Curator’s Choice : Prayer Cloths

February 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm Leave a comment

The decoration on these two spectacular prayer cloths is made with a combination of hand-painted and print-block dye methods, popularly called qalamkari (from the Arabic meaning “pen-drawn”). Although they closely resemble each other, they were made over a thousand miles apart—one in Qajar ruled Iran the other in Mughal ruled India. There are both obvious and subtle differences between them. The most obvious is that the central gateway is empty in the Indian example but filled with flowers in the Qajar example. More subtle differences range from the style of the hand-drawing to the different color palates. Together they demonstrate impressive continuities across vast distances with charming distinctions that cement them in a specific time and place.

One reason they are so similar is because of their intended function. The gateway at their centers is also an architectural feature called a mihrab in Arabic. A mihrab is a prayer niche placed within mosques to indicate qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, the center towards which Muslims turn to pray. The top crenellations adorn a formal entry gate to the gardens of paradise, reinforced by the floral patterns (cypress trees and carnations) around the edges and in the center field. Prayer cloths like these may be used as prayer rugs (upon which the devout pray) or wall hangings (to mark qibla in a home) or even to decorate a physical niche in a mosque.

The Newark Museum is fortunate to hold in its’ collections two Indian and three Iranian examples of this beautiful textile art, one from each region will be featured in the special exhibition Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place opening February 12, 2016.

– Katherine Anne Paul, Curator, Arts of Asia, Newark Museum

Prayer Cloth with Mihrab, Gate and Floral Motifs 
India, Mughal Period (1526—1857)
Hand-painted and block printed cotton
Newark Museum Gift of Dr. Louis C. West, 1967  67.415
Prayer Cloth with Mihrab, Gate and Floral Motifs 
Iran, Qajar Period (1789—1925)
Hand-painted and block printed cotton
Newark Museum Gift of Dr. Louis C. West, 1967  67.417

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