Study Guide

Beneath a Marble Sky Art and Culture

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Art and Culture

"You should have been a poet," she replied, smiling playfully, for Father delighted in words. "We'd starve, most assuredly."

"But, Arjumand, most poets write of pain, of misery, of want. I could only give verse to love, which most readers find a tedious subject. How could I write of hate, when I harbor none? Or of jealousy? Or of sorrow? No, it's better that the poets and philosophers debate these creations. They are not of my world."

"Nor of mine."

"Then let them write, my love, while we live." (1.128)

We have to agree to disagree with Father here. We mean, good old Billy Shakespeare, for one, would probably have a thing or two to say about artists who have been pretty darn successful writing poetry about love, don't you think?

"Do you see the moon, Jahanara? Imagine how it will illuminate your mother's tomb. It shall never, truly, be night here when the moon is full. No, it will be something amid night and day. And if a place exists on Earth that Paradise does touch, surely this will be it."

When I saw him next he was crying. (6.170)

Some people have very visceral reactions to beauty. The fact that Isa can make himself cry just by imagining the completed Taj Mahal is indicative of how much art means to him. To see what we mean, take a look at this and tell us you don't want to cry a little.

Though Isa was accepting of his fate, I sensed that his desire to create beauty stemmed from an old need to heal wounds. By building he constantly reminded himself of the love he felt for his parents. He believed they could see what he built, believed that his palaces and mosques made them smile. This conviction was the source of his happiness. (7.6)

People don't just create art because they're bored. Often, artists are driven by the need to create, and while everyone's motivations will be different, it's this drive that tends to set the great artists apart. Isa is compelled to create staggering architectural works in order to honor the memory of his parents, and in turn, he contributes to the creation of a cultural wonder.

On the other hand, sure, once in a while we get the itch to do a paint-by-number to honor the memory of our childhood, but it's not like we're going to get a call from MoMA anytime soon.

"Do you know, Jahanara, what I think of when I design? I think of you. I hold your face in my mind and seek to mimic its loveliness. I remember the shape of your body and try to equal its brilliance."

"You do?" I asked, immensely surprised.

"I watch how the sun reflects off your cheek, and I build so that the sun will dance off the marble in the same manner. I survive your absence in my heart, not having you as the mother of my children, by shaping stone in your image."

"Not my mother's?"

"No," he whispered, then sighed. "I can't share my love with you as I'm supposed to, the way a man shares such love with his wife. And so I build. I build to honor you, because this is the only way that I can love you, by sharing my love with the world. The first stone I laid had your name chiseled into its underside and the last—please grant me this wish, Allah—shall carry both our names." (8.54-58)

This is beautiful. To have the talent to transcribe the love this guy feels for Jahanara into a physical representation that could stand for several lifetimes is truly rare. Not everyone creates Taj Mahals.

I bit my tongue. If Isa had no vision, Aurangzeb was blind, deaf and dumb. "The vision," Dara countered, "of an artist can't be compared with that of a warrior. What vision does it take to kill, to rape, to plunder?" (10.141)

Yeah, Aurangzeb was in a little over his head. To say that Isa didn't have any vision was like saying Aretha Franklin had no soul.

I had never seen such beauty, not even in Allah's best gardens. For these flowers weren't of water and light, but of semiprecious stones. They were infinitely more colorful than the rings of a rainbow, or the hues of a sunset.

"Our masters cut thin tendrils of stone, which they inset into the marble," Isa said animatedly. "They fit the tendrils perfectly into the marble, then bond and seal them." His voice, serene as always, gathered speed. "You gaze at lapis from Afghanistan, jade from China and Burmese amber. There are pearls and coral from our coast, as well as jasper, green beryl, onyx, agate, amethyst and quartz from our interior."

At some places the marble was free of semiprecious stones but had been carved away to reveal immense white bouquets. These sculptures were smooth to the touch and had been polished until they glistened. Even the room's floor was a godlike work of art, boasting geometric patterns of black marble set within the white. Each line was as straight as the horizon and each angle as sharp as a blade.

No one spoke for some time. Finally, Isa said, "Try to envision it, my lord. The dome, of course, shall be pure white marble, as will the minarets. But the arches, the kiosks, the walls and the ceilings will be draped with such images."

I tried to imagine the finished Taj Mahal, and the mere thought of its beauty made me tremble. Father traced the flowers with his fingers, his palms. "One shall step inside the Taj Mahal and think he has entered Paradise." He looked toward Mecca and I knew he was begging Allah to let him live long enough to see the sight. "So much beauty," he whispered. (11.10-14)

See? This is why people create art. What would our world look like if no one strove to build places like the Taj Mahal, or paint masterpieces like the Mona Lisa, or sculpt statues like the David? Art isn't just a frill, just something people do during their free time to entertain themselves—it's a way of grappling with the deepest mysteries, meanings, and experiences in life, and it changes the way we see the world.

As the Taj Mahal was slowly revealed, we each seemed to relish its extraordinary presence with an awe surpassing even our love for Allah, or the Hindu gods. For this presence was tangible. We gasped, reached out, and touched its sweeping sides. We looked skyward and shook our heads in astonishment at the sculpted mountain above. So many of our people dressed in rags and slept in filth. To look at such beauty was beyond anything they expected to experience in their lifetimes. Hindustanis cried openly at being alive this day. (14.34)

Sometimes people who have nothing can appreciate beauty even better than those who live surrounded by riches. But there's another truth here: the experience of beauty in art (or architecture, literature, music, dance, whatever) can be so powerful you might almost call it sacred. The Taj Mahal gives these people something they can't get anywhere else.

The rockets ceased when the moon, ripe and glowing, rose. The night was clear, and moonlight slanted down to illuminate the Taj Mahal. The vast structure seemed to attract and magnify the light. Thousands of torches were extinguished and laughter dwindled. A few elephants trumpeted wearily, but tranquility otherwise prevailed. Elation turned to awe and awe to reverence. People sat in the mud and watched, transfixed, as the Taj Mahal brightened, so smooth and seamless that it might have been carved from a single piece of ivory. (14.41)

Ever noticed how quiet art museums are? Even the ones that don't have angry curators shushing you or reminding you to "keep behind the ropes" seem to have a hush about them. We'd like to think it's because people are in awe of what they are observing. That, or there's just not much else to say, because the art is already saying everything.

Furthermore, because Aurangzeb had always derided the arts and now suppressed them with his policies, many courtiers and artists had left Agra for more receptive environs. While my sibling was untroubled by these departures, nobles grumbled. Agra's intellectual aura—which Father and Dara had so diligently fostered, and which had given our city fame—soon dwindled to nothing. (18.51)

Yeah, ticking off the artists and nobles isn't a great way to build a strong empire, Aurangzeb. Sheesh. Everyone knows that a kingdom is only as great as its cultural products.

Temples and mosques are magical things. When you build them, there is a sense of peace that seeps from the rocks. All creation, in my opinion, is thus. I felt the same peace when Arjumand slipped from my womb. I swam in such peace at the Taj Mahal. And even our little shrines at the sea caused more than one tear to dampen my face.

Perhaps this peace stems from the knowledge that you're leaving something upon this Earth. (25.10)

We'd like to know what special tea Jahanara got during her labor, because most moms we know wouldn't describe birth as "peaceful." But we digress.

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