A Week In Books: Picture imperfect

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The Independent Culture

"'What is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'" Modern publishing may not look very much like a Wonderland. But it has taken Alice's first demand to heart. Ingenious picture research, intelligent design and high-quality reproduction routinely burnish the appeal of non-fiction for the general reader.

"'What is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'" Modern publishing may not look very much like a Wonderland. But it has taken Alice's first demand to heart. Ingenious picture research, intelligent design and high-quality reproduction routinely burnish the appeal of non-fiction for the general reader.

Pessimists might say that, as children of the television era, we now crave a sweetening dose of eye-candy. More positively, you could treat this itch for imagery as overdue recognition that visual culture can act as a key to unlock any epoch. Simon Schama – no mean art historian himself – provides an especially enlightening selection of plates in the three volumes of his History of Britain (just published as a paperback set by BBC Worldwide at £12.99 each).

Squeezed between inward-looking academia and the ephemeral mass market, non-specialist historians in particular need the boost that attractive illustration brings. For the most part, they get it, with some imprints more generous than others. Still, it's very rare to find a peach of a subject – a gripping narrative history of a splendid dynasty – completely betrayed by a cheapskate publisher. Yet that is what has happened with Abraham Eraly's The Mughal Throne, a richly readable account of the first six Indian Muslim emperors. From Babur, born in 1483, to Aurangzeb, who died in 1707, their lavish courts became bywords for opulence. From the Taj Mahal down to the humble chintz, through architecture, painting, textiles and jewellery, the Mughals presided over one of the greatest visual cultures.

To release a colourfully written chronicle of such a golden age without a solitary picture or map – not even a fuzzy snapshot of the Taj – seems like an insult to reader and author. Would Weidenfeld & Nicolson have launched a plump popular history of Renaissance Italy utterly devoid of images – without a single Leonardo or Botticelli? That would beggar belief. And so it should with the Mughals.

Weidenfeld acquired Eraly's book from Penguin India. Now, English-language imprints in India work wonders with limited resources. Weidenfeld, however, belongs to a French-owned multi-media conglomerate. For comparison, look at William Dalrymple's White Mughals, which focuses on a slightly later slice of Indian history. HarperCollins issued it with 24 pages of beautifully chosen plates, 16 in colour, at the same hardback price (£20) as The Mughal Throne. The paperback has recently sold like hot rotis.

Weidenfeld's squandered opportunity matters at present. The Kerala-born Eraly has an urgent story to tell: about Muslim rulers devoted to tolerance, to diversity, to the patronage of arts and sciences. The extraordinary Akbar – fascinated by all faiths, convinced by none – once wrote to Philip II of Spain to explain patiently that "we associate ... with learned men of all religions and thus derive profit from their exquisite discourses". Here was a cultivated Muslim court that gave multicultural lessons to Christian kings.

Eraly traces its glory and decline with relish but no reverence; indeed, he scorns Indian nationalist myths. He also underlines that a Muslim civilisation which flowered in a climate of pluralism withered when narrow zealotry took hold of it. These days, that hardly counts as a message of purely academic interest. So why has Weidenfeld made the messenger so dowdy? Since books have second editions, publishers can have second thoughts. Perhaps, when the paperback of The Mughal Throne arrives, it will be packed with pictures as entrancing as the history it recounts.

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