed by Sultan ‘Ali Mashhadi in AH 892/1486 CE. Abrī paper border made by Muhammad Tahir in India, ca. 1600 CE, added to the manuscript after it was endowed by Shah ‘Abbas to the shrine of Shaykh Safi in Ardabil, Iran in AH 1017/1608–09 CE.
15 1/2 x 8in. (39.4 x 20.3cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1963 63.210.47 (fol. 47r)
Known as ebru in Modern Turkish today, marbled papers were called kāġaẕ-i abrī (“clouded paper” in Persian)- or more simply as abrī -in more than seventy Persian, Ottoman, Chaghatai, and Urdu sources. The advent and early history of this art is enigmatic. While artists often claim it is very old, the earliest evidence only dates to the late-fifteenth-century emerging from a context of prodigious and multifarious decorated paper production during the Timurid era.
The earliest technical account from India, dated before AH 1014/1605 CE, describes marbling on water with organic colourants, resulting in a limited range of pale, softly swirled, or turbulent patterns. A second method describes dispersing mineral pigments on a mucilage of fenugreek. If spattered, the colours form pebble-like designs, but if applied in individual drops and bisected with a bristle or stylus, simple leaf-like motifs designs were formed.
Drop-motifs are found on our earliest dated evidence, a pair of marbled leaves, one bearing a note stating that they were a gift “from Iran” to Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Khalji of Mandu in AH 901/1496 CE. This is contemporaneous with an attribution for the invention of abrī to the Timurid munshi Abdullah Murvarid of Herat (d. AH 921/1515 CE). Similar bisected drop-motifs in alternating colours arranged rows are found on a practice sheet signed by Jamal al-Shirazi in AH 920/1514 CE. Both examples prove that simple drop-motifs are among the earliest abrī designs, some 250 years before Hatip Mehmed Ef. (d. AH 1187/1773 CE).
Yet due to their similarity, a place of manufacture for early abrī papers proves difficult to identify. Mir ‘Ali Haravi (d. AH 951/1544–45 CE) frequently composed poems and riddles upon softly swirled patterns, a practice imitated his students and followers. Similar papers found in découpage manuscripts in Topkapı Palace dated AH 946/1539–40 CE, but we cannot say where the papers were made. In contrast, a copy of Sharḥ al-Wasīṭ completed in Kütahya in the AH mid-Jumada al-Ūlā 966/late-February 1559 CE, may indicate the earliest indigenous Anatolian manufacture. Very similar, early pebbled designs are in manuscripts written by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri (d. 1566–67) in Mashhad, a Bijapuri miscellany written in 1572–80, and an Ottoman Dīvān-i Bāqī, of 1595, making it difficult to distinguish local from regional trends.
In circa 1600, patterns become more sophisticated, a style called haft rang abrī (seven-colour abrī), attributed to a master named Muhammad Tahir, a member of the Safavid elite whom emigrated to the Deccan in India, where he attained fame. Muhammad Tahir’s methods spread rapidly throughout the eastern Islamic world. Ottoman artists adopted his pattern-making procedures; however, they adapted locally available materials to substitute for Indian ones. In doing so, they developed their own unique approaches and formed their own distinct tradition of marbling that ultimately flowered into the contemporary practice of ebru.
Jake Benson is a Ph.D. candidate at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) completing his dissertation on the early history of abrī. A trained book conservator, paper marbler, and graduate of the Persian Flagship Scholar at the University of Maryland, he worked for four years as Curator and Senior Conservator for the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation assisting the Dar al-Kutub, the National Library of Egypt. His most recent essay “The Art of Abri: Marbled Album Leaves, Drawings, and Paintings of the Deccan was published in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy in 2015.