Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Lunch with BS: Navina Najat Haidar

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Jewel in the crown

Feature in Business Standard, June 20, 2015

He was a middle-aged, middle-brow and possibly Midwestern American male, one of the many entering the hallowed portals of New York’s Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, to admire its treasures. Facing him soared the enticing banner of the three month-long exhibition, “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy” that opened in late April. In a euphoric review, The New York Times’ critic Roberta Smith had richly gilded the lily with superlatives: “beautiful, sometimes heart-rending… rife with rare works from Europe and India seldom seen together… extraordinary… magnetic…”.

Entering a dark chamber past a dramatic blow-up of a ruined Deccani archway, with a tiny bulbul sequestered high above, the wide-eyed American came upon a dazzling display of rare Golconda diamonds: outsize brilliants, of rose pink and dazzling white hue from private collections, including that of the ruling family of Qatar. Awestruck visitors clustered round each glittering stone, poised on slim wire frames.

At this moment, the wide-eyed American’s cup of good fortune ran over. He spotted my lunch date, Navina Najat Haidar, the exhibition’s organiser and curator of Islamic art at the Met, who was taking me around; his attention had wandered to a 16th century miniature titled “Peacock in a rainstorm at night”. He began to trail her with a volley of questions about peacocks and their significance in Indian art. She answered each question knowledgeably, with infinite patience and humour. By the time we finished our walk-through, a meteor’s tail had formed, hanging on her every word.

Navina Najat Haidar is a rare bird, one of the few Indians to have risen to a position of influence in one of the world’s greatest museums. She is 49 and the mother of two teenagers. Small built and fine featured, with an aureole of rich brown hair, her most attractive feature remains her voice: soft and modulated, her flow of words compel attention. Moving through six large halls filled with 200 pieces – paintings, weaponry, textiles and objects in metal ware and stone – she points out unnoticed details, explaining context and provenance, constantly inviting questions.

We pause before an unsettling miniature, circa 1630, that has lately come to light, but is worlds away from the masterly portraits of Bijapur sultans and mystical yoginis against fantastical backdrops that often epitomise Deccani art. It shows an unknown dark-skinned noble, reclining against a pillow; a naked child clambers on his knee. But the figure’s stiffly hanging arm and blank stare suggest distress and pain. Is he paralysed or blind? What is the story of the child and musical instrument? “Beyond the style and attribution, the greatest interpretive challenge lies in teasing out the work’s full meaning,” writes Haidar in the splendid 368-page catalogue she has co-edited. Like the exhibition, it is the summation of 10 years of effort, with her co-curator Marika Sardar of the San Diego Museum, Met colleagues and munificent financial sponsors who helped to assemble the show.

To the obvious question as to why the five Deccani kingdoms of Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda, are under the spotlight now, Haidar ticks off the boxes. First, the sheer expanse of territory the sultans amassed, occupying much of present-day Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. Second, their wealth: the world’s great diamonds, including the Koh-i-Noor, came from Golconda until the 19th century. “The sultanates were rich and powerful but also cosmopolitan and tolerant, imbibing Sufi traditions from Iran, Central Asia and with links to Africa, Europe and China. Their contribution to architecture and the arts, literature and music, was monumental.”

Yet the persisting enigma of the Deccan’s golden age is also its evanescence. It all but disappeared in 150 years, and is a story worth unravelling: the remains are fragmentary and fragile. About 20 per cent of the works have never been exhibited, for example, a pair of armoured steel shoes, with fine gold koftgari work, and an ensemble of eight golden palanquin finials shaped as delicate flowering lotuses. To unearth the Deccan’s masterpieces, widely dispersed around the world, was one part of her arduous struggle; to negotiate with museums, secretive princes and dealers, to loan their treasures another.

In advance of our lunch, I had requested her to reserve a table at one of the Met’s several popular cafes on my behalf. But a surprise awaits me: she has booked me as her guest in the exclusive members’ third-floor dining room, an elegant space overlooking, through sloping plate glass windows, expansive views of the Egyptian obelisk and Central Park’s treetops. The pale cherrywood walls are devoid of artworks for its well-heeled, art-fatigued clientele; Chef Fred Sabo makes an appearance, to look over his guests. His menu is as simple and stylish as the restaurant. Navina is vegetarian, and orders salad; I go for the crab cakes.

Both of us are feeling Deccaned-out. I wonder aloud, whether her peripatetic upbringing as the daughter of diplomat Salman Haidar and theatre actress Kusum Haidar, fostered her development as an art historian and administrator. (Certainly, the beautiful spoken voice and patient negotiating skill must be a result). It is true that she was born in London where her father was posted as a junior diplomat; later she went to Bal Bharati Public School in Delhi followed by Sanawar. Graduating from St Stephen’s in 1987 she was, like many of her generation, “unsure, directionless… only confident of my Indian-ness. After 15 years in New York I still hate being called an NRI.”

As in some Virginia Woolf manifesto, two women sealed her future: her mother’s sister died, leaving her a small bequest; and her godmother, Najat Sultan, the women’s activist who was Kuwaiti, urged her to use the money and enrol at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Culturally speaking, though, her mind was a tangle of history witnessed and learnt: an acquaintance with dzong architecture, during her father’s tenure in Bhutan, knowledge of Urdu and Persian literature acquired from his lineage of Aligarh educationists, and the unforgettable images of Bamiyan’s Buddhas during an earlier stay in Kabul. It was only after an intense course at Christie’s in London that her focus sharpened. She applied for a Ph D at Oxford and returned to India in 1991 for field work on the social and religious history of the Kishangarh school of painting from 1650-1850. She lived in Tilonia, Bunker Roy’s village, in district Ajmer, but Kishangarh’s ruler, fiercely possessive of his hoard of paintings, presented a challenge. Only through the good offices of a Muslim courtier was she allowed to examine records and certain pictures. At Oxford she met her future husband Bernard Haykel, a Lebanese Christian (he is now the youngest professor of Middle Eastern history at Princeton) and they moved to America.

Over coffee and Chef Sabo’s fragrant orange almond torte, she tells me how much she “resented leaving my children for long hours” for the demanding, competitive world of art curators. From 2011-15, she helped in the major expansion of the Met’s 16 Islamic galleries with 1,000 objects and also documented Kuwait’s prized Mughal jewellery collection. Discreetly she draws a veil on the subject when I ask if she was offered the job of heading the National Museum in Delhi. In that gentle, firm voice she adds: “My job may seem glamorous but it can be a gilded cage. It took me years to slowly win the respect of my colleagues and peers. Proof that I could rise to their standard made the Deccan show possible. There are few museums in the world who will give you such a chance.”

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