Rediscovering Padmavat in a 17th century hookah base

padmavat-huqqa-base Malik Muhammad Jayasi's Padmavat depicted in a 17th century hookah base

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's opulent and controversial Padmaavat might not go down in history as glorious cinema, but a late 17th century hookah base depicting scenes from the original epic poem 'Padmavat' should qualify as everlasting art.

The 16th century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi had waxed lyrical about the singular charm and beauty of princess Padmavati, the daughter of Raja Gandharvasen of Sinhal Island (Ceylon), in his famous Padmavat. Ratansen, the king of Chittor (in Rajasthan), would eventually win her over. A Bidri artist, perhaps commissioned by a Sufi khanqah or a king inclined towards Sufism, takes meticulous care in depicting the wedding ceremony of Padmavati and Ratansen on the lower half of a hookah (called farshi in Urdu), with silver inlay work. An exquisitely beautiful Padmavati holds a garland under a plantain tree, next to her pet parrot Hiramon. The swan's gait pales in comparison to that of the princess, the snake feels Padmavati's plaited hair is longer and blacker than its own, the koel's voice can't be sweeter, and the parrot's nose looks less sharper. When it comes to innocence, even the deer's eyes can't compete with those of the would-be queen. The intricate wedding sequence is just one of the illustrations, among many scenes from Padmavat, engraved in a black and silver showpiece in 'Huqqa in Indian Art and Culture', National Museum's ongoing exhibition of hookah bases drawn from their in-house collection. "As far as my knowledge goes, this is the only one of its kind amongst hookahs in Bidri, which has depictions from Padmavat," says curator Zahid Ali Ansari.

Asad Beg, the Mughal ambassador to the court of Bijapur, is believed to have enlightened Akbar and his courtiers on the art of smoking a hookah back in 1604. Beg was surprised to find tobacco in Bijapur (in Karnataka), where the Portuguese had already introduced the plant from the Americas. The sultans of the Deccan region took to tobacco with great gusto and the Andhra belt soon started producing tobacco in quantities large enough to be exported to the far east, Java and Sumatra. Soon smoking equipments—hookahs of silver and brass metalwork and Bidri-ware—with pipe and chillam, were also manufactured and exported from the Deccan. Hookah was massively patronised by the Mughal rulers and the Rajput nobility.

The exhibition also displays hookah pitchers in glass and marbles from the 19th century. There is another one in brass, cast in the shape of a lady balancing pots on her head, while her lower half resembles a fish, from central/western India. Most of the pieces are the lower halves of the hookahs—spherical, globular, conical and ink-pot shaped, with delicate ornamentation of floral motifs and narrative scenes. A richly enamelled, 20th century silver-cast hookah, like a large bell, from Rajasthan, is another show-stopper.  The 'mohnal' or the oriental pipe and chillam is largely missing from the show.

Interspersed with these ancient hubble bubbles are 18th and 19th century watercolours. Raja Jasot Singh of Uniara enjoys a leisurely gathering of dance and music with his hookah in tow, and, in the Kangra style of painting, a queen takes a drag in private in the company of her chambermaid.

But Ansari insists the Padmavat hookah, acquired by the National Museum in 1956, is the most important piece in the exhibition. This richly detailed, black and silver roundish pitcher with a long neck has received marquee billing even in the promotional posters. The pitcher also depicts a scene where Ratansen's first wife Nagmati is being consoled by the king after he brings Padmavati to Chittor from Ceylon. In fact, he spends his first night in Chittor not with his newly-wedded wife, but with Nagmati, so furious and heartbroken she was with her's husband charming new partner. So much heat emanates as a result of Nagmati's grief that it burns a forest full of animals running helter-skelter.

In another scene, the king is seen consoling and assuring his new queen Padmavati, promising his undying love and devotion. That's the end of the farshi part of this hookah.

Huqqa in Indian Art and Culture is on view till August 1 at the National Museum in New Delhi.