The Mughal Garden is Shangri La’s microcosm of the royal gardens found throughout the Indian subcontinent. Located off the entry courtyard and oriented along the property’s dominant east-west axis, it features a plain white façade with an arched entrance similar to the adjacent entrance leading into the foyer of the main house. During her 1935 honeymoon travels in India, Doris Duke (1912–93) was exposed to the expansive and sumptuous gardens of the high Mughal period, particularly those built in the cities of Agra, Delhi and Lahore during the reigns of the “great” Mughal emperors Akbar (r. 1556–1605), Jahangir (r. 1605–27), and Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58). These gardens typically included small marble pavilions with cusped arches and inlaid floral surfaces; brickwork pathways with geometric designs; long water channels with lotus-shaped fountain heads; marble water cascades with niches known as chinikhana (Persian: porcelain house); and geometric planting beds (parterres) with scented trees and colorful flowers.
Early on in Shangri La’s history, c. 1938–41, the Mughal Garden was known as the “allée.” In this original incarnation, it featured several elements standard to Mughal gardens—water channel with lotus-style fountain heads, chinikhana cascade, large four-lobed pool (west end)—which Duke would have seen during her 1935 travels in India. Two decades later, after a visit to Shalimar Gardens (1637) in Lahore, Pakistan, Duke resolved to transform the allée into a more fully realized microcosm of a Mughal garden. Toward this end, she requested drawings and photographs of the brickwork pathways in Shalimar Gardens from the site’s superintendent of archaeology. These designs then guided the creation of similar brickwork pathways at Shangri La (48.513), which were installed down the length of the water channel and also crisscrossed in the center, thereby suggesting the four-part scheme (chahar bagh, Persian: four gardens) common to Mughal gardens. On either side of the pathway, parterres in alternating shapes were constructed in white stone and planted with cyprus trees, citrus, caladium, and poinsettia. In a 1966 article for Vogue magazine, the now complete garden was described as a “miniature version of the famous Mogul gardens at Lahore.”
Located on the west end of the property and adjacent to the ocean, the Playhouse at Shangri La is a poolside pavilion inspired by the Chehel Sutun (c. 1647–50) palace in Isfahan, the capital of Iran from 1598 to 1722.
Located on the west end of the property and adjacent to the ocean, the Playhouse at Shangri La is a poolside pavilion inspired by the Chehel Sutun (c. 1647–50) palace in Isfahan, the capital of Iran from 1598 to 1722. The Playhouse features a large central living room, small kitchen, and two bedroom suites on its mountain and ocean sides. Its façade has a large lanai with a painted wood ceiling supported by 14 columns and facing a pool. In positioning Shangri La’s pool directly in front of the Playhouse, Doris Duke (1912–93) and her architects were likely inspired by a similar arrangement at the Chehel Sutun, where the pool in front of the Safavid palace reflects the 18 slender columns on its porch (talar), thereby creating an illusion of many more columns (chehel sutun means “forty columns” in Persian).
By the time Doris Duke and her husband James Cromwell departed for their Middle East tour in March 1938, the Playhouse was largely complete. What remained to be done, however, was the decoration of its lanai, including the designs of its roof and the columns below. In this instance, the Cromwells desired that the Persian prototype, the Chehel Sutun’s talar, be carefully copied. While in Isfahan in 1938, they meticulously photographed and filmed the Safavid palace’s porch. This documentation was passed on to Shangri La’s architects, who created stencils, and then painted the Playhouse’s lanai to parallel that of the Chehel Sutun (64.118). Approximately two years later, mosaic tilework commissioned in Isfahan during the 1938 trip and inspired by that on the entrance portal of Isfahan’s Masjid-i Shah (Shah Mosque, 1612–c. 1630) was installed on the building’s façade, thereby completing the overall Persian aesthetic.
The living room in the Playhouse has undergone numerous transformations over the course of Shangri La’s history. In its earliest guise, c. 1938, it was conceived as a tented space. Plain fabric created a draped ceiling, while printed cottons custom-made in India in the late 1930s constituted the “walls” below. Central Asian suzanis, many of which were purchased during the Cromwells’ honeymoon in 1935, further sheathed the walls, and a large Central Asian carpet covered the floor. Divans (low couches) were located in the corners of the room, and Duke was known to have sat here and played music with friends. By 1941, the tented ceiling had been removed and replaced with a painted one with bold geometric designs (64.89) echoing those found on the ceilings of seventeenth-century Persian palaces, like the Chehel Sutun. The room was further “Persianized” by the inclusion of a number of nineteenth-century Qajar Iranian works of art, including a tile panel with scenes of elite merriment (48.429), several sets of lacquer doors with similar depictions of courtly leisure (64.88a–b), a carved screen inset with geometric shapes of colored glass (64.90a–f), a pair of colored-glass arched windows (46.14, 46.15), and several examples of large-scale paintings of female court entertainers (musicians, dancers) (34.7, 34.3). In the 1980s, the oceanside bedroom became home to two highlights of Duke’s Qajar art collection—a ceiling painting on canvas (34.9) and a wall painting on canvas (34.10)—which were installed on the ceiling and north wall, respectively.
Since 2002, the Playhouse has functioned as a space for public programs supported by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Given its oceanside location, the Playhouse remains the focus of ongoing conservation efforts, including the preservation of the custom-made Iranian tilework on its façade.
Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design
Shangri La is a museum for Islamic arts and cultures, offering guided tours, residencies for scholars and artists, and programs with the purpose of improving understanding of the Islamic world. Built in 1937 as the Honolulu home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993), Shangri La was inspired by Duke’s extensive travels throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia and reflects architectural traditions from India, Iran, Morocco and Syria.
