A jali is a perforated stone or latticed screen decorated with ornamental patterns of calligraphy and geometry. In many parts of India, western Asia and the Mediterranean where the sun shines bright for many hours of the day, artisans created these screens to highlight the interplay of light and shadow in different construction materials.

The functionality of jalis is simple – to bring light into enclosed spaces, but they also serve a greater artistic purpose by enhancing the grandeur and sophistication of the buildings they are installed.

Art historian and curator Navina Najat Haidar’s new book, Jali: Lattice of Divine Light in Mughal Architect, which she edited, explores the delicate beauty of more than two hundred jalis across India. From 17th-century examples in Agra to those designed by global contemporary artists influenced by historical styles, the book travels across time and space to understand the innovations and adaptations in design that made jalis a standout feature in every form of architecture.

Haidar is currently the Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. She was involved in the planning of the museum’s permanent galleries for Islamic art and has also organised several special exhibitions at The Met.

In a conversation with Scroll, she spoke about her studies and interests that led her to architecture, the worrying trend of meaningless construction, and why jalis have stood the test of time. Excerpts from the conversation:

While reading the Introduction, it dawned on me that even though jalis are such an obvious – and evident – part of ancient Indian architecture, most of us don’t even realise that they are actually storytellers in their own right. When and how did you find out that jalis can be a gateway into architecture and history?
In many global museums, detached jali screens have become part of the holdings on display and one encounters them in galleries with other related works of the period such as textiles or carpets. At the Met, we have two galleries for later South Asian art which feature a pair of 16th-century red sandstone examples. In that setting one comes to appreciate the interplay of designs and styles across media and the important role of the jali screen in framing views and creating aesthetic effects. Aside from museum collections today, one also sees individual studies of jalis in 19th and early 20th century architectural studies where careful drawings can be found, indicating the documentation of this feature at the time.

Looking more widely, “Orientalist” artists of the 19th century such as John Frederick Lewis and Osman Hamdi Bey were quite captivated by the effects of light and shadow through mashribiyya screens in the architectures of the Middle East. Seeing jalis and other screens in these ways, both as individual elements and as part of a wider artistic language, one becomes aware of them and the role they play in aesthetics. In this book, we concentrated on examples that are in situ to contextualise them in their original settings as much as possible.

The Mughals were perhaps the pioneers of jali and some of the most exquisite pieces emerged during their rule. Can you think of any particular reasons why they might have come up with this architectural style?
The Mughals pioneered and perfected many forms of art and architecture, and the jali screen is just one of many outstanding features of the age. Shah Jahan is generally credited as the greatest of the builders, but many rulers made notable contributions. So did women patrons, such as Nur Jahan, who commissioned at least four important buildings, including the tomb of her parents in Agra. Mughal artists and patrons were receptive to new ideas, techniques and styles and drew talents from around the empire, and sometimes the world, to the court, blending Indian, European and Persianate idioms. They also had a very refined taste and high standards. The art of the jali has to be understood within the wider context of Mughal art and its ideals, along with the processes and methods of production and the vision of the rulers and artists.

Equally fascinating was finding jali in Hindu temples, especially in the southern states of India. Did both styles emerge independently or might there have been an exchange of ideas?
George Michell’s chapter on ancient sites and Hindu and Jain temples outlines the major developments in these structures. Techniques of stone carving and auspicious motifs developed in these sites and all played a role in later developments in Mughal architecture. Some of these early developments in stone are translations of earlier and now vanished styles of wooden architecture.

Tell us also a bit about studying and writing about some monuments instead of others. What were some of the characteristics that you were looking for?
Mitch Abdul Karim Crites, author of the chapter on patronage and craftsmen, was a great guide in this area. His knowledge of sites, patrons, artists and history was key and helped in the selection of the monuments. We were looking for outstanding quality and tried to represent every major style or development in this art form. We also looked for spaces that had great spirit and conveyed the vision of their original patrons and artists.

How long has the book been in the making? It’s clearly very extensively researched but did you at any point meet with any dead ends?
It took a few years because we did a slow and detailed exploration of sites and had to get permission for new photography from the ASI and other bodies.

You did your doctorate in the 18th-century Kishangarh school of painting which I suppose has nothing to do with the subject of this book. Or perhaps it does. Tell us about how your interests and studies led you here.
Kishangarh and other 18th-century schools of painting in Rajasthan had many exchanges with the Mughal court (as did all the Rajput courts). For example, one of the main artists at Kishangarh – the painter Bhavanidas – was trained at the Mughal court and went to Kishangarh in 1719 after the death of his patron, emperor Farrukh Siyar. Kishangarh also employed Persian for its courtly inscriptions indicating how closely the administrative and language traditions were related. So Kishangarh led to Mughal painting, which in turn led to Persia, Europe, and elsewhere. Working on architecture was an exciting leap in a new direction.

You have received high praise for curating Islamic art for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I am very interested to know what goes on in your mind when you are putting the artefacts together. Is there a philosophy you abide by?
Thank you. One tries to abide by scholarly standards and ethics while conveying enthusiasm for the subject. I also believe in centering the work of art and having ideas flow from that, rather than fit art into a pre-existing narrative.

You have also written shorter essays on art history for various publications. To me, it seems like you are almost always steeped in a time that has long gone by. But the world around you is, well, as it is. Lots of noise, buildings that are minimal and forgettable, not too much thought-provoking architecture. How do you then keep your artistic curiosity and sensibilities alive?
Yes, it is distressing to see how modernity has erased so many fine features of the past and bestowed far too many slabs upon concrete slabs on the world (benefits notwithstanding)! That is why detailed studies of architecture and art are helpful to designers, architects and artists who create and imagine new approaches and styles for today’s challenges. Education and the refinement of the eye are very important and I hope this book will go some way in being part of that process for anyone who wishes to understand how the high standards of the Mughal age were achieved, maintained, and adapted. And lost. In terms of keeping my artistic curiosity alive – I have wide interests and enjoy many different types of art, so there is always something stimulating.

India has some really stunning architecture across the span of the country. But we are also notorious for not taking good care – and sometimes even defacing – our monuments. What do you think the reasons for this might be? Does history have any answers?
It is difficult to answer this. Some of it has to do with the lack of education in the general public. Some of it is because heritage and protection laws and guidelines are not applied. There is the additional problem of many sites and monuments that do not have protected status at all. There is, of course, the ruthless march of the construction industry and the development of insensitive projects which are responsible for destroying so much architecture and even natural sites, such as the rockscapes of the Deccan. And then there is the deeper issue of attitudes to history and contested monuments and spaces in political and social contexts. In the end, we leave future generations poorer with every loss and defacement of a historical site or landscape.

If you could establish your very own museum, what would its curation look like?
If I were to imagine a new museum I would love to see: Nature as Artist – bringing together natural and manmade works of art from all human cultures to explore the artistic qualities in nature and their impact on our imagination.