The 20th century in India began with an architectural project of imperial scale that heralded a remarkable revival of the millennia-old Indian tradition of working with stone. Emperor George V laid the foundation plaque in 1911 for the construction of the new capital of British India on the Ridge, later moved to a small hillock in central Delhi, nestled among the imposing monuments of Sultanate and Mughal India. As the soaring Viceregal Palace, the two imposing Secretariats and the residential and commercial centres began to take form over the next two decades, it became clear that the formidable legacy of design and craftsmanship that could be traced back to the Hindu, Buddhist, Rajput, Sultanate and Mughal architectural traditions weighed heavily on the two chief architects of the project, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. It was, therefore, essential that New Delhi, the ninth in a series of royal capitals, had to present a symbolic and architectural statement that would stand the test of time.

The legendary quarries of Rajasthan, slumbering for centuries, were remobilised in order to finish the project on schedule and soon tonnes of mottled red sandstone from Tantpura and white marble from Makrana began arriving in Delhi, transported this time not by bullock and elephant, but by train and truck. These were the same quarries from which Emperor Akbar had ordered the sandstone for Fatehpur Sikri and his grandson, Shah Jahan, the marble for the Taj Mahal. Ustads, traditional master stone carvers, in their hundreds, were also recruited to Delhi from the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to work in situ on the acres of carved relief panels, jali screens, ornamental railings and floor and wall cladding needed to construct the new capital.

The syncretistic style of design and ornament developed by Lutyens and Baker was highly stylised and a little stiff, and it did not do justice to the incredible skill that still resided in the hands of the ustad master carvers. However, the very act of creating a completely new city on such a monumental scale clearly demonstrated that the quarries of the past could be brought back to life and that skilled labour remained abundantly available. It was, however, not until a few decades later that a striking resurgence of the finest classical traditions of Mughal stone carving and hard stone inlay would take place, demonstrating conclusively that these precious skills were indeed alive and well and would continue till the present day.

Master craftsman Ramawtar carving white marble at Frozen Music atelier, Jaipur, Rajasthan. Image credit: David Horsman.

Revival of patronage

Doris Duke, an American heiress to a vast family fortune, married James Cromwell on February 13, 1935, and the couple immediately set off on a ten-month honeymoon tour, starting from Cairo and ending in Tokyo, motivated and guided by her abiding interest in Islamic and Mughal art and architecture. Soon after arriving in India in early March, the couple decided to make a trip by train to Wardha in central India to visit Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram, the All-India Village Industries Association. During a private interview, Gandhi shared his deeply felt conviction that by reviving and supporting the traditional arts and crafts of India, the rural and urban poor could become more prosperous and self-sustaining.

Clearly moved and inspired by Gandhi’s vision, the couple returned to Delhi where they continued their tour visiting important Sultanate and Mughal monuments. It was, however, their visit to Agra which seemed to have had the greatest impact on both of them. The exquisite marble carvings and precious stone inlay that they saw at the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments impressed the couple greatly. They were also captivated by a visit to one of the finest ateliers in the city, the Indian Marble Works, overseen by Rai Bahadur Seth Lachhman Das, whose family had lived and worked in the heart of old Agra for generations. Many of the ustad (master) carvers and inlay artisans here could themselves trace their ancestry back to the same families who created the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments centuries before.

Inspired by the extraordinary craftsmanship that could still be done, Duke returned to Delhi from Agra and made the decision to create a suite of rooms in classical Mughal style for her Palm Beach home. However, once back in the United States at the end of the world tour, the plans changed and she decided to build a completely new home in Honolulu, to be christened Shangri La. This elegant and palatial retreat would ultimately incorporate the new marble carving and inlay from Agra along with a significant number of major Islamic and Mughal works of art and architectural elements which the couple had collected during their travels.

While in Delhi, Duke commissioned the British architect Francis Barrington Blomfield to design what is now called the “Mughal Suite” for the Shangri La bathroom. Along with Blomfield, she and her husband personally selected details from classical Mughal carving, inlay and jali screens which they especially admired and wanted to be included in the overall design concept. The wall panels were to be inlaid with precious stones in a series of flowering plants, inspired by the inlaid walls of the imperial hammam inside the Delhi Red Fort. One striking jali window carved out of white marble for the Shangri La bath deserves special mention for its sensitive blending of the traditional with the contemporary. This jali, a masterwork of design and craftsmanship, depicts an elongated lily plant floating on a geometric lattice, an elegant filter for light and air falling into the marble chamber beyond.

Stuart Cary Welch at the ‘Jali Mahal’. Image credit: Thomas Welch, Stuart Cary Welch.

Duke, at the request of her husband, also commissioned a “Jali Pavilion” for the upper roof terrace of Shangri La, carved with pure white marble from the same quarry that Shah Jahan used for the Taj Mahal and with designs inspired directly by the monumental jali screens from the tomb of I’timad al-Daula in Agra. With the commissioning of the Mughal Suite and the Jali Pavilion, Duke placed herself firmly in a tradition of grand architectural patronage practised in the Mughal court by Nur Jahan, wife of Jahangir, and Jahanara, the daughter of Shah Jahan, whose great personal wealth and power also allowed them to commission buildings of extraordinary beauty and sensitivity. Today, the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design is open to the public, a vivid testimony to the inspired eye of a remarkable patron who not only collected but also revived endangered art and craft traditions.

A few decades later, another American patron of the arts appeared and he, too, shared Doris Duke’s fascination with the jali as an art form. This was Stuart Cary Welch, a gifted scholar, collector, connoisseur of art and under whose tenure as senior consultant of the Islamic Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the ground-breaking INDIA exhibition was inaugurated in 1985. Cary, as he was affectionately called by his friends, students and colleagues, was also one of the first scholars to understand what major works of art Sultanate and Mughal jalis truly were.

Excerpted with permission from “The Jali Tradition: Master Craftsmanship and Patronage” by Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites in Jali: Lattice of Divine Light in Mughal Architecture, edited by Navina Najat Haidar, Mapin Publishing.