The phrase “Islamic art” generally refers to arts that are products of the Muslim world, diverse cultures that historically extended from Spain to Southeast Asia. Beginning with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) and continuing to the present day, Islamic art has both a wide historical range and broad geographical spread, including North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and part of South and Southeast Asia as well as eastern and sub-Saharan Africa.
Visual Elements of Islamic Art. Islamic art covers a wide range of artistic production, from ceramic pots and silk carpets to oil paintings and tiled mosques. Given the tremendous diversity of Islamic art – across many centuries, cultures, dynasties and vast geography – what artistic elements are shared? Often, calligraphy (beautiful writing), geometry, and floral/vegetal design are seen as unifying visual components of Islamic art.
Calligraphy. The preeminence of writing in Islamic culture stems from the oral transmission of the word of God (Allah) to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century. This divine revelation was subsequently codified into a holy book written in Arabic, the Qur’an (recitation in Arabic). Beautiful writing became imperative for transcribing the word of God and for creating sacred Qur’ans. Calligraphy soon appeared in other forms of artistic production, including illuminated manuscripts, architecture, portable objects and textiles. Although the Arabic script is the crux of Islamic calligraphy, it was (and is) used to write a number of languages in addition to Arabic, including Persian, Urdu, Malay and Ottoman Turkish.
The content of the writing found on Islamic art varies according to context and function; it can include verses from the Qur’an (always Arabic) or from well-known poems (often Persian), the date of production, the signature of the artist, the names or marks of owners, the institution to which an object was presented as a charitable gift (waqf), praises to the ruler, and praises to the object itself. Calligraphy is also written in different scripts, somewhat analogous to type fonts or today’s computer fonts, and the most renowned artists in the Islamic tradition were those who invented, and excelled in, various scripts.
Geometry and Floral Design. In many examples of Islamic art, calligraphy is superimposed upon backgrounds covered in geometric patterns, floral motifs, and/or vegetal designs with curved leaf forms known as “arabesques.” The appearance of this surface decoration differs according to where and when an object was made; the forms of flowers in seventeenth-century Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran are quite different, for example. In addition, certain designs were favored in some places more than others; in North Africa and Egypt, bold geometry is often preferred over delicate floral patterns.
The Figure. Perhaps the least understood visual component of Islamic art is the figural image. Although the Qur’an prohibits the worship of images (idolatry)—a proscription stemming from the rise of Islam within a polytheistic tribal society in Mecca—it does not explicitly preclude the depiction of living beings. However, figural imagery is generally confined to secular architectural contexts—such as the palace or private home (rather than the mosque)—and the Qur’an is never illustrated.
Some of the earliest palaces in Islamic history include life-size frescoes of animals and human beings, and by the tenth century, figures were standard iconography on ceramic vessels, including the earliest luster examples made in Iraq (see example) and later those made in Kashan, Iran. During the medieval period, human figures in miniature scale became integral to the illustration of religious, historical, medical and poetic texts.
Note on Dates. The Islamic calendar begins in 622 CE, the year of the emigration (hijra) of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. Dates are presented as follows: 663 of the Hijra (AH), 1265 of the Common Era (CE), or simply 663/1265.
Diversity and Variety. First-time viewers of Islamic art are often captivated by its technical sophistication and beauty. Blown glass, illuminated manuscripts, inlaid metalwork, and soaring tiled domes astound through their color, forms, and details. Not all examples of Islamic art are equally luxurious, however, and a number of circumstances contribute to the diversity and variety encompassed under the broad term “Islamic art.”
The wealth of the patron is a critical factor, and functional objects for everyday use—basins for washing, chests for storing, candlesticks for lighting, carpets for covering—can differ significantly depending on whether they were made for a king, a merchant, or a peasant. The quality of a work of art is equally tied to its maker, and while the majority of Islamic art is anonymous, a number of master artists signed their works, desiring to be credited for their achievements, and indeed remain well known. Finally, the availability of raw materials also determines the look of an Islamic work of art. Due to the vast topography of the Islamic world (deserts, mountains, tropics), strong regional characteristics can be identified. Brick buildings clad with ceramic tiles are common to Iran and Central Asia, whereas sandstone and marble architecture is ubiquitous in India.
The regional—and by extension, linguistic—origins of a work of art also determines its appearance. Scholars and museums often deconstruct the broad term “Islamic art” into sub-fields such as the Arab lands, Persian world, the Indian subcontinent and other regions or by dynasty. The presentation of Islamic art in museums is often further segmented into dynastic production (example), which results in an emphasis on courtly production and patronage of the highest quality (example).
Status of the Field. The field of Islamic art history is currently experiencing a period of self-reflection and revision. Publicly, this is most evident in a number of major museum reinstallations (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre, Brooklyn Museum, David Collection) that have transpired over the last decade and some of which are still in progress. Of central concern is the validity of the phrase “Islamic Art” to describe the visual culture in question. Some curators and scholars have rejected this religious designation in favor of regional specificity (consider the new name of the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and have criticized its monolithic, Eurocentric, and religion-based origins. Indeed, although some examples of Islamic art and architecture were made for religious purposes (a Qur’an for recitation in a mosque), others served secular needs (a window to decorate a home). Moreover, there are many examples of non-Muslims creating works of art categorized as “Islamic,” or even “Islamic” works of art created for non-Muslim patrons. These realities acknowledged, some scholars and institutions have opted to stress the Islam component of “Islamic art” (consider the name of the Louvre’s renovated galleries, “Arts of Islam,” that reopened in the fall of 2012).
The collection of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), and its presentation at Shangri La, has much to contribute to these ongoing global dialogues. At a moment when the designation “Islamic art” is being fiercely debated, the DDFIA collection challenges existing taxonomies (ethnographic artifact versus fine art; secular versus religious; central versus periphery), while stimulating new ways of thinking about, defining and appreciating the visual culture